‘Speak Now’: Defending Taylor Swift and Pop Music

A SYTYCB Entry

I have to ask: Can we all agree to stop making fun of Taylor Swift? Please, and thank you.

Last week Taylor Swift released the song “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together“, the first single from her upcoming album, “Red.” With the single comes new hashings of the same argument. And here it is again, in the comment section of this NPR article.

Critics of Swift’s music argue it’s moronic and the subject matter teaches young girls the most important thing in life is boys. It’s true, Swift certainly isn’t afraid to alienate the female characters in her songs for the chance to have a potentially meaningful relationship with a male character. In many of her songs, female characters are portrayed as vapid snobs who stole her boyfriend—and that’s if they’re present at all. Women are largely absent from Swift’s songs.

Swift says her songs are about her life—that listening to her music is like reading her diary. In this way Swift’s music conforms to the important rule that to be good, music has to be “authentic”—music must be written and performed by the artist. Playing your own instrument helps. Claiming you’re only in it for your deep love of music helps. Money, sex, fans, popularity, drugs—those are the things that come as a result of you loving your art as much as you do—it certainly isn’t why you make music and if you didn’t have the money, you’d still be the same person you are now, albeit a person who plays in living rooms and parks, not in sold-out arenas and amphitheaters.

Society criticizes Swift (and pop music) as a way to delegitimize the music and taste of women. Music that is created for and appeals to women is almost always ridiculed and taken less seriously than is music that is created for and appeals to a large male audience.

People are quick to point out that pop stars such as Swift, Katy Perry, or Ke$ha simply aren’t as good as some of the music that came before them. People are so quick to forget that before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, the Beatles were a group of handsome dudes singing to screaming girls. The Beatles were famous because women loved them. The Beatles became legitimate when men loved them too. (It’s true, scholar Norma Coates wrote about it in her article “Teenyboppers, Groupies & Other Grotesques”)

This isn’t to say men can’t or don’t enjoy pop music. It’s that artists such as Swift and Justin Bieber have a larger young female audience. If 15-18 year old young men were rushing to Bieber concerts the conversation surrounding Bieber would be a much different one.

The young female audience is an important age group for marketers to reach. Young girls have a lot of buying power. A young female audience is a way to break into the market because they’re more likely to spend money on merchandise related to their favorite singers and musicians. But even this takes us back to the ever-important issue of authenticity. To be an authentic fan means to not care about merchandise. Female fans are almost always painted as “not real” fans. Whatever that means. The point being that women can’t love music as much as men do.

So ignoring the fact that the authenticity argument is stupid—and that an authentic, true, fan doesn’t exist—let’s get back to Swift.

I’m tired of people making fun of her boy crazy lyrics and saying she isn’t as good as the other female pop stars of her generation. Taylor Swift isn’t Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj. And how many Lady Gaga’s does one person need? This isn’t a competition between the artists. The same people who listen to Swift listen to Gaga. We should be fighting the war against pop music and pop artists, not the war against specific pop artists.

Like other pop artists, Swift promotes female solidarity and a sisterhood of togetherness. Her recent Speak Now tour brought together young girls from about 8 to 16 and their 40-something moms. Add a few 20-somethings to the mix (ahem!) and you have multiple generations of women together, in a shared space, screaming Swift’s songs at the top of their lungs, relating to each other because of a shared love of the same artist. I met little girls with their moms at their first concerts. They were there with their best friends and had traveled four hours to the show. How can that be anything BUT a powerful female bonding experience?

Pop music shouldn’t have to apologize for being what it is. It shouldn’t have to justify it. It shouldn’t have to be a guilty pleasure that only comes out at bachelorette parties and four-hour road trips. So, stop apologizing for your pop music, and stop hiding it when someone with more “sophisticated” taste gets in the car. Music snobs are assholes anyway.

And they secretly listen to Britney Spears.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    “Pop music shouldn’t have to apologize for being what it is.”
    But shouldn’t we critique something that has a heavy influence on society and how people interpret things like sexuality, and relationships? Sure it doesn’t have to “apologize” for being what it is and we don’t have to necessarily be ashamed for concessions we make, but that’s sort of beside the point. I can secretly (or openly) listen to B. Spears and still have something to say about tay swift’s role in media & girl stuff and it doesn’t necessarily make me a music snob, it just makes me a person with something to say about a star that a lot of young girls idolize- and the messages they are idolizing.

    IDK. I am all for discouraging hate toward things girls are interested in, I definitely agree that some of the arguments around stars like Swift and Bieber is heavily influenced by the fact that their audiences are predominantly young females, but I think the backlash against Taylor Swift is a bit underwhelming most of the time. Her unification of girls/women/whomever really does come at an expense- her lyrics often reinforce the girl against girl mantra where we identify some other female as being “the slut going after our guy” or whatever. She has some more or less anti-gay lyrics (interestingly, the one I immediately think of, she changes the lyrics in the video version- which reaches a wider audience than her cd- which to me says she is even aware of the issue and only changes in spaces she thinks she will get flack for it).
    And some of Swift criticism comes from the way she has been publicly applauded for doing something that is only amazing, seemingly, because she is a young, pretty-as-defined-by-media, white female. And that is a point at which it makes sense to compare her to other artists like Beyonce, who was doing way more for creating space for female empowerment at the same age as Swift but, even though everyone was a huge fan of Destiny’s Child, no one was acting like she was some sort of child prodigy or something. IDk. I do not really feel as if Swift is a huge victim here…

  2. Posted September 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I remember making an argument which was much the same. Except there’s also the fact that we have a word for ‘young girl pop fans’ called ‘Teenyboppers’ and it’s usually used as a derogatory remark — because if something is aimed at young girls, it obviously can’t be any good. Kind of like the ceaseless remarks that make fun of My Little Pony.

    …We need to blog about that, too…

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