Not many of her fans, I imagine.

I read this article  the other day, one of many that lampoon Swift for her unimaginative lyrics, her non-response to the idea that her songs empower girls, and her general cuteness, richness, and no-fair-how-come-I’m-not-her effect on people who like to hate her and her music.

Hm.  My first reaction was: back off.  Who cares?  She’s a pop singer, and she’s 22.  She’s put out four albums, she writes many of her own songs, plays guitar, and offers a nice, clean image for young girls who maybe can’t get on board with Lady Gaga or Lil’Kim yet.  There were many before her (Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Petula Clark); there will be many more when she gets too old (like, 30).  There’s nothing essentially wrong with her except for the fact that she makes a lot of money doing what she does, and don’t we all love to hate that.

I mean, what were you doing at 22?  I was no feminist.  I was busy documenting the wild drunken nights I shared with friends in a Bridget Jones-style diary (which I still have, and is well hidden).  I worked at a grocery store.  I spent my money on clothes and a car and a cell phone the size of a box of Kleenex, and I didn’t have any awareness of the world around me.  All that mattered was whether I was forced to put my hair in a ponytail at work that day, and if I could call in sick for the upcoming Great Big Sea concert.  Of course, I was working towards getting into a master’s program, and trying to be generally responsible, but I wouldn’t say any of my thinking was explicitly along feminist lines. 

Why would it be?  And why would that be more of a necessity for Swift, a blonde, Southern, pretty girl born into a life of privilege and given everything she wanted and worked for by the age of 16?  Moreover, if she was home-schooled and didn’t go to university, at what point would she have had the opportunity to read feminist literature, to sit in a classroom full of men who interrupt women every time they try to speak, to feel unsafe walking back to a dorm through an unlit, empty campus, or ... to try securing welfare as a single mother of two kids who just lost her job as a janitor?  She has no reason to claim she’s feminist, and for her, to do so might be the move that kills her career.  It ain’t easy (or cool) to be a feminist these days.  My students often physically lean back in their seats when I bring up the word, as if to avoid being touched by it as the sound travels through the air.  And some of them can’t correctly identify what a feminist is, as the article claims Swift can’t either.  It’s not a simple matter of knowledge, feminism, it’s scary political ground if you aren’t sure of what you’re talking about.

So the real message of this article, and so many others geared at young female pop stars is: let’s bully you until you crack for having been given the conventional opportunities presented to white, pretty, young, talented American girls: a systemic North American problem, the result of a culture that idolizes celebrities, or individuals who embody a problematic “normal”.  It is at you that we direct our feminist rage, because shouldn’t you know better??  Clearly, it’s Taylor’s fault, not the media’s, the music industry’s, nor ours for not filtering our listening choices more carefully so that we’re only hearing strong, positive messages of equality in our pop music.

Oh, that’s right.  I was talking about pop music.  Remember what that is?  Commercial music, often designed for a mass audience, which expresses highly emotional sentiments in simple language and carefully constructed packages of four minute songs.  Some of the greatest creators have managed to squeeze a whole lotta message into that mould, but most either can’t be bothered, or are held to strict content standards by their labels and management.  Even at that, if everyone had a serious message in their songs, um, nothing would be fun.  Where would “California Girls”, or “All Shook Up” (which, by the way, is grammatically incorrect), or “Twist and Shout” go?  Those are, like, the stupidest songs ever, right in line with Swift’s “It feels like the perfect night to dress up like hipsters/and make fun of our exes, uh-huh”.

Granted, she didn’t write that song.  One of the great lines my friend took from interviewing a female Nashville songwriter was that she had to figure out what a middle-aged male songwriter might be trying to write of the young female perspective, so that she could compete on an equal level with him in selling her songs.  Maybe a 41-year old shouldn’t be writing Swift’s songs, if we expect a certain level of first-person authenticity from her; on the other hand, maybe he should, if he knows how to write a fun song that will catch listeners’ attention.

Country has also had a very different relationship with feminism:

And look what happened to the Dixie Chicks.  How dare you speak your mind, you pretty girls.  Get back onstage, and next time, don’t play those instruments so well either. 

I can’t claim to be up on the latest feminist literature; I stopped reading it probably around 2006.  It seems to me, though, that the expectations placed on a girl like Swift default to the general complaint that “women don’t have equality”, and how can Swift get on board with that when she clearly does?  Feminism, at least from my perspective, now seems to be more about the intersections gender equality has with class, race, and sexual identity.  Swift falls into the normative categories for all of those things, as far as her looks and songs go, so how can she comment on the marginalization experienced by a poor black woman?  Or a transgendered man?  Or a lesbian who can’t marry her partner?  If she tried to comment on these things, in her songs or in her interviews, she would be equally criticized for not knowing what being in those positions is really like.  She can’t win!

Do her songs empower women?  Maybe.  In all likelihood, she’s reluctant to answer that question, as all artists are.  What if you asked Bonnie Raitt or Joni Mitchell if their songs empowered women?  What are they going to say?  “Yep, I’m pretty sure they do.  My songs are totally awesome.”  No artist likes to assume their audience will love or hate a song; nor do they want to impose an interpretation that may not work for how someone hears the music. 

