The danger of Taylor Swift's privileged pop
I like Taylor Swift™, but I don’t like Taylor Swift.
I know my relationship to pop music well enough that I won’t bother saying I don’t like her new track. It’s catchy and will rack up at least a decent number of plays among my downloaded music. More importantly though, I’m not naive enough to even entertain the idea that Swift’s newest single won’t dominate charts and radio; a friend compared her to Drake — wide enough fan base and big enough prevalence in pop culture that almost anything she does is bound to be successful from a commercial standpoint.
It’s somewhat surprising to see the Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift saga reinvigorated by the pop star after West’s wife — you may have heard of her, Kim (motherfucking) Kardashian — exposed Swift’s conversation with West regarding “Famous” before its release, a conversation Swift conveniently forgot in her reaction to the lyric, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” From an outsider’s perspective, it would make sense for Swift to take the L and smoothly move on, she undoubtedly has the PR power to do so.
However, with Reputation ’s lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” the beef is back. Even now, with Taylor in control of the narrative, public perception is still tipping toward the Kardashian-Wests. The track opens with “I don’t like your games / Don’t like your tilted stage,” a thinly-veiled allusion to West’s Saint Pablo tour. The track itself is well-produced and written decently enough. The fact that Swift samples “Operate” by Peaches (yeah, the song from the Mean Girls halloween party scene and a subtle jab at Katy Perry referring to Swift as “Regina George in sheep’s clothing”) makes up for the fact the chorus is effectively one lyric. At its best, “Look What You Made Me Do” is an honest look at Swift’s current headspace (“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”), but at its worst, it’s a continuation of habits that make Swift such a problematic figure in pop culture.
Swift continues to posit herself as a victim to Kanye West’s (and Kardashian’s and Perry’s and maybe even Nicki Minaj’s) villain. By boldly putting West in her crosshairs (as the song has been perceived), Swift has kept herself at the center of an intersectional debate that she doesn’t want to be in; it’s a setting that flatters neither her music nor her persona. The concept of “Look What You Made Me Do” in relation to West/Kardashian works from a fool’s premise to begin with: What exactly did they make you do? The leaked conversation sounded amicable. Taylor presumably chose to deny its existence on her own, certainly not on the advice of Kim or Kanye. To be frank, Swift made herself look foolish. (Look what you made yourself do, girl.)
“The world moves on, another day, another drama-drama / But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma,” she sings. She’s not wrong. Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint; Kanye West cancelled a spectacular tour to protect his mental health following a semi-public breakdown; And Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Lots of days, lots of “drama.”
Since its inception, the Kanye/Taylor beef was political. West first crossed Swift on the VMA stage in 2009 to declare that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” should have beaten “You Belong With Me” for Video of the Year. Eight years later, I’m going to guess that in our common pop-culture memory “Single Ladies” is more deeply ingrained, however that’s not the point to be made in 2017.
West, Swift and Beyonce are all integral parts of modern pop culture’s longest-running feuds and the greater socio-political debates it has brought to light. The Taylor-Kanye Beef is situated perfectly at the intersection of race and gender, and when considering the fact that their beef originated over a Beyoncé snub, the situation is rich with different levels of sociopolitical interaction and comparison.
In the year 2017, the brands of Beyoncé and Swift are more similar industry-wise than your gut reaction may lead you to believe. They're both independent women strong-handedly guiding their brand — musically and personally. Maintaining unparalleled levels of control and secrecy over their projects, Beyoncé and Swift are unequivocally the music industry's leading titans. In terms of pop culture prevalence and brand strength, both women sit comfortably on top of all other pop stars.
But the similarities stop at their shrouded artistry and insane business acumen. Both stars have aligned their brands with different versions of female empowerment and personal / professional autonomy within the music industry.
Both women have made attempts to buck unfair industry standards in regards to the value of their work: Swift openly slammed Apple Music for failing to compensate artists during its introductory free-listening period, leading to an eventual change of policy and her music becoming available to stream on the service. The move received general praise. On the other hand, though, we have Beyoncé who exclusively streams her material on her and her husband's artist-focused streaming service Tidal (a service that has been dragged to hell and back since its inception) or individuals can choose buy her work in its entirety from the iTunes Store for unfettered listening.
Both women exemplify a type of "lean-in"-esque feminism that sees them take control not only of their art but of their business, demanding respect and absolute authority over their projects. But in practice, Swift’s bid for feminism falls flat: leaving out women of color, women who aren’t skinny, women who are poor, etc. etc.. She not only fails to acknowledge the possibility that her privilege as a skinny, attractive white woman has assisted in her rise to prominence, but basically refuses to acknowledge that the sociopolitical systems that benefit her make life and business more challenging for artists of color. Most infamously, she told Nicki Minaj, “you can come up on stage with me” after Minaj expressed anger that “Anaconda” wasn’t nominated for Video of the Year. Additionally, when 1989 took Album of the Year over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, she took to moment to once again prop herself up using an aura victimhood by alluding to Kanye’s “Famous” in her acceptance speech. “There are going to be people who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame…”
In the 2016 election the majority of white women voted for Trump. The privilege granted by their skin color that allows them to sacrifice the safety and peace of mind of Americans of color is the exact same privilege that allows Swift to “stay out of politics” and post a non-committal “make your voice heard” Instagram in one of the most critical elections in American history, guaranteeing that she is to lose no popularity or money due to the polarization of her audience. Beyoncé, on the other hand, was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton, putting on a support show in Cleveland the month before the election. While Beyoncé has the “choice” to stay mum on political topics, the reality is that she lives in a Black body, married to a Black man, raising Black children in 2017. In that reality, today’s political climate (and all of American history) presents tangible ways in which her family and friends can be harmed, dehumanized and killed. Political apathy isn’t always a “choice.”
Artists of color, and by extension, people of color, aren’t required to give Swift the benefit of the doubt in her social blunders when it comes to her very specific brand of feminism or in her interactions with others. Swift’s words and actions manipulate the truth and perpetuate the narrative of white-female victimhood at the hands of black, male villains at a time where it is especially dangerous. Whether she fails to see the sociopolitical tensions she is manipulating or she doesn't care, both of are equally unacceptable.