Taylor Swift’s Red – a metaphorically heady, literally hearty mix of lost love with overtones of Swiftian self-criticism – is the biggest selling new album of the year. Which is no surprise given Taylor’s poised position at the intersection of glossy gossip and confessional, party-rocking pop. But Taylor’s position in the musical world is nowhere nearly as easily defined as her peers. She doesn’t exude the Champagne-sweatiness of Ke$ha or Katy Perry, the left-field weirdness of Lady GaGa and hasn’t quite achieved the Diva status of Beyonce (yet). Her closest musical ally is probably Rihanna. Sure, the latter’s not known as an album artist but their albums both breeze through a similar mix of confessional heartbreak (Talk That Talk’s Fool In Love, Drunk On Love and Farewell; Red’s Begin Again, The Moment I Knew) and straight-out party tunes (Talk That Talk’s everything else; Red’s 22, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, I Knew You Were Trouble). People also spend inordinate amounts of time fitting their music into recognisable public forms (Chris Brown! John Mayer! Jake Gyllenhall!) in a way that, say, Lady GaGa’s isn’t (‘we know she might be … bisexual, right?’). But if there’s one thing that defines Taylor’s music – and image, length of her skirts, colour of hair – it’s how divisive it proves to feminists. It’s not really as cut-and-dry as the Katy Perry Problem (‘Latex-clad lipstick lesbianism’ vs. ‘Self-empowering, confessional pop music’) and it’s a daily struggle in my head. I want to love Taylor Swift. I want to love her masterful song-writing, fringe and neatly sophisticated vocal inflections. I want to sit in cafés listening to her music and meet the love of my life, discussing puppies over Americanos and caramel waffles. But there’s a barrier – probably only detectable to feminists and dogs – that stops me from gushing. And I gush pretty easily. Let’s take a gander through Red in stupid amounts of detail and feel better for it. Interest preferable, cookies obligatory:
‘So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy
That’s fine I’ll tell mine that you’re gay!’
And sure, her plan could genuinely be to tell her friends that her ex likes guys but goodness, it sounds like an alignment of ‘gay’ with ‘obsessive and crazy.’ And yes, it was changed for the music video but goodness (x2), don’t you think anyone – literally anyone: a producer, stylist, local barista – could have come up with some alternative. Because any alternative would have been more appropriate in 2006 where homosexuality was a pretty hotly debated issue (I heard it’s pretty much a closed case now). But Taylor is evolving and it would be unfair to pin her down for a song, that’s supposed to be a irrationally teenagery anyway, released on her debut album (when she was 16). Her sound’s changing, and so are her means of expression. One of the main problems that faced a pro-feminist view of Swift is her constant comparison of other girls in her music. Here too, Swift has tailored her comparison of girls on Red. Part of the problem is that Taylor’s music used to live in a world of caricatures. Boys were either objects of obsession or the epitome of douchebaggery while girls were either best friends or (love-)life-ruiners. Shorts skirts are indicative of sluttiness and blonde hair is virtuous. Now with a little life experience (though she’s still only 22), there’s newly found nuance. In Girl At Home, in which Taylor breaks entirely new ground as The Other Girl, she rejects advances, claiming that:
‘I am no-one’s exception,
This I have previously learned.’
Huzzah! Development. And sure, things are still a little self-righteous (Taylor feels a need to ‘do what’s upstanding and right’) but it’s a new notion of sympathy with other women that had previously only been extended to girls she actually knew, like on Fifteen. In comparison to the slut-shaming, vintage dress-tirade that was Better Than Revenge, Red is an ardent feminist pamphlet of Wollstonecraftian proportion. Taylor Swift’s feminism, like the movement itself, is a work-in-progress. And there’s just as much, if not more power in simply presenting a piece of art rather than writing a political manifesto into it.
What ought to never ever ever be understated about Taylor’s song-writing is how good it is. She can capture those small moments more skillfully than anyone else in the Top 40 and more enjoyably than most others. Your average Taylor Swift song is crammed full of references to details that are small enough to feel personal but universal enough not to be exclusive. These details are normally used as evidence of the song’s origins. But if you’re busy googling out Jake Gyllenhaal’s star-sign to work out if State of Grace is about him, you’re probably missing the point. Any lyrical analysis is undermined by an unknowability. In a world of constant Google News updates, the truth becomes a very liquid quantity. She even warns us of that on The Lucky One, a cautionary tale of fame and tabloids. So let’s not brand someone something they’re not with details that are inconclusive at best. Besides, Taylor is leaning the art-form of ambiguity on her new record. State of Grace, the best song off of Red, is a whole new direction for the popstar. And it’s so refreshingly un-detailed. The chorus is U2-like in its sparseness: ‘I never saw you coming, and I’ll never be the same again.’ Even if Taylor were your BFF, you’d have a hard time working out what that meant. There are no clues as to whether the change was good, bad, heart-lifting or harrowing. Or all four. When details are murky, or meaning ambiguous, it’s dangerous to apply anything to a piece of art without running the risk of seeming a bit desperate. The fairest, least mean way of dealing is to give her room to breathe. That’s also probably the least misogynistic way of dealing with whatever problem you may have with Swift. Lots of criticism of her sure feels a little bullyish, patronising or spiteful (or all three). There are plenty worse people about whom you could write reems of criticisms, so Taylor hatred should probably be tempered for the time being.
If there’s a reason why this article feels undecided, it’s because Taylor Swift is still undecided. She’s 22, and as she joyfully tells us, she feels it too. Perhaps, Katy Perry was a better comparison than Rihanna. She’s allowed to mess up, mix her metaphors and melt hearts. And she should be allowed to do that without incurring the wrath of the progressive blogosphere. And for anyone else who feels torn about enjoying Taylor’s music, don’t. Go, listen guilt-free and find love in a café. Americanos are the last word in aphrodisiacs.