Taylor Swift: Minimalism, Rebirth and Dubious Behaviour

September 16, 2017

Matilda Morley

In light of recent popular discourse regarding Taylor Swift’s image upheaval, the last few weeks have seen me struggling to collect my thoughts and settle upon a definitive opinion. At long last, I think I have summed up exactly how I feel here. By no means will this be another tired, Buzzfeed-esque listicle of “everything you missed” in her latest music video, but that being said, here’s some useful background reading if that’s what you’re after.

The concept of an abrupt change of image to something edgier has been around for years, popularised and utilised repeatedly by legends like Madonna and Kanye West. Katy Perry, Whitney Houston and others have also exhibited this sort of change in their work, albeit with more of a gradual process. Nowadays a change of image is so commonplace that the concept itself has a whole different connotation –  a shift that was spurred on by, essentially, the adolescence of child stars. Disney’s increased production of teen sitcoms in the late 90s and 2000s in turn produced more tween celebrities, inadvertently creating an environment so toxic to growing teens that it became commonplace for them to break away, pairing a change of image and sound with a sudden desire to be seen as a sexual object. This trend, which began with legends like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, came to the forefront in recent years with such high-profile disasters as Miley Cyrus’ own flamboyant condemnation of her years as Hannah Montana. Curiously, stars of the early 2000s seem to have escaped relatively unscathed, with Hilary Duff and Raven Symone gracefully navigating their way through adolescence without the intense experiences of their successors. This relatively new culture appeared in hints and minor scandals, then all at once with such momentum that a trope was born: the “ruined childhood”.

Now of course Taylor is no teenager, nor is she even remotely good at acting, but comparisons could be drawn between her “reputation” era and Miley’s own journey. Could this be Taylor’s ‘edgy teen’ phase finally manifesting itself, ten years late? Or is it that it has taken this long to build up enough frustration to warrant this drastic, cutthroat new attitude? Personally I lean towards the latter. Miley, in her childhood state, must have had such difficulty handling the pressure of being Hannah that her journey to the edge was accelerated significantly, whereas for Taylor, I feel that she must have been silently bearing the weight of her criticisms with remarkable fortitude until enough was enough. I believe that the public’s perception of her wholesome, endearing, yet dubiously unblemished character in her early years locked her in a position where she was unable to process frustration in a healthy way.

As ‘America’s Sweetheart’, traits of her character that would normally shift and change throughout her teen years were instead upheld and commodified. The innocence and childish optimism that characterised her music was locked into place at sixteen, and while she managed to break away from country, her signature demeanour is still present in her last effort, 2014’s “1989”. Even the few instances of hidden frustration in her work, 2010’s “Mean” and “Innocent”, shy away from scathing retaliation in favour of upholding her image and musical brand. 2014’s “Blank Space”, “Shake It Off” and “Bad Blood” are markedly more pointed, the music videos for the former directly poking fun at her ‘serial dater’ notoriety. Reading these releases as her testing the waters, we can hypothesise that the success of her tongue in cheek attitude tied to a complete pop transition in “1989” may have indeed served as preparation for what we bear witness to in 2017 – increased artistic freedom, guaranteed sales, eight years of built-up tension and an apex of fame have birthed “reputation”. It’s too early to say exactly where the remainder of the album is headed musically, but it is safe to assume that despite how terrible it may be, we will be witnessing musical history being made.

Her first two releases from the album have raised important questions for the future of the music industry, and for pop music as a whole. Naturally she is not the first to have used the concept of rebirth, revenge and renouncement, but Taylor’s sheer fame and influence are enough to warrant widespread public understanding of the industry’s workings. Whether or not people like her music (or her as a person), her position at the top still holds such influence – shooting to the top of the charts, selling millions within hours of release, generating wild debate, analysis and media coverage almost immediately. What this really demonstrates is how the industry’s most profitable artists are treated these days – we still bear witness to their emotions, experiences and personal growth, but what sets megastars like Taylor and Katy Perry apart is their high profile and profit. Because of this, record companies know that even if intense speculation suggests that their artists are heading for dramatic and monumental breakdowns, holding them up for all to see will earn them far more money than taking care of their musicians, who are essentially expendable these days. The way they see it, if Taylor is heading for a breakdown they might as well make money off it while they can, since she will likely be irrelevant in a few years anyway. We live in a world where celebrities are thrown away and replaced like IKEA furniture, and their brief flickers of relevance are exploited for all they’re worth.