I think Taylor’s main concerns probably centre around putting on a good show.  It’s all very well to say “I could do that” while you scoff at the silliness of her performance.  How about you go do it, then?  It’s hard enough to sing “Happy Birthday” in front of your family or sing at a club to an audience of 15, never mind doing it every night in front of thousands of people with high expectations.  She may become more socially responsible over time, and it would be nice to see that.  People with power, money, influence, and time should make the effort to use those things positively, learn more about the world, and ignite change where they are able.

But she’s 22.  Give her a chance.  Her career is at its peak, and she is a strong, encouraging, sweet role model for young girls who might want to pick up the guitar.  How many of us had that?  I often looked up to men, because there were very few women for me to emulate in my youth.  Just stop bullying her because she’s popular.  It’s okay.



Views: 1103

Comment by Rachel C on October 28, 2012 at 1:19pm

"Why would it be?  And why would that be more of a necessity for Swift, a blonde, Southern, pretty girl born into a life of privilege and given everything she wanted and worked for by the age of 16?  Moreover, if she was home-schooled and didn’t go to university, at what point would she have had the opportunity to read feminist literature..."

If we're only expected to learn about feminism by reading literature in universities, then that's our entire problem right there.

Comment by Stephen Monroe on October 30, 2012 at 6:08am

Why is this crap on this website???? First the Nashville show and them this??? Man its like apuppy that came from the pound...Did you pet me??? CAn I get attention??? Throw musical integrity out the window for celebrity. Man is there nothing sarced anymore??? I'm nearly done with this

Comment by Kim Ruehl on October 30, 2012 at 6:14am

Stephen - did you read this entire article? Are you upset just because people have covered things on ND that are of interest to mainstream music fans, or are you upset because you think Gillian's writing itself isn't intelligent? Personally, I thought this was a well-thought piece which offered a different perspective on something that has been discussed ad nauseum. And, at the end of the day, people are welcome to write about whatever they feel like writing about (music-related) here. 

Strikes me as awfully reactionary to write off something entirely simply because it uses a word or phrase which mainstream music fans use. 

Comment by Hal Bogerd on October 30, 2012 at 8:21am

I don't listen to Taylor Swift but my 16 year old daughter does.  I enjoyed reading about her. I didn't have to. What's the problem here?

Comment by Gillian Turnbull on October 30, 2012 at 9:29am

Thanks, everyone.

It’s worth mentioning that what we now know as Americana emerged out of a reaction to Nashville music in the 1980s and 90s, so using that scene, or genre, and others’ reactions to it, as the basis for a discussion here isn’t entirely irrelevant, and may in fact be of interest to some people.  Americana is also the result of not only returning to American “roots” music – blues, folk, bluegrass, etc. – but also of those genres mixing with newer forms like rock, punk, and yes, contemporary country.  Americana doesn’t exist in a bubble, and it would be a mistake to talk about it as though it does.  Maybe some of the issues raised in a post like this are the result of, or pertain to, the music this site is about.

Just a thought.

Comment by David Keith Johnson on October 30, 2012 at 12:09pm

I was there when Stephen Monroe was digging the Monkees. I was there when Stephen Monroe listened raptly to the Dave Clark Five. And I am sure he sang along with me and his other brother Tom as we sang California Girls over and over. He is a good guy with a terrific sense of humor. I would guess this article just caught him at a funny time. And if he would give me a call tonight, I will be happy to talk him off the ledge. And I promise, Stephen, neither you nor I will EVER have to listen to Taylor Swift, unless she gives you a call to ask you to. Then you would do it, because you are a swell human being, unfailingly gracious.

Comment by Jim Moulton on October 30, 2012 at 4:24pm

Good article Gillian,

Taylor is successful because she is a hard worker, her latest album is more pop than country, that takes a little guts, She's not my favorite, but I like her grit and she is a hard worker. Also loved The Dixie Chicks, wished their fans had shown a little loyalty when this incident happened. If we did not have successful acts you would not have the freedom for other artists to put out indie records.

Comment by Jessica Brown on October 30, 2012 at 4:39pm
I am greatly dissapointed by this article.

"I mean, what were you doing at 22?"

I am bothered by the feminist hate of Swift but attack their logic not their personal lives. That is. A. Low. Blow. Don't attack the under privelage for being under privelage, don't generalize, you are just as judgmental as the people you are criticizing.
Comment by Paul Wilner on October 30, 2012 at 5:18pm

I agree with Jim. And Gillian. Good piece.

As David Keith J. says above, the Dave Clark Five had it right.

Here's to looking beyond the "bubble.'' 

Comment by Stephen A. Vinson on October 31, 2012 at 7:31am

Sure, a blog is a blog, and as long as it relates, more or less, to country music, I say, "Write on."

RE Taylor Swift, specifically: She is mainstream country, and I don't listen to mainstream country. Haven't for fifty years, because it sounds like twangy pop for the "Can't take the country outta the boy (or girl)"  folks. You know, the mostly working people who now live in cities, by economic necessity. That's a trend that began back in the last century and it will continue. When's the last time you pulled off an interstate into a small town, dying or just about dead. Everytime, probably.

This post and the reaction to it seems to be dredging up a whole lot of  repressed feelings-- jealousy of a prettier, more successful person; disrespect for women and women asking for respect; Nashville haters;

distrust of intellectuals, etc.


Finally, I have always been impressed by the thoughts and writing of  Gilliam Turnbull, and, judging by her posted pic and what I imply is her success in the teaching field, she has nothing to be jealous about.





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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.