The Taylor Swift problem in 2012
I spent a lot of time thinking about Taylor Swift in 2012. I probably mentioned Taylor more times in conversation than I mentioned my own parents. I bought a Swift t-shirt from Target and when I put it in the wash, it turned my socks red. Taylor was literally seeping into my everyday life.
Red currently sits at number two on my albums of the year list. It is a great album. I played – and will continue to play – it over and over in my car. It takes the album Speak Now wanted to be and blows it out of the water. It’s highs are some of the highest on any album in 2012; it has the catchy bar anthems that go toe-to-toe with “Call Me Maybe” and when it wants to be emotionally devastating – “All Too Well”, anyone? – it holds nothing back.
But this isn’t an album review. This is an exploration of why, in 2012, when I “love” Taylor Swift, something about that irks me. This is an attempt to explain why Taylor seems to be set apart from the other headliners of today’s pop scene, and why Taylor seems to me, right now, more problematic than any of them. This is a realization that Taylor Swift and the year 2012 embody each other in more ways than one and, as much as I “love” Taylor, that worries me more than I’d care to admit.
To identify what makes Taylor so problematic in 2012, I point toward the most problematic song on Red: “Stay Stay Stay.” It plays almost like a b-side; it’s strongly reminiscent of “Ours,” indeed a b-side on SN. The song is the Taylor Swiftiest song she’s ever written, with lines about cell phone-throwing fights and grocery bag toting boyfriends. I tried counting how many times she says the word “stay” in the song but lost count around three hundred. But the reason it stands out on the album is because of its final five seconds.
Each of the past three albums has featured a now-trademark Taylor laugh. Each laugh is a microcosm of its album. “Hey Stephen” has the sort of laugh that makes you fall in love with her head over heels, just like Fearless did for mainstream fans, breaking her out of genre-niche starlet and into pop superstardom. The laugh on “Speak Now” gives you a feeling that she knows exactly what she’s doing and she’s very good at it – just like the album, which she wrote all herself, cementing her as more than a one-hit wonder. But the laugh on “Stay Stay Stay” is different. It comes at the end of the song, unlike the other two which break out around the bridge, and actually features a line from Taylor – “That’s so fun” – that seems almost as if it wasn’t meant to be recorded. It’s both the best laugh of the three and the most terrifying.
The hidden message for “Stay Stay Stay” in the album lyric booklet reads “DAYDREAMING ABOUT REAL LOVE.” On an album highlighted by break-up and love-scorned songs, “Stay Stay Stay” is about the continuation of a relationship, the enduring love of the speaker for whoever it is that carries her groceries. According to Taylor, she wrote the song based on what she’s “seen of real relationships.” Between that and the liner note message, two things stick out: the emphasis on “real,” and the fact that none of her own relationships seem to be the model for the song.
And that is what bothers me about the song, Taylor Swift, and the year of 2012.
The entirety of Taylor Swift’s career is based upon her ability to commercialize her reality. She takes her in-life relationships, turns them into songs, and sells millions of records. Her name litters the tabloids with whichever boyfriend she has at the time – every single reader knowing that her present significant other is simply future song fodder. When we buy Taylor Swift albums, we’re buying the remnants of the relationships Taylor has had since the release of the previous record. Yes, all artists take personal experiences and put them into their own musical output. But with Taylor, the songs are hyper-personal; there is a beginning, middle, and end. Like no one else, we are complicit in our participation in her relationships – we tweet about Harry Styles leaving her hotel room at 4 a.m. and in eighteen months we’ll listen to the song she writes about him on the next album.
The relationship between Taylor’s reality and her music seems inversed. Her life and the relationships she has seem to exist only as source-material. It is in her best interest to enter into relationships that will fail. If she settles down into an enduring relationship like the one of “Stay Stay Stay,” her career essentially halts. She needs to date John Mayer, she needs to be hurt. Her reality needs to be filled with heartbreak so her albums can be filled with heartbreak. She isn’t selling a collection of thirteen songs, she’s selling thirteen stories from her “reality,” which have already been processed by her fans, from the rumors of the relationships to their grizzly end. Taylor Swift is selling Taylor Swift, because her story is worth buying for $14.99 at Target, because her experiences, experienced too by her fans, are real enough.
Two songs on Red, different from “Stay Stay Stay” in style and subject matter, complicate the matter. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” too features a break in the song in the form of a “real” Taylor. Like the laugh, WANEGBT has a spoken word interlude that Taylor implies comes from an actual conversation in her life. It has the same feeling as the laugh, like we’re eavesdropping on Taylor’s life and thus reaffirming that the song is “real.” But the two can’t both be real. The two songs come right next to each other on the album but present two very different realities for Taylor: one where the relationship comes to a bitter end, one where it continues on. And that’s where the realness of each song comes into play. We know WANEGBT is real – we watched her date Jake Gyllenhaal, and watched the relationship end. But “Stay Stay Stay” can’t be from Taylor’s own life. If it were, there would be no more break-up songs, there would be no more Taylor Swift.
On “22” Taylor again peddles reality for art. But like “Stay Stay Stay,” it isn’t her own reality. What “deadlines” does Taylor have to forget? What scenes does she have to ditch? And the very things she sings on the song – “Fall in love with strangers” and “Forget the heartbreak” – are counterproductive to her existence. If Taylor fell in love with strangers, there would be fewer tabloids, less opportunity for us to experience the relationships with her, less participation in the reality that she has created for us. And Taylor Swift’s reality is a constant reminder of the heartbreak, her entire career is built upon it. Once again she is creating a reality apart from her own, one that would contradict her own, but presenting it as if it is indeed her own. When her very life is what’s being sold, where is the distinction?
Is Taylor Swift a performance artist? Her very life is provided as entertainment for her fans – it carries between albums, each relationship laying the groundwork for the next hit single. Her life is what is presented as her product. That becomes problematic when the question is posed: why her life? What makes Taylor Swift’s life unique that it deserves to be bought? Why is her story worthy?
It’s probably strange to compare Taylor to Lena Dunham. But they’re both playing the same game, both presenting their lives for consumption. We deem the experiences of Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham worthy for entertainment; they become shared experiences with the artists and their audience. The appeal of Swift’s records and “Girls” in their realness, their grounding in Swift and Dunham’s reality. There is an implicit understanding that what we experience as their art has come from their own life. But what happens when the artist recognizes their life must exist a certain way for continued success? What happens when the artist begins manipulating their reality for the sake of their art? Is it still real?
In 2012, the lines are being blurred. Justin Bieber claims personal footage from a stolen laptop is leaked and it turns out to be the music video for “Beauty and a Beat” (which is great, by the way). The internet has turned every artist into a performance artist – the emphasis is now on the presentation of the art and the reality from which it comes, and the audience/consumer’s participation in that reality.
In 2012, Entertainment’s highest value has become the artist’s own life. We experience not just the art but where the art came from. I “love” Taylor because her songs are catchy, but also because I know this song is about John Mayer, this one about Connor Kennedy. When I listen to Red I’m not just enjoying the songs, I’m enjoying the experiences of the relationships. I’m enjoying Taylor Swift’s life.
At what point do I start enjoying hers more than my own? At what point does that become a problem?