Home » Music » Who is Taylor Swift anyway?

Who is Taylor Swift anyway?

We’re deep in the Taylor Swift vortex now, the land of a million think pieces and the backlash to the backlash. We have reached peak “the person on the other side of this argument is a hipster”.  So in the avalanche of Swiftpinions, why write another piece on Swift?

Because in late October last year, about 500 people – mostly female, mostly between the ages of 15 and 25 – spread picnic blankets in Hyde Park in Sydney. Dressed in sundresses and bunny costumes and cheerleader uniforms, they shared home made baked goods with their new friends. They talked and laughed and sang. And they danced. They danced and danced and danced.

Nobody paid a dollar to be there. There were no sponsors or record label folk or PR companies behind it. These people – again, mostly young women – came together to share their love of all things Taylor Swift.

I was one of the oldest attendees. My 31yo male best friend, the 9yo girl I’ve babysat since her birth and I sat on our rug and discussed whether Fearless or Speak Now was our favourite album, and made predictions about what 1989 would involve.

So to hear the meaning of that experience and the responses of those people trivialised was not something I could ignore.

This wasn’t the first year I wrote in Taylor Swift songs on my Hottest 100 ballot, but when I did so, I had that crowd in mind. That crowd of girls who are so often told that they have bad taste, that the music they listen to isn’t “real” art. That it is manufactured or commercial and therefore bad. That it deserves to be the butt of the joke.

And it is because of those girls that the omission of Taylor Swift from the Hottest 100 voting ballot — and the underlying omission of Swift from Triple J’s playlist — requires close examination. For if our publicly-funded youth radio network, especially one that has historic problems with gender, is excluding such an important female artist from its airwaves, its choice to do so must be unimpeachable.

Swift’s status as an major international artist and her commercial success have been cited as reasons for her exclusion, none of these has been sufficient to disqualify her male peers.

Last year, two of the top three vote-getters were US number one hits. Triple J mainstays Foo Fighters, Kanye West and The Black Keys are artists who sell out stadiums. This year, mainstream hits like Milky Chance’s “Stolen Chance” and Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” are among the favourites, both of which charted internationally.

Hottest 100 polls from years past feature artists who were hardly obscure when Triple J decided to play them: Madonna, U2, Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Success is not a disqualifier for Triple J airplay.

One of the reasons given for artists such as The Black Keys and West appearing in the charts is that they are essentially legacy artists: that Triple J played them before they achieved chart success. If the justification for not playing Swift now that she’s big is that they didn’t before she was, the question is clearly why didn’t they? Why didn’t JJJ hop on board the emerging singer/songwriter’s career when she was playing at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville in 2009? Then she too could have been one of JJJ’s legacy artists, a group that is overwhelmingly male.

Gender is incredibly important here. Swift association with femininity – which includes but is not limited to the fact she is a female artist – is a defining element in the way she is categorised. When considering the relationship between gender and art, a complex set of factors that come together, beyond simply talking about the gender of the creator.

Molly Lambert’s excellent essay on Swift, which is well worth a read, perfectly captures the essential femininity of Swift: “The negative traits ascribed to Taylor always sound like a greatest-hits list of every bad characteristic associated with womanhood: too emotional, too weak, too naive, too uptight, too slutty.

Swift invokes such derision from many just because she is a female songwriter, but a female songwriter writing songs that code feminine in a genre that codes feminine.

While the success of women in all genres, styles and roles in music is absolutely something to pursue and celebrated, to suggest that that success is only revolutionary or worthy of celebration in musical categories dominated by men continues to marginalise female artists: it demands that they create on male terms.

Feminist music pioneer and Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna reflected on Swift several years ago:

“I’m totally into Taylor Swift. I think she has super-clever lyrics, and I love that she writes her own music. Some of the themes she writes about are stuff I wish was there for me when I was in high school, and I’m so happy she really cares about her female fans. She’s not catering to a male audience and is writing music for other girls. I don’t care if she calls herself a feminist or not. There is something that she’s doing that feels feminist to me in that she really seems to have a lot of control over what her career is doing.

