Taylor Swift And The End Of An Era
Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift embodied the contradictions of the decade in pop music.
“I’m so sick of running as fast as I can,” Taylor Swift sings in the chorus of “The Man,” a song from her latest album, Lover. She chose the up-tempo tune to open her “Artist of the Decade” medley at the AMAs last month, and it’s a return to familiar Swiftian themes; she claps back at unspecified, sexist critics who fail to acknowledge her “good ideas and power moves.”
Whatever one might think of Swift’s underdog complex, it’s not surprising that the end of the 2010s finds her exhausted. Her transformation from tween country sensation to tabloid-friendly pop star to polarizing Twitter talking point and, finally, to celebrity supernova, required — at the very least — plenty of stamina.
There’s no question that straight white femininity still occupies a privileged place in the cultural landscape, which helped pave the way for Swift’s rise and decade-long pop dominance — even as she became a zeitgeisty symbol of that privilege and a target for those seeking to contest it. Yet as many of her similarly situated peers have faltered, she has endured as one of the last pop behemoths of her kind.
Time and again Swift strategically read and rode the decade’s cultural waves, deciding not just which trends and genres to jump on but, perhaps more importantly, what to pass on. As pop music became feud-centric reality television, there was Taylor; as stan culture transformed the way listeners interacted with performers (and each other), there was Taylor; as artists’ rights in the streaming era entered the conversation, there was Taylor; as politics infiltrated music, there was (sort of, eventually) Taylor.
There are definitely plenty of other contenders for Artist of the Decade (a title both the AMAs and Billboard recently bestowed on Swift) — artists who have hugely impacted pop music over the past 10 years and managed to ride out the seismic, industry-wide shifts they’ve contained, from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga to Kanye West. But you don’t have to think Swift was the “best” or even most significant artist of the decade to acknowledge that her cultural domination, and her ability to pivot and reinvent herself, captured many of the defining tensions of pop music over the last decade.
It’s hard to remember (in internet years) that before 2010, Swift was just a teen pop star and not yet a cultural lightning rod. She was already taken seriously as a musician and had plenty of cultural capital coming into the decade; in 2009, having already won Artist of the Year at the AMAs, she was about to accept a Video Music Award for Female Video of the Year when Kanye infamously interrupted her speech. In early 2010, she won Album of the Year for Fearless at the Grammy Awards, beating out Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
Her early stardom revolved mostly around the fact that she was a precocious young country artist who wrote her own songs, without the risqué edge or sexy-but-wholesome cognitive dissonance of someone like an early Britney Spears to worry white parents and inspire pearl-clutching tabloid magazine covers. And it wasn’t really until Speak Now — when Swift was already a mainstream star but still categorized as country — that she began teasing the media and her fans about the ways her autobiographical lyrics mapped onto her real life, especially regarding the men she was dating.
People are still wondering whether Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” is about Uncle Joey, so it was startling for a young woman songwriter and musical celebrity of her commercial reach to use her songs to consistently craft such intimate stories about such equally public men, including Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, and John Mayer. And there was something uniquely bold about the way Swift started using her confessional songwriting and melodic sensibility to “get the last word” on her relationships, as People magazine framed it in her first cover story.
People hardly batted an eye in 2018 when Ariana Grande’s first No. 1 hit, “Thank U, Next,” literally name-checked her list of ex-boyfriends, and that’s in no small part because of Swift. Because even as reality TV stars like the Kardashians and Real Housewives were figuring out how to create multiplatform storytelling through social media, Swift was already pioneering the strategy in the big pop machine. Yes, she opportunistically used this to shame exes, create fodder for talk shows, and garner magazine covers; and even then, it raised some hackles about the way she was using her power. But it was undeniably compelling theater, and even nonfans were watching.
As reality TV stars were figuring out how to create multiplatform storytelling through social media, Swift was already pioneering the strategy in the big pop machine.
