It’s a big weekend for Taylor Swift. She winds up her record-breaking 1989 World Tour on Saturday, December 12, in Melbourne and reaches the ripe old age of 26 on Sunday, December 13. So now is a good time to sit back and think about what it all means.
What exactly is the significance of Taylor in pop music, modern aesthetics, and Western culture in general? Why do ten thousand Twitter accounts use her image as their avatar? Why do her fans insist there is such a quantum difference between Taylor and all the pop chantoosies who went before?
And finally, the big elephant in the room. How the hell did Tay Tay become such an icon—sometimes ironic, sometimes not—of the far right?
There are a million aspects to the Naked Swiftie, children. Follow me as I lead you through a few.
The Tao of Tay
If you’re not a teenage girl or an Alt Right sh*tlord, it’s entirely possible that the Taylor Swift phenomenon has passed you by entirely. You think of her, if you think of her at all, as just another fungible name and figure in the pop-cult landscape that rushes by your train window.
I know what that’s like, because I myself was only recently sucked into the Swiftie vortex. I was aware of her only as this dorky teenager I’d once seen on TV, all cowgirl boots and fluffy dress and big hair, singin’ about how teardrops on my guitar are keepin’ me from wishin’ on a wishin’ star. She was so obscure, or I so out of it, I thought she and her accompanists were the Dixie Chicks.
That was the old Nashville Swift, back when she was 17, 18. That model is long gone, along with the big hair and western boots. Early last year (2014) Taylor bought a $20 million penthouse loft in downtown NYC’s Tribeca—she bought it from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who was moving back to New Zealand with his family.
Ever since then, the paparazzi and tourists have gathered ’round whenever Taylor is in town, snapping news photos and iPhone candids as she exits down the steps of the old 1882 Sugarloaf Warehouse building on Franklin Street, dressed in some cunning new crop-top skirt outfit, or perhaps a romper; and six-inch-stiletto pumps or high-heeled booties; carrying a leather tote-purse ahead of her on her forearm, the way ladies did back in the 1950s and ’60s (and as the Queen of England still does).
Thus, the standard Taylor posture, which you can see displayed countless times on any of the endless websites devoted to photos of her. One of the most useful is What Would Taylor Swift Wear? which matches street-shots of Taylor with advice on where to buy the same clothes.
(Going back to Lord of the Rings: Legolas himself, Orlando Bloom, also used to live in this building . . . in a modest $5 million pad, right next door to Peter Jackson and his family. But when the Jacksons left and Taylor moved in, the crowds and rhubarb just got too intense. Legolas said bye-bye.)
The new 2014-model Taylor was not only cutting-edge chic, she was now much more accessible to the broad pop-rock audience. Her first four albums had been country-western, or country-tinged pop. But the new late-2014 album, 1989 (named after her birth year) was a complete departure: a pitch-perfect pastiche of 1980s pop-rock styles.
In that MTV epoch, as in no era before or since, hit pop tunes were closely associated with their videos. Think: A-ha’s “Take On Me,” The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out”—as well as anything by Madonna, Michael Jackson, or Billy Idol. (Would anyone even remember A-ha or Rick Astley today if not for their videos? Could an audio-only Madonna or Michael Jackson ever have achieved supernova status on their voices alone?) One has to suppose that this visual dominance happened simply because of the novelty and dominance of MTV itself. But the 1980s ended, MTV’s devotion to fresh pop-rock fell apart, and what was left behind was the notion that rock videos are basically an Eighties art form, just as film noir lives forever in 1945-55.
Taylor herself couldn’t remember the 1980s, but she clearly understood that it was the golden age of the rock video. She ensured that the first key singles, from the 1989 album were released simultaneously with top-notch, 1980s-style videos. And these have all been gems. The first single, “Shake It Off,” released two months before the complete album, was a hopelessly catchy and upbeat song (“players gonna play play play play play, and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate”) that hit the Billboard No. 1 slot the first week it was released in August 2014.
The “Shake It Off” video came out shortly afterwards, and was extraordinary. A delightful parody of a half-dozen 1980s rock-video genres, encompassing hip-hop, electro-rock, and just about anything Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, or Pat Benatar did in those years. Except—and this is the key point with almost anything that comes out of Taylor Swift—Taylor somehow did the 1980s better.
