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Taylor Swift’s Brand of Girl Empowerment Is Riddled with Blank Spaces

How blind feminism trumps female autonomy on the pop music charts.

June 1, 2015

Photo-illustration: Carly Piersol

It’s no secret that crowned pop star Taylor Swift — long bearing the brunt of media scrutiny for her serial dating record, virginal image, and musical inspiration found in public heartbreak — is now choosing to stand up to her critics by flinging around the ‘F’ word.

That word, of course, being “feminist.”

Whether she’s gracing this month’s cover of Maxim to peddle her stilted manifesto (“So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it’s just basically another word for equality”) or sauntering away from explosions while strapped with gun holsters in her “Bad Blood” video, Swift has demonstrated two things: She can do the walk and she can do the talk.

Yet it’s unclear if she can process what it all means through her music.

With the release of her latest album, 1989, Swift seems to believe her music now delves into a notion of independent womanhood, telling Rolling Stone last year that it’s “not as boy-centric of an album.” It’s true this album’s focus varies more from song to song (i.e., brushing away the haters on “Shake It Off”; staking claim to an unfamiliar city in “Welcome to New York”), but her lyrics can’t seem to shake an old voicelessness under the male gaze.

While her songwriting has matured from weary boy vilification (à la “I Knew You Were Trouble” off 2012’s Red) and same-sex shade-throwing — except for “Bad Blood,” a song allegedly about Swift’s beef with Katy Perry, evidenced by its video ending with a literal bitchslap in the heat of girl-on-girl warfare — Swift still rests her speaker’s voice in the hands of a vindictive lover when singing about imploding partnerships at the expense of her own agency.

The album’s third single, “Style” — aside from its music video resembling the opening sequence of True Detective’s first season — speaks to its title in the way Swift’s lyrics fixate on setting a troubled relationship in exposition, rather than conveying any emotional resolve on behalf of the speaker. In the opening verse, Swift sings:

It’s been a while since I have even heard from you.

I should just tell you to leave ‘cause I

Know exactly where it leads, but I

Watch us go round and round each time.

Swift then romances the more seductive features of their attraction (matted red lips, James Dean-esque looks, a tight miniskirt, etc.). As the speaker revisits these enticing traits in the song’s chorus, she doesn’t seem to confront her lover’s disrespect — which she identifies in other verses — or break from the vicious cycle of their affair. Instead, she allows him to recklessly steer her into a passive state until she accepts their imbalanced romance.

While she muddles through shirking an air of codependence, Swift attempts to adopt a more aggressive tone on one of the album’s biggest hits, “Blank Space,” which she reportedly wrote to skewer the media’s scrutiny of her romantic exploits.

In the song, the speaker seduces her latest “victim” with the daring lines of a femme fatale (“I could make the bad guys good for a weekend”), which soon unravels into a sardonic cry of clinical insanity brought on by jealous rage: “But you’ll come back each time you leave / ‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”

Though the speaker acts on some authority by making and then breaking her love affair, Swift only allows her to assume that role as a parody of the crazed image that’s projected to the public, thereby discounting her ability to assert herself in an authentic way.

Despite this omission of a genuinely self-assured voice in Swift’s music, 1989 reaped great commercial success upon release, selling nearly 1.3 million copies in its first week and breaking chart records, according to Billboard. She even swept up the most trophies at the Billboard Music Awards last month, taking home eight, including Top Artist.

On her meteoric rise to “girl power,” Swift has befriended a handful of other female artists, including New Zealand singer Lorde and HAIM, a sisterly rock trio with whom Swift recently posed bikini clad in photos on Instagram to beat the paparazzi at their own game. (Nothing says “Screw you, patriarchal mass media” like plastering your own sexualized body all over the Internet and pandering to meninist trolls.) Both acts convey a notably declarative female voice in their songwriting (see HAIM’s “My Song 5”; Lorde’s “Yellow Flicker Beat”), yet conveniently seem to fall lower on the fame strata.

These pop contemporaries didn’t quite reach Swift’s level of earnings on their 2013 releases — HAIM’s Days Are Gone only managed to sell 26,000 copies in its first week, while Lorde’s Pure Heroine sold more than 1.5 million in the United States over its first year — though their music lends itself more to empowering women (not for celebrity’s sake).

On Days Are Gone, HAIM composes a range of breakup songs that sustain the speaker’s sense of autonomy, from actively calling it quits with a lover on “The Wire” (“I know it’s hard to hear me say it, but I can’t bear to stay and / I just know I know I know I know you’re going to be OK anyway”) to even sticking to her guns when left in a vulnerable position on “Let Me Go”: “Go ahead, don’t you let me in. / But I will wait, I will want. / Wait ‘til the day you’re back again.”

Lorde explores another resolute will inside the speaker on Pure Heroine while she demands respect on “Bravado”:

I was raised up

To be admired, to be noticed,

But when you’re withdrawn it’s the closest thing

To assault when all eyes are on you.

This will not do.

She also calls the shots in her relationship on “A World Alone”: “Raise a glass, ‘cause I’m not done saying it. / They all want to get rough, get away with it. / Let them talk, ‘cause we’re dancing in this world alone.”

