Welcome to the latest edition of BuzzFeed News' culture newsletter, Cleanse the Timeline! You can subscribe here.
New music from Rihanna. New controversy about a Taylor Swift video. A viral TikTok sound from Carly Rae Jepsen. Help! It’s too much. But the good kind of too much. Here at the BuzzFeed News culture desk, we’ve been preoccupied with the pop girlies. Scaachi Koul dove into the kerfuffle around Swift’s “Anti-Hero” video, and I got into (maybe too into) Jepsen’s “I’m coming back for you baby!” moment. Tomi Obaro has a great book recommendation, as always — a “hypnotic” period novel by the late, great Hilary Mantel.
Estelle Tang, BuzzFeed News deputy culture editor
P.S. Senior culture writer Venessa Wong is launching a personal finance column. (You might have read her fantastic pieces about rising housing costs, homeowner regret, and working parents.) Do you have any questions you’d like her to tackle? Fill out this form!
Please enjoy this edition of Feudwatch, a column wherein Scaachi Koul talks about a feud she is enjoying, engaged in, or perhaps: both.
Taylor Swift vs. her own anti-hero
It feels like Taylor Swift releases an album with the same frequency as Mercury going retrograde (same impact on me, personally). The records themselves are always pretty good, and I enjoy a good Easter egg release cycle as much as the next tinfoil hat–wearing Swiftie conspiracy theorist. But god, these promotional tours make me so tired. There’s just always so much happening, so much of Swift’s best self (good tunes, great gowns) and worst self (absolutely crushing sense of self-victimization at every turn) always at war.
I guess that makes sense, since it was the release of her music video for her latest single, “Anti-Hero,” that got her in trouble this time. I’m sure her new album Midnights is perfectly good, though I cannot really muster the energy to listen to it in full yet (and I say this as someone who flew to the whitest place in the world — suburban Boston — to see her during the 1989 tour). “Anti-Hero” is a fine song, and the music video is pretty cute, featuring a ginormous, needlessly mean version of Swift herself. (She’s like the size of those Halloween skeletons everyone keeps buying to hover over their yards.) The concept of the video is clear — self-loathing, self-sabotage, self-disdain — so there was some delicious irony in Swift creating her own outrage cycle. The problem with the video wasn’t just that Swift apparently holds a pen between her index and middle fingers like a cigarette, but in one scene she stands on a scale, peers down, and sees the word “FAT” flash before her. Her anti-hero self looks at her regular self, looks down, and shakes her head in disappointment.
The message of the song and the music video were plenty relatable — I too hate myself — but weaponizing fatphobia was sloppy and lazy, and it inevitably upset anyone watching her music video who’s actually fat. Without realizing it, she had let her audience in on an ugly truth: that when Swift hates herself, when she feels like she’s unworthy or unattractive or hateable, she calls herself fat. There are plenty of fat people who are worthy, attractive, and loveable; “fat” is a neutral word. But Swift’s use of it was jagged and mean. There’s nothing wrong with being a thin person who struggles with body dysmorphia or disordered eating, but people should not criticize their own physiques using words that describe other people’s perfectly fine bodies.
“I have this thing,” Swift sings in the song, “where I get older but just never wiser.” Come on! It’s like she did it on purpose!
Winner in spirit: Socially-conscious Swifties; this week, Swift edited the Apple Music version of the video to remove the scale shot.
Winner in actuality: The scale lobby. I haven’t thought about a bathroom scale since the last time I thought about low-rise jeans, which I absolutely refuse to discuss any further. I have suffered enough. —Scaachi Koul
Welcome to Read This, where we recommend something old or new to add to your ever-growing book pile.
An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel
After Hilary Mantel’s death at age 70 last month, the appraisals came in fast and furious. “Obviously Wolf Hall is the Hilary Mantel masterpiece, but I loved her little perfect novels that she wrote before: Experiment In Love, Fludd, etc” tweeted book critic and (occasional BuzzFeed News contributor) Maris Kreizman. I always listen to Maris’s book recommendations, so I decided to pick up An Experiment in Love, Mantel’s seventh(!) novel, which came out in the US in 1995.