In its triple-distilled silliness, “Shake It Off” was so much better the 1980s originals, so much funnier and more knowing, that it quickly became a platform for other parodies. TV’s “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver tried to do a “Bake It Off” version of it with Taylor a year ago, but all it proved was that Taylor Swift is beyond parody and that she herself is an excellent deadpan comedienne.
Taylor followed “Shake It Off” with three more videos tied to the 1989 album: “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” and “Wildest Dreams.” All were directed by Joseph Kahn in a lushly ominous style that, appropriately enough, echoes Ridley Scott’s advertising and film direction of the 1980s.
Countersignaling the Critics
The latest of these, “Wildest Dreams,” seems to depict an early 1950s movie-set in Africa (references to Mogambo and The English Patient, among others). A dark-haired Taylor plays a siren after the manner of Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor. There are clapperboards, giraffes, and a biplane in this Africa . . . but there are no Negroes (apart from two uniformed soldiers in the distance).
Instant controversy—accusations of racism!—when the video premiered in September 2015. “Even the most casual observer would have noticed that—for a clip that’s set in Africa—it’s about as white as a Sunday morning farmer’s market,” wrote a critic quoted in the Daily Mail. “The video wants to have its old-school Hollywood romance but ends up eating some old-school Hollywood racism, too.”
Solemnly and hilariously, NPR used this as a teaching moment to lecture Taylor:
Here are some facts for Swift and her team: Colonialism was neither romantic nor beautiful. It was exploitative and brutal. The legacy of colonialism still lives quite loudly to this day. Scholars have argued that poor economic performance, weak property rights and tribal tensions across the continent can be traced to colonial strategies . . .
Check your white privilege, Taylor Swift.
The “Wildest Dreams” brouhaha gave critics opportunity to rehash earlier instances of the same accusation. 2014’s “Shake It Off” opens with a corps of white ballerinas in white tutus, and later shows us a Busby Berkeley dance-line of twerking Women of Color, all dressed in huge gold-hoop earrings and skimpy denim cutoffs. (They shake their booties in the background while Taylor gasps in mock horror.)
Rummaging through some earlier productions, a USA Today commenter discovered that Taylor Swift had actually made videos with no visible People of Color at all!
Even more obscure were the complaints of black feminist critics who chided Tay Tay for calling herself a “feminist” without giving due regard to “intersectionality” and the needs of black women. If you forget what intersectionality is—I have to look it up again every day— here’s a thumbnail explanation: “You don’t get to pick and choose which things you want equality in. If you are going to label yourself a feminist, you must advocate for equality for all, regardless of race.”
Taylor Swift has been taking this sort of abuse from black critics and performers for years. There have been little public smack-downs and Twitter feuds with Nikki Minaj and Kanye West. Famously, Kanye interrupted Taylor’s award reception during the Video Music Awards ceremony in 2009, by jumping in and declaring, in effect, that the black singer Beyoncé had made a better video than Taylor.
The problem they have with Taylor is not hard to scope out. She’s white, she’s very blonde and white and pretty, she doesn’t write black-themed songs or play negro-accented music. Worst of all, she started out as a country singer—a music genre enjoyed almost exclusively by rednecks, Southerners, and white supreemists.
Taylor finesses these accusations mainly by not answering them, not engaging her opponents. Neither does she help them out by giving them free ammunition. She is certainly aware that some of the flakier or more satirical white nationalists have hailed her as their “Aryan Goddess” and “Nazi Avatar.” But she doesn’t comment on it.
And it cannot have escaped her notice that there is a long-running series of “Taylor Hitler memes,” in which a quotation from Der Führer, or maybe Dr. Göbbels, is attributed to Taylor Swift. Some of these are real screamers. More recently the memers have turned the game around and placed Taylor quotations on pictures of AH.
The Alt Right notion that Taylor is One of Us has a rich, deep history going back at least to 2009. That’s when news photographers snapped a shot of her at a Katy Perry party in West Hollywood, posing or dancing with a young man wearing a white shirt with a brightly daubed red swastika.
The shirt was some kind of edgy fashion by a designer friend of Taylor’s, and the young man was modeling it, but of course the “Swastika Swift” shot immediately went ’round the world. Called upon to comment, a Taylor spokesman responded blandly that Taylor had taken pictures with “a hundred people that night.”
Journalists and bloggers—including some Jewish ones—tried hard to give this story legs but just couldn’t find any traction. And ever since, by steadfastly refusing to feed the trolls, the “Aryan Goddess” has remained the Teflon Princess.