By Olivia Rhodes
For celebrities, image is everything. But what happens when it is impossible to be in total control of that image? When every decision, every pound lost or gained, every failed relationship, every outfit, is subject to relentless criticism in a game that can never be won? If you’re a female celebrity, you’re already losing that battle, and once propelled into the spotlight, it truly begins: the fight for survival in a world which thrives off all the ways in which it sees you fail. Because time and time again, women must desperately try to win favour through a perpetual process of reinvention: ‘be new to us, be young to us, but only in a new way and only in the way we want, and reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you.’ Such is the perception of the media from arguably one of the most famous women on the planet, Taylor Swift, whose career has been one of popular culture’s greatest hits of criticism.
Bring her up in a conversation, and you’ll divide the room between those who gush and adore, and those who claim they don’t like her because ‘she’s just a bit annoying.’ Having always been an unfaltering member of the first camp, I’ll often ask my opponents to explain why, and more often than not they’ll shift around and mumble something vague and non-committal. And although I disagree with their sentiment, I understand why it’s the one they have, because for the vast majority of her career that spans over fifteen years – and began at the age of sixteen – Taylor Swift has been presented in every bad light.
For the first half of her public career, she was known as the ‘serial dater’, headlines screaming how she couldn’t hold down a man and that there must be something inherently wrong and fundamentally unlikeable about her. While she did what most teenagers and twenty-somethings do in trying to find someone who she connected with romantically, the media branded her a slut, ‘going through guys like a train.’ When she wrote songs inspired by her own experiences in love, it was decided that she used them for bait: get enough inspiration for the next chart-topper, and then move on to the next. And the media didn’t reserve its criticism for romantic relationships, slamming her for cultivating a group of female friends who were models, actors, or singers. By condemning every relationship she had, it was decided that Swift herself must be the problem.
Reinventing herself and the music she released was the only option, moving from the country swing of her early albums into pop which oscillated from the drifting electronics of ‘1989’ to the more hip-hop influences of ‘reputation’, and more recently into the soft acoustic storytelling of ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’. What else is she to do when the media gets bored so quickly? Her 2020 documentary ‘Miss Americana’ is vastly illuminating as to her struggles in this reinvention process as her fight to stay in favour is displayed. It follows her in the production of her 2019 album, ‘Lover’, simultaneously exploring her personal life and involvement in social discourse, particularly politics. The documentary is essential viewing for anyone interested in Swift’s career, but I also implore those who think they don’t like her to watch: it might just help them realise that their opinion is founded on unjust bias from a cruel media system.
The ultimate selling point for Swift, and arguably the reason for her utterly devoted fanbase (she has a huge following of 205 million on Instagram, and is currently the eighth most listened to artist worldwide on Spotify), are her lyrics in which listeners find themselves seen, heard, represented. Whatever emotion you are undergoing, there will be a Taylor Swift song which encapsulates the otherwise unnameable process you are experiencing. So when this, her greatest superpower, was contested by Damon Albarn (Blur and Gorillaz frontman), who stated in an interview that ‘she doesn’t write her own songs’, yet again Swift was cut down. This isn’t a new pattern: we’ve all seen the clip of Kanye West bursting on stage at the VMAs to claim Swift was not the deserving winner, not to mention the rocky relationship with Scooter Braun, stripping her of her voice over the buying of her masters. While Swift called out Albarn on Twitter over his ‘completely false’ and ‘damaging’ claims, this incredibly recent incident is demonstrative of the constancy of this battle.
Swift doesn’t go down without a fight. Produce a record with thinly disguised references to those who have done you wrong, or just call them out on Twitter – both are techniques used by Swift in the attempt to reclaim her voice. But ultimately, there is a desperately sad sense of futility to these efforts. This article could have been ten times longer, for there are so many instances of vilification of Taylor Swift. Apparently, the fact that she can sell out stadiums in seconds isn’t enough. Her determination, however, to continue producing extremely successful music in spite of the incessant attempts to tear her down, is one of the reasons that I and many others admire her so much. Her documentary ends with her walking out onto stage, and the look on her face shows us she is home, and that when she plays her songs, she finds her ultimate power. Try as they might, the media won’t make Taylor Swift disappear: she is here to stay, a trailblazer for truly meaningful music and the strength of the female voice.
Featured image: Instagram