That multiplatform mixture of music and drama wouldn’t have succeeded without the undeniably catchy earworms Swift’s diary entries were wrapped in, or without the devoted fanbase of Swifties that she cultivated online. This all helped her break chart records with her most explicitly pop albums, including 2012’s Red and 2014’s ’80s-inspired 1989. The latter garnered the biggest first-week sales for a pop album since Britney Spears in 2002, helping Swift keep the tradition of the monocultural pop star alive.
But as Swift’s music saturated airwaves, and her willingness to tease behind-the-scenes details of her life in her songs moved beyond ex-boyfriends like Harry Styles (“Style”) into swatting at other pop stars like Katy Perry (“Bad Blood”) the public began to sour on Swift’s strategic use of her personal life in her music. (To Swift’s credit as a performer, no other pop star could sing the lyrics “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” about a dispute over a backup dancer with a straight face.)
Juxtaposed with Swift’s self-celebrating “girl squad” feminism, her opportunism — and seeming hypocrisy — started to rankle. By 2015, even racist sympathizer and critic Camille Paglia came out of the woodwork to anoint Swift a “Nazi barbie,” calling out her tendency to treat friends as props. And all these contradictions of Swift’s persona would come to a head when Swift’s seemingly buried feud with Kanye came roaring back the following year.
It makes sense that her clash with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West became the first time she experienced a real backlash. Unlike the drama around her dating life or with Perry, it was the first time Swift was up against equally savvy adversaries — celebrities who, like her, were professionals at merging their public and private lives.
The fight was a meta moment by design, inspired by West’s song “Famous,” where he raps: “I made that bitch famous.” In retrospect, it seems clear that West, as much a publicity-seeking pop diva as Swift, was trying to get the last word after going on an apology tour about the interruption heard round the world. Swift claimed to be annoyed over what she saw as the song’s credit-taking message, and she tried to make it part of her own narrative. “I want to say to all the young women out there,” she intoned in her speech accepting a Grammy for Album of the Year in February 2016, “there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame.”
In another era, Swift’s storyline might have won the day. Her publicist denied that she had approved the line in the song, despite Kanye’s claim that he had checked with her before releasing it. But celebrity narratives, to some degree, were no longer being decided just by white-dominated mainstream media. Black publications were the first to tease out the racial undertones of Swift’s lie in the ensuing “he said, she said,” specifically as a white woman playing on the ingrained sympathy and benefit of the doubt that white women are given in US culture.
Still, it wasn’t until Kim’s Snapchat leak that July — where Swift could be heard approving the song — that the Swift-as-victim narrative became a framework for understanding her entire career. Contemporary white pop stars like Grande and Miley Cyrus had faced musical appropriation backlashes, but this time it was Swift’s entire persona — not just her music — that were under scrutiny.
Swift’s memeable response to the leak — “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative” — was followed by her own disappearance from the media landscape. By the time the 2016 election happened — amid the chatter about white women’s complicity in electing Trump — Swift’s refusal to take a political stand solidly cast her as a cultural villain, and her symbolism as an icon of toxic white womanhood was sealed.
If the clamor of social media (especially Twitter) was central to the Swift backlash, it was also central to her eventual resurgence. Over the past decade, social media (especially Instagram) has tipped the scales in celebrity coverage and helped celebrities tell their stories on their own terms, almost without intermediaries. Swift knew how to use that to her advantage and decided to play the long game.
By refusing interviews for 18 months, wiping her social media clean, and focusing on cultivating her Tumblr fanbase, Swift removed herself from the cultural conversation for a beat. This kind of brand management helped her keep an ear to the ground while in a self-imposed exile. But it’s as if the culture couldn’t stop conjuring her; rumors about her absence spread, including that she had traveled around inside a suitcase.
