Earlier this week, Taylor Swift’s 1989 won the Grammy for Album of the Year over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
In her acceptance speech, Swift said the following: “As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I wanna say to all the young women out there: There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.”
Fair enough, at least at first glance. But a brief look, which is all most mainstream media outlets seem to have given to the speech, doesn’t explain all of the forces factoring into the decision to select 1989 and to declare Swift a champion of feminism.
When Macklemore’s The Heist beat out Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for Best Rap Album in 2014, talks of racial bias swirled throughout media coverage. Macklemore even felt so ashamed that he sent Lamar an apologetic text saying that the Compton native deserved the award. Macklemore published a screenshot of the text on social media, which undermined some of his sincerity, but still, the opinion that Lamar’s album was superior was almost universal. This time, any acknowledgement of racial bias seemed to be relegated to Twitter while media outlets instead wrote about Swift’s “empowering” speech, quietly acknowledging that Lamar swept the rap categories or that his performance at the Grammys “stole the show.” The idea that Swift’s album was undeserving of the win seemed, somehow, taboo.
This narrative line is not uncommon. Most publications seem afraid to regularly disapprove of Swift as an artist or as a celebrity. This can be attributed to “poptimism” that runs across most mainstream music criticism or to the fear of denouncing a figure who defends herself through the guise of discrimination. Sure, it’s possible that Swift is so well-received because she has no flaws, but it’s more likely that these other factors are in play.
Let’s start by addressing the former. The poptimist movement praises mainstream tastes, supported by the underlying idea that something does not have to be musically or intellectually complex to be a formidable work of art. Simply, if an album is full of “bangers,” it must be good. In the New York Times, Saul Austerlitz writes of an article that seemed particularly illustrative of this movement’s flaws: “A Grantland article published a few months ago was illustrative of this new mode of critical thought. The author described being disappointed with the new Beyoncé album after having listened to it some 20 times, before eventually changing his mind and pleading guilty to deviations from orthodoxy. ‘I was wrong to say that I didn’t like the Beyoncé album after two days,’ he wrote, eventually concluding by admonishing any others who had not yet seen the light: ‘If you don’t like the new Beyoncé album, re-evaluate what you want out of music.’”
The poptimist movement eliminates the idea that something may be popular but also artistically inconsequential. If that is the case, why have criticism or awards at all? Shouldn’t Spotify plays, YouTube views, and album sales tell us all we need to know? With this pervasive line of thought, it is impossible to disapprove of music like Swift’s because any critic is missing the point: it sticks in your head, and that’s all that matters. To dispute the artistic merit of Swift is to immediately become an old man or a pompous intellectual. You might think that this isn’t such an outrageous idea, but let’s apply this line of thought to another artistic medium: television. When was the last time that you saw a major outlet defend the artistry of The Big Bang Theory?
To deal with the latter, we must explore Swift’s public image. The singer constantly positions herself as an underdog. Again, at first glance, that seems fair enough. Swift is not a white man. Yet, if feminism is so close to Swift’s heart, how can one explain her musical persona?
Nancy Jo Sales writes in Vanity Fair:
“Is Taylor Swift boy-crazy?” I asked.
She smiled. “For a female to write about her feelings,” she said, “and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.”
Of course, internet criticisms will be frequent, and, unfortunately, many will be sexist. But the sheer volume of these criticisms and the idea that they warrant a place in the cover story of a major magazine suggest that there may be something different about Swift than other females who write about love and attachment. Sure, Swift sits atop the fame mountain of female pop stars and pop stars in general, but she is not alone. Another enormously famous female pop star that comes to mind is Adele. The singer, despite releasing music with similar themes, rarely draws criticism for being “clingy” or “insane.” Why? Likely because Adele’s music is personal expression without TMZ appeal; centered around a faceless figure. Swift is selling music that is deemed relatable, but runs contrary to the idea of feminism. This image, of a woman who largely thinks of life in terms of other men (see: the song about John Mayer, “Dear John”, the song about Jake Gyllenhaal, “All Too Well,” the song about Joe Jonas, “Better than Revenge,” or the song about Taylor Lautner, “Back to December”), feuds with others (see: the Katy Perry diss song, “Bad Blood”), or a world devoid of obstacles (see: all of 1989), is a reflection of a horrible female stereotype.
