It used to be cool to dislike Taylor Swift. I was cool when that was cool, so I didn’t like Taylor Swift. Then it started to be cool to like her, and how could I not? Anyone who said he or she did not like “I Knew You Were Trouble” was and continues to be lying. Plus, I would love to play with her cats. Taylor, let’s be friends.
But as cool as it was circa 2014 to idolize Taylor Swift, it has also been accepted as a matter of course that celebrity engenders a level of public scrutiny and a level of unsolicited criticism. We want our heroes to be too big to fail, but we also want them to fail. This has been true of sports heroes for as long as athletes have been celebrities. We want them to have it all —to be vocal activists, prolific artists, physically flawless — but we also want to figure out how the illusion happens.
As with any magic trick, part of the fun is in watching for a slip-up in the sleight of hand.
Scrolling through Twitter during the VMAs a week ago, I was struck by the kind of toxic rage directed at Taylor in particular. We are so hard on our celebrities. Miley, Nicki, Kanye, Taylor, J-Law, Demi — none of them can deliver quite what culture at large demands of them.
For Taylor in particular, it started when she rolled up with eight or so of her closest friends, continued into the premiere of the “Wildest Dreams” video, and concluded when she introduced Kanye West’s Video Vanguard Award. For someone whose entire public persona embodies the spirit of friendship, she seems to have a lot of online enemies.
Maybe that’s exactly the point. Spectators delight in finding the gaps in a façade, and in finding the inconsistencies in a united front. Maybe it was comforting when Taylor could be assumed guileless, another heartbroken girl with a guitar. Unthreatening. But then she shows up on stage for “Bad Blood” — and the entire tour in support of 1989 — with her girl gang and some heavy artillery.
Taylor Swift is the platonic ideal of pop stardom in 2015. She’s what people want to see and hear that they didn’t even know they needed. She tailored her image just that way (she hasn’t always been this way — just take a listen of her country-inflected early work to get a sense). Her music is catchy and pop-driven; she’s thin and blonde and beautiful; her boyfriend is attractive to match; she’s constantly surrounded by friends and seems like she’s having a great time.
Pop stardom in 2015 is branding. It’s a closely guarded but thinly veiled illusion. Taylor projects an aura of camaraderie — that’s what the catwalk of friends and collaborators on her ongoing 1989 Tour has been all about. She has been cultivating her image since age 14, when she and her family relocated to Nashville so she could pursue a career in country music. She’s always been relatively innocuous, but then she started getting self-referential and we dug it. She hinted at it in Red and it came into bloom on 1989, which was her most critically acclaimed, as well as biggest cultural phenomenon, yet.
Curating a public image invites a certain amount of voyeurism; with that voyeurism comes a certain illusion of closeness. I refer to Taylor as just that — by her first name. I don't know her personally, yet something about her projection of herself invites me to call her “Tay” in my own tweets. “TSwift” in texts. The occasional “T-Swizzle.” Any number of diminutives that assume a certain closeness that, if I think about it, I don't really have.
And it’s that presumption that has made her such a target. Her personal brand is an intersection of friendship and idolatry. She’s our most aspirational girl crush. Hers is a pretty utopic assumption, that she can be friends with everyone, and that in itself invites mockery. The assumption is just part of her aesthetic, but it places her critics and fans alike at an intersection of fandom and friendship. That unfortunate crossroads makes her the personal target of professional criticism.
I would love to be friends with Taylor Swift. She seems like a really cool lady and I think we’d have a lot in common. But I’m not her friend, and I can’t have it both ways. I can’t be both friend and ally, and critic and commentator.
Celebrity seems to reach a zenith where there’s nowhere to go but down. Taylor is now on that downhill slide. She’s being tugged under the culture wheel. Her universal friendship started to crumble when she tweeted at Nicki Minaj, calling her out for what she read as a subtweet addressing her individually, but which could have been just another rant against The Man.
