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Commentary

The Complicated Genius of Taylor Swift’s Newfound Rage

Sep 13, 2017

It may be time to close up the bar at the #TaylorIsOverParty, a hashtag her critics started last year in the midst of Calvin Harris drama. Although the singles from her forthcoming album, Reputation, have earned tepid reviews from critics, the first of them, “Look What You Made Me Do,” nonetheless set first-week streaming records and muscled “Despacito” out of the number one spot it had occupied on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 16 weeks.

Yet even commercial metrics like these pale in comparison to the song’s triumph as a cultural event, the most bizarre manifestation of which was certainly the hours-long stream of tweets from the leading far-right news outlet Breitbart on the morning after the song’s release: It consisted simply of the day’s headline stories enigmatically coupled with snippets of the lyrics from “Look.”

Most of the voluminous popular response to “Look” has criticized or, much less frequently, lauded Swift’s apparent metamorphosis from earnest, vulnerable singer-songwriter into ruthless electro-pop avenger, from blonde, bespangled American sweetheart into leather-clad dominatrix. In some ways, this response reproduces a good-girl-gone-bad narrative that is almost as ubiquitous as Swift herself.

Received wisdom holds that, in order to be successful as adult artists, female stars like Swift who begin their careers as girls must eventually distance themselves from their audience of teen girl fans—an audience that is almost universally disparaged in spite of its increasingly visible economic and cultural power—and that the best way to do this is by adopting a more sophisticated (read, sexual) persona. As far back as the 1960s, when Annette Funicello scandalized Disney (dis) by trading in her turtlenecks for bikinis, ingénues like Swift have prompted a series of profoundly hypocritical moral panics when they pass out of our culturally mandated state of virginal girlish innocence to take up the equally compulsory position of adult sex object. Britney Spears. Christina Aguilera. Hilary Duff. Vanessa Hudgens. Miley Cyrus. The list goes on.

Stars have navigated this transition with varying degrees of success, but Swift’s death and resurrection follow a very different path. Reputation’s second single, “ . . . Ready for It?” is certainly the most sexually suggestive of her career, replacing unrequited crushes and sorority boy-watching with a frank declaration of physical desire. In comparison to the controversy surrounding “Look,” however, it has caused almost no alarm. (Though this may be in part because critics seem to find its performance of lust utterly unconvincing.) Instead, Swift has provoked outrage by becoming a villain. Her transgression is not being a bad girl, but being a mean girl.

“Look What You Made Me Do” is laden with references to past beefs with various celebrities, and Swift has no compunction about crossing the line between self-assertion and viciousness. But it’s hard not to hear the song in relation to a confrontation the video references only briefly: the courtroom battle to prove that a Colorado DJ had sexually assaulted her at a meet-and-greet. Swift’s testimony in the case was blunt and graphic, and laid bare the rising anger that many women have felt since Donald Trump was elected president in spite of allegations that he committed similar assaults. In that context, the cool wrath of “Look What You Made Me Do” sounds more like a refusal to play nice in the face of covert violence than a petulant celebrity denying her own deceitfulness or taking petty pot shots for revenge.

It’s well worth noting that, despite Swift’s demonstrable audience appeal across racial and ethnic lines, she is channeling a racially specific form of white-girl rage from a platform only a white girl can occupy. Even in the era of Zendaya and Mo'Ne Davis, the idealized girlish innocence against which the new Taylor both rails and defines herself is still almost always represented as white. Sarah Projansky's survey of mass-circulation magazine covers between 1990 and 2012 showed not only that the vast majority of cover girls (78%) were white, but that girls who were depicted as vulnerable or in need of protection were especially likely to be white (and blond and blue- or green-eyed). The line of adoration and anxiety from Shirley Temple to JonBenet Ramsey to Hannah Montana and the old Taylor is not hard to trace, and it points out that the wronged innocence at the heart of Swift's anger is a privilege reserved mainly for white girls.

Though Beyoncé also began her career as a teenager, girlishness was never part of her persona. She fretted about the potential consequences of violating Black respectability politics when she debuted her more sexualized Sasha Fierce persona, but she need not have worried. In a culture that routinely excludes Black girls from the protective aura of girlish innocence, her sexual assertiveness was received almost as a foregone conclusion.

A more instructive and disturbing parallel might be found in Rihanna’s career path. This is perhaps counterintuitive given her own past statements about the differences between her and Swift. “I don't think our brands are the same,” she told a reporter in 2015, “In my mind, [Swift is] a role model, I'm completely not." But the two artists’ relationships to the good girl-bad girl dialectic are not so different. Rihanna was the rare girl of color who was successfully marketed as an innocent ingénue until Chris Brown brought their sweetheart romance to an end with a brutal assault. When the public outrage on her behalf subsided, her innocence was nonetheless tarnished, and she reinvented herself as a steely, sexually autonomous “Rock Star.” Whatever their differences, Swift and Rihanna are both women who responded to real and symbolic violence by refusing to play the good girl. You can’t fire me—I quit. Maybe their brands aren’t so different after all.

Whether Swift’s new persona will be a marketing success remains to be seen, but as the eight-ball fortune teller would say, signs point to yes. Her career was built on her ability to reach a teen girl audience the country music industry had previously overlooked. Like her, those girls are now young women, and they're not likely to be alienated by a persona that, for all its callousness, represents a kind of femininity geared toward survival in hostile circumstances. In any case, Swift and Big Machine have the cultural power to put across even a mediocre record and the economic resources to withstand one that is only very successful rather than a global juggernaut. The new Taylor will probably be just fine.

Diane Pecknold is associate professor and Chair, Women's & Gender Studies at the University of Louisville.

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