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23 May 2023

Shaking It Off: The Anti-Swift Sway

ALICE GREENBURY

My love for Taylor Swift is, in some respects, a regression.

 

My iPhone suddenly reverts to a pink Ipod Nano, and my brown, chemically straightened hair becomes untamed, blonde ringlets. I see myself dancing around the room, jumping on a pull-out mattress, and screaming along to Speak Now. In recent times, I’m hidden under covers, simply a linen blob heaving to the acoustics of Folklore. 

 

I love Taylor more now than I did as a girl. Then, I was singing along to ‘Dear John’ because I liked the melody, whereas now I sing it because  the words resonate all too acutely, verbalising my experiences in ways that I can’t. In saying this,  throughout my teenage years I disliked Taylor. I would sing along to ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ when it came on the radio, but it wasn’t the serious stuff I liked to listen to. I was into cool 70s songs that my dad had introduced me to, a genre I coveted because I thought none of my classmates listened to it. Taylor was popular and girly, and I was just too cool for that. 

 

Taylor was my girlhood, but I rejected her, and, in some ways, that blonde, outrageously confident and wildly unapologetic nine-year-old self. 

 

By the time I was twelve, I turned down an invitation to go to The Red Tour (this pains me to write, I may never get to see her Eras Tour), I can’t remember why, but now I wonder if it was related to starting senior school, travelling there every day on a bus with boys, comparing music and suddenly considering what everyone thought of me, if I should start wearing makeup and pretend to like football. 

 

Taylor was ridiculed in the media around this time. A resurfaced clip of Taylor’s appearance on Ellen Degeneres’ daytime show in 2013, in which the interviewer incessantly displays photos of Taylor’s rumoured boyfriends at the time. It’s an uncomfortable watch; Taylor visibly cringes, tells Ellen to stop and asks ‘do you know how bad this makes me feel?’. It contributed to an already pervasive narrative  of Taylor as ‘just a singer who sings about exes’ that she would struggle to outdistance. Commenting in 2014 on those who say: ‘she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends’, Taylor responded with this:

 

"I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there."

 

This feels to me like a relentless cycle. Historically, women have only been viewed in relation to romance and sex - you only have to look at the Bechdel test, which simply asks whether a piece of fiction or film ‘features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man’, to realise that men have consistently pigeonholed women into the role of love interest. When an artist like Taylor uses this to her advantage, winning 12 Grammys, she is ridiculed by men and women for her subject focus. When men depict women only as vehicles for romance and sex it is celebrated, but when a woman capitalises on this role to advance her own career she is petty and talentless.

 

You might respond that this has hardly been detrimental to Taylor’s career; she has sold out tours and achieved all ten Billboard spots with her recent album, why complain about a few sexist comments from 2013 when this evidently hasn’t held her back? I think it’s one of the myths of modern day feminism that achieving financial success and status eradicates other forms of casual sexism. Higher percentages of women gaining high power positions and graduating university can mislead us into thinking sexist attitudes no longer exist. They do, they are just more subconscious and difficult to challenge. Taylor may be successful, but she is still subject to the remnants of a culture that has centred around the male gaze - from the 1930s to 50s, film companies focused on men as the primary consumer because women would watch any film a man wanted to watch, whilst men weren’t seen as so obliging to female interests. When Taylor spoke out against Kanye West for singing that they ‘might still have sex’ and that he ‘made that bitch famous’, the hashtag ‘TaylorSwiftIsOverParty’ began trending. People revelled in the idea that Taylor’s career had been destroyed by a man who has now released antisemitic tweets and publicly harassed his ex-wife. 

 

Looking back, I think I internalised the media that categorised her as not particularly talented, love-obsessed and irritating. I remember watching her music video of ‘Shake It Off’, laughing at her ridiculous dance moves. I was laughing at a woman letting herself go and not caring what people think of her. I was laughing at the girl inside me who wanted to dance on my mattress again.

 

It’s a topic I think about a lot, the critical reception of popular music and literature produced by women.

 

There is an incessant need to define ourselves against what is popular, to like underground music, and to ‘gatekeep’ songs on TikTok so they aren’t ruined by the masses. Once you look at it, it’s completely illogical. What is wrong with something being popular? Don’t we want our favourite artists to continue producing the songs that speak to us? And what is wrong with a fan base being predominantly female? I don’t ridicule the millions of football fans who engage in transfer rumours on Twitter, but Swifties who analyse which album Taylor is going to rerelease are deemed lunatics.

 

Marian Keyes, a female author who writes romantic comedies, discusses this topic in her appearance on BBC’s Desert Island Discs.  Marian herself is highly successful, selling over 35 million copies of her written works, with a mainly female readership. Her interviewer asks her how she feels about being pigeonholed as a writer of non-serious, popular fiction, despite her addressing more serious topics such as her experiences with alcoholism and abuse. Marian has a well-thought-out answer: 

 

"I'm a woman. For good, or for ill, women enjoy my books and they relate to them and  think they are…empowering. I think that anything that empowers women… or makes them ‘uppity’...is…slapped down. If we like something, by telling us it’s rubbish it makes us feel a bit silly for having liked it in the first place."

No one is under any obligation to like Taylor Swift’s music. I don’t expect my boyfriend to relate to songs about wanting to be a seven-year-old girl again,but I won’t accept being ridiculed any more. I try not to get irritated when people tell me all her songs sound the same, I know they are entitled to their opinion. However, it takes me back to being a teen, to hiding and ultimately rejecting my ‘feminine’ interests in the hope of being more desirable or respected.

 

I think basketball pro Kobe Bryant sums Taylor’s success up perfectly:

 

"I don’t care if you like her music or you don’t like her music. Look at what she is doing and that is frightening stuff and it’s unbelievable to be able to pull that off over and over and over. You can’t have that level of consistent success and not be a killer, it’s impossible."

Rediscovering Taylor when I was 19 was an emotional education, getting me over a terrible break-up.

 

I remember listening to ‘Invisible String’, which is mainly a love song, but is also about looking back with love, not anger, on those who hurt you. 

‘Time, mystical time/ Cutting me open, then healing me fine’. 

When I first heard it, sad and alone, I visualised that time when I would be able to listen to it and relate to every lyric.  That time came. Two years later I have two ginger cats and have convinced a man to love me - arguably the inspiration for

Taylor singing:

‘Karma is a cat…Karma is my boyfriend’. 

I realise that this is a slight contradiction of ‘Invisible String’ and its message of loving those who did you wrong, but hey, that’s the duality of women.

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