Like a lot of Mantel’s fiction, it’s a period piece, set in the 1960s. Our protagonist is Carmel McBain, the only child of elderly working-class parents who live in Northern England. We flit in and out of her school years, first at the local primary school she attends with her austere frenemy and neighbor, Karina, a practical girl of Eastern European descent, and then at the University of London, where Carmel boards with rich, glamorous Julianna and their floormates, naive Sue, pious Claire, Karina, and Karina’s roommate, the monied Lynette.
This is a curiously structured, moody book, heavy with a sense of foreboding that only pays off at the end. The main characters don’t quite seem to like each other very much, or when they do, their love appears undermining — from Carmel’s mother, who upbraids her for her ungratefulness, to Karina, who Carmel eventually dreads interacting with: “I would never have a pen or a book or a piece of knitting or anything else in my whole life that I could like, that Karina would not take away and pass comment on and spoil.” It’s fundamentally about adolescence and its attendant troubles. Carmel starves herself. The girls both fear and yearn for pregnancy. They are the first generation to really have the same educational opportunities as their male counterparts, but they sense that the game is rigged.
The book I thought of most when reading this one was Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, another slim, quiet novel from a prolific writer that is about the cruelty and naivete of young girls. It’s equally hypnotic, too. If you’re looking for a place to start with Mantel’s oeuvre, An Experiment in Love is an intriguing entry point. —Tomi Obaro
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In I Like the Sound of That, a staffer goes deep on a song they’re currently obsessed with.
“The Loneliest Time” by Carly Rae Jepsen feat. Rufus Wainwright
When Carly Rae Jepsen first announced that her new album, which was released this week, would be called The Loneliest Time, I huffed a little. Wasn’t that a little on the nose? Did we have to be reminded that everything is a little redolent of eau de trash? Which says more about me than about her. I’m a grumpy gremlin, but Jepsen is a precious sprite who made her name with pop songs about infatuation, full-throated adoration, and only the winsome kind of disappointment. In fact, there’s nothing more CRJ than an album title so earnestly emotional that it could be the name of a book about a shelter kitten that has been rejected by 500 potential adopters.
The title track is not my favorite song on the album. (That’s “Western Wind,” whose balmy opening beats make me tear up every time.) It comes from the theater-kid end of her creative spectrum, complete with a guest appearance from beloved balladeer Rufus Wainwright and a nursery-rhymeish bridge: “We reached the moon / But lost in space, I think we got there all too soon.”
That bridge ends with an extremely razzle-dazzle flourish that you probably know, even if you haven’t heard the song, because it has taken off as a TikTok sound. Jepsen delivers the couplet — “I’m coming back for you, baby / I’m coming back for you!” — with a wide-eyed optimism. It sounds like the sweetest high school performer, warm under the gymnasium spotlight in sequined top hat and dance tights, grinning and breathing hard at the end of their big solo.
Thousands of users have paired it with videos that make loving use of its enthusiasm. Jepsen posted a choice selection to Instagram: One person mouths “I’m coming back for you” to their half-empty can of La Croix; a harried mom guiltily walks away from a cute baby stranded in a high chair (“When you have three babies but only two arms” the text reads). A home cook grimaces at her box of salad greens; a sneaky shopper hides a coveted item in Target so nobody can get it before they come back on payday; this person admits they only clip their toenails once every four months. Nobody’s perfect!
That’s the magic of Carly Rae. Her sweetness is contagious, her loyalty absolute. When she says she’s coming back, she means it with her entire being. When we sing along, we try to mean it — we really try — but ultimately have to admit we don’t always do what we say. We have the best of intentions, but aren’t as pure of heart as she is. Anyway, with her help, the rest of us can finally pretend we’re at her level (I’m coming back for you!) for a moment, at least. —Estelle Tang
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