iTunes was playing, and I was half-listening to the music while I watched the downpour outside. It’s summer for goodness sake. Sunshine and daisies are meant to be gracing our little part of Scotland at the moment. Instead, we have rain and, well, more rain.
“What’s playing?” said Mr. Juniper.
“Mmn?” I said. “Oh, Taylor Swift.”
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” he said, “it’s nice.”
Mr. Juniper and I have a tendency to tease each other ruthlessly over the other’s music choices. There are considerable chunks of our collections that we both enjoy, but then there are parts of our collections which are considered game for merciless mocking. At present, I can’t stop myself when I hear Mr. Juniper playing Damien Rice. “No wonder you see a psychiatrist,” I cry. He generally turns up the volume. So this morning, when Mr. Juniper asked what was playing, I felt a little defensive. “My iTunes, my choice!” I was ready to say.
Taylor Swift has come in for a lot of criticism. It covers many a reason and source, and I guess it bothers me because many project their criticisms of her onto her fans. I’ll say now that the phrase “fan” bothers me, too, because it seems to range from someone who recognises the name of the artist to someone who has been to countless concerts, has all the merchandise and is familiar with the artist’s personal endeavours. My level of “fandom” is enjoyment of the music and little else.
The criticism can be loosely split, as I see it, into that of her music and her as a person. When it comes to how she behaves and presents herself, the criticism seems to be that she embraces traditionally defined “feminine” traits and that this is A Bad Thing. With regards to her music, it seems to be that since her lyrics aren’t exclusively concerned with furthering women’s causes, then they too, are A Bad Thing.
Concerning lyrics, Swift isn’t the only female artist whose focus doesn’t lie in the realm of a greater world awareness and instead relates very personal feelings. Criticism often seems to be that she isn’t setting a Good Example or being a Good Influence. Sure, it is important to have messages that relate something along the lines of how we hope people will go onto behave or treat situations, but Swift’s lyrics seem rather honest, though. And does that have to be a bad thing? They’re of the Dear Diary variety and this kind of message does hold importance because it’s someone, to whatever end, being honest and simply talking about how they feel.
Concerning Swift herself, she has come under fire for a number of reasons which I’m going to put (kicking and screaming if need be) under the vague label of style. As mentioned earlier, she portrays herself in a way that comes under another vague label of feminine. Unlike many other artists around at the moment, Swift is more modest than most in how she dresses. Is this modesty seen as an attack on “womanhood” (by embracing styles which may otherwise be attributed to a younger and more vulnerable period of our lives)? And a failing, by not embracing styles which have been “fought for”? Perhaps that it’s detrimental for an artist of such influence to let her influence carry over into suggestions of style that aren’t embracing the freedom for a woman to flash her bare ankles to the same degree that, perhaps, other artists do?
In terms of her behaviour, she isn’t an artist to visibly partake in what some people might consider “unsavoury” behaviour. Again, I have wondered at times if some of the viciousness aimed at her is because some feel she is “letting the side down” by not (apparently) behaving in a way other than what might have been considered more suitable in a time which was not as woman-friendly as the world is now? By conducting herself in a way that some in the world feel women only “should”?
I guess my issues with some of the criticism fired at Swift is that, as with my feelings on Bella Swan, they undermine the young women who enjoy Swift’s music. They assume that these young women will treat Swift’s music as gospel to detrimental ends. And forget that, like Bella Swan, the influence can be enriching – it is what’s taken and what’s learned from the influence by these young women that matters, not what people assume they will take away from listening to Swift’s music.
I can appreciate where some of the criticism comes from with regards to Swift and in what she portrays through her music and in how she presents herself. I do though think it has to be paramount that there be a spectrum in what young people are being exposed to.
Going back to the mention of Twilight, too. There may be negative aspects in that story, just as people perceive negative ideas in Swift’s lyrics, but why not turn that into something positive? Instead of decrying Swift as a Puritan ideal, why not use her lyrics as a point to start discussion?
Puritan isn’t perhaps the best word, but being in the United Kingdom, Conservative doesn’t hold exactly the same meaning as in the US. Certainly there is leading a life in a conservative manner and leading a life with Conservative beliefs. Swift’s lyrics, to me, fall into the lower-case conservatism. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument that she encapsulates Republican beliefs. Perhaps I’m wrong – I’m certainly not as well read on US politics as I could be.
To take a brief tangent, I’ve been reading the Autostraddle article on Swift and there is a comparison between Swift and Beyonce (at the age Swift is) and the messages they’re preaching. I’m missing the point, perhaps, but I’ve always been aware of how open Beyonce is about her religious beliefs. At least, many an article has spoken of her thankfulness for her gift from God, her devotion to God, and so on. Okay, so yes, Beyonce’s lyrics are more celebrated, however, both she and Swift are religious. They are both (cue generalisation) more accepted than artists who aren’t religious. I’m judging, I know I am. I try to put my Humanism to one side when I listen to music, because the personal beliefs of the person who wrote the lyrics shouldn’t affect my enjoyment of them. At least, I tell myself that.
