So I logged onto YouTube and there was this 22 hour old video with 8,000,000 views. It was a new music video by Taylor Swift. Like any self-respecting queer, I have mixed views on Taylor Swift. I mean, on the plus side, she is Taylor Swift. On the minus side, she perpetuates even as she is victimized by madonna/whore dichotomies, and her single ‘Welcome to New York’ was less a glorious anthem to diversity than a dispassionate list of observations about some people she has met through the kind of privilege that very few others have access to.
Blank Space is part of Swift’s upcoming second pure-pop album, 1989. The first song we heard from it was Shake it Off, which was kind of generic — almost too generic? Trying to be all things to all people? The video which mish-mashed ballet, hip-hop, and what was supposed to be twerking had been almost laughably reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s I’m-Every-Icon VMA performance of Applause. But what this new release makes clear is … that’s the point.
Thee 1989 album looks set to be a (catchy as Hell) bleak parody of the Taylor Swift phenomenon: the phenomenon of a girl — a child — growing up in the public eye, becoming sexualized, hated, and feared (they can be the same thing) in adolescence and growing as and into a young adult, embalmed in limited media narratives of growth and ownership.
The thing I like about Taylor Swift is her self-absorption. Her songs are not about relationships; they are over-dramatic swooshing narratives — at first about her feelings and more recently about how people see her. E.g., in the pop “sell out” album Red (2012), most songs made reference to what it means to be “cool” — “some indie record that’s way cooler than mine” — “This place is too crowded/ Too many cool kids/ Who is Taylor Swift anyway?”. What this means is that she doesn’t dip into orientalism, doesn’t fetishize alternative sexualities, to craft a persona. Instead, she dabbles in her own media image, exploiting it rather than trying to create it.
The music video begins with Swift reeking of new money. She reclines in a ludicrously big house, dressed all hipster, surrounded by gaudy items that indicate more money than sense. A dreamy man shows up and she sums him up and pounces, telling him that he will be EVERYTHING EVER to her, and she will DESTROY him with her intensity because she is mad and lives for the love of men. She quotes her own early song “Love Story” which was about how finding the right Prince will make everything better. And she reminds him that the story will be over very soon because she can’t hold down a relationship. “I’ll find out what you want, and be that girl for a month”:
I know you’ve heard about me.
So, hey, let’s be friends.
I’m dying to see how this one ends.
Grab your passport and my hand.
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.
Later, mascara running down a leopard print dress, stabbing a painting (and, brilliantly, a wedding cake in bed), and dropping her iphone into a pool, she tells the new boyfriend, “I get drunk on jealousy … ‘Cos, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” as if quoting an argument, or a review. The chorus ends:
Got a long list of ex-lovers.
They’ll tell you I’m insane.
But I got a blank space, baby,
And I’ll write your name.
Then she smashes some stuff up, does weird things with an apple, has sex, sees him off, and waits for the next man, “my next mistake”, which she can “read … like a magazine.” Because all women have these blank spaces that need men to fill them.
Fans have described the video as “uncomfortable.” Various Twitter users were reminded of Gone Girl, a film described by a close friend recently as “a Mens Rights Activist’s wet dream” because it features a mad, evil woman, bored by her rich lifestyle, who uses a golden girl image to seduce men into doing terrible things. At the Daily Dot a great article has appeared using the video as a platform to talk about “the history of calling women Crazy.”
And Taylor Swift has a reputation because of her supposedly high number of exes and the supposedly messy way relationships end up. I’m not sure where this reputation comes from; probably because her partners tend to be high-profile, and because she references some of the relationships in songs. “I go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay,” she says, in a parody of what the Daily Mail would call a “whine” in Shake it Off. Every time Swift is in the news, someone writes an opinion piece on how the last song, whatever it was, was great but now she has grown up (at 24/at 22/ at 21/ at 18/ whatever) and needs to stop singing about relationships. Or she needs to settle down or whatever. And at the same time people are saying she’s so young! She’s only [15/18/21/22/24/whatever]. Why is she singing about these adult themes?, etc. etc. I guess the scary alternative is listening.
YouTube parodists, who have for some reason rarely been criticised for their rampant misogyny, have a field day with Taylor Swift. Bart Baker has a famous alter ego as Taylor — “totally insane” comes up in every video. His versions of 22 and I Knew You Were Trouble, feature Baker/Swift wielding a knife, threatening to kill any man who won’t marry her, and escaping from a “mental asylum.” Oh, yes, and she is Satan. Luckily for the poor men, Jesus comes along, destroys Taylor, and treats everyone to a night at the strip club. These videos are misogynistic, they regulate compulsory heterosexuality, and they are extremely popular. The knife and the “crazy girl” pose are referenced in Blank Space.
[Like most bullies, Bart Baker allows himself to miss the point by silencing objections before they are made. In his Shake it Off video, he has a character point out to the insane satanic — oh yes, and mentally ill lesbian, because we can’t hammer in cis white ableist heteronormative masculine supremacy enough — Taylor that singing “I don’t care” “proves you care way too much.” A nasty trap, isn’t it?]
Taylor Swift does not do crudely sexual, and she does not do alienatingly sophisticated. What she does is personal dramatic irony. She holds a mirror to our narratives which assume that we own women’s bodies, which seek to usher female sexuality into the heterotopia of adolescence — adolescence that cannot be seen or heard by virtue of the malleability we attribute to it. More than Madonna, more than Lady Gaga, more than anyone else I can think of, the self-absorbed art of Taylor Swift has the radical power to subvert the dominant narratives it exploits.