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Music is- and always has been -a powerful tool with which artists can use as a platform to express themselves, reach out, and connect with other people on the most sensitive human level. It is no surprise that in times of struggle, loss, joy or love, it is music that people will turn to in order to vindicate their personal feelings. As musicians expand their base, their influence and voice only become more prominent- dedicated fans sport the messages expressed by their beloved artists in everyday life, and incorporate recognizable melodies or lyrics within our culture. It is for this reason that I felt the need to take a close look at one of the most recognizable faces in the modern music industry- Taylor Swift. Her recent success and recognition for “Best Album of the Year 2015” indicates that the magnitude of her fame has heavy influence on today’s society. It is vital to study what exactly that influence is, and what morals and societal messages are promoted as products of her fame. It should be made clear that this analysis is not meant to be a critique of her musical talent or the quality of her as a person; for those are subjective to individual opinion. The objective is strictly to analyze what her works say about gender, heteronormativity, women of all shapes and color, as well as the harmful standards that her music videos tend to promote. As feminist writer Suzanne Cusick notes, “music has not been particularly susceptible to gender-decoding techniques…borrowed from the feminist criticism of literature and art…that this has taken us to oddly paralyzing rather than empowering conclusions about gender”(Cusick, 9).
The first music video of Swift’s to be looked at is Love Story released in September of 2009. The content of this fairy-tale themed song and video may seem somewhat like an obvious target, and I acknowledge that it was released 6 years ago, which some could argue makes it a less relevant piece of evidence with which to judge her modern and current musical influence. Yet, I find that the analysis of this particular video is critical, in that it was the first giant stepping stone with which Swift based her musical career. Many of her current fans and followers were introduced to her through this hit song. It certainly is relevant in that the video currently has over 280 million views on YouTube, the majority of which consist of adolescent-young adult women. This alone would be enough to say it has made its impression upon society, and yet it can also be said that the song has sold almost 6 million copies and was on the Billboard Hot 100 for a consecutive 14 weeks after its release.
From the moment you push play to watch this music video, you are met with images of the ideal white upper-class society; a seemingly well-off American school, surrounded by flourishing nature, well-dressed and groomed Caucasian students holding footballs and relaxing under trees. The love interest in this video is represented by a Caucasian male, who portrays the attributes of the ideal heterosexual teenage boy that American society loves to paint; a strong athletic physique, glossy hair, pure skin, and intense eyes that could literally pierce through armor, and definitely viewer’s hearts. All of this makes sense, considering the actor who plays him is literally a professional model in real life, which in itself promotes an unrealistic and stereotypical pressure upon adolescent males. All it takes is eye contact for Swift and the boy to be transported into this magical fairytale land of heternormative love that American children are spoon-fed from birth, from sources such as Disney films and picture books. This very clearly supports the notion that love is based solely off of physical attraction, as Swift and the model prince are hardly seen talking throughout any of the video. Swift sets the standard for all girls on what a princess should look like; glowing soft white skin, an exaggerated thin waist, physically conservative gowns with sparkling jewels and lace, (a standard of physical and economical status that the majority of young women would have trouble fitting). What is even sadder is society’s continuing acceptance of this as the ideal image for a woman. On YouTube, the top rated comment on this video literally says “She’s pretty now but like I loved the way she looked back here, so pure”. This was posted in 2016 by a male user who received substantial support for his comment, exhibiting the repressive obsession with women’s purity that still exists in our current society. Swift’s video follows a similar path to that of cliché G-rated movies, ones in which “characters frequently defy parents, their culture, or their very selves to embrace a hetero-romantic love that is transformative, powerful, and (literally) magical”(Martin/Kazyak, 324).
The relationship between the two characters in this video is forbidden for no clear reason at all, except for the fact that ‘dangerous’ attraction is simply sexier to watch. This really must have to be a make-believe land, when the love between two white upper-class heterosexuals is looked down upon. When looking at the problems and adversities that teenagers face in real life with what could be considered forbidden love, whether it is due differences in religion, race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, it seems almost ridiculous (if not offensive) to imply that people fitting the cliché privileged profiles shown in her video actually face legitimate discrimination in regards to who they can romantically pursue. What stands to be even more disturbing is that true happiness is only achieved for this girl when she is able to “pick out a white dress” and marry her prince in a white castle. Taylor Swift, hardly looking older than 18 in this video, not only sends a message to young girls about where their priorities should be, but also implies that a true Love Story is made when it ends in marriage with a wealthy man.