Yet, this is something that Swift, herself, is selling. A musician’s most important medium of influence is their music. But, in her music, Swift is promoting the image of a privileged human who sees the world in a way that one only can without exposure to real issues. The promotion of this stereotype runs contrary to the mission of feminism. So, logically, one must conclude that selling records, by any means, is more important to Swift than promoting a cause that she claims is important to her. It seem disingenuous for Swift to use feminism as a defense when her art is directly doing women a disservice. Dayna Evans writes in Gawker: “[Swift’s] plan—to be as famous and as rich as she can possibly be—is working, and by using other women as tools of her self-promotion, she is distilling feminism for her own benefit.” When you adopt a cause, it cannot simply be used as a shield; it must also be a sword. It is an advocate’s responsibility to further their cause whenever possible. Swift “empowers” other women at award acceptances, but she drags them through the mud in each and every one of her albums.
Unfortunately, motivations are difficult to prove, especially without regularly establishing one’s behavioral history. Likely, no writer has the time or the cause to write the above every time Swift makes hypocritical public statements. So, rather than anger Swift’s large group of fans, writers often opt to ignore that there is anything wrong with Swift the artist or Swift the celebrity. Evans writes: “The reviews of the 1989 tour have been overwhelmingly positive in that cracked-smile way that makes it seem like every writer was forced to write with a gun to his or her head… there is hardly a trace anywhere of any dissenting opinion, specifically anything that calls out Swift’s current co-opting of capital-f Feminism as a self-promotional tool.”
This idea of narrative control is one that appears throughout Swift’s career. In the New Yorker, Curtis Sittenfeld writes about attending a Swift concert that projected contradictory messages:
Sometimes, during a set or costume change, the screens showed videos asking Swift-related trivia or featuring testimonials from her coterie of famous girlfriends about the fun that they have and the enormous quantities of food they like to consume, which seemed a preëmptive rebuttal to anyone noting Swift’s thinness.
If she were trying to speak in terms understandable to the youngest members of her audience, many of whom looked to be in grade school, then why was she wearing a garter belt and showing… B.D.S.M. videos?
Swift, in her music and in her performances, seems to appeal to all of the female stereotypes that we aim to break down. Swift’s albums promote the idea of a shallow woman while her concerts, at least in Sittenfeld’s experience, promote the deplorable concept of women as objects. Yeah, sex sells, but at what price?
Apparently not one high enough for Swift to change her tune.
Given what we know, let’s return to Swift’s speech.
The line, “There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame” was very intentional. On his most recent album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West, raps: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” Swift’s speech and choice of the word “fame” was undoubtedly a response to West’s jab. Now, I could spend 2000 words on why West’s lyric was out of line, but the rapper has hurt his own credibility enough in the past few weeks.
Swift continued with her message, making her comment more than just a petty reply to a petty celebrity rival, but her feminist bent again reeked of hypocrisy.
And then there was the elephant in the room. To Pimp a Butterfly, the album hailed by many as the artistic statement of a generation, had still been snubbed. Lamar’s critically acclaimed masterpiece harnessed jazz, funk, and neo-soul while incorporating an enormous number of influential musicians and tapping into the issues that were the pulse of 2015: police brutality and the difficulties of being black in America. TPAB appeared atop almost all notable lists of 2015’s best albums.
After Lamar gave an electrifying performance during the Grammys, taking the stage in shackles and performing “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright,” TPAB’s two most politically engaged songs, it was easy to hope that it would be the rapper’s night. Yet, when the time came for the Album of the Year announcement, 1989, Swift’s self-declared pop album, written in collaboration with Swedish songwriter Max Martin, the man responsible for writing many of the formulaic hits of the last two decades, was declared the winner. It doesn’t seem logical to award an Album of the Year award to somebody who outsourced her writing to somebody who has, frankly, sold the same thing that’s been selling well for… well… why don’t you see for yourself (seriously, look at the list; Martin has written 58 top 10 songs, many of which you probably know).
