Who. Is. she?
Who is Taylor Swift? Until now I’ve unintentionally avoided learning anything about her. Yes, I could recognise a number of her songs, but beyond that I knew very little.
Well, it turns out she’s all sorts of things: a country music star at the age of 16, a master of messy relationships, a fighter of musical feuds. These facts alone had me intrigued.
However, with Swift it feels like the more I read the less I know. While pop stars such as Madonna and Michael Jackson pioneered the art of reinvention, with Swift the whole thing has become a sort of black hole meta-experiment, where nothing is real and everything could be the opposite of what it seems. Does she start fights or is she being picked on? Are her songs literal or are they simply stories? Is she a nice lady from Pennsylvania or a Machiavellian bitch of Teresa May proportions? We just don’t know.
To try and unwrap the mystery let’s turn to her music videos and see if they offer up any clues.
Love Story (2008)
Swift might be just 27, but she’s already been around so long it was hard to know where to start with her video back catalogue. This, though, was her first huge hit (in America at least), and a good example of what I’d call Swift’s ‘nauseous Nashville’ phase – so it seems as good a place as any.
To watch the video for ‘Love Story’ is to know what it is like to be force-fed semolina for all meals, everyday, forever – it is blandness personified. In it, Swift runs into a handsome male school friend (abbreviated here as HMSF) on her way to class. We then travel inside her imagination, where HMSF is dressed up as a budget version of Mr Darcy – picture Colin Firth as done by ASDA – and everyone else looks like a prat. Swift pines for her HMSF ‘Romeo’ from a window, strokes a horse’s muzzle (not a euphemism) and eventually the two lovers come together (not in that way).
No, it’s not ground breaking – your average worm disturbs the earth more than this ever could – but it does the job it is supposed to, i.e. you feel like you’re watching a shit wedding video for someone from school that you always thought was an idiot. The song and the video might be boring, but they’re harmless enough. Oh, and it was directed by a lady called Trey Fanjoy – a truly excellent name.
Shake It Off (2014)
By the time of ‘Shake It Off’ Swift had shed her country crappola and become not only a processed pop star but a mega celebrity as well – the sort of person you can read about on the magazines they put by the checkout. In this, her biggest selling song to date, Swift discusses all of that tabloid tosh and decides she’s going “shake it off”, with the same nonchalance that you or I would use to dismiss dandruff.
Directed by Mark Romanek – the guy behind Robbie Williams’ cult film One Hour Photo – the video portrays multiple versions of Swift: we see her trying to twerk (she can’t) doing her best at ballet (she falls over), and generally making a fool of herself, on her terms, of course, to show she’s a laugh.
The message is this: no, she’s not as arty as Lady Gaga, as cool as Beyoncé or as ridiculous as Katy Perry. But she is an everywoman, a pop star who you can just about imagine yourself being – except you’d never be able to write a song quite as insanely catchy. You know what? I’m starting to like Taylor Swift.
Look What You Made Me Do (2017)
Whereas ‘Shake It Off’ was self referential in a charming way, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ takes the idea to an unsatisfactory extreme; there are so many messages, symbols and meanings here that it feels more like you’re decoding a renaissance painting of Christ than enjoying a pop music video.
Again, this is one about reputation, with Swift having fallen out with a whole new crowd since her last outing. We have zombie-Swift burying herself (a reference to a fall out with Calvin Harris), snake-Swift drinking tea (a reference to her bust-up with Kanye West and Kim Kardashain) and Beyoncé-Swift (to be honest I have no idea what this one refers to).
It feels a bit like Swift has forgotten that she’s a pop songwriter – a good one at that – and instead focussed her energies on sending not-so-subtle messages to other famous people. That might be interesting to gossip geeks, but to us pure-hearted music lovers it is more than a bit off-putting.
When I started researching this article my initial instinct was that I’d probably not like Taylor Swift, either as a musician or a person. After watching ‘Love Story’, that changed. She seemed harmless; bland, yes, but harmless. Then when I got to ‘Shake It Off’ I suddenly found myself liking her a whole lot. Yes, she’s a mega celebrity, I thought, but one with a keen sense of her own ridiculousness. Maybe I was becoming, dare I say it, a ‘Swiftie’?
Alas, it couldn’t last (and just as well, because a Swiftie sounds too much like an unpleasant mix between a cleaning product and a sex act for my liking). ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ sees a Swift so self-obsessed, and projecting so many identities, that it feels like she has none at all.
I began this article by asking ‘who is Taylor Swift?’ and by the end of it I’m no closer to answering that question. I’m not sure she could answer it either.
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