Perceived Reality and the Social Construction of Taylor Swift

By Chloe Yeo

Taylor Swift - Reputation Credit: Mert & Marcus

As a white female musician, Taylor Swift finds herself facing criticism against the content of her music and her lack of political fervor as a celebrity with large, impressionable audience. While  feminist milestones such as Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and the Women’s March have spurred celebrity support, Swift has remained publicly silent. Even her nomination as one of Time’s People of the Year drew controversy. As a whole, Reputation is the visage of who Taylor Swift is, was, and has been in the public eye. Reputation illustrates how fame and media opinion complicate perceived reality, for both celebrity and civilian. Swift uses the lyrical motifs of judgment and power to regain control of her reality beyond public opinion, which ultimately illuminates a gendered rendering of media backlash against female artists. Rather than making explicit public comments, Swift uses her work to make a statement about sexism in the music industry.

The third track of the album, “I Did Something Bad,” entertains the idea of conviction, with the audience as judge, jury, and executioner. This theme of power roles is immediately established in the first verse, where she sings “I never trust a narcissist, but they love me / So I play ’em like a violin / And I make it look oh-so-easy.” Swift’s awareness of manipulation and active observation are complicated by her prescription of innocence. This is demonstrated in a witch hunt metaphor, how “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one.” By asking listeners to attack and “light [her] up,” she willingly and voluntarily seeks out destruction for whatever accusation. Thus Taylor is empowered by claiming this identity and action as her own. In addition, the phrase “they say” precedes “I did something bad” in the lyrics, yet it is deliberately excluded from the title. This rhetorical choice furthers the difference between perception and reality, one statement being an accusation, while the other, a confession. In fact, the witch hunt metaphor is especially politically poignant in the context of Trump’s use of the term, and adds to Swift’s ambiguous apolitical persona.

In contrast, the song “Delicate” presents power in a softer way. Where the first four tracks delivered aggressive lyrics and sounds, Swift describes how her relationship “ain’t for the best,” addressing how her “reputation’s never been worse so / you must like me for me.” It is acceptance and sensitivity, shifting the consideration, and therefore power, of the audience away in favor of her lover’s feelings.

The duality of power and subservience is exemplified in Ann Powers’ essay, in how “[t]aking our clothes off together . . . we face each other’s ugliness and beauty” (Powers 41). Swift writes as both victim of the media and owner of her relationships, illustrating how pop music serves as confinement and liberation. In recognizing the nearly impossible separation of the media reality and Swift’s actual reality, Reputation succeeds in exploring this middle ground. “Don’t Blame Me” continues this conversation between the two songs and the audience, as it is unclear who is she confessing to, and who is blaming her. Swift sings that “I’ve been breaking hearts a long time / toying with them older guys / just playthings for me to use,” mirroring the manipulative persona illustrated in “I Did Something Bad.” Even further, Swift employs opinionated language, saying “love made me crazy,” “I’m insane / but I’m your baby,” and “I would lose my mind.” When combined, this persona and language perpetuate the crazy-ex-girlfriend trope that act to demonize women in music. Tracy Moore describes this phenomenon as “[i[f you’re a girl . . . it’s typically assumed you are a groupie type looking to hook up or some dude’s girlfriend.” Rather than being identified as an individual, there is always an association of belonging to someone else, demonstrating the confines of public judgment.

Reputation as a whole finds less success in the bombardment of blame and accusation against the audience. What was successful about her previous albums was the creation of intimacy with no consideration for who is listening or judging. That, to me, is what is so uniquely Taylor Swift: a detailed hyper-specific storyteller who can make her personal experiences universal. Reputation is less personal, and more generalized. At first glance, it’s a tracklist full of radio hits, featuring little substance, collaborations, and repeated (albeit catchy) lyrics. But upon a closer look, and when considered in its whole, the album reveals a more complex telling of pop stardom. Considering that the typical audience for Taylor Swift songs is teenage girls, listening as someone slightly out of the demographic provokes Carl Wilson’s “tinge of embarrassment”. Even “talking about an artist so feminine, flashy, lush and sentimental” triggers a stream of excuses, and Reputation amplifies that feeling at times. Therefore, what is largely successful about this album is the skillful execution of metaphor across the whole album, and how it rests on the ears of the listener to unpack each one. Other notable themes such as luxury and imprisonment give more weight to how both the media and the music industry have been instrumental in embellishing the whole image of Taylor Swift. As a whole, Reputation raises meaningful questions about the perception of reality, and how the patriarchal structure of American pop music can be used to disempower women. While never quite offering answers to those questions, Swift executes Reputation with the confidence and knowledge that she doesn’t owe answers to anyone.

Critical models:
https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/23301-hopeless-fountain-kingdom/
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/arts/music/lorde-melodrama-review.html

References:
Moore, Tracy. “Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing About Music as a Woman.” Jezebel, Accessed 20 March 2014. https://jezebel.com/oh-the-unbelievable-shit-you-get-writing-about-music-a-1547444869

Powers, Ann. “A Spy in the House of Love.” Women & Music Volume 12. Project MUSE.

Wilson, Carl. “Why We Fight About Pop Music.” NPR, 15 April 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2014/04/15/301440765/why-we-fight-about-pop-music

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Digital Humanities & the Pop Music Machine

Technological innovation continues to cause disruptions in industry, culture, and society, that now challenges the way traditional roles in academia — research, participation, curation, etc. — are structured. Using digital media to reconsider how power relations are studied forces a critical examination of our personal consumption. In using music as our core case study, the legacy of recording as a medium allows for this discourse to occur over time. This is exemplified in the article “Why We Fight About Pop Music” and the Maylei Blackwell transcript. In particular, Carl Wilson’s examination of pop music criticism is also illuminating in how we, as listeners, should frame this mindset even as “anti-pop authors” have lost the cultural battle. By understanding this “globalized, polycultural, multilateral, warming, mass-migrating world,” it is critical to raise questions such as “‘Where is the center?” “Which information matters?” “Who benefits?” “What does that make me?”” In doing so, themes of justice, accreditation, and royalties come into play as technology enables power roles to shift as easily as it is to create content. For example, Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls” recalls questions of love and theft, challenging the difference between appreciation and appropriation. Who benefits here? Japan’s Harajuku district? Japanese pop music? It is dangerous to casually consume this song as it perpetuates fetishization and stereotypes of Japanese women. Any complexity of identity is erased in praising the “exotic Other.”

This is exemplified in Maylei Blackwell’s interview and discussion of indigenous women and the importance of deep listening. There is a dissonance between what is perceived by someone looking into a culture vs. someone participating, often reflected by who is in the position of power. In this instance, Blackwell remarks that people today often perceive “indigenous women … as being backward”. However, by sharing the space with the women, understanding their experience, and changing how the scene was viewed, she saw “this really iconic position of a woman on her knees grinding is a source of empowerment and I would have never assigned that meaning to them”. Like all feminist coalition work, it takes time, patience, and energy to step away from positions of power and encourage others to take up that space. This runs into complications in the modern world, where women of color in developed nations can capitalize and profit off of cultures in “developing” nations. For example, Selena Gomez uses elements of Indian music and Bollywood sounds in her song “Come and Get It”. The sampling and use of a culture that is not hers lacks an effort to promote Indian artists nor spread awareness of issues that are critical to Indian women. This brings into question where the role of pop music artists lies; are they responsible for educating the general public on “important issues”? Is it their job to be woke? How does their position of power relate to their social responsibility? Considering these questions is what makes digital media scholarship essential. In engaging with the methods and modes of media consumption, the digital humanities creates an essential space for constructive critique in a flexible model that adapts as technology does.