Problematic Fav: Taylor Swift

by Lindsay Howard

Taylor Swift is my jam. I have been known as the “Taylor Swift girl.” Taylor was one of my best friends growing up. My fourteenth and sixteenth birthday presents were tickets to her concert. She went with me to my first day of high school when I had “Fifteen” playing through my earphones. Taylor sang “Hey Stephen” to me when I had my first real crush. The heartbreak that followed ensured plenty of “Tell Me Why,” “Mean,” and “Better Than Revenge.” I own three Taylor Swift guitar books and have mastered every song in them (hmu for a private TS concert by yours truly). “All Too Well” is a work of art and it will always be my favorite song. 1989 spun in my car CD player, serving as the soundtrack to my entire senior year of high school. Swift’s ability to tell stories through her songs is unmatched by nearly every other pop artist out there. She has the ability to take her own situations and make them relatable to people of all demographics and ages. Following Swift’s 1989 album, her image and reputation (pun intended) began to change. Gone was the sweet curly haired country singer. In her place was an edgy pop star. The transition from country to pop was not a smooth one. The public struggled to adjust to this new version of America’s Sweetheart. Along with this change in persona came a realization that our Pop Culture Princess is entirely more problematic than we had realized, leading many, including myself, to claim Taylor as our problematic fav. Her music, as ever changing as it may be, is undeniably catchy and at times brilliant. We can love her. However, at the same time, it is important we hold her accountable for her actions. Swift calls herself a feminist, but her actions do not always align with this title. It is our job as fans to recognize these faults and hold Taylor accountable for her behavior.

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Time: 2009. Place: VMA awards. As Taylor Swift was giving her acceptance speech for Video of the Year, Kanye West hopped up on stage, saying “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyonce has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” With that statement, the Taylor Swift we know and love (sometimes) was born. Swift became a household name, instantly known as the victim of rap artist Kanye West. Swift began to build her career on this image and the recognition and pity that came from it. Everybody felt sorry for her. Granted, Kanye’s actions were INCREDIBLY rude. He later came out and apologized, explaining that this wasn’t about Taylor Swift or Kanye West. The rapper was trying to draw attention to the racism found in pop music. A tall, skinny, privileged white woman had won again and Kanye was tired of it. He handled the situation in a childish and irresponsible manner despite his intentions. Taylor Swift became the victim and Kanye West the perpetrator. Over the years, Taylor has continued to play her victim card in every breakup she experienced. Swift and West then became friends, each exclaiming their newfound love for each other by assuring photographs of them were snapped at events to commemorate. Fast forwarding to summer of 2016, Kanye West released his song “Famous” including the lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous.” Taylor Swift, as well as a long line of Taylor Swift fans (and even Kanye fans) was not amused by this offensive line in the song. Taylor reacted in her Grammy acceptance speech saying, “To all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your achievements. Or your fame.” Following this very public response, Kanye West’s wife Kim Kardashian responded in the best way she knew how: social media. Kim released a Snapchat video that consisted of a phone call between Kanye and Taylor where Taylor gave Kanye full permission to include her in the song. Her later response claimed she knew she would be included, but that the word “bitch” was never a part of the conversation. She asked to be “excluded from the narrative, one that [she] never asked to be a part of since 2009.” The release of the phone call, and therefore exposing of Taylor, lead to a new era of Taylor Swift.

In 2015 Nicki Minaj expressed her disappointment regarding racism in the music industry via Twitter when she was not nominated for a VMA award, an event that only further illustrated the tendency pop culture has to sway toward beautiful white women. Minaj said “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year,” to which Taylor responded, “I’ve done nothing but love and support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot…” Minaj responded with, “Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn’t say a word about u. I love u just as much. But u should speak on this.” Taylor Swift had missed the mark completely on this one. Although she later came out with a public apology, it was too late. The public had already seen the ignorance in Swift’s tweet. Nicki Minaj’s point was not about Taylor Swift and was not directed at her. It was about the inherent racism in the entertainment industry. A theme that is continuing to crop up in Taylor Swift’s career. Taylor took an argument that was not about her and turned the light on herself, to the dismay of many. Taylor’s reaction is just what Nicki was referring to. Taylor took the problem and made it about herself, a white woman. It illustrated just how much white people freak out when a person of color is in the spotlight even for a moment. Furthermore, Taylor Swift played the feminist card on Nicki Minaj by saying it was unlike her to pit women against each other. In one foul tweet, Swift had managed to offend two groups of people. Taylor Swift proved to be problematic by taking a spotlight on racism and making it about her, then subsequently trying to use feminism in a desperate attempt to save herself. In the sake of full disclosure, the two pop princesses have since reconciled.

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Taylor Swift sparked controversy with her well known “girl squad”  upon which she built her entire branding for the 1989 era. Taylor’s squad included Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Gigi Hadid, Zendaya, Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevigne, and Lorde, among others. The infamous girl squad quickly became problematic for a few reasons. The members of this newfound squad were primarily heterosexual, beautiful, white women. Nearly all members were tall and thin. The select few that were not supermodels were token in Taylor’s branding. Adding Lena Dunham allowed Taylor to be quirky and ~different,~ Cara Delevigne let the group have a slight bit of difference in sexuality, and Zendaya provided a bit of color. The problem is not only in having women primarily of one type, but in giving each woman that does not fall into that type a seemingly assigned reason to be there (to provide a better image for Taylor Swift). The group created a sense of exclusivity that sent the message to fans that this was something you had to be invited to. You cannot be just somebody, and you must have an invite to be friends with the ~cool girls,~ a concept that became triggering to many fans. Many high schools have a group of mean and pretty girls, which Taylor’s squad reflects. Ironically, Taylor built her entire career on being the outsider, which her fans connected with. However, the squad became the opposite of what she had always been to her fans. Taylor was no longer the relatable outcast, but a “popular” girl who posted pictures that hurt others’ feelings. Although possibly well-intentioned, Taylor’s “girl squad” became another reason that Taylor Swift is the problematic fav of many.

When it comes down to it, Taylor Swift has become a “farewell feminist,” if you will. Swift is willing to stand up and fight for feminism when it is convenient, and when it involves uplifting other women, typically ones like herself. Although this is a good thing, Taylor Swift has the opportunity and resources to speak up for feminist issues when it is not easy (an opportunity she generally does not utilize). Feminism is inherently not easy. It is fighting for women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and sexualites. And that is where Taylor Swift gets lost on the feminist train. She has done great things, including her earlier lawsuit this year for sexual assault (which she won, by the way), providing funds to Kesha, and working to shut down the double standard held for women in music and in the dating world. Taylor produces some of the best music out there across all genres, which Reputation only further proved. With that being said, Taylor Swift is currently in an incredible position to fight for all women that need their voices heard. The ways Taylor Swift has been problematic over the years may not have even been intentional. However, as a public figure her actions are held to a higher standard, for better or for worse. If Taylor Swift begins to fight for feminism in a more intersectional manner, she has the potential to become an unstoppable force in the women’s movement. Women have come incredibly far in the fight for equality, but there is much more ground to cover. With the voices of Taylor Swift and others like her speaking out for everyone, feminism could make some serious strides.

Lindsay Howard