In case you haven’t heard, it’s cool to hate Taylor Swift.
And I mean hate. Really, really, really hate. That blonde hair, that red lipstick, those catching pop songs and the semi-retro styling… my god, the world has never seen a pop star so worthy of vitriol. The hatred is aggressive and disturbing.
And it really needs to stop.
I think there are two sides to this hatred of Taylor Swift. One very definitely comes from a deeply sexist space, where she’s criticized and dismissed as a manipulative dumb pretty girl who (gasp) writes songs about her own relationships. It feels mildly ludicrous to suggest that a rich and beautiful white girl is popularly hated because of those attributes, and she’s certainly better off than most other women as a result. But I think the fact that she looks like a perfect angelic blonde girly girl fuels a lot of the vitriol against her. She’s a pretty and feminine songwriter who demands our attention and asks for our respect. Of course our culture, which seems to spin a wheel every year and loathe whichever random female celebrities come up, has turned against her.
But the other side of Taylor Swift hate comes from feminist circles. It argues that she’s anti-feminist, because of the content of her songs and how she presents herself. There’s certainly more traction here, especially if you focus on her earliest album. But even arguments based on valid points reach a level of vitriol that’s frankly disturbing and seems based on an eagerness to tear her apart, rather than any desire to critique a successful female artist in a feminist way. And calling her a “feminist’s nightmare,” as Jezebel famously did in 2010, is, to put it frankly, ridiculous. She’s an incredibly successful performer who writes her own songs. It’s my feminist nightmare that successful women can be hated so violently by so-called feminists, based on such awful crimes as “she’s girly” and “she writes songs about boys.”
So let’s look at some of the reasons that Taylor Swift is despised.
She writes songs about all her past relationships. What a drama queen!
Yup. Taylor Swift’s songs are often inspired by her own relationships. I couldn’t tell you to what extent this is true, because I’m not Taylor Swift, but at least some of her songs comment on her life.
But what popular singer writes songs that don’t? That’s what songs do. The vast majority of popular songs are about relationships, and the inspiration for those songs comes from somewhere. Adele’s much loved “Someone Like You” is written about a real person. Her whole 21 album is written about a real person. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone criticize Adele for that or say that she’s not a serious musician as a result.
Taylor Swift writes her own songs. It makes sense that at least some of them are inspired by her own life. And as she’s a celebrity, her relationships are often also with celebrities. This is normal stuff for a singer-songwriter. We only care because Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift — pretty, young, blonde and popular.
But she uses these relationships to market her songs!
We’re the ones who focus on those relationships. Our gossip shows debate who certain songs are about. Our interviewers ask her questions about the reality behind her songs. Our celebrity culture is the one that listens to a Taylor Swift song and says “so who is this about?” rather than commenting on the quality of the song itself. Is it possible that Taylor Swift’s promotional people have encouraged this, because they know that they increase hype and sell records? Sure. But we’re still the ones who buy into it. We’re still the ones who create and drive the conversation.
Since I officially don’t care who Taylor Swift’s songs are about, I had to do a little googling to back this one up. The top hit was a Billboard.com “timeline” of Taylor Swift relationships and their corresponding songs. And it comes with a disclaimer: this is ALL speculation. Even the relationships themselves are “reported,” rather than confirmed. It’s basically just celebrity gossip, touted as the most important thing about Taylor Swift’s music. And the fact that we care more about the dirt on her alleged relationships than about the music themselves is indicative of a problem with us and our attitude to young pretty female singers, not with Taylor Swift herself.
It’s unfair to the guys she dates to expose their relationships in this way!
There are several answers to this one. The first is that we’re the ones who are doing this, by caring about it. Taylor Swift discussed the fact that her Red album was mostly inspired by one guy, but she didn’t say who it was. The media then pounces to speculate, until the speculation becomes fact. The second is that Taylor Swift is a celebrity, and she’s a celebrity well known for writing songs about exes. The people who date her aren’t going into it without knowing that. And any guys who claim “oh this song is about me” are almost certainly doing it for publicity.
And the third is that she’s not the only singer to do this. Justin Timberlake springs to mind, where his video Cry Me A River made explicitly clear that the song was about his ex Britney Spears. Accusing your ex of cheating via music video? Classy. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone saying “poor Britney Spears” about the whole thing.
She’s anti-feminist because her songs are all about boys and relationships
To which I say, again, what songs aren’t? Find me some popular songs that aren’t about relationships. Find me male singers who don’t write songs about girls.
Her lyrics are problematic
The most famous one is from her song Picture To Burn: “so go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy. That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” I’m not going to argue that there’s no problem with this lyric. Obviously, there is. It’s tame compared to a lot of popular music (looking at you, Robin Thicke), but that doesn’t matter: we should tackle problematic things wherever we find them, even if worse things exist elsewhere. But Taylor Swift wrote this song when she was fifteen years old. If we were held accountable for every problematic thing we accidentally thought or did when we were teenagers and kicked out of the feminist fold forever, the remaining ranks would be pretty darn thin. Sure, there are some incredibly enlightened and mature teenagers who can see the world with empathy and understand the impact of their words. But I think there are more who are still dealing with all the pressures of our incredibly bigoted society. Yes, they should be called out on their mistakes, but those mistakes shouldn’t be held up as proof of their terrible character almost a decade later. People learn and grow. And since writing the song, Taylor Swift has changed the lyrics, and now always performs it without the “gay” insult. When a teenager makes a mistake and then rectifies it, we shouldn’t use it as fuel to violently hate them almost ten years later.
