Small Town Life in Colorado by Mark Stevens Via Flickr: What made this image for me was wasn’t just looking across the street and town, it was the mountains with the clouds all around after recent rainstorm this Autumn morning in Grand Lake, Colorado.
I DO have thoughts on Taylor Swift, thanks for asking
When I was 16, I went to a Taylor Swift concert in Portland, Oregon during her Fearless tour. I went with a girlfriend for both of our birthdays, having scored the tickets through a radio sweepstakes winner who apparently did not want to go to a Taylor Swift concert. Hayley and I were two lanky freshmen with bad posture and over-plucked eyebrows, and we had hit the jackpot. We wore matching puff-paint t-shirts and short shorts. Our parents dropped us off at the Rose Garden knowing we’d be safe with our tween peers, who were flocking to the merch tables in throngs, a mass of cowgirl boots and sundresses followed by low hanging clouds of Victoria’s Secret body spray. This was before Taylor’s soft sexual revolution, before tight body suits and sparkly hot pants; she was one of us, the best version of what we all hoped we could become. To go to her concert was to make a pilgrimage, so like the smell of sweat under sugary body spray, there was a dutiful hallowed-ness just under the frenetic, pubescent shrieks. We were there to dance with our friends and also to worship at the altar of Taylor Alison Swift, Patron Saint of beating back puberty with a sparkly microphone, and victoriously reclaiming the attention of Boys Who Don’t Know You Exist.
Looking back, it was a disconcertingly well-orchestrated event. The choreography so learned it never felt uncomfortable (a feat for a tall girl who is not a graceful girl). The wardrobe so perfectly balanced between beautiful and conservative, you wanted to be her, but never in a toxic or jealous way. The between-song monologues were empowering and sweet. She made us feel special. It was an “enchanting” night (to steal an oft-used word from Tay herself) with the older girl who passes you in the hallway with a wink and a smile.
“You Belong With Me” was the anthem for us, the not-very-cool-girls gathered at her concert on a balmy May night. It was about our rise. She was telling us, bleating over us into her bejeweled mic, that there is something virtuous about being not-very-cool girls. That the cool girl is inferior in character and humor; she has nothing but her looks and her popularity, she must manipulate and tear down others, that’s all she has. And you? You are special and amazing and worthy. She shook her blonde curls with a totally palatable amount of sex appeal and we nodded, hypnotized. There is virtue in being uncool and anybody who can’t see that is of flawed character. Someday you’ll show them. Someday they’ll see.
I left the concert on a cloud. In the years ahead, I would listen to her on repeat, reveling in my feelings about Boys I Never Spoke To instead of writing my social studies paper; talking in my social studies class about how Kanye West cut her off at the VMAs, and what a loose cannon, poor Taylor. She got the better of him though, and wrote “Innocent” out of the whole thing.
And then I went to college, and besides an occasional throwback jam when I felt like drowning in nostalgia, I was over Swift. I was over the very concept of drama (a thing I proclaimed at any opportunity, intoxicated and otherwise) and now Taylor was singing about hot ex-boyfriends, which was dramatic and not something I could relate to. She was starting to sound the same and it had become draining to follow along. Most of my not-very-cool girlfriends agreed. We’d seemingly matured beyond her date-boy-breakup-with-boy-write-song-about-boy formula and even “Feeling 22” seemed overly self-celebratory. We parted ways and I followed her doings lazily from a social media arm’s length, sleeping on Red entirely.
But Taylor didn’t like that people didn’t like her hit-writing formula. Leading up to 1989, she made some cutting sexism accusations and “Shake it off” was the cornerstone. It was sexist that people criticized her for doing things men also do. A budding feminist myself, I nodded vaguely. I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history here! Moderate irritation persisted but I had to hand it to her: celebrity men date and screw and sing about women, too.
When 1989 launched in its entirety, it was a new day. Critics and I agreed that her music had grown up. All of the songs still felt like thinly veiled subtweets, but now I had exes and I was an increasingly informed feminist and I wanted to like her. It was great music for driving, for running, for exploring my feelings about Boys Who Don’t Want to Text Me Back.
If the album was a more subtle animation of her tried-and-true game, the tour was not. It was a gratuitously star and rhinestone-studded affair and it all began alongside the methodic drafting of her “girl squad,” a move she’s hinted was to shield herself from the sexist criticism she met when dating boys in the public eye. It seemed Swift was having a pseudo-feminist awakening: lauding female friendship, and even including the likes of Lena Dunham in her squad (although offset in her physical normalcy by 36 supermodels). But a less male-focused tour didn’t mean a less dramatic one, as a feud with Katy Perry was nurtured into “Bad Blood,” resulting in some cutting tweets from Perry and plenty of tweets from other members of the Internet. Swift always has the last word, though, and now she has 300 girls to rally behind her for it. There they are, making surprise appearances at every single show as if rabbits from a magician’s hat. Storming through the “Bad Blood” music video in leather and weaponry, marching down the 1989 catwalk, all glitter and legs. (A note on legs: Swift welcomed 1989 with a sexual-ish awakening that involved 40 percent more nakedness on stage, but careful and impressive avoidance of anything that could be construed by even conservative fans as “too sexy.”)