That female success in music is only to be celebrated when it occurs in ways that are understood and accepted by a primarily male audience, such as that of Triple J, perpetuates the association of the feminine with the trivial.

***

I was a dyed-in-the-wool listener to Triple J’s traditional spectrum of music when I first responded to Swift. I had followed the then still little-know band Cloud Control around since their earliest gigs ,opening mid-week for cover bands in dingy pub back room. As the became regulars in the Sydney scene, I danced nights away at the Hopetoun Hotel and Spectrum and the Annandale hotel as they played with acts like the John Steele Singers, Belles Will Ring and Grafton Primary. Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, Ryan Adams and The National dominated my music collection. The album I’d been listening to most that year was Frightened Rabbit’s Midnight Organ Fight.

I mention this not because I think in lends my fondness for Swift any special credence, but to illustrate the fact that when a Taylor Swift song moved me, it was wholly unexpected.

But after hearing close friends talk about Swift, and watching her winning and self-deprecating performance on Saturday Night Live, in particular her “Monologue Song”, I decided to give her album, Fearless, a listen. I got as far as the second track, Fifteen, before I was undone. “Back then I swore I was going to marry him some day,” Swift sang. “But I realised some bigger dreams of mine”. This was my story. These were my friends’ stories.

And that, of course, is much of the appeal of Swift: she tells stories about young women. She tells them with grace, elegance, a touch of nostalgia and endless empathy. It was unlike anything I had encountered before.

It was a female voice telling a female story that I connected with. I saw my thoughts and experiences and feelings reflected in Swift in a way I never had in a thousand indie rock songs.

***

The marginalisation and rejection of art disproportionately enjoyed by young women is hardly new, but it’s remarkable how uncritically this has been accepted, especially in relation to the case for Swift on Triple J.

One of the reasons Swift is such a powerful symbol of the trivialisation of music that is disproportionately associated with women is that her style is largely in keeping with many of Triple J’s featured artists and her musical journey so thoroughly rebutts any notion of “manufacture”. In fact, Swift has “indie” credentials better than many Triple J acts:  a guitar-based singer songwriter who signed as the first act to a brand new independent label- Big Machine Records – to whom she has remained loyal. Swift wrote or co-wrote all the songs on her debut album, by her second album did the bulk of the songwriting solo, and didn’t have any cowriters for 2010’s “Speak Now.”

As she gained fame and success, she experimented with a stronger pop sound as countless others have some before, working with some known names in the industry (interestingly, Swift sings two duets on 2012’s Red and both her collaborators, Ed Sheeran and Gary Lightbody have had songs played on Triple J; Sheeran’s You Need Me, I Don’t Need You ranked at 160 in the 2011 Hottest 100 and Lightbody’s Snow Patrol had a number 6 in 2006 with “Chasing Cars”). Despite this, Swift’s work continued to have a strong authorial voice, a coherence across tracks, and a willingness to play with sound and genre, from the ukulele ditty “Stay, Stay, Stay’ to the epic and ethereal “All too well”.

To suggest that Swift’s sound or story is wholly outside the world is Triple J is to ignore who Swift is as an artist and the art she creates. That said, invoking Swift’s artistic authenticity is to buy into the myth that said authenticity is not found in pop music, and is the purview of the artist more often found on Triple J.

Even if Swift did not have these markers of authenticity and art, even if her sound was wholly inconsistent with Triple J, to suggest any artist merits exclusion from the stations’ playlist based on the its aesthetic is to minimalise the role that aesthetic has in trivialising art that is associated with young women.

The robustness with which the integrity of a competition that has never featured a female soloist in its lead, and in fact did not have a single female lead in its 2009 Hottest 100 of all time, has been defended is utterly befuddling. It posits that Triple J’s gender problems are incidental, not systemic. And it ignores the station’s own role in imposing false distinctions between ‘mainstream’ radio and its own fare, distinctions that leave women and girls on the wrong side of the ledger.