In August 2017, she wiped her social media clean and reappeared with a snake video — reclaiming the serpent emojis — in what was ultimately the announcement for her Reputation album, and which remains one of the most iconic social media rollouts ever. “Look What You Made Me Do,” the lead single, was endlessly memed — Swift couldn’t come to the phone, a perfect metaphor for her cultural disappearance and, perhaps, a kind of ghostly remake of the Kanye call. The album succeeded because it seemed as though Swift was finally open to owning her melodrama and messiness. She subsequently broke records with the tour and album sales.
Blurring public and private through music can reap big rewards, but it also opens up stars — especially the women of pop — to more intense scrutiny.
Still, her political silence was affecting her image and music. By 2018, insipid corporate wokeness had become the order of the day, and Swift Inc. again pivoted musically and culturally. Swift came out for the Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, framing her support in terms of LGBTQ rights and racial justice. And this year, the second single from her latest album, Lover — “You Need to Calm Down” — was a perfect encapsulation of her politics of messiness, conflating anti-gay prejudice with Twitter drama. (And somehow turning the video into a celebration of pop queens supporting each other). This fall, she has made sure to include über-stan–turned–pop star (and video coproducer) Todrick Hall at her awards show moments, attempting to expand the range of racial and sexual identities included in what used to be her mostly straight white “girl squad” feminism.
For all of Swift’s success at updating her persona, she’s never quite regained her massive radio dominance — but no pop star can depend on the success of singles for over a decade. In fact, Swift is one of the most interesting figures of the decade because her stardom is caught between the old-school era of album buying and our current streaming moment.
And, inevitably, Swift has turned her own industry issues around streaming and artistic ownership into a wider commentary on artists’ rights — which happens to work as a canny form of further brand management. She framed herself as an ethical businesswoman when she called out Apple for not paying artists, and she battled with Spotify over streaming royalties but without really pushing for wider systemic industry change.
Earlier this year, Swift started a new artist-versus-industry fight about her music masters being bought out from under her by nemesis Scooter Braun. It’s a complicated story, one that Swift has framed as being about “toxic male privilege,” and the fact that Braun mocked her during the Kanye era — once again blurring, in her trademark mode, the personal with the public and the systemic with the individual.
Instead of being seen as opportunistic, Swift seems to have succeeded in framing her campaign as a fight for unsigned and less powerful artists’ rights, which has resonated at a moment where content creators are all pitted against the 1% of the tech and corporate worlds. This time, even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a squad member any star would envy — backed her up.
Swift’s response to being anointed Artist of the Decade by the AMAs and Billboard provides interesting insight into how she sees herself now and where she thinks the next decade is going. She chose Carole King, one of the preeminent symbols of pop music authenticity, to present her AMA, squarely placing herself in a genealogy of great women singer-songwriters. She also enlisted shiny next-gen pop stars Camila Cabello and Halsey to join her during her performance of old hits.
In her Billboard speech, Swift name-checked newer stars like Lizzo, Becky G, and Billie Eilish as the future of the industry. Tellingly, they are women who, so far, have not played into the tabloidy pop dramas that dominated the 2010s. If this decade has shown us anything, it’s that blurring public and private through music can reap big rewards, but it also opens up stars — especially the women of pop — to more intense scrutiny and a higher degree of personal accountability.
In a Billboard interview looking back on the decade, Swift spoke about her relationship to fame and learning to hold things back. “I didn’t quite know what exactly to ... share and what to protect. I think a lot of people go through that, especially in the last decade,” she said. “There was this phase where social media felt fun and casual and quirky and safe. And then it got to the point where everyone has to evaluate their relationship with social media. So I decided that the best thing I have to offer people is my music.”
Like Lana Del Rey denying she ever had a persona, or Lady Gaga stripping down with Joanne, there seems to come a point when white pop divas need to declare themselves authentic and all about the music — as if their ongoing narratives aren’t part of the show. But the way Swift used her image and the never-ending soap opera that swirled around her to make space for her music in an increasingly saturated attention economy was itself a kind of art. ●