My old high school teacher’s favourite example of pop minimalism is The Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name”, a mid-2000s bop featuring cheesy yet heavy percussion, a solid yet simple bassline and assertively projected vocals that grow throughout the song. As the song progresses extra layers are added, including a small guitar part that fills out the song just in time for the final chorus. This song, while neither groundbreaking nor terribly complex, demonstrates the key components of minimalist pop that have recently re-entered the mainstream. Earlier this year Selena Gomez, another former Disney starlet, released “Bad Liar”, a song which in turn raises discussion as to the validity of her brand new vocal style, but that’s a discussion for a future piece. “Bad Liar” features a shiny, well-produced pop take on minimalism. It pretty much entirely consists of a sturdy bassline, Selena’s hushed yet digitally prominent voice and tidbits of percussion and harmony carefully placed at different intervals to fill out the song. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it brings itself full circle in embodying a manufactured yet strikingly organic sound. With this song in mind, looking at Taylor’s explosive “Look What You Made Me Do” draws out comparisons, but this time the minimalism used draws out as much theatricality and dramatic gravitas as Taylor’s voice is capable of mustering. The empty rhythms employed in the verses and chorus draw out the sheer force of the pre-chorus and bridge, which themselves don’t feature a terribly thick texture, but have been carefully engineered to sound for all the world just as laden with tension as if they were fully orchestrated – which is why the chorus itself confuses me. Given the momentous tension built directly before it, the payoff our ears expect to experience (akin to Taylor’s “I Know Places”) is a chorus worthy of three years’ silence, of eight years’ worth of controversy, of a ten year career that saw a young songwriter thrust into the unforgiving crowds of public opinion and scrutiny. Instead we get a snarkily delivered phrase repeated over the beat of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” that cuts our anticipation down to a stump. In this, once again, lies a question of intent: was this all intentional, in an attempt to generate shock value and hype for her new image? Or was it all a big mistake born from a misuse of minimalism?

A few days ago Taylor released the audio for “…Ready For It?”, in which she essentially raps over a trap beat, then evokes the tone of “Wildest Dreams” (2014) in the chorus, albeit never quite capturing the same magic. When I first heard this song, all I could think about was this clip from 2009. Now that a few days have passed, I’ve had some time to listen to it again and gather my thoughts – and still, that clip is all I can think of. It haunts me. Please watch it. Honestly, if I thought hearing Taylor Swift rap ironically was uncomfortable back when I first saw the clip back in 2010, nothing could have prepared me for this. Frankly, I’m concerned. At the very least, it doesn’t work for her. Certainly I don’t believe that rap is an ethnically exclusive art form, but I do believe that after Iggy Azalea’s “””adoption””” of a certain persona in her music (to put it sensitively), artistic decisions like this need to be treated with caution and respect, given the political climate and certain troubling allegations that Taylor is a favourite of white supremacists. The last thing we need is a repeat of the slew of white artists unconvincingly ripping off rhythm and blues in the 50s and 60s, and it’s bad enough that we all have to put up with teenage-white-boy rappers on Soundcloud. To put it simply, I can’t claim to have an extensive background and knowledge in this area, but when I see Taylor taking on a faux-edgy look, rapping over trap beats and greenlighting that album cover, I don’t see artistic development. I see severely misguided appropriation that stems from someone on her team, if not the woman herself, misunderstanding the definition of artistic freedom and rebirth.

Is she being petty? Is she a genius who has been playing us all for fools this whole time? Is she merely stuck in a state of stunted youth and angst broadcast to the whole world? Is asking these questions just proving her point, that we are all party to the derogatory, inaccurate representations of her that have been painted for years? Is it even appropriate to be questioning her motives and sentiments; are our hypotheses in themselves excluding her and assuming her thoughts as if she can’t think for herself? Is it naïve to assume that she can even concoct subversive content, given her degree of removal from society for so long?

I’d like to believe that she isn’t the two-faced snake with questionable ties that many paint her as, and I’d like to believe in her intelligence and autonomy as an artist in an industry of puppets, but only time will tell. The most that I can hope for is that one day we will all move on from this never ending cycle of falling in and out of love with Taylor Swift.