the person who has come up with the single greatest body of pop songwriting in the 21st century is also its most popular performer

Variety


Taylor Swift would speak at the N.Y.U. commencement this month and receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts… Past recipients… Bill Clinton, Aretha Franklin…

NYT


Swift has encountered the type of controversies that would destroy most pop stars’ careers and acclaim. But at age 31, she has never been more awarded or acclaimed as a singer-songwriter… This [college] course proposes to deconstruct both the appeal and aversions to Taylor Swift through close readings of her music and public discourse as it relates to her own growth as an artist and a celebrity.

NYU


a work of High Culture, however inept, is an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals… [Out of pop culture and high culture, a] whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents…

In [pop] the trick is plain – to please the crowd by any means. But [mid work] has it both ways; it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down

Dwight Macdonald



Pop music is good. Songwriting teams are good. Precision is good. Reptilian strategising is good. Working your arse off is good. People liking things is good. Artists making money is good. Admitting you are a trash-fire human being is good. And reinventing yourself is good.

So why does Taylor Swift (your reception of Taylor Swift) make me feel like I have ants beneath my skin?

I think it’s because I am seeing a machine (a series of large corporations and 40+ ghostwriters and designers and lawyers 6) represent itself as a singular human being I am to empathise with. Then a large part of society greets this machine as an artist 14, like a line of ducklings imprinting on a combine harvester.

Call the machine TS. The interesting part is that Swift the human built TS the machine and to some extent controls it. A self-manufactured pop star: Swift obscures the machine, equivocates, and feeds it vast hosts of people (fans, co-writers, boyfriends, enemies, bloggers). The project is reflexive: it makes songs about its own controversies, songs which lead to more fame, fame which automatically produces more controversies.

TS presents itself as Swift. It does perform characters explicitly (e.g. Cinderella, Rebekah Harkness) but the machine TS mostly pretends to be the woman Swift in various forms. It adapts to audience and times: innocence-coded (with a twang) for Nashville then; demisexual-coded (with FKA-sighing) for the glossies now; BPD-coded (and drawling) for the extremely online now. A persecution complex (and diphthongs) for everyone 1.

That’s half of it; the other half is your incredible overestimation of the output. 13 TS songs are moderately catchy, (recently) moderately perverse, but expertly ape The Current Thing (Shania Twain / Faith Hill / Kelly Clarkson / Jenny Lewis / Lady Gaga / Kesha / Lana del Rey / Lorde / FKA Twigs / Billie Eilish / whoever it is now). But TS is noticeably flatter than any of these. 3



Why does the music’s reception matter if the music doesn’t matter? Well, I dislike things that pretend to be deep when they’re not. Things which pretend to be personal are on tricky aesthetic ground. Entertainment is fine but not when it stands in place of art. We used to be iffy about parasocial relationships, corporate machines, being played.

I realise now that Swift is a kind of artist – but the art is not music, it’s marketing. Empire-building. Trend sniffing. Ingenious image management, audience relationship management, and hiring. She weathered culture war struggle sessions completely fine; people have repeatedly announced her demise; critics have bleated about the derivativeness and hollowness - and yet here she is. These feats require intelligence, deep cultural awareness, and cold blood. So if the music is uninteresting the phenomenon isn’t. She plays the world like a fiddle.


What?

Art music exists and isn't the same as pop music. Attention is limited; true artistic appreciation is 1000 times more limited. TS is fine except insofar as it stands in place of art music, a switcharoo you lot are pulling on yourselves. Fake things (as opposed to fictions) struggle to attain greatness.

I like analysing stuff. In the course of making that plea for demarcation, I found actually interesting things about TS. (When you are faced with something with no merit, you always have the option of anthropology: stepping back and studying the fans, working out the deep things any phenomenon of this size will say about culture. The world in a grain of sand, in the flash of the feed.)

(The 'blurry jpeg' title is from Ted Chiang's (bad) analogy for large language models. GPT, Chiang says, is just a compressed version of the internet, is fundamentally doing nothing intelligent, it just echoes existing tropes, it is a vast mirror with no centre. After tuning, it tells us what we want to hear.)

Why should I care what you think?

Likely you shouldn't. I'm not the target audience. Still, you might want to understand the dominant musical forces in the world, or the most lucrative tour in history (probably the highest income celebrity this year). Or you simply get the bad vibe and want to see what's behind it.