As Swift’s career continued, the next hit that dramatically boosted her career was the song and video “You Belong With Me”, released in 2009. This video was immensely popular; currently sporting over half a billion views on YouTube and was praised with nominations at the Grammys that year. In this video, Swift capitalizes on many of the same heteronormative themes previously discussed, once again targeting the white middle class teenage society. The lyrics to this song alone, “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts. She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” builds a very materialistic wall between young women, implying that there are only two types of girls, and whether or not you are one or the other determines your happiness, reputation, and overall attractiveness. Once again, Swift uses a male model to play the love attraction; the boy-next-door high school football star. If I had to pick one word to describe this entire video, it would be “stereotypes”. Each character in this video is put into very defined cliché social groups (nerds, athletes, band geeks, and rich kids) and each are treated differently because of it. This overused and dramatic stereotype of high school culture is outdated and harmful in that it promotes the idea that teenagers need to be profiled based on one defining attribute of their life, and that this profiling will determine their level on the social ladder. As a society, we should be promoting the notion that young adults should not have to be afraid or ashamed to be themselves with fear of being judged or labeled. Also, to encourage people to branch out and balance their lives with a plethora of various hobbies, sports, and personal attributes; not just one.
Swift plays the role of both the “nerd” and the “popular girl”. For starters, the only physical feature that Swift implemented upon herself to appear as the “different” and “misunderstood” girl was a pair of glasses. She still sports a thin physique, perfectly curled hair and makeup, flawless soft skin; all of which still point to a classic Caucasian hegemonic beauty standard. If Taylor Swift really believes that having glasses and wearing T-shirts is a cause for being a social outcast, I would advise her to talk to the many kids who went through school bullied and targeted, in example, for their race or sexuality or disability. On the opposite end, we have Swift’s exaggerated and slut-shaming portrayal of the popular girlfriend who is essentially the one standing in the way of the “nerdy” girl’s success with the male character. First off, Swift insisted on playing this role as well (good thing too, because after seeing her in glasses I had really forgotten that she was attractive). We first hear of the girlfriend in reference to a phone call that the boy is having. “Your girlfriend, she’s upset…she’s going on about something that you said.” Then the scene where the boy sadly looks up from the phone- an apparent victim to the unhappiness of his significant other. The message that I personally interpreted from this scene is that a good girl shouldn’t dare speak her mind if her partner says something that upsets her. Swift puts the audience’s sympathy on the side of the boy, when we know absolutely nothing about his personality or what he has done. We instinctively feel anger towards the girlfriend and are meant to play on his team, justified only by the fact that he is an attractive boy. Swift again in this video promotes women’s purity as idyllic, and implies that the girlfriend is to be detested because she wears shirts that show cleavage and speaks her mind.
In the end of this video, the glasses-wearing girl initially says no to going to the prom because of her need to study. This concept is clearly supposed to be looked down upon, as the football stud holds up a sign saying that he wishes she would go. Swift prioritizes the desire of her man-crush over her studying and ends up going, showing up in a white flowing dress (sound familiar?) and looking completely done-up and conformed, which evidently ends up finally winning over the boy. This video is the epitome of sexual double standards- the women are categorized and judged based on their sexual behavior, while the men can jump from different categories without any judgment whatsoever. As in the last video, women’s priorities are bottled down to ending up with the man. It is degrading and frankly bizarre that Swift would want to promote the idea that a woman who is intelligent and prioritizes scholarship can only reach true happiness through the approval of a boy. She promotes the belief that young women of all social groups should aim for the model-male-football star as their sole romantic goal, and that with enough self-pity and social/physical conformity, they can win his attention.
