Feminist Taylor Swift: The Hero Our Generation Needs
Last week PolicyMic heaped praise on the Feminist Taylor Swift parody Twitter, and it is still going strong with more than 99,000 followers. It has all the hallmarks of great viral content: It's clever and has a broad appeal, and everyone knows about Taylor Swift and her rota of boyfriends, all immortalized in song. These feminist re-interpretations are almost a sort of backhanded publicity for Swift, who has yet to comment on her socially progressive doppelgänger.
When asked why, as a feminist, she is a Taylor Swift fan, the feed's creator Clara Beyer summed it up nicely: "...her lyrics are so on point." And she's right. Swift naysayers almost outnumber her fans, pointing to her penchant for cloying, sugared metaphors, her carefully cultivated "Aw shucks" persona, and inevitably, her laundry list of manfriends. But I'll throw it down here: Taylor Swift is one of the most important artists working today for millennials, and the new parody reinforces that.
If I've offended a musical sensibility here or two, calm down. She may have danced with Mick Jagger, but Taylor Swift can barely hold a candle to many of the greats. She can't even try, just as Bob Dylan would struggle to recreate a teenage girl's diary. But with four albums under her belt, she has proved that she has the songwriting and producing chops to craft catchy pop that most GarageBand-abusing hipsters can only rail at.
It is unfortunate, then, that she uses her talents (and those of her co-producers and assorted team members) to almost exclusively write and sing about love. It would be refreshing to hear more than two songs per album about other topics. But since when was songwriting the United Nations, and have we ever dared Kanye West to write about something other than himself?
No, what is most troubling about Swift is, really, how great she is at capturing the fleeting and intoxicating nature of young love, lust, and the overwhelming feelings that accompany crushes and rejection. Dating in today's world is confusing, whether online or off. There's seemingly so much choice, but so little of it is meaningful — sometimes it can almost feel like languishing in a buyer's market! You just want someone to watch box-sets, or play ultimate Frisbee with, or to enjoy hamsters like you do. But unless your dream is to find the perfect RealDoll, you'll be cycling through experiences, nauseating dates, and relationships in your twenties — and maybe even after.
This is where Swift excels — at calling up the tiny moments that are the scraps of your immature dating life. Swift has an eye for these gentle, tender moments, high on the fumes of possibility like so many of us who can attach meaning to mere words or gestures to satiate our desire to connect. "Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being 'honest'/I'm a crumpled up piece of paper lyin' here/'Cause I remember it all all all too well" is a hokey set of lyrics until you remember that oops, at some point you also have looked for commitment, or something deeper, from a self-absorbed twenty-something.
And like all of us, Taylor wants gestures: Kiss her in the rain, tell her you love her on a Tuesday, look at her as you're driving, put your arm around her. These are all talismans that she clings to, and her power to observe and memorialize them all is sharp, but ultimately incomplete. As the relationship tapers off, she falls back into the behavior that Feminist Taylor Swift tries to correct: She blames herself, and him.
The monster hit "I Knew You Were Trouble" is one of the best examples of this, when she berates herself thoroughly ("Shame on me no-ow!"), but still throws plenty of shade his way. This kind of victim-blaming is not new ("Stupid girl/I should've known/I should've known") but is insidious in her music. Swift still markets herself as a role model, and it's disheartening that she so often falls back on blaming herself and others for mistakes, rather than apportioning blame equally.
Of course, music is never a democratic process, but it is difficult enough to navigate the tricky world of dating without being encouraged to criticize ourselves more than we do already. Falling in love shouldn't strip us of agency, and men are never property, but these themes still persist in Swift's music.
This is one of the greatest bugbears associated with her lyrics, and the Feminist Taylor Swift Twitter account at least repairs that somewhat: "I knew you were trouble when you walked in / But victim blaming is horrible / You made the choice to violate my boundaries." Much better.
There is also the unfortunate way in which Swift views herself as a role model for other women. She chooses not to identify as a feminist, which is ultimately her prerogative, and she's told The Daily Beast: "I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life."
Okay, let's not pick that apart. She doesn't consider herself a feminist, but what's more troubling is how her actions amplify her words. There was "You Belong With Me" with the immortal short skirts/t-shirts comparison, and Swift blatantly pushing herself forward as the best candidate for her crush's affections with flimsy reasons. There was also that time where she responded to Amy Poehler and Tina Fey's joke at her expense by invoking the wrath of Madeleine Albright: "There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Got your message loud and clear, Tay! A throwaway line about dating Michael J. Fox's son isn't helping women, but uncapping your poison pen and writing: "She's not a saint and she's not what you think / She's an actress, whoa / But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress" in "Better Than Revenge" is lending a helping hand to women's lib? Okay then. Thankfully, the songs on 2012's Red have moved past the slut-shaming and focus on eulogising her relationships with more focus.
If there's going to be a voice of our generation, it wouldn't be Lena Dunham, it would be Taylor Swift. She's not the hero we deserve, but she's the one we need right now. She invokes youthful frivolity so well, and with the same short-sightedness with which we approach our lives. She might never know some things: what it's like to eat noodles for every meal, the liberating feeling of Pants Off Friday, the stress of an unpaid internship — but when it comes to love, she distills most of its goofy and shamefully green abruptness into a form worthy of appreciation.
It's unfortunate that some of her values are out of order (it is never cool to blame the other woman, even if a Jonas Brother did write a song about how she's much better than you!), and that's what makes Clara Beyer's Twitter parody so brilliant — we are all lonely, free, confused, and oppressed by the patriarchy at the same time.