A black artist has not won Album of the Year since 2008, and even that was when Herbie Hancock won for a tribute to Joni Mitchell. Under many other circumstances, it would be easier to explain the snub, but this year’s award presented an almost undeniable representation of an inability to accept black art. In the end, the Grammys only reflect the voices of a few random people on a committee. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Most people who look at music with a critical eye know the enormity of the statement made by Lamar’s album. What’s alarming is that Swift went out of her way to make it a point that there was no foul play.
In 2014, when Macklemore apologized for the committee’s decision, it seemed forced. In her acceptance, Swift had no responsibility to acknowledge that Lamar was spurned. But, again controlling the narrative, Swift prefaced her speech with a quick but intentional barb.
Spencer Kornhaber writes in The Atlantic:
Swift delivered an acceptance speech with a few layers of meaning and politics to unpack. She touted the fact that she’s the first woman to ever win two Albums of the Year from the Grammys, a factlet whose mention may have been an attempt to preempt the idea that her win is unfair or not progressive.
After this, her speech, proclaiming herself the victim of hardship as well as the paragon of perseverance and accomplishment seemed tone deaf after beating out a black man from difficult beginnings who created the defining musical and political statement of 2015.
Again, Swift seemed unable, or unwilling, to show her true character.
Scott Timberg writes in Salon:
When Swift was 14, her father relocated to Merrill Lynch’s Nashville office as a way to help dear Taylor break into country music. As a sophomore in high school… her dad bought a piece of Big Machine, the label to which Swift signed.
More so, most outlets refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. Most published a recap of the awards along the lines of, “Swift won Album of the Year but Lamar (swept the rap categories/gave a great performance).” As if the fact that Lamar winning awards within his own genre was a surprise or a fair consolation for the rapper. It was clear that these outlets felt compelled to mention Lamar, but all stopped short of saying that he was robbed.
The headline from Ben Sisario’s piece in the New York Times: “Kendrick Lamar Sweeps Rap Field at Grammys; Taylor Swift Wins Best Album”
A paragraph from Jon Pareles’s Times piece:
The show was also atoning for the 2014 snub of Kendrick Lamar, who lost best rap album to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the time. Mr. Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” swept this year’s hip-hop categories, and he gave the show’s central performance — although “To Pimp a Butterfly” lost to Taylor Swift’s “1989” as album of the year.
Two paragraphs from Alex Abad-Santos’s piece on Vox:
At the 2016 Grammys, Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift took home some nifty hardware.
Lamar went home with five awards, including one for Best Rap Album. Swift’s three Grammys included Album of the Year, making her the first woman to win the award twice. (She previously won in 2010 for Fearless.) And together, the two won Best Music Video for their hit “Bad Blood.”
The headline from Chris Richards’ piece in the Washington Post: “Grammys: Taylor Swift wins the big one, but Kendrick Lamar steals the show”
So, let me bring back a quote from the Gawker piece that I mentioned earlier:
Pieces are written “in that cracked-smile way that makes it seem like every writer was forced to write with a gun to his or her head. They read like press releases at best and cult scripture at worse, and there is hardly a trace anywhere of any dissenting opinion, specifically anything that calls out Swift’s current co-opting of capital-f Feminism as a self-promotional tool.”
On the night of the Grammys, outlets were put in a difficult position. Caught between Swift’s “empowering speech” and Lamar’s snub, rather than implicate the former in any wrongdoing, most media seemed content to praise Swift for her message at the cost of ignoring the issue of race completely.
Between poptimists determined to praise Swift, outlets afraid to criticize her, the army of fans that will defend her every move, and the singer herself, who seems unwilling to let anything, including morals, stop her from becoming as wealthy and popular as possible, Swift has become able to get whatever she wants without conceding that anything other than hard work has gotten her there. On a musical level and, more importantly, a racial one, the Grammys missed the mark and made the latest casualty of Swift’s Vanity Machine 2015’s most important artist.
Taylor Swift is not a musician. She’s not an activist. She’s a brand, like McDonald’s. And just like with McDonald’s, we would be much better off if we stopped feeding her our time and money.