Swift has released many more hit singles since her 2009 debut, and has produced numerous more music videos, all of which hold hundreds of millions of views. She is constantly seen in the media and as an A-list celebrity has considerable recognition as a musical figure. However, even over 6 years later, many of the themes and motifs of her work remain the same. Her newest 2015 album, 1989, gained endless praise. Time Magazine even put it at number four on their list for the year’s “Top 10 albums”. Despite this positive reception among the media, when looking at the videos for the songs on this album, it is frankly surprising that Swift faces almost little to no criticism for her choices. Many of these featured songs and videos contain messages and themes that on a surface level look good for publicity and general approval. However, when looking deeper, it doesn’t take much to see that these surface level “messages” are actually quite backwards and end up endorsing stereotypes that many in this modern age have worked hard to fight. For instance, in 1989’s “Bad Blood”, the surface-level idea is that women are strong and can be “badass”, too. However, this video profits on the sex appeal of the featured women in order to make them appear dominant. Yes, women are shown fighting and being physically capable. However, what makes the video appetizing to viewers is not the strengths of the women, but how they are portrayed as sex symbols while wearing heels, tight revealing leather outfits, dramatic smoky-eye makeup, pristine and perfect hairstyles and always taking the occasional break to re-apply lipstick. In the video for “Wildest Dreams”, Swift uses the exploitation of the African culture as a setting for another Caucasian heteronormative love story. All taking place under colonial times; a time in history that many agree is inappropriate to make light of, as many Africans were brutally murdered, mistreated, and dehumanized. “Shake it Up” was this year’s most popular Swift song and video, yet it upset many over the use of black women’s bodies as twerking “props” while portraying the white women as petite and pure ballerinas. Like many other outlets for young-adult media, Martin and Kazyak note that “some racial/ethnic groups are portrayed as exoticized and more sexualized than white women”- Swift’s videos are no exception to this notion.
One could analyze Swift’s videos for hours on the hidden and not-so-hidden tasteless ideas that can be seen. What is now important to realize is that these messages, these words, and these images are being glorified, promoted and rewarded to such an overpowering extent that Taylor Swift’s influence is practically unavoidable in today’s culture. Despite the large lack of consideration that Swift holds in her music for people of varying sexuality, gender, and color, and despite her continuous promotion of women as weak romantic objects, it didn’t hinder her from receiving the Grammy for best album of the year. It can be agreed that the Grammys only feature a miniscule selection of musicians who release work, and that the idea of choosing a “best” in any aspect of music is completely subjective to individual opinion. What makes the outcome of the Grammys important to talk about is the heavy representation of American culture that comes with choosing winners. Winners of Grammys are automatically pegged as faces of modern music and art culture.
Not only can a lot be deducted about what Swift’s win for best album says as a statement, but whom she beat in this category is telling to a very deep level about modern society as well. Kendrick Lamar, an American black rapper from Compton whose album To Pimp A Butterfly artfully addresses discrimination and injustice for the black community, was among these defeated nominees. His music videos highlight real men and women of all shapes and sizes, all classes, and color to speak of essential truths about today’s culture. His hit song “Alright” particularly exposes the effects of police brutality among men and women of color. Alabama Shakes is another band among the nominees, who were nominated for their R&B album Sound and Color. The lead singer and guitarist of this band is Brittany Howard, a curvy woman of color known for her unique musical and vocal abilities. Their videos, too, portray diversity. Another nominee defeated by Swift was the The Weeknd for his popular and praised album Beauty Behind the madness. Abęl Makkonen Tesfaye is the man behind the stage name, a black Canadian musician, singer, songwriter, and producer. There is a common theme that can be observed between the artists from which Swift snatched the gold.
The music industry perpetually promotes the idea that being different earns you recognition, but conforming earns you the top prize. The Grammys were able to play this game by gaining just enough praise for themselves by having unique artist, like Alabama Shakes and Kendrick Lamar, as nominees so that Taylor Swift could still end up as the face of modern music. With her win, comes not only the praise of her music, but also the backing of her morals and messages to an audience of billions of people globally. It muzzles the deep cultural and revolutionary artistry of her fellow nominees, suggesting that America is still afraid to make big change within society. To put the 2015 best album award in her hands speaks to a deeper prerogative to try and preserve ideologies and standards of beauty and social order that are repressive and damaging to the young minds of today’s society. The media praises the idea of women’s purity, and still favors the white heterosexual pop culture to any type of alternative. Sure they can be nominated, but to win the actual award? No, that will still go to the artist who is often referred to as pop culture’s “Barbie”. Time Magazine even commented, “Country’s premiere princess is now pop’s heir apparent.” Swift’s success continues to grow exponentially and with it, her devoted fan base. Yes, her music sells and makes money. Yes, as a musician she has accomplished goals that many can only dream of. Her music is upbeat and subjectively catchy and her music videos are visually appealing. However, by putting Taylor Swift on this continuously growing pedestal, it sends a message to young women, young men, people of different sexuality, color, lower class, or people who face any type of injustice or adversity that society will not change its standards to accommodate their struggle- it is they, the discriminated, who are expected to simply “Shake it Off”.
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