Some criticism focuses on her songs “Fifteen,” “Love Story,” and “White Horse.” So I figured I’d take the time to check out the lyrics and give them some proper attention.
In “Fifteen,” many look at the lyrics: “And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy/ Who changed his mind and we both cried” and see them as a criticism of being sexually active, that Swift is promoting the idea that “giving everything” is inherently bad, and thus shaming those who do give, whatever they interpret as everything, at a young age. Interpretation is everything, it would appear. So I’m not from a country where abstinence is promoted and saving sex for marriage is seen as the epitome of being A Good Female. And perhaps that influences my interpretation of this snippet from “Fifteen;” that a girl gave something (whatever it was) to a boy, was dumped, then bawled. Personally? That sounds like a resoundingly teenage (if not adult) experience. Getting involved, being dumped, then crying? Shocker! Don’t friends cry with their friends, too, at times? Emotions run high during the teenage years, and generally speaking, I think people would be more put off if the lyrics had been: “And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy/ Who changed his mind and we both got blind drunk.” Though to be fair, when I was a teen, a few of my friends did choose that method. Usually with the addition of ice-cream. And plenty of bawling. Otherwise? “Fifteen” just seems rather honest. No, it isn’t of the “fuck that useless fucker” variety, but it does seem like a pretty ordinary assessment of teen years.
With regards to “Love Story,” I’m a little more uncertain of the criticism. It’s Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending? And? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was a version of another story, and “Love Story” is one teenager’s version of that same story, which to be fair, Shakespeare didn’t have the monopoly on. Two kids falling in love? Their families disagreeing? Shocking. Some criticism does seem to come from the mention in Swift’s lyrics concerning being a scarlet letter: “’cause you were Romeo – I was a scarlet letter,/ And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet”/ But you were everything to me,/I was begging you, “Please don’t go”" To be fair, I haven’t read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, but a look at Wikipedia confirms the vague notions I had about it. The main point seems to be that the scarlet letter is a “badge of shame“ that’s subject to change in the story. By its definition as a “badge of shame,” Swift’s use of “scarlet letter” doesn’t seem off-the-wall. A little clumsy perhaps, but Hawthorne’s prose is from the 19th century and phrases from old works tend to be subject to changes in definition. In the context of forbidden love and star crossed lovers, considering one party a “badge of shame” in the eyes of the opposing family doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Concerning the other themes of Love Story, that of proposal and fairytale love, Swift’s lyrics have seen criticism for promoting ideals that, in modern society, are considered inappropriate. Young people shouldn’t be encouraged to be thinking of marriage at a young age. If people do get up in arms over Swift’s use of “scarlet letter,” it seems to strange to get upset over the mention of marriage – it’s what Romeo and Juliet did, after all. And whilst their ages are up for debate, Juliet at least, was somewhere in the realm of teen years, albeit in a time where age and marriage were viewed differently to now. The age, proposal, and marriage leads me back to thinking of Bella Swan again in that whatever the choice was, there are some things to bear in mind: the choice in itself is not an inherently bad one. And that’s what I fear people may begin to lose sight of. Lyrics concerning one possible choice do not mean that is the only choice and neither do they mean it is a universally bad choice, and to assume they will be seen as such only serves to undermine many of those choices.
Then comes “White Horse.” Having watched the video and read the lyrics, I can see why there are criticisms for it being another boy-centric song. That point aside, White Horse is interesting in how it twists the notions of a knight in shining armour coming to the resuce on his dashing white steed. That the changing perspective of a relationship that’s finished can give rise to a different view of the relationship as it was. Again, these lyrics seem important because they are part of the Dear Diary variety. They’re acknowledging the way in which we can perceive our own relationships. For the criticisms levelled at Swift’s often fairytale-take, she can bring balance – she sings of love stories but questions them, too.
I was going to leave the article there, but reading back over what I’d written, I noticed the point about being bothered by the criticism of Swift that people then project onto her fans, too. And it does bother me. So, onto the tenuous relationship between fans, assumptions, and Taylor Swift. Yes, I enjoy Swift’s music. And I dislike the assumptions that some make as a result of that music choice. I dislike the assumptions that are then made about my life because of one music choice. I enjoy Swift’s music, I spent some time in a scarlet evening gown when I was sixteen, I like feminine designs, I rode Royal ponies, I had a fairly fairytale-type proposal at seventeen. Those facts don’t give a person license to make assumptions; they give basic facts and little more. They tell something, sure: a fraction of what people then make assumptions of. People forget that humans are whole beings. So guess. Theorise. Speculate. Consider. Ponder and wonder. But check assumptions.