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Taylor Swift’s Long Con
The following is a repost from my Medium circa 2020, given my bigger audience and its continued relevance I figured it deserved to be on here. Enjoy.
It’s okay to blame poptimism for this. The sudden swinging of the pendulum from criticism biased towards rock and assuaging pop to pop suddenly being given a new type of serious thought. Pop was never unanalyzed by earnest writers, but it was never the dominant mode of music writing, invested in by those who wanted to craft the canon of Great Music. But as the streaming game became all-encompassing, big-tent pop now takes up all the discourse. So, we come to this. The celebration of Taylor Swift.
Must be so satisfying too. To transform from a neat young blonde country-pop star into a true Serious Artist takes perseverance and patience (not to mention cultural trends pulling in your favor). Get the right breaks, position yourself as the hurt waif amidst a drunk, scary black man, date famous men and perfectly mine your relationships for content, it’s as impressive as it is calculated. Of course, it’s cynical to assume that Taylor wants all these things to happen to her, but I mean, it’s always great news for Taylor Swift Corp™!
That is why it is so maddening to see folklore be upheld as the culmination of the brand known as Taylor Swift. Seeing people loudly proclaim that “betty” is queer canon or that she is our generation’s Joni Mitchell is like being Roddy Piper in They Live freaking out at the normalization of aliens. The PR machine run by Swift is blasting subliminal messages to unsuspecting brains, convincing everyone that pensive indie-pop and piano ballads marginally better than some person’s Bandcamp demos is AOTY material.
And when anyone dares to criticize Dear Leader it becomes a massacre. Consider Jillian Mapes having to go private for an 8.0 (!) rating or Jon Caramanica writing a mildly unimpressed piece on it, and both of them being doxxed! There’s a larger point about stan culture being abolished here that’s very salient, but good lord Swifties are nuts. And really, for Taylor Swift? The most utterly forgettable of the nu-pop giants? (not counting Katy Perry) At least Gaga ruled pop with an iron fist for 3 years her own way. And even if you don’t particularly fancy Beyonce, there’s jackshit you can say against her resume and her role in pop’s history. Comparing Swift to Beyonce is like comparing a Ferrari to a PT Cruiser.
So we have to deal with this Taylor Swift maturation arc like she’s graduated from mere pop anthems to sophisticated adult contemporary when it’s all the same nonmusic. Bathing yourself in black and white photos in the forest doesn’t make the same Disney princess stories told since your self-titled any more complex and profound. It’s business singer-songwriter content, dressed up by using indie staples to lend an air of depth, specifically mapped out in a boardroom for listeners to assume an identity they otherwise don’t have. I’ll give her early stuff this, it never tried to be deeper than it actually is.
Taylor Swift has pulled a hypnotizing act on the public and this is only the latest maneuver in a legacy of simulation. Crafting a perfect girl-next-door image while being the daughter of a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and mutual fund executive is uncanny, positioning herself as some maligned martyr doubly so. Taylor has always had the fame, the accolades, and the recognition, but she wanted more. She wants the canonization. And she’s getting it right now. But its artifice can’t last. Taylor Swift plays the long game but her music isn’t meant for it. Even if folklore sweeps the Grammys and hits #1 in every country, the dustbin of history will come to collect.