Taylor Swift is taking over the world. The American pop star is the highest paid woman in music. She has over 100 million followers on Instagram and is a meme many times over. Her poetry was recently published in Vogue. And this week she graces the cover of Time as part of the group of “Silence Breakers” that won the magazine’s Person of Year award for speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse.
Everyone knows her name. Everyone knows at least one of her songs. You can’t escape her. But while she’s adored by many and heralded as a champion to young women around the world, she’s also vilified as a symbol of a multitude of things that people love to hate. She’s a brand. She’s a walking contradiction. She contains multitudes.
Is Taylor Swift the best? Or is TS (as we’ll call her henceforth) the worst? Two Quartz journalists, Lianna Brinded (a TS-skeptic) and Noël Duan (who grew up listening to TS) debate this question for the ages:
Lianna Brinded: Let’s firstly talk about TS’s craft. Her fans say that her lyrics are somehow as deep and poetic as an ancient philosopher. But, really, she writes lyrics like any other scorned teenager that scribbles about heartbreak in their diaries. And there’s a certain performative aspect to this angst, as Nancy Jo Sales and Jessica Diehl of Vanity Fair wrote: “Swift writes songs about the guys she dates and then sends fans on a scavenger hunt to find out who they are.”
Noël Duan: The Washington Post once called TS the “poet laureate of puberty.” I don’t think that’s inaccurate—or necessarily an insult. We tend to denigrate teenage girls for what they like and value, but scorned teenagers who scribble in their notebooks can be eloquent and profound. Sylvia Plath wrote a precocious but deeply felt first poem at 14. And when The Fault in Our Stars author John Green was asked by the New Yorker why he wrote young adult novels that treat teenagers like serious people with real emotions, he said: “I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.”
TS and I are one year apart in age, and when I was a sophomore in high school, I cried myself to sleep every night listening to her debut single, “Tim McGraw,” because my first boyfriend had just moved away for college. It doesn’t feel like a big deal now, but at age 15, I related to TS’s yearning for deeper meaning in everything, to her neurotic obsession of boys, to her perfectionism that veered towards crazy. I also read “real” poetry like Plath and Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, but the words that ran through my head at night were the ballad “Teardrops on My Guitar” and, when I felt vindictive, “Picture to Burn.”
LB: TS’s songs are anything but feminist or empowering for women and girls. Prime example: In “Better Than Revenge” she slut-shames a woman who apparently has stolen her boyfriend. This is just one of her many songs that pour scorn on women for either dressing too provocatively or for being sexually active. And in other songs—from ”You Belong with Me,” “Speak Now,” “I Knew You Were Trouble”—she promotes pitting women against women. She’s the real life Regina George, using “mean girl” narcissist tactics to promote a culture of women judging and fighting one another.
She deserves some credit for recently adding her voice to the chorus of women who are outing sexual abusers, suing a former radio host, David Mueller, who she said groped her during a photo op. But as one writer said, this principled stand doesn’t “fix her flawed feminism.”
TS’s “mean girl” persona extends way beyond her lyrics. With her “girl squad,” she promotes similarly toxic tropes and faux feminism. She has sought to tear down other people publicly—most notably her fellow pop star, Katy Perry. She has manipulated her high-profile spat with Kanye West to play the victim. She’s a snake and people still keep buying into her deceptions. There are lots of strong women and advocates for young people to look up to, but TS is not one of them.
ND: When I was a teenage girl getting groped by my male classmates—and blaming myself—I would have been inspired by TS’s advocacy for sexual assault survivors, as many women and girls are today. Taking the stand in her lawsuit against Mueller, TS was asked how she felt about him being fired after she complained of his groping her. She responded with a powerful retort to the notion that women are to blame for the consequences of their abuse:
I’m not going to allow you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.
OK, she’s competitive—very competitive. Ruthless, even. But she can also be gracious to other women. She sent flowers to the rapper Cardi B when “Bodack Yellow (Money Moves)” knocked TS out of the top spot on Billboard’s Top 100. Cardi B thanked her and admitted to “freaking” loving her music.
LB: Many have commented on TS’s blatant appropriation of black culture through videos and language, like the word “squad” to describe her manufactured gang (made up mostly of slender white girls). She has made multiple missteps (including her tone-deaf responses in that notorious spat with Nicki Minaj) and been called out for cultural appropriation and insensitivity, but even when she apologizes she refuses to recognize her own privilege. Though she has rejected their adulation, TS is a heroine to white nationalists.
ND: Full disclosure: As a non-white woman, I too have been disappointed with TS for not speaking out politically in the past year. She is one of few people in this world powerful enough to make a huge difference just by issuing a public statement—so what if she loses some of her millions of fans? And she’s not using her position to speak out.
TS has denounced white nationalists (pdf) through her lawyers, in a letter to an online publication. But she has been mostly silent on politics, in interviews and on social media. It would be nice to know for sure where she stands and to hear her tell racist fans to get lost. I don’t want to sing along to the same lyrics as white supremacists.
TS manipulates her music distribution to squeeze more money out of fans. No, she’s an artist protecting her brand.
LB: TS has been lauded as a champion of the underdog artist standing up to the fat cats of streaming, Apple Music and Spotify. But she’s no underdog: She’s just as ruthless as a Wall Street banker in squeezing not just streaming companies but also her beloved fans for every last penny.
Her latest scheme, dressed up as a reward to followers, required them to purchase her album on CD or as a download—and it paid off handsomely for her. Meanwhile, she has tried to trademark mundane phrases from her 2014 album 1989, infuriated photographers at her concerts by trying to limit their ability to sell photos, and gone after sellers on Etsy who dared to use her lyrics on a teeshirt.
ND: An artist has to protect her brand, her image, and her music—it’s all she has, and TS clearly is a branding genius. Whether or not you like her carefully cultivated image, TS is practically genetically engineered for mass appeal. Women in show business have only a limited period in their lives when they can make money from youth and beauty before they are made completely invisible to society. TS should make the money she can, while she can. I hope she continues donating it to organizations and people in need.