Crossing ourselves

People often deny that the female face of a machine had creative control. Even Björk, one of the most distinctive musicians of the last 30 years, has had people deny her contribution to her own music, particularly her production work.

I won't: there's plenty evidence of invention. Speak Now (the sole authorship album) is fine and collaborators go into great detail about her creative process 10.

My problems with TS have little to do with the size of Swift's contribution and more to do with it optimising against me, the product's aesthetics, and its absurd reception.

(It's Martin and Shellback and Antonoff's and the thirty others' job to fade into the background, to make the star seem larger than they are. But even with coauthorship this is still a trick and we shouldn't fall for it.

I think this tricks explains TS' dominance over other pop stars: it exploits a vulnerability in the "singer-songwriter" high culture status and pairing it with standard post-Britney sexy choreographed stadium hook shit. Then when TS smells an upcoming popstar it hitches her wagon to them with a collab.)

Both Trilby and Svengali

Three different industry roles run together in Swift:

  • the Impresario (showrunner, director; Tin Pan Alley / Brill / Music Row / Colonel Parker / A&R exec scouting and CEO and hitmaker)
  • the Manufactured Popstar (Kylie / Britney / Katy / Selena / Ariana)
  • the Songwriting Chameleon (Lou Reed / Bowie / Madonna) 4
She appears to be the best in the business at two of these and serviceable at the other.
12



Poptimism imperial

Quincy Jones: “We need more songs, man. Fucking songs, not hooks.”
INTERVIEWER: Some people consider her the great songwriter of our age.
QJ: laughs. “Whatever crumbles your cookie.”
INTERVIEWER: What’s missing?
QJ: “Knowing what you’re doing…
INTERVIEWER: Plenty of people talk as though Taylor Swift has great songs.
QJ: “But they don’t know, man. They don’t know. I’ve come and gone through seven decades of this shit. Seen all that. Seen how that works. Ignorance is no thing.”


It’s uncomfortable to be out here proclaiming about Art vs Pop; 10 years ago I was on the other side, of the poptimists (who said that pop is good and worth talking about). I welcome us no longer pretending that pop music is bad music; I welcome us no longer doing violence to our own taste.


But! pop’s aims are vastly different from those of art music, and I want there to be some space for the latter. Midcult machines like TS steal this space 2.

As usual, the revolution lost its mind after crushing the opposition. (Pitchfork, once a caricature of thoughtless hipster antipathy to the mainstream, made the Red reissue an album of the year. Until 2017 they were able to totally ignore her, never reviewing any of it.)

Scaruffi’s radical conservatism:

Art Music differs from Commercial Music the way a Monet painting differs from IKEA furniture. Although the border is frequently fuzzy… [we can still say that] being an art musician is a different kind of job, more similar to the job of the scientific researcher (and the old-fashioned inventor) than to the job of the popular entertainer…

The goal of an art musician is, first and foremost, to do what s/he feels is important and, secondly, to secure a place in the history of human civilization… Art music knows no stylistic boundaries: the division in classical, jazz, rock, hip hop and so forth still makes sense for commercial music (it basically identifies the sales channel)

Macdonald, quoted above, carries a lot of baggage about the outsized importance of novels and elite cultural stewardship. But we don’t need any of that to take the key point: pure pop is better than pop which is pretending to be art. (Yes, some art music finds commercial success. But as a side effect of being itself.)

in 2020, Swift surprise-released Folklore and Evermore, two albums produced with the National’s Aaron Dessner that repositioned her as a serious musician, not just a pop star.

Product pivot!



The economics of art

Once something costs $140m to make, certain forms of art become impossible. You cannot take risks, aesthetic or physical. You cannot improvise. You must appeal broadly, probably too broadly to be yourself, unless your soul is already a common denominator. Logistics, an iron constraint on vision.

This is why I put up with bad production and sloppy musicianship: the higher the budget, the less likely I am to see any true experiment and idiosyncracy and deviance, which is what I want from art and often from entertainment too. Music is very cheap compared to other artforms (barely a million per hit), which is why we still see a modicum of experiment in popular songs.

I think the usual mechanism is that the execs meddle to ensure that they recoup their investment. And committee art is generally inferior because it takes us further from honesty and idiosyncracy. TS has sponsors and “partners” (investors) to please 8.


the parasocial

[Fan’s] devotion to Taylor Swift runs so deep that she feels as if she can trust her like a friend. After the pop star encouraged fans to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, Ms. Smith registered. The 23-year-old’s most recent rite of passage — getting her first credit card — was also prompted by the singer.

isabella simonetti


people on tumblr and twitter really don’t like to separate art from the artist, for example the artist Adele, or Taylor Swift. Everything has to be about the person Taylor Swift, and the kabbalistic implications of pieces of the lyrics. It’s not enough for people to like or not like her music. It’s all about Taylor Swift existing in the public eye, criticism is criticism of her person, her life… even the posts that criticise… feel painfully parasocial.

– someone on tumblr


This part of the machine is really interesting.

The romantic singer-songwriter tradition says that music is good to the extent that it honestly expresses one person’s feelings. So how can it be bad that TS talks about Swift’s love life, and that people respond to it?

First: TS is simultaneously an optimised hit factory which tracks chart trends and creates products in response, and a gossip mag analogue. The songs are more explicit about its celebrity subjects than past love / revenge songs. The result is a product to a greater degree than everything else is now a product. (You lot would go parasocial regardless of how private Swift was - but as it is it’s cultivated in a way which makes me run screaming.)

Another is that melding public and private destroys the private. Living in public prevents you being yourself (think of the self-censorship alone). This undermines the romantic artist story a second way 9. And like you can read her diary.

The music is generally a play for sympathy or (even more sympathetic!) a revenge fantasy. Possibly these bids are even sincere – one imagines it’s quite therapeutic to have a million people cheering you. But the one-sidedness makes me disdain them (e.g. recall the absurd premise of “Reputation”, that she is a victim and needs defenders).

Yet another strat: the pretence that TS is uncool, the victim of snobbery, mean girls, haters, paps, hacks, misogyny. (She’s uncool, like you. She’s bullied, like you. Being a fan of her is brave and kind.) Apparently this has an actual referent in Swift’s misfit teen experience, but it becomes a grotesque pose in the light of TS’ global supremacy. A side effect of the pretence is pre-empting essays like this. Haters are going to hate.


Ramsey against the machine

What's the difference between people delighting in her outfits and new beau and me loving every anecdote I can get about Frank Ramsey?

Well, one of them is a human being who lived for himself, and one is a giant mech running a fuzzing attack on your emotions with a human pilot somewhere inside.

Squad

TS' girlsquad is a useful gimmick: it lets you borrow status and swap in commodities more easily. If you keep bringing in younger members then it gives the machine some futureproofing. Performative friendship.



authenticity

If there was a single millisecond of spontaneity in the entire evening, I missed it.

Curtis Sittenfeld


By chance, I’d found myself having dinner with a former acquaintance of Swift’s who offhandedly described her as “calculating.” This is the only moment during our interview when Swift appears remotely flustered. She really, really hates the word calculating…

[Swift: ] “ ‘Am I shooting from the hip?’ Would any of this have happened if I was? … You can be accidentally successful for three or four years. Accidents happen. But careers take hard work.”

Klosterman


She is a snake in the most positive way. She sheds her skin and becomes a new version of herself to fit in with today’s culture. You never know what will come next, which is what keeps her fans so engaged.

Lauren Beeching


it’s a little foolish to knock Taylor Swift for basing her brand on authentic teenage experiences that she never actually had for the same reason that it’s naive to point out that William Shakespeare wasn’t an Italian teenager willing to die for love; the art is separate from the artist, and the better the artist the less likely they actually have any personal experience in what they’re arting.

Argumate


The machine is most visible in its precision and repetition (Sittenfeld notices it in the exact reproduction, every show, of that giggle from “Shake It Off”). But James Brown was much more of a dick about precision, and I don’t view him as a lesser artist because of it.

Authenticity is a very stupid idea in a lot of ways. It’s ahistorical - e.g. much of the Italian menu canon didn’t exist 100 years ago, and some are American adaptations, but the recipes are now fiercely gatekept as the essence of Italian culture. It prevents innovation. It has made some great artists superstitiously avoid money (or kill themselves) for fear of becoming inauthentic. But look at the dominant alternative!

(One difference between Shakespeare writing about Veronese gang kids and TS writing about high school kids is that Shakey wasn’t pretending to be a Veronese gang kid. I can’t improve on this analysis of how the TS image is engineered.)

The most interesting things about Swift were harder to discover: she’s a sort of high school dropout; she started her career at 13 as a genuine social misfit; she remains a massive hustler who doesn’t seem to regret her child-star path, and who outdoes any cupidinous rapper re: stacks 5. Her re-recording her back catalogue is simultaneously a highly original act of independence and profiteering laziness. (Throughout this piece I’ve had to check myself whenever I go to say that TS is only a scary money machine. Scary money machines do not make this much money!)


A microcosm of pop’s appropriation

Pop as a whole is obviously larger and more literally hegemonic than little old TS: it ate gospel, it ate country, it ate jazz, it ate rock, it ate punk, it ate hip-hop, it ate various weird obtuse electronic genres, it ate lo-fi. It wears their shucked skins whenever it likes.

TS is just one little corner of this larger machine; TS only works at all because of pop’s debasement of the “indie” category over the last 20 years. “Indie” began not as an aesthetic category but an economic category, meaning “not a machine product”. Admittedly, your choosing this economic niche meant you weren’t very interested in being popular, and so “indie” in practice connoted a cluster of intensely personal weird rock. But “indie” now means “has guitars and vaguely depressed vocals” and is extremely prominent among corporate releases - overproduced lo-fi - pensive strumming with no thoughts. (The upside of this debasement is to make pop larger: irony, self-doubt and negativity are now options for hitmakers, and this makes the charts less monotonous.)

For all Swift’s grinding and shrewdness, TS is just a splinter of the same spontaneous order that created Britney, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Halsey, Meghan Trainor, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez. 11 But they aren’t out here being given a PhD in fine arts.


The backroom boys

I remain interested in pop, and not just rubbernecking.

I've been getting into hitmakers, the pop artists upstream of society's defining noises for a decade at a time. Skeleton keys for eras. Quincy Jones, Billy Steinberg, SAW, Guy Chambers, Timbaland, Max Martin.

You can't taste the sulphur and saccharine at this altitude.

Aping the 90s girl

Yet another current that feeds TS is the defiant/seething/heavy-lidded post-grunge 90s girl - think Fiona Apple, Alanis, Sinead O’Connor, Courtney Love.

TS dilutes it, of course: uses the attitude while dropping the look. But making whole albums full of miserable angry pop remains a minor achievement. The imperfect girlfriend and vengeful ex remain underrepresented in the charts.

Lawyering up

Unprecedently, TS has tried to trademark various commonplaces. The Guardian grants this absurd lawfare the benefit of the doubt. "It's really just about protecting herself."
This is arguably less about her wanting to boil every single thing she does down to a “revenue stream” and more about a pre-emptive strike against callously opportunistic third parties who might want to make money off her without either her involvement or her say-so.

There's also this ugly moment.



Polymorphousness

David Bowie turned marketing into the essence of his art. All great phenomena of popular music, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, had been, first and foremost, marketing phenomena… With Bowie… art and marketing become one… Bowie was… the heir, no matter how perverted, of Andy Warhol’s pop art… He [made underground transgressive art into] precisely what [it] had been designed to fight: a commodity.

Piero Scaruffi


Whatever you are upset about, the poet laureate of this generation has got a song somewhere in her mega-oeuvre describing that precise feeling.

Suzanne Garfinkle-Crowell


“why do you always make her sound like a bundle of chitinous plates and spines tightly wrapped in human skin”

because her superpower is making you think she’s you

Kontextmaschine


Most machines stop iterating once they find a hypersuccessful selling point. TS is thus in a rare category along with Bowie and Madonna: the red queens. TS found massive success by presenting as a chaste country girl; a stadium dance-pop star running family-friendly S&M; an oversexed indie grrl; a politically-aware ally; a goth-lite-lite bedroom-recording-studio murmurer …

Bowie changed so often because there was nothing underneath. He is the great artist of surfaces. (He was also thoughtful enough that we should credit him with intentional rebellion against the pop/art and fake/authentic spectrums.) The difference is his quality and prescience: he managed to pre-empt glam, prog, vanilla funk, punk, AOR, new wave, and Online. He was a leading indicator, where TS is lagging.

Madonna is a much better fit; the constant try-hard iteration, the artful use of superficiality, sex, and the celeb racket. The lauded versatility ultimately boiling down to a couple of flavours of pop.


Eras

"Eras" is a funny brand for a career retrospective (one 'era' per album):

The conceit is that TS has as many distinct artistic and personal personas as it has albums (ten). This is simultaneously a (spurious but effective) brag about TS' versatility and a relatable bit about the inconstancy of personality.

It imposes narrative structure and nobility on a trend-chasing optimisation process.




Where will TS be in 20 years? Bowie’s fate or Madonna’s? 7 (Madonna also had 10 no.1 albums, but aside from a couple of eternal singles it’s fading into the nostalgia noise level.)


Also: God knows what TS or its successor will be like when augmented with actual machines. Maybe we will come to see TS as clumsy broadcast propaganda compared to the coming personalised midculture.




It would not amaze me if this post ended up feeding TS in its way (bloggers have been useful to it before). What a machine!


You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard…
I can see you years from now in a bar
Talking over a football game
With that same big loud opinion
But nobody’s listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things



what's good

I quite like the Martin/Swift numbers "Style", "Blank Space", "Shake it Off", "I Knew You Were Trouble". ("We Are Never" shows its emotional pulleys too nakedly for me to forgive it.)

Antonoff's "Dress" is a FKA knock-off, still good.
Of the solo work, "Enchanted" is perfect in its way, including the squeaking. (Carmichael just did the strings; I think nearly none of TS' arrangements are Swift).

lyricist

I'm told that Swift's own self-conception and real talents lie in lyric-writing. I don't see it but will quote Kontextmaschine for completeness:

Okay, yes the vocabulary and grammatical structure is pitched at an eighth-grade reading level; her work is pitched at an eighth-grade audience. But that’s hardly to say there’s no depth to her lyrics, it’s just that a lot of it relies on semantic overloading, and particularly semantic overloading that specifically plays on her bridging of popular music genres.

To simplify, pop-rock lyrics tend to set a mood while country lyrics tell a story, but Taylor Swift lyrics tend to craft an atmosphere in which individual lines suggest a story or multiple stories (which listeners can fill in, according to the specifics of their own lives or daydreams), which can in turn be taken as literal or as metaphors.
  1. persecution of... someone with the world's largest and loudest fanbase.
  2. The industry's standard term for a performer is partly to blame here.
  3. I don't hold Gaga or Kylie's weak voices against them, because they sound like themselves. On a new song I can't tell TS apart from Katy Perry / Selena Gomez / Ariana Grande.
  4. Reed made a lot of old shit and a not inconsiderable amount of great pop, but you can tell he was an artist too because so much of his stuff is intentionally unlikeable. Bowie is more complicated.

    "I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.'"
  5. "used to practice her guitar until her fingers bled, and her mother had to tape them up"
  6. "You're On Your Own Kid"
  7. One could reuse this post for Beyoncé almost verbatim, changing only a few things.
  8. This implies that there's an untapped kind of mega-art that could be made by that rare bird, the unfathomably rich person with no interest in money or mass acclaim. Here's a flavour.
  9. Again, unless you happen to be a palatable person already. Pop selects for people who are common-denom and/or can turn on the palatable words and smiles. Klosterman notes that Swift oscillates constantly between bland star-face and actual expression in interview.

    Again, this is fascinating in its own way, but not the way I want.
  10. Still, remember that the songwriting credit system obscures actual credit:
    "This body of songwriters will not give publishing or songwriting credit to anyone who did not create or change the lyric or melody or otherwise contribute to the composition without a reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange for all the writers on the song,”... These songwriters have worked on songs such as Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” Katy Perry’s “Rise,” Taylor Swift’s “Only The Young” and Selena Gomez and Blackpink’s “Ice Cream.” However, the letter does not mention any specific artists or songs.
  11. Her diphthongs are far from the full absurd Indie Pop Vocal (except in moments like "oiiim insane"), and the autotune is subtler.
  12. Doing all three isn't unprecedented: Michael Jackson is Swift's obvious forebear here. But (despite some of his hits being entirely written by others), he seems more of an auteur and his self-presentation is stable and deeply idiosyncratic (pathologically so).
  13. Bowie pulled off a less-corporate, more-high-culture version of the TS trick 50 years ago and I love him for it - because his songs are, at the very least, interesting and aimed at more than pleasing me.
  14. "the person who has come up with..."

Comments


razetime commented on 13 June 2023 :

Despite the seeming lack of ‘importance’ this topic had, I deeply enjoyed reading the ideas you have collected surrounding it.


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