The cultural appraisal of Taylor Swift is simple. She is a country-laced pop-star who dates a lot of famous people, and sings a lot of songs about her exes. This isn’t untrue — she admitted it herself when I saw her play a few weeks ago. It’s become the narrative. Taylor has taken thinly-veiled shots at John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal, there are dozens of coded subjects throughout her discography, there are even reports that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” exists because she knew the ubiquity of a world-conquering single would serve as the ultimate public shaming. That she’s judged by her relationships is partially her own doing. She’s consorted publicly, serially, and hasn’t been shy about documenting her personal life in a public forum.
See also: Taylor Swift, Grimes, and Lana Del Rey: The Year in Blond Ambition
From late-night monologues, to the kids on 4chan, her breakups have become her defining characteristic and easiest detraction. Plenty of songwriters have adapted angry heartbreak into their music, but the public seems to save a very special blast of vitriol for Swift. There are some obvious reasons; she’s young, she can be contentiously dramatic, she puts herself in the center of her stories, and obviously she’s dated a lot of famous people in a relatively short amount of time. But none of that is exceptionally rare — pop-stars have lead vogue, ecumenical lifestyles for a long time. It makes you wonder if there’s something more sinister involved. Taylor has certainly embraced traditional femininity in both lyrical content and public persona, and she’s made a habit of staying away from anything overtly transgressive throughout her career. Obviously avoiding controversy shouldn’t be grounds for marginalization, but unfortunately it’s lead to a lot of people deeming her clueless and woefully un-self-aware. Why? Because it’s really easy to dismiss a blonde girl trying to play by the rules.
Consider a guy like Adam Levine. Both Adam and Taylor essentially target the same general public, and they’ve both happily embraced their celebrity. The entirety of the Maroon 5 catalog has centered on the same sense of frustrated, occasionally catty relationship dysfunction. Levine’s first hit, “This Love” is thematically the exact same song as his latest “One More Night.” He’s complained about being misunderstood and dating the wrong people for the entirety of his career, but has never been saddled with cluelessness, even though he’s dated more celebs than Swift. Nobody has ever asked Levine if perhaps he’s the sole consistent factor in his personal issues. Culturally, Maroon 5’s breakup songs may have made Levine an asshole, or petty, or an indignant womanizer, but they’ve never made him stupid or irrational, all broad, dismissive strokes used to paint Swift’s public persona. His masculinity has kept him from those pitfalls.
There are plenty of aesthetic, non-philosophical reasons for this. For one, Adam Levine represents a band, not his own intimate biography. Secondly your average Maroon 5 song isn’t exactly demanding a listener to digest it very seriously, and Swift often demands sympathy from her audience. Despite that, it should be a little bit uncomfortable that Swift’s earnestness can be so easily discredited when plenty of other, more egregious songwriters are let off the hook. Why doesn’t Levine have his chuckling doubters? How is his brazen self-righteousness so easily replaced with troubadour machismo? Why is a breakup song from a female artist a little more invalid in popular perception? Why does America have a hard time buying her side of the story?
Again, it’s hard to feel sorry for Swift. A couple days ago she sold out the gigantic Cowboys Stadium, she’s got millions of adorers worldwide, and she’s living the cosmopolitan life she’s always wanted. It’s just a shame her realities are made irrelevant. Swift writes love songs, and while certainly engendered in a fairly heteronormative feminine perspective, you don’t need to be a girl to feel “I Knew You Were Trouble,” or “Stay, Stay, Stay,” just like you don’t need to be a girl to feel “Fade Into You,” or “You Oughta Know.” Maybe if Swift was more sexual or more confrontational she’d make her stories harder to ignore. But frankly, I don’t think Taylor wants to write those kind of songs, and nudging an artist towards an artificial edge to minimize bullying seems like a troublesome solution. We definitely don’t hold the rest of the pop industry to that standard. You can blame her innocuousness, or her traditionalist fixations, but if the world is really convincing itself that Swift is silly, or insentient, or out-of-touch with reality, then that should confirm our worst fears about the music business and ourselves.