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
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: