Here's an unpopular opinion: I believe Taylor Swift's 1989 is her best body of work ever. Swift thinks the same thing herself, calling it her most "sonically cohesive" album, which is true, but that's not the reason I'm into it. Where 1989's magic comes from is its matured voice. Despite having always been pretty much within Swift's key demographic, and despite the fact she initially modelled herself as a kooky country outsider to the pop world, I could never get down with her music because it made me feel excluded. It often seemed like Swift wasn't singing to other girls, but to a very specific picture of wholesome girlhood. On her 2008 Fearless hit "You Belong With Me," she competed with another girl for a guy's affection with judgemental lines like she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts; in 2010, Speak Now's bitter anthem "Better Than Revenge" declared that a love rival was better known for the things that she does on the mattress. Taylor's outsider status was always founded on the idea that she had some kind of moral highground over other women, that highground itself being built from deeply conservative, patriarchal principles.
In a Guardian interview published just after 1989 was announced, Swift revealed that she'd had a feminist epiphany, and that it had arisen from the new female friendships she'd become deeply invested in. She claimed that her new bestie Lena Dunham was the one who made her realize that feminism didn't have to equal misandry: "For so long it's been made to seem like something where you'd picket against the opposite sex, whereas it's not about that at all." Sweep down her Instagram feed and you'll see it peppered with selfies with fellow pop queen Lorde, writing/publishing/acting wunderkind Tavi Gevinson, and model Karlie Kloss. The 1989 campaign saw Swift invite hordes of fans (mostly girls) to private locations around the world for home-baked cookies. As Swift happily emphasized in the Guardian piece, female friendship was now way more important to her than boyfriends.
Like everything in Swift's micro-managed macro-scale brand, this is super on-trend and super inoffensive. It's easy to devote some side-eye to the idea that Swift has suddenly co-opted the ideas of feminism and female solidarity in the same year Beyoncé did this; but while her subject is still mostly romance, the proof is in the pudding of Swift's carefree, judgement-free songwriting on 1989. I am 100% down with the character she plays on "Blank Space," who winks to boys who love the game that, duh, she's playing her own game: I'll find out what you want, be that girl for a month. She's vocal about her right to date around, dismissive of guys who want her time ("All You Had To Do Was Stay"), and sings an uplifting anthem to women who are tired of crying their mascara out over boys on "New Romantics" (we're too busy dancing to get knocked off our feet). The New Romance is friendship: Swift is no longer a victim, as she relishes the line the best people in life are free. She reframes love as glamorous but transient and, with the non-romantic, feel-good "Shake It Off " as the joyful centerpiece of 1989, proclaims that music and friends are the driving forces in her life now.
Karlie and I had the time of our lives at the Knicks game tonight. See you tomorrow bright and early on Good Morning America!
A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on
Swift is no revolutionary: from a cynical point of view, it would seem that her latest strategy is in keeping with a post-Beyoncé, post-Bridesmaids, post-Girls world in which women supporting women is a strongly bankable look. But I'd like to believe that her new leaf is more about a young woman having grown up in a world that forced her to believe that a romantic relationship was the best or worst thing that could ever happen to her, a young woman who has matured to the point where she's more enlightened and supportive. As journalist Ann Friedman laid out in her article on "Shine Theory" for The Cut last year, the strongest thing you can do in a society that has taught women that they must compete against one another is to simply stop competing and join forces instead.
But even if this is purely a victory for the relatability of the Taylor Swift™ franchise, I for one am ecstatic that the form it's taking in our current cultural climate is one that's way less sanctimonious, and way more fun. On the slut-shamey "Better Than Revenge" from 2010's Speak Now, she sang to her enemy, Sophistication isn't what you wear or who you know/ Or pushing people down to get you where you want to go. Seems like Swift's finally taking her own advice.
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