Who Cares if Taylor Swift is a Feminist?
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.