Her songs promote a “virgin”/”whore” dichotomy
This is quite an outdated criticism, since Taylor Swift is nowadays usually talked about in relation to her boyfriends. But her first album, Fearless, did include some of this imagery, most famously in her super catchy You Belong With Me, which contrasts the girl-next-door Swift with the high-heel-and-short-skirt-wearing girlfriend of the guy she likes. There’s definitely space for some “not like other girls” criticism in here, especially as Taylor Swift is the gorgeous blonde figure. But let’s assume that she is a human being who learns and grows, like all human beings, and not use a song released in 2008 to tear down Taylor Swift in 2014.
In fact, I think that we’re still talking about one of Taylor Swift’s very first songs and music videos, rather than her later work, because it fits into a narrative that we want to tell about Taylor Swift, one that is fuelled by the very dichotomy we claim to be criticizing. In the “virgin/whore” dichotomy, Taylor Swift is very much presented on the “virgin” side, because she’s blonde and beautiful and writes country songs about love. And yes, that’s an image that she’s curated in part for promotional purposes. But her very choice to look that way is often interpreted as a criticism of the other half the dichotomy. And any actual criticism of the very problematic tendency of the music industry to dress its female artists up in skimpy clothes and constantly sexualize them is taken as anti-feminist slut-shaming, despite the fact that feminism itself should be and often is concerned with criticizing the very same thing. In late 2012, Taylor Swift said that “what you wear matters. If you’re a singer and on TV and in the living-room of some 12-year-old girl, she’s watching what you’re wearing and saying and doing…”. She’s aware of her position as a role model. She wants to give the message that girls don’t need to be sexualized to be successful and worthwhile. And that’s taken as a bad thing, because the idea of sexual liberation has been twisted somewhere along the way, so that exploitation and the male gaze is seen as a liberating choice, and anyone who doesn’t choose it or dares to criticize it is seen as an anti-feminist, tight-laced traditionalist.
Nobody truly fits into either side of the dichotomy, but people sort celebrities into one or the other, and then criticize them for being in that category. The “virgin” side seems traditionally safer than the “whore” side, but anyone who’s placed in it or fits in it is nowadays just as likely to face vitriol from misogynists and “feminists” alike for not embracing sexual liberation, for not adhering to other people’s needs or the narrative they want to tell. Taylor Swift’s placement in all this doesn’t seem risky at first glance, especially in traditional American culture, but it actually stands in contrast to how women are presented in most of pop culture these days, and although she may have pushed the contrast too far in her early years, the fact remains that she has created an image that young girls need to see. If it’s OK for young women to be sexualized, it’s also OK for them to not be sexualized, and our male gaze-y industry means that the second is actually rare and harder to achieve. We should be praising Taylor Swift for sticking to her guns and showing girls that other options exist, not criticizing her for failing to embrace the often-exploited image of “liberation.”
She doesn’t call herself a feminist
And that’s sad. When asked if she considered herself a feminist, she replied: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Which is a feminist statement by another name. It would be great if all female celebrities called feminism for what it is. But the word itself has gained a lot of negative connotations, and if someone isn’t involved in the movement, they might dismiss it based on misunderstanding while still believing in feminism itself. We should judge people on their actions and words, not on the labels they attach to themselves. And although Taylor Swift has made mistakes, she’s also a hardworking, successful singer-songwriter who attempts to use her position to be a positive role model to girls. She may be flawed, but that is a feminist stance to take.
She’s still presenting herself as a highschooler when she’s a woman in her twenties
Or something like that. This was actually a difficult criticism to sum-up. It’s based on the perception that Taylor Swift is frivolous and immature, that she’s clinging onto high school drama and emotions instead of growing up. And once again, it’s all about perception. How people have chosen to see her, and so continue to see her, whatever she does. People say her song 22 is more like a teen’s picture of being 22 than what being 22 is actually like, for example. But I was 22 only a couple of years ago, and I can connect and identify with the song. It’s lighthearted and fun, and it fits. Sorry to all those people who think being 22 is about being really mature and serious and worrying about taxes.
But let’s say that Taylor Swift’s songs are still all about high school relationships and drama (despite also being about the relationships she’s had with celebrities in her twenties). To be honest, who cares? Teenage girls deserve music that speaks to them too, and if Taylor Swift speaks to them, then yay for that! They can sing along to We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together to their hearts’ content (and I’ll be joining them). The only reason we criticize it is because we’re wrapped up in the belief that teenage girls = ridiculous and overemotional and bad, and that anything that is aimed at them or appeals to them must therefore be shallow and ridiculous and should be torn down as quickly as possible. Someone tell the Beatles.
We need to stop deciding that some women are OK to hate. Feminism certainly needs to stop holding up some successful women as icons (cough, Jennifer Lawrence, cough) while tearing others apart, based mostly on representation in the very media we’re supposed to be critiquing. It is, to be blunt, disturbing. And it shows far more ingrained sexism that Taylor Swift’s music and public persona ever have.