Just What the Hell is a 'Taylor Swift'? One Writer's Dive Into the Unknown
Confession: I have never heard a Taylor Swift song.
Okay, amendment: I have never once knowingly heard a Taylor Swift song. I admit that waltzing through this world without once having the air in your ears vibrate with one of her tunes is pretty much impossible. Or at the very least highly unlikely.
A tangential aside on probability: This summer just gone, I found myself at a heavy metal festival in Belgium. I had travelled there with a few friends from England, and we met some great new friends while there. One night, having got back to camp from the day’s slew of gigs and drunk out of our skulls, we gathered round the speaker and took turns playing songs off our phones. Naturally, given the state that we were in, they were all classics. Big anthems. Shouty singalongs. Universal triggers of nostalgia. Eventually, one of our newly acquired Belgian friends put on this:
Now, all of our company from England were born either in the late ’80s or the early ’90s, which meant that within the first few opening notes of that song we were instantly in a state of ecstatic glee. Pro tip: You get a bunch of English people from that era drunk, put on some Pulp, Blur, or Oasis, and chances are they’re gonna love it, and you. We were doubly excited too to see that ‘Common People’, such a quintessentially English song, was being played to us by a bunch of Belgians! They said, yes, of course! Everyone they knew loved Pulp! Our campsite became a gallery of mouths laughing and singing along. All that is, except for one. About a minute in I noticed my friend and bassist in my band, sat opposite me, looking happy, drunk, and amused, but decidedly not singing along. I bellowed at him what the matter was, didn’t he like this song? It was a rhetorical question of course. Everyone liked this song. Especially a full-blooded Englishmen such as himself. His answer came with a bemused laugh from him and a dropped jaw from me: He had, in fact, never even heard this song before. Needle scratch. All eyes and ears train on the thirty-year-old man who has never heard ‘Common People’. This man—musician, even!—who had somehow grown up in England in the 1990s, went to school and college, watched television, had been in the proximity of radios, and who had never heard Pulp’s ‘Common People’. I suddenly had an image of his life’s trajectory as a two-dimensional schematic, viewed from above, him staggering along as plans and responsibilities and accidents of fate pulled him this way and that—all somehow conspiring to always keep him just out of earshot of ‘Common People’.
It looks highly unlikely, but I believed him. And the reason I believed him is that he looked genuinely puzzled and intrigued upon hearing the Belgians play ‘Common People’. Like Leonard Shelby with Sammy Jankis in Memento, I looked for unconscious signs of recognition. I saw none.
But it does look highly unlikely.
All that is to say: I probably have heard at least one Taylor Swift song. I might just not know it.
But Taylor Swift is more than just music, isn’t she? She is an entire multifaceted industry unto herself: Music, fashion/aesthetics, sociology, politics, economics, cultural theory—it seems, at least from the coverage she gets, that Taylor Swift can be linked to almost everything. It’s like she’s some sort of immaculate blonde spider perched at the centre of a giant think piece web.
‘So, fuck it, right?’ I thought to myself the other day. ‘I write about a whole bunch of different stuff. Maybe it’s time to figure out just what the hell is going on in this world I have no idea about.’ Maybe it’s time to give a pluck of that web and see if I get devoured.
So I fired up the Googlematron and I opened up a few tabs.
Internet research usually starts with Wikipedia. But this time that didn’t feel right. ‘Instagram should be a better bet. More appropriate’, I thought. Celebrities in the new age have a colossal presence there, to the extent that ‘Instagram celebrity’ can be a thing in and of itself. You don’t have to get famous doing something and then maintain that fame on Instagram. You can get famous on Instagram and then use other shit to keep that ball rolling. So off to Taylor’s (we’re on first name terms now that I’m examining her and what she’s about in a clinical fashion) Instagram page I went. But my quick hop over there had me flummoxed. It was basically empty. It had a 103 million followers, but only 15 posts, none of which looked like anything more than promotional material for her new album. I guess that would be the reason for that. Smart. Canny. I’ll give her that. I’ll be honest though: Over the years I’d partially glimpsed some of that Swiftian Instagram magic and I had been looking forward to snooping a little bit now that it was in the name of science and research.
No such luck. Not via official channels anyway. Luckily there are plenty of alternative channels to go down on the internet should one need to. Typing in ‘the best of Taylor Swift’s Instagram’ into Google I was gifted with a bevy of rich material (as well as the added amusement of imagining what the intern at the NSA—or rather the English equivalent, GCHQ—would make of that suddenly popping up in my search history). I perused for a little while, taking it all in while sipping a nice aged whisky and thinking that I felt a bit like a caveman thawed out of the ice and plopped in front of a computer. Or like Leeloo. Anyway, after a healthy hour or so of surveying what Taylor Swift used to have on her Instagram I could conclude only one thing:
There is a war coming, one that we cannot see but Taylor Swift can, and she is gathering to her like-minded and like-bodied women who will stand beside her in the bloody conflict. They swaddle themselves in American flags and pose with icons of innocence—kittens, beaches, ukuleles—to throw us off the scent. But the eyes tell it. Look at their eyes, you’ll know. The fire rises. And though we cannot discern them, there are surely coded messages hidden in the immaculately posed group shots and the perfectly framed compositions. Is this how she calls her she-wolves to her side? How she weeds them out?