The actual tweets exchanged don’t matter a whole lot in hindsight. There wasn’t much in the way of “feud” in the actual Twitter conversation, but the media reception of the beef shows how eager people were to latch on to a tiny rupture in Taylor Swift’s pristine public image. Team Tay and Team Nicki quickly separated themselves into their respective group huddles. In any beef, everyone’s got to pick a side.
The onset of Taylor’s decline can probably be traced back to the video launch for “Shake It Off,” but it hit its stride when she stood up for herself against a perceived slight from a peer. The so-called "feud" with Nicki revealed that she was human and fallible, and culture at large started to look for more instances of her shortcomings. The criticisms of “Shake It Off,” pre-Nicki feud, look mild in comparison to those for “Wildest Dreams” — appropriation of a culture that’s not hers, without respect for or faithfulness to the source. It’s not really addressed that, given the song is an anthem for the haters, it might be a takedown of exactly that criticism.
The same goes for the criticism of “Wildest Dreams,” perhaps the harshest yet. I cringed watching the premiere, knowing the Internet uproar that would be waiting when I reloaded my Twitter feed. For the uninitiated, Taylor plays a Meryl Streep-esque character in her very own Out of Africa. It’s all glamorous shots in front of savannah wildlife. She flaps her arms in front of a docile giraffe and lounges with a placid elephant. Headlines blared colonialism, and even recaps of the video that didn’t specifically target Taylor still felt the need to throw in a casual reference to her maybe-political-incorrectness. (An issue in itself — that is a steep claim to casually insert into an otherwise straightforward summary.)
But that essentially denies the rest of the video. About halfway through, the camera zooms out. She’s on a film set. Her love interest is just an actor, and he loves another woman. The video, it seems to me, actually dismantles the colonialist fantasy as just that — a fantasy. Destructive, unrealistic, and flimsy.
Taylors’ director on “Wildest Dreams” has now come out with a statement that they had no political agenda when constructing the film. No matter your perspective, positive or negative, it’s subjective artistic interpretation. Few artists actively invest their work with that kind of political commentary. But the Internet at large assumes nothing but the worst from someone who has produced her very best self. (And I mean "produced" quite literally.)
So the echo chamber of Internet thinkpieces and hot takes and cold takes and even lukewarm takes churns out more material in support of the argument against Taylor, because it’s on-trend. It ignores any potential alternative narrative. Claiming that Taylor is pro-colonialist provokes outrage where there’s not a lot to be offended about. It’s cynicism at its worst. It’s not cool, it’s not fun, it doesn’t prove how smart you are. And the commentary leveled at Taylor over the past week has looked nothing like how one might criticize a friend, or even a stranger.
Here’s the thing about outrage culture. It’s lazy. This isn’t to say that outrage is lazy. There are a ton of things to be outraged about. But the assumption of wrongdoing — the assumption that a public figure has somehow betrayed her brand and her followers — is an easy target.
Taylor seems cyborg-perfect and we want to figure out how the gears turn. But she differs from other pop phenomena in that her perfection is grounded in a feeling that she’s genuine and down-to-earth. She’s something like an anti-Miley Cyrus, whose fruit hangs too low to be fair game. She’s not totally fabricated à la Lana Del Rey, either. No, we’re complicit there — we’re in on Lana’s game. She’s so manufactured it’s not even clear there’s something to criticize. The whole point of Lana as public figure is that she’s an invention.
Taylor’s meteoric rise and fall looks a lot more like Jennifer Lawrence, another star who was too down-to-earth in a way that was also too manicured. They were, and are, implausible heroes. We as cultural consumers demand perfection, but when it’s delivered it’s the last thing we can take. (Or, frankly, want. Perfection in our role models only points out our own flaws.)
By all accounts, Taylor is a really good friend. She’s just not my friend. That’s the point. She has curated all the elements of the most aspirational but unattainable best-friend-hood. And that illusion invites a scavenger hunt for flaws — where are the cracks? Where does the mask end and the real woman begin? But that’s the whole point of celebrity. I have no doubt there’s a real Taylor in there, and she’s given us nothing but her best. We need to do better, or else we don’t deserve her.