Granted, when both acts debuted one year before the release of 1989 (Swift’s fifth studio album), HAIM and Lorde came up short on the pop charts despite both inspiring Swift’s stark view on self-reliance and somehow boosting her influence as a popular feminist. This mass consumption of Swift’s poised yet dubious venture into feminism — rather than the staunchly unapologetic work of her contemporaries — speaks to a latent, lingering bias in pop culture for unassuming female artists that don’t threaten their patriarchal industry. Swift has banked on a persona of precious girlhood her entire career, one that has defined her mainstream success. There’s no question she’s established — she just isn’t dangerous. For all the guns and explosions in “Bad Blood,” she still hasn’t unleashed her full arsenal.

Swift may be on her way to becoming a bona fide feminist, but she still has a long way to go in a business that keeps her voiceless while on top. In the meantime, she could take some liner notes from her own outspoken alter ego on Twitter:


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Join the Discussion (5)

Join the Discussion 5 comments

  • Ben S.

    Great article.

    I wonder if the definition of feminism changes for Swift’s fans based on her interpretation of it? People who weren’t paying attention before might be now that she’s saying it but are they reading books about it? Probably not. More likely they’re sublimating a definition and an image through the lens of her portrayal of feminism as a buzz word and as a brand asset.

    What do you think, am I way off base here?

    Ben S.

  • Stephrock

    Feminism means I get to choose who I am and how I express myself rather than society in general, or men in particular getting to make those choices for me. So why criticize T. Swift for the choices she makes? Good on her for not being afraid of the word, “feminist.” She is very savvy and articulate. She is clearly making her own choices as an artist. She’s also a young woman who will change and grow as she becomes older and gets to know herself ever-better. (At least, that’s how it’s worked for me) I respect her for expressing feminism her way and look forward to seeing what’s next.

  • Amelia

    I also wonder how much of her image was cultivated by her or by her management team? Probably not something that can be researched, but it might account for the differential popularity we see with Lorde and with HAIM — they’re seemingly, at least, less produced/cultivated by a team.

  • Daniel Anix

    I’m surprised this article didn’t touch on the most problematic song on 1989 (“How You Get the Girl”) which unironically prescribes dating a girl and then disappearing out of the blue without telling her, only showing up out of the blue on her doorstep six months later to tell her you love her and will love her forever and you will stalk her forever until she loves you back as the eponymous method.

    I’m not convinced the reading on Style is correct or, if it is, that it is necessarily unfeminist. I don’t think we should seek to define feminism as “girl power” so much as girl empowerment. Style is, to my ears, a public diary entry set to song. It is her working through a relationship that she had a lot invested in that her partner obviously didn’t. I agree with the often repeated sentiment that the goal of feminism shouldn’t be to treat women like men. Vulnerability is something we have successfully conditioned men to run away from like it was a controversial opinion and they were all running for President and something we have taught them to not portray themselves or other men as having in any forms of media, except as a pejorative. not something females OR feminism should shy away from.

    I guess that’s why the comparisons between her songs and those of Haim and Lorde strike me as a little flat. There is nothing wrong with what is expressed in their songs, but surely those expressions are not the only way to be a feminist. You can be a feminist and always have the upper hand and fuck any guy who messes with you if that’s how you roll. But you can also be a feminist and still be hurt, upset, and have your heartbroken. Taylor Swift isn’t an author crafting a story who has the luxury of going “Well, I want to present a powerful woman who doesn’t take shit from anyone and let’s all things roll off her back”. Taylor Swift is the subject of her own song, and the yo-yo of her relationship with Styles as shown in the song is not an artistic choice, it is a statement of facts. She is writing about a real person, herself, and real people have problems and flaws and growth. They do things they know are wrong and sometimes it takes a few times before they break the habit. Guys do worse things (proactively even) and write and sing about it and we call them rock stars and badasses. It’s an awful and frankly unfeminist burden to put on her that she to either not write about her life or live a perfect one in order to be considered a part of feminism.

    I just don’t feel one’s claim to feminism should be based off what feelings they have or the medium they choose to share it in. I’m certain Lorde and the girls of Haim and every other individual who has ever lived has felt similar to Swift, just as Taylor has surely felt the power and autonomy in the Lorde and Haim lyrics the author has cited. I can’t say I find it “better” or “worse” feminism to talk about one’s feelings with a close friend than it is to sing about them. Lorde and Haim write songs about how they feel and produce the songs they do. Taylor Swift. Style IS Taylor asserting her authentic self. It is saying “Here is a story of my failed relationship. Here is how I feel about it.” I’m sure Harry Styles would rather not have the most popular album of 2014 contain a reference to him cheating on Taylor. I’m sure a lot of her exes haven’t liked the way they have been portrayed in her songs. Would it have been more feminist for Taylor to invent stories where she never gets hurt instead of telling true accounts of times she has been hurt? I hope not.

  • Kevin K.

    For a woman well into her 20s, Taylor Swift still seems to have a teen-aged view of feminism, relationships, and life in general. I want to be a fan, i really do– she writes great music (actual songs), she can really sing (somewhat rare these days), and she works with talented producers. She just seems a bit vapid, a bit empty. I just had a conversation with a friend about her the other day, and i ended up saying that i really look forward to what she does 10 years from now, after she’s lived a bit, experienced more, and maybe been knocked about a bit by life. I’m not expecting Dostoyevski, or Austen even, but i am hoping for more than the musings of a teen-ager trapped in the body of a 25 year old, wrapped up in some admittedly killer tunes.

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