Unlike seemingly everyone else in the universe, Taylor Swift is having an excellent year. 2009 has been remarkable for Swift, who has seen her career take off in a fairly astronomical fashion. But is she being set up to fail?
Though Swift's career was already in pretty great shape leading up to the now-infamous Kanye West incident at this year's MTV Video Music Awards, she has been seemingly inescapable ever since; she's hosted Saturday Night Live, she's on the most recent cover of In Style magazine, she's reportedly in a tabloid-teen-dream-worthy relationship with New Moon star Taylor Lautner, and her album is currently racking up multiple end-of-the-year awards and accolades, including 4 CMA awards, 5 American Music Awards, and 8 Grammy nominations. It has been the year of many things, most of them craptacular, but as a commenter on a new profile of Swift in the New York Times' T Magazine writes, Swift is "one of the brightest stars in a really dark year."
Of course, with great success comes great scrutiny; as Kate Harding notes in a piece for Broadsheet, Swift's super wholesome image and princess-fairy-tale lyrics have made her a target of bloggers such as Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess, who feel that Swift's music and public persona "reinforce some not-so-woman-friendly stereotypes in extremely annoying ways." Yet Harding also notes that though Swift's lyrics leave something to be desired, her songwriting abilities, which allow her to have some control over her own music and career, are worth celebrating: "It will be a great day when more female artists are calling the shots, topping the charts and writing lyrics that don't make me cringe — but two out of three isn't a bad start."
My feelings toward Swift are similar to Harding's; for every aspect of her princess-fantasy image that irritates me, there's something sort of refreshing about a teen pop star who writes her own songs and doesn't feel the need to hump an ice cream truck pole in order to drum up a bit of publicity for her record. However, there's also something about icky about the fact that Taylor Swift's fame rests on an image of purity, on a perception of niceness, on her imperfect-to-the-point-of-being-relatable voice and lyrics that read like they were written in a dreamy high schooler's diary, most likely because they kind of were written in a dreamy high schooler's diary.
She's completely non-threatening to some because she doesn't rely on overt sexuality to sell records, and yet she's incredibly threatening to others because her image seems to rely on the suppression of sexuality in order to sell records. Taylor Swift, in short, is confusing the hell out of everyone. As Amanda Hess of The Sexist writes, "I don't know if Taylor Swift is a feminist role model, or a palpable pop princess sent from the Christian right to corral the youth of America into antiquated gender roles."
But what do we really want from Taylor Swift? What identity does she need to assume to make everyone happy? Attacking Swift's image at this point isn't going to do much, as the train has already left the sparkly, relatable princess station. Debates over her lyrical content and whether or not she's a feminist pop star are all quite fascinating and will mostly likely continue over the course of her career, but I'm not sure what the ultimate goal is. I'm in full agreement with Doyle that Swift's image is just as "calculated as any other pop star's personal brand, with an added noxiousness due to its edge of moral superiority and '50's-style coy submissiveness," but at the same time, I wonder if Swift herself will be a victim of this carefully crafted image: at 19 years old she's still growing and figuring things out, and I imagine it will be difficult for her to transition into her twenties, both lyrically and image-wise, without disappointing some of her fans.
We are often quick to decimate a pop star; it's a reaction brought on by legitimate concerns over that young woman's influence on other women around the world. At 19 going on 20, Swift's age, Britney Spears was already declaring that she was "not that innocent" while still pushing the story that she remained a virgin. At 19 going on 20, Lindsay Lohan debuted her "Rumors" video, writhing around in a club while complaining about paparazzi attention. At 19 going on 20, Christina Aguilera was trapped in an image she destroyed 2 years later with her "Dirrty" video, which she claimed was a reaction to being "very pushed to look a certain way and act a certain way, and it wasn't me." Who Taylor Swift is at 19 going on 20 is a reflection both of the world she has created for herself over the past 4 years or so and of the increasingly juvenile world we live in today, where nobody wants to grow up and leave the dreamy world of high school romance behind.
Is Taylor Swift a feminist? I don't know. Is Taylor Swift the Stephenie Meyer of pop stars? I don't know. All I know is that Taylor Swift is a 19-year-old who has a long career ahead of her, and perhaps we should wait and see how she evolves as an artist and a writer before making a final judgment on all she is and all she stands for. I don't think anyone wants Taylor Swift to assert herself as an adult by walking out on stage in a see-thru bodysuit with a snake draped around her shoulders, but at the same time, I think it's even more dangerous to continually hold her up as a paragon of wholesomeness, something her management should consider.
It may be to Swift's benefit to play the princess for now, but eventually, she's going to want to leave that tower and find another path. Perhaps Taylor Swift will be the pop star who ditches her Disney Princess exterior without running to FHM or "accidentally" leaking some pics on the internet. If the world, and Swift's management, pull back on the virginal princess image and adoration just a bit, it might allow Swift to navigate her twenties, and all the ups and downs that come with them, in a manner that shows her fans that life is very much not a fairy tale, and that there really is no such thing as a perfect princess. Even the girl-next-door has to fuck up sometimes, thank god.
Taylor Swift Wants To Ban Access To Your Lady Bits [Bitch]
Taylor Swift: Pop Princess, Feminist Villain? [Broadsheet]
Christina Aguilera, That Dirrty Girl, Cleans Up Real Nice [NYTimes]
Taylor Swift: Feminist, Princess, Avatar [TheSexist]
Little Miss Sunshine [NYTimes]