Once again, it all felt calculated, her entire existence like a rehearsed operation of planting and carefully avoiding landmines: She hand-wrapped Christmas presents the size of military supply drops for fans she chose from instagram. She delivered some of them in person. She bought random fans dinner. She also made tone-deaf comments toward Nicki Minaj, accusing her of ”pitting women against each other” when Minaj spoke out against the whiteness of award shows and getting snubbed for video of the year at the VMAs. In a rare show of fallibility, Swift made an apology and the two performed together at the VMAs. But even this show of camaraderie felt manufactured, because at that very award show the anti-Katy Perry “Bad Blood” music video, which now appears on dictionary.com when you search “overkill,” would beat out arguably more impactful work (cough cough Kendrick Lamar), and Taylor and her squad would rejoice as if surprised. She’d had the last word on Katy Perry and smartly patched up her relationship with the queen of “what’s good?” But in calling Minaj out she made a telling slip: we could all see that “you’re tearing down women” was Swift’s new favorite response to criticism, but she had now also revealed her willingness to throw anyone into this no-win game of us-vs-them. Because no opponent is too big when you have 3,600 supermodels, Lena Dunham, and the U.S. national women’s soccer team behind you. Of course, I’m not the only one to notice the eeriness of the girl squad: there’s Taylor Swift, covered in rhinestones, destroying every man who ever gave her a sideways glance with peppy pop beats or moody guitar riffs, all while strutting down the runway arm in arm with anyone who’s anyone. If you’re a woman and you criticise her, you’re sabotaging another woman. If you’re anyone and you criticize her, you risk her girl squad flocking to her defense while she musically carves her side of the story into the soundtrack of history. Because she will have the last word. Remember when she told us not-very-cool girls that one day everyone will see how great we are? Boys will live to regret ignoring you and mean girls will, too.
When the “Famous” Kanye West business happened, the girl squad mobilized to TSwift’s defense and she summoned a vitriolic Grammy acceptance speech, “to all the young girls out there.” But it wasn’t to all the young girls out there, it was to Kanye West and we all knew it. He claimed to have asked permission but Kanye is a “loose cannon” and Taylor Swift is shaking just a little bit in her Anna Wintour haircut, evoking just enough victimhood to earn applause from clickbait publications. Just a young woman wronged by a broken man who’s always been a loose cannon - she even wrote a song about him, remember? Again, Taylor Swift calls on feminism when it will carry her message. (But she would remain silent in the heat of Ke$ha losing her suit against Dr. Luke, eventually giving a generous monetary gift to the artist, but preferring to reserve her immeasurably powerful voice for other things, presumably “safer” topics, like the tyranny of Apple Music.)
And now, here we are. Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris break up and she starts dating Tom Hiddleston weeks later, which we learn exactly one night before Kim Kardashian-West tells GQ that Kanye did in fact get Taylor’s permission for the “Famous” lyric and he has it on film. Taylor camp denies the approval but nobody cares because #Hiddleswift, which suddenly also feels manufactured. Then Swift camp confirms rumors that she wrote ex Harris’ summer anthem “This is What You Came For.” Harris leads with graciousness, acknowledging that she wrote it and out-revealing her by adding that she sang on it too. He compliments her lyricism, and then leads us on such a deliberate and careful twitter journey that “tirade” feels a reckless descriptor. He says it’s hurtful that Swift’s team would reveal this now, as if to make him look bad. He tells us that Taylor wanted to be anonymous. He mentions that she should focus on her new relationship, and then that he refuses to be buried like Katy Perry. He closes with well wishes reminiscent of the thing your dad says: “Tell them to go to hell so politely they look forward to the trip.”
The air was so humid with think pieces it was on the verge of a thunderstorm. And then, last night, Kim Kardashian-West posted a snapchat story confirming what she and Kanye had said all along: he called and asked for permission re: “Famous.”
It’s now raining criticism, from every notable angle but most notably: race and feminism and Taylor’s less than flattering history with both. I can’t smell the Victoria’s Secret body spray anymore. Instead, I smell fear rolling off of Taylor Swift in sweaty waves. Here’s a young woman who has aged in the spotlight, but not necessarily matured. Who has made a career turning dirty laundry into catchy number ones, calling out other people’s mistakes, and then calling for feminism - a good and worthy and valid thing - when it will protect her from criticism, but not in other times, or with obvious intersectionality, or with much obligation to practice what she preaches (see also: white feminism). She has been accused of cultural appropriation and hasn’t showed up to talk about how #blacklivesmatter. She allowed Kanye West and his complicated public image to take the fall for a choice she apparently regretted after the fact. And most of all: she has leveraged “someday you’ll see” into a spray-and-pray war strategy that has alienated her from just about everyone. Even her girl squad can’t help now; their feeble attempts at support only entrap them on what is pretty clearly the wrong side of us-vs-them.
Taylor Swift is now standing alone, presumably under the bleachers, with no one left to accuse and little left to prove. She’s human, it’s true. People will finger-wag about how we, as a society, “love to tear people down.” And who knows that better than Taylor Swift? As it turns out, us not-very-cool girls are pretty good at it.