I mean, yeah, Ed Sheeran seemed to be able to read the signs too ‘cos he showed up there a bunch of times.
But not romantically.
Other men, however did. A bunch of them. She rode on them, piggy-back style, brushing hair playfully aside, or perched on their laps like a puppy, eyes locked with them in a hungry embrace. Even I knew that Taylor Swift writes a lot of songs about her exes. I guess this is where they get introduced and paraded about in dappled dusk-light, prepared, before being sent for processing. Good on her. Seemed like hard work, but good on her.
To be honest at this point it all started to get to me, the flood of Swiftagrams. I was starting to see too much.
Best get off there and pull back to the monochrome sanity of Wikipedia. Scale back the sinister iconography and learn about Swift’s humble early days. I’ve heard this refrain a lot over the years: Like her music or not, at least Swift is a shining example of meritocracy, in which talent and perseverance count for more than anything else.
Sing it, Wiki!
Taylor Alison Swift, born December 13th, 1989.
Mother: Andrea Gardner Swift, former mutual fund marketing executive.
Father: Scott Kingsley Swift, financial advisor.
After showing interest, passion, and skill for singing and writing, Swift’s parents help her to submit tapes in Nashville, attend music lessons in New York, and eventually link up with NY-based music manager Dan Dymtrow.
Dymtrow gets Swift onto a Abercrombie & Fitch modelling campaign, has one of her songs included on a Maybelline compilation CD (which is a thing), and attend meetings with major music labels.
While at first Swift attended public high school, she soon moved on to Aaron Academy, a private school that focuses on homeschooling and which allowed her to stick to her burgeoning tour schedule.
Okay. Okay. Never mind the humble beginnings. I would have to abandon that too. I’d only succeeded in angrying up the blood. Social media, background, I would have to cast all that shit aside and just distill things down to the bare essentials and what it fundamentally came down to: Her music.
I typed in ‘Taylor Swift’. We’d see where that would take us. First result, first click, and newest track apparently, off that album she’d been busy wiping her social media accounts to promote. Let’s go:
Pardon my French, but holy slurping shit. The video finished and all I could think was: That had to be one of the most uninspired things I’ve ever seen. A vapid, self-congratulatory, indulgent collection of schlocky imagery set to a boring beat and laced with a lifeless set of melodies.
Which was written by five people.
I did a little reading. The song (and album) was apparently an effort by Taylor Swift—one of the most powerful people in the world—to take control of her own narrative. She’d been bullied and backed into the corner by the press and by turncoats?
I decided to let that gibberish slide and carried on with YouTube—but not before feeling really sorry for these dudes, none of whom looked like they wanted to be there and were maybe trying to spell out ‘help’ with their bodies:
I scrolled down the page, and—holy bejesus! what a fucktonne of play counts:
There was nothing for it. I had to play each one.
First, ‘Shake It Off’. Which sounded kinda familiar.
Ohhhhhhhhhhh. Yeah no, of course I knew this tune. It wasn’t exactly my bucket of whisky, but this made more sense musically than that petulant cry for attention that I had just watched. Curiously, the respective messages of the two songs seemed to directly contradict each other. Which if you told me was on purpose—that it was a part of Swift’s grand overarching narrative conceived in order to force us to consider two diametrically opposed ideals, holding them in our minds, giving equal validity to both in a Zen Koan-like effort to free us from the burden of logical thought, I would have totally believed you. By this point in my journey into the blonde abyss, I would absolutely buy the notion that Taylor Swift, Machiavellian mechabot that she seemed, would have the means and the drive to conceive of such a plan.
Anyway, ‘Shake It Off’ struck me as kinda dumb but mostly annoying as fuck, but I conceded that I am not the target demographic for it, so whatever.
I did start to wish I had been drinking during this whole thing.
So I did start.
‘You Belong With Me’
I had definitely never heard this one before. And I was definitely not the target demographic for it. Aside from the tune sounding pretty harmless, if unimaginative, one thing really started to come through more than anything, and it was a thing that was linking all three tracks that I had heard thus far. It was a really pungent smell of disingenuousness. This seemed the most prevalent feeling. Far aside from any questions of taste, I couldn’t actually believe anything that Taylor was trying to tell me. Shit, I don’t actually enjoy the music of Adele or Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran, but somewhere, underneath all the calculations and artifice that come with pop superstardom and that surround their work, there still seemed to be some sort of human element. Something sincere. Not with Swift.
I listened to a few more.
My opinion remained unchanged.
In the end, I had probably listened to ten or twelve Taylor Swift songs, spent at least an hour browsing what remnants of her Instagram I could salvage, and another fifteen minutes or so reading about her. The prevailing impression that remained above all others was the initial one. They say first impressions are the most important, and it was the Instagrams that did it for me. No matter how hard I tried to get rid of the deep conviction that Taylor Swift was a demonic Other risen from the nether realm, I couldn’t quite shake it off.
I would pass out occasionally over the next few days, for ten, twenty seconds at a time. I would see visions during these fainting spells. I had become Bran, greenseer, prophet, and every image I glimpsed was of a dark future, ruled over by an immaculate blonde spider. Insatiable, ruthless, and eventually with a completely packed Instagram account once again.
Turns out that last thing happened pretty quickly. Draped American flags everywhere too.
I thought about watching some interviews with her, but I was pretty sure I knew what I’d find.
Yeah, no thanks, I’ll pass.
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