These false boundaries are part of the reason why suggestions that Swift fans are being greedy by not being content to have her featured on “their” spectrum of the FM dial are misguided, aside from the obvious fact that the notion fans of Swift should have to endure advertising while Mark Ronson fans get their music ad free is simply daft.

Radio doesn’t just exist so we can hear music, it informs the way we understand and contextualise it. The boundaries of style and genre are so arbitrary, a DJ’s juxtaposition of songs and artists informs our taste and our understanding. In this day of on demand music and VEVO channels, radio continues to be relevant because it provides social context for the music we listen to. It creates canon.

The reluctance to play Swift lends credence to the artificial boundaries that disproportionately disadvantage female artists and cast traditionally male genres as artistically legitimate, in contrast to “mainstream” music where women have historically found greater success. The “mainstream” is not an objective truth, but a creation that is as much about what is cast as being outside it as that considered within it.

Commercial radio is likewise not simply a matter of whether a station has advertising or not: it has specific conventions it typically abides by. Unlike on Triple J, you are unlikely to hear deep cuts or unedited longer tracks on commercial stations. Swift’s All Too Well is a classic example of a song that simply did not receive airplay on commercial stations. The less commercially-driven approach to music can equally transform our experience of songs that are usually considered mainstream.

By sectioning off certain pop acts as “not Triple J type of music”, it is allows listeners not to engage with the concept of mainstream and what it means. Is mainstream determined by the act or the music? The distribution method? What about Lana Del Rey, a major label act with substantial backing who essentially trolled the indie music community by adopting signifiers of authenticity?

What about Beyonce, who eschewed the traditional release route in her album last year, which was dominated by songs not in the mainstream radio mold and thus got comparatively little airplay?**

Which brings me to the final, and most deplorable, argument against Taylor Swift being played on Triple J: that in doing so, it would deny female Australian musicians air play. I suppose that is true, only in as far as any time someone who isn’t an Australian female musician is played, it denies an Australian female musician airplay. But blaming that lack of airplay on Swift suggests that music by female musicians is a separate category, that female musicians only compete against each other. Swift’s competition is not Australian women, but the plethora of major international male artists the station chooses to continue to play.

The argument also imposes a false dichotomy on the station: that it can either play Swift or support emerging female artists. It’s like suggesting a company either appoint a female CEO or increase its female grad intake. The two are not directly related and, in fact, are often complementary. There is not a female artist zero sum.

Ultimately, though, this comes down to the purpose of Triple J. What is its role as a publicly-funded institution? The Swift for Hottest 100 campaign was not focused on getting her airplay on Fbi or 2SER or Triple M. It is not the exclusion of Swift alone that is the problem, but the exclusion of Swift on what is ostensibly Australia’s publicly funded youth network.

If Triple J is to play that role, its aesthetic boundaries should be defined by that and that alone. It should reflect music listened to by young Australians across the spectrums of genre and style, not just those of an indie-rock persuasion. Teenage girls who like One Direction and Nicki Minaj and yes, Taylor Swift, should hear their favourite music played alongside some of the current playlist.

If, however, the station exists to support the Australian music industry and emerging Australian artists, then it should be judged based on how well it does that. If that is its purpose, Foo Fighters and The Black Keys and Kanye West have no place on its playlist. Acts like Jessica Mauboy and Ricki Lee Coulter and Five Seconds of Summer, however, would.

As long as Triple J continues to attempt to do both these things simultaneously, it does neither of them well. Instead, it will continue to be a place where men dominate and where a vast many young Australian women will see nothing that reflects their tastes or experiences.

That being said, I don’t think Shake it Off deserves to be voted the hottest song of 2014. That place clearly belongs to Blank Space.

**It would be remiss of me to add that many of these arguments could also be made about the exclusion of Beyonce’s remarkable “Beyonce” album last year, though to do so would introduce additional elements relating to race that I am not best-positioned to discuss. Also, I don’t know Beyonce’s music as well as I do Swift’s. That being said, if anyone can point me to a piece discussing this, I would be delighted to signal-boost it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *