By Olivia Funderburg
Content warning: mention of sexual assault
My first Counterpoint article was about Taylor Swift. I was a first-year trying to figure out how to be a college student; now I’m a senior trying to come to terms with the person who I’ve become. On the eve of the next Taylor Swift album—and wondering if it could be the last—I’m sitting down to write about her again.
I’ve never been in a serious (or really any) romantic relationship, so the reason I like Taylor’s music isn’t that I relate to most of it. I definitely didn’t start listening to her music because I’m a country fan. You can’t really choose who you love. If you could, I don’t know if I would have chosen Taylor—choosing otherwise would have saved me a lot of upset over news headlines and confusion brought on by my peers who wonder why a black girl likes Taylor Swift. Alas, on Christmas Day 2009, I opened up Fearless Platinum Edition. I’ve been hooked ever since. The fact that I’m generally a hopeless romantic and tend to fall hard and fast didn’t help. The bottom line is that from Fearless to reputation and everything in between, Taylor never fails to come through with lines like, “Bridges burn, I never learn / At least I did one thing right” that hit me deep in the heart.
There hasn’t been a new Taylor album for three years, and in those three years a whole lot of shit has gone down. When Taylor announced reputation back in August, I knew to brace myself for the onslaught of opinions that were going to be all over the Internet the next day. I also didn’t know if I’d be able to handle the combination of a surprise new song and the endless critiques. I was right. The song was disappointing, the snake videos were a cheap marketing ploy, the album cover was ugly, the song was just plain bad, and, shocker, she was playing the victim again. Look what who made you do? And what did they make you do? I got defensive in a group chat and I wasn’t sure if I liked this song because I liked it or because I had to like it. The conflicting emotions that came from my longtime favorite returning to the music scene was overwhelming, and I felt a little (or a lot) lost. Still, I felt a certain joy just from the existence of her new music. Regardless of sound or genre, there’s something to be said for my dedication that’s eight years in the making.
Taylor Swift is far from perfect. She claims to be a feminist, but she doesn’t take the time to uplift the voices of marginalized women, to speak up about politics, or to really participate in any visible sort of activism. However, she donated a large sum to support Kesha’s high-profile legal battle—and Kesha says that Taylor always answers the phone when she calls. That’s a pretty good example of a woman supporting another woman. Todrick Hall noted that when he spent last Thanksgiving with Taylor’s family, they watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th and had a thoughtful discussion afterwards. She also took a former radio DJ to court for sexually assaulting her, suing for only $1. Behind-the-scenes Taylor is not necessarily the same as surface-level Taylor, and I often wonder why. Taylor writes, “We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show us.” If this applies to everyone else, it certainly applies to her. What was really said on that infamous phone call with Kanye West?
Taylor spent the past year or so out of the public eye, putting herself and her happiness first, which is a powerful stance to take. In promoting reputation, the strategy seemed to put fans first, which, as far as artistry goes, is valuable. However, given the current political moment, this marketing approach only makes her seem cold, disinterested, and disengaged from the world around her.
What is Taylor’s reputation? The serial dater, the white feminist, the fake feminist, the girl who “got a boob job,” the “plays the victim,” the “maybe she’s the problem,” the snake? I’ve heard it all. Right now, a mainstay of Taylor’s reputation involves extending her social media hiatus to almost all major events in the United States. How much political commentary does she owe us? What does it mean that we’ve gone from, “I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it” to finding that “the old Taylor is dead?” The old Taylor can’t really be dead, because the current Taylor still writes songs and still wants to meet her fans and still wants to separate her public and private lives. But she’s taken on a different persona. In “Look What You Made Me Do,” she sings, “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me,” which strikes me as incredibly lonely. I wonder if we’ve put Taylor into that position, or if she’s done it to herself.
The February MTV article “Where Does Taylor Swift Fit Now?” sums up the problem with Taylor pretty well: “Feminist expression, in 2017, has to be more than just standing next to other women and looking nice. Politics has to be more than just urging fans to exercise their constitutional rights; the idea of pop as a platform just to elevate one’s self feels out of date, especially right now. To make a mark on 2017, Taylor Swift will have to show us what she really stands for. As a star with a highly cultivated image, that may be hard—but at this point, silence equals complacency.”
Alternatively, there’s the good old “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Regardless of what conversations Taylor might have behind closed doors or I’mWithHer fundraising dinners she might attend, as a person in the public eye with a public persona, what Taylor says in public—or doesn’t say—matters. While she might have fans who are queer, people of color, immigrants, or from any other marginalized groups who continue to connect to her music, those same fans may also be highly disappointed that someone who means so much to them doesn’t stand up and defend their humanity. She has the privilege and the platform to do so, yet chooses not to. I haven’t been able to figure out why.
I wonder if it’s possible to separate the art from the artist. If I say yes, then I’m a hypocrite, because I’ve said before that I can’t separate a politician from their personal exploits. An artist is a person first, and their personhood must inform their art. Just because Taylor’s life may not warrant particularly political music—and I wouldn’t want to listen to music where an artist was reaching far outside of their experience—doesn’t mean that she can’t speak on issues she cares about. The public has witnessed Taylor use social media to send a message when it suits her—to address Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj—and yet, she stays silent on so many things. Though non-politician public figures aren’t obligated to comment on politics as part of their work, we live in a political world, and to ignore that feels either jaded or just plain stupid. It’s a question of values: what’s important to a person and what identity they want to convey. Though I feel like I know Taylor, through the facts I’ve gathered over the years and through her revealing lyrics, in a certain way I don’t know very much about her at all.
Part of me still loves Taylor and probably always will. Still, I don’t think my love of Taylor defines me anymore. I’d like to think that I’m a critical consumer. These days, my love for Taylor really comes down to a love for her music more than a love for the writer herself. Though I might want to love who Taylor is at her core, so much of her current persona and choices can’t sit right with me, whether it stems from a lack of personal awareness or an attempt to control a business.
Taylor is like an old best friend who you don’t know well enough anymore—or you aren’t sure you really want to. I have so many emotions and memories tied to her, and I wouldn’t give them up for the world. But it’s time for me to give Taylor some space so I can figure out who I need to be. I’m sure she’ll still make the playlist.
Olivia Funderburg ’18 can’t be her old self again, but she doesn’t think she should be.
From November 2017 issue