Shaking off criticism since 1989

Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989 shows that the once teen country idol has become a full-on pop phenomenon. Gone are the days when Taylor Swift pined on balconies and wept over musical instruments – now she has a mature sound and of course a new look to go with it. She’s exchanged country and curls for New York and red lipstick, but as the two music videos from 1989 demonstrate, the changes in Swift’s persona go much deeper than that.

The multi-award winning platinum artist became a household name with hits like ‘Love Story’ and ‘You Belong With Me’, but soon after this received a hype backlash. Putting aside those who find her music too angsty and boy-focused, Taylor Swift also became the target for a phenomenal amount of criticism (often unfair) for her star image. She was seen on the one hand by feminist magazine Jezebel as fetishizing virginity and purity and on the other as a “slut” for the number of boys she’s dated. This criticism, as well as changes in music style, is probably what encouraged Swift to rebrand herself. She’s not the wide-eyed everygirl writing about teen heartbreak and high school crushes any more, and the music videos for 1989 cement what Red started: an attempt to redefine Swift’s star image.

‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Blank Space’ both address the critical backlash which has been directed at Swift in the past couple of years. However, where ‘Shake It Off’ fails, ‘Blank Space’ is funny, self-aware and shows that even though Swift’s sound has changed, she still has the self-deprecating humour and critical eye which made her earlier albums so successful.

‘Shake It Off’, whilst catchy, is an example of lazy song writing and too much studio input. Lines like “the haters gonna hate (hate, hate)” aren’t exactly newsworthy and the words “you could have been getting down to this sick beat” sound just plain wrong coming out of Swift’s mouth. Even when she’s singing about her “ex-man’s new girlfriend”, Swift doesn’t have anything interesting to say.

This is one of the first times in Swift’s career that she’s made a song that could have been sung by anyone

‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was one of the weakest songs from Red, but does at least illustrate how Swift can use a few well-judged details (he likes indie music that’s much cooler than hers and keeps telling her he needs “space”) to build up a realistic and personal portrait of her ex-boyfriend. ‘Shake It Off’ feels like it was brainstormed at a meeting for maximum commercial impact, and has none of the confessional feeling that usually characterises Swift’s work. This is one of the first times in Swift’s career that she’s made a song that could have been sung by anyone – there’s that little personality in it.

The music video makes it very clear what they’re trying to do: re-brand Swift as a peppy, against-all-the-odds beacon of self-confidence. It just doesn’t work. The video features Swift dancing with deliberate clumsiness amongst groups of ballerinas, twerkers, cheerleaders and other dancers. Whereas the song feels like it was written by committee and doesn’t have enough of a personal mark upon it, the video goes the other way. Most of Swift’s fans know that she is an enthusiastic but unabashedly awful dancer and know that ‘Shake It Off’ is poking fun at that, but the general population is likely just to see bad dancing and not understand what it’s supposed to mean.

Another problem with the video is the boredom-factor. There’s no real story or development; the video has one joke (Taylor Swift can’t dance) and repeatedly bashes you over the head with it. Shake It Off is also simply not convincing in how it portrays Swift. She tells you so emphatically so many times and in so many ways that she doesn’t care about the criticism she receives that it makes it seem fake. I started asking myself why she was telling me about it in so much detail – it just makes her seem insecure.

But where ‘Shake It Off’ fails, ‘Blank Space’ succeeds. It has the same artificial, synth-heavy sound which dominates much of 1989, but the same sound which flattens the sadder, darker emotions in ‘I Wish You Would’ works here. It’s because Swift isn’t writing as herself, but from the perspective of the person that the media makes her out to be. By turns whimsical, threatening, earnest and manipulative, Swift captures every facet of her alter ego perfectly. The music video is also more creative, imaginative and better edited than ‘Shake It Off’, which could have been produced by just about any moderately talented film school student.

Swift has a real flair for the manic and is surprisingly convincing as the ‘Fatal Attraction’-style girlfriend

‘Blank Space’ tells a story: wide-eyed Swift lives in a giant mansion with two horses, her cat and an entire gallery of portraits she’s painted of her ex-boyfriends. Swift begins a new relationship and everything seems peachy – she goes on picnics with her new hunk, slow-dances and begins a new painting. But things quickly go south when she discovers her boyfriend texting another girl (gasp!), finally leading Swift to destroy the painting, his car, feed him a poisoned apple and then prepare to meet her next victim.

The director packs an awful lot of content into a four-minute video, and the story is punctuated perfectly with great editing and a lot of humour. Swift excels at playing the overly earnest girl who quickly descends into hysteria. She’s normally one for immaculate appearances, but in Blank Space we see her with mascara running down her face and a wild bird’s nest of hair. It’s hard to remember whilst watching this that Swift is usually seen as a wholesome, America’s Sweetheart type. It works because Swift has a real flair for the manic and is surprisingly convincing as the ‘Fatal Attraction’-style girlfriend – she delivers lines like “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” in a way that is genuinely chilling.

Swift is obviously self-aware that she’s putting on an act, but she limits it to the occasional line delivered knowingly to camera. It’s much more effective than the constant ‘little girl lost’ act that she puts on in ‘Shake It Off’, which rapidly becomes very frustrating. This self-awareness also brings a sense of satire – Swift is behaving exactly as the media says she is, demonstrating how quick people are to caricature real people, especially women.

Instead of telling you that she doesn’t care about your opinion, in ‘Blank Space’ Swift shows you with gusto. She’s made the ultimate joke about her reputation better than anyone else can, and it promises an exciting new chapter in Swift’s evolution is to come. You may have your own opinions about Taylor Swift, but after ‘Blank Space’, she has made your criticism officially irrelevant.

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