The Last Unicorn: Did Taylor Swift Burst The Poptimist Bubble In 2017?

In the first of our 2017-in-review Wreath Lectures, Emily Mackay asks if the critical hysteria and emoji deluge surrounding the every doing of Taylor Swift is evidence that the poptimists need to pipe down

Ah, thought you’d get to creep out the door of 2017 without having to read Taylor Swift’s name again, did you? Afraid not. The so-called "downfall"’ of the country teen star turned pop overlord in the past year may not have exactly been edifying, but is illustrative of a problem – and, hopefully, a change – in the way people talk about pop.

The release in August of Swift’s single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ was a gala day for those who would claim that social media brings out the worst in people, as tweeters competed for the best snarkily dismissive line. Swift, already maligned as duplicitous and ruthless after the kerfuffle over Kanye West’s ‘Famous’, tried to reclaim the advantage by acknowledging her own vengeful dark side. In a bizarre backfire, she ended up accused of dogwhistling Nazis, and has become such a byword for baddie that she was an inspiration for Luv, the groomed replicant villain from Blade Runner 2049 and was last week castigated for being“a musical envoy for Trump’s values” in a Guardian editorial. Yes, an editorial.

These are scenes scarcely imaginable on the release of Swift’s last album1989, when the internet groaned under the weight of headlines such as "A Reasonable Conversation About Taylor Swift’s New Album Which Is The Best Album Ever", or "21 Reasons Why Taylor Swift Owned 2014".

I’ve no intention of defending Swift’s honour; terabytes have already been written on her wrongs and rights, and I’m pretty sure a 27-year-old multimillionaire Nashville graduate can weather a bit of social media pushback. I’m more interested in the backlash itself: the shift, in three years, from almost unbearable critical adoration to a point where no one’s got anything nice to commission about her – apart from, of course, the album reviews, which have in general, conceded that her songs are still quite good.

But why take issue with a few daft articles, with a little overexcitement, overthinking and overreaction? Pop is all about mania, obsession and hype, no? Hyperbole is built into its structure.

The problem for me is that breathless, brainless language – and in case you think this is just killjoy sneering at other people’s enthusiasm, here is my capslocky tweet from the day I attended the London premiere of Katy Perry’s 3D film Part Of Me – infects what we expect of pop music. Swift’s journey from messiah to monster demonstrates that uncritical adulation, quite apart from how boring it can be to read over and over again, is unsustainable; hot air creates a bubble that can only ever burst, and when it does, it’s not good for anyone involved.

This vicious new iteration of the old build-’em-up, knock-’em-down cycle seems like an unfortunate side-effect of poptimism, at first a fringe school of thought championed by the likes of Popjustice in the early 2000s, but now taken as read at most music publications. The movement asserted, in the words of Slate’s Jody Rosen that "pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act."

I wrote a piece a while back about the tendency of poptimism to assume that pop was automatically more progressive than rock, but when it began, the shift in thinking was both necessary and a cultural inevitability: the rise in great pop at the turn of the millennium demanded to be taken seriously, and the shifting commercial power of the genres – with pop and rap now often outselling rock – demanded recalibration. Though it’s not purely a new phenomenon – rock and indie publications and websites have long covered mainstream pop that strayed into their world or was just too good to ignore – thanks to poptimism there’s now more really great, in-depth, interesting pop writing out there than ever.

But still it feels like the zeal with which indie nerds lately reconverted to the cause of pop, as many poptimists are, demand equal respect for pop music leads them to talk about it in a register so self-consciously superlative, jokey and artificial, that it doesn’t actually sound like respect at all. In the enthusiasm arms race, a new Rihanna single can’t just be really good, but OMG the best thing ever, I am dead, gif gif, unnecessary inverted commas and CAPS LOCK TO FADE. If we believe that pop isn’t just for tweens – and that the tastes of tweens are as valid anyway – why do critics so often do bad impressions of them when writing about it?

Of course, there’s an understandable element of épater le £50-quid man in forcefully celebrating pop, rather than waste your breath explaining its value to the benighted for the millionth time.You don’t need to stray far beyond the safe circle of those who can appreciate the glory of Dua Lipa’s New Rules to find others who still think Beyoncé is a talentless tart who needs other people to write her songs for her, that pop music is plastic commercial trash, and that Dave Grohl is a holy saint working miracles in the church of Joe Strummer. Stray into any newspaper comment section on a story about Swift, Rihanna, Gaga, whoever, and you’ll find such sage observations as "I’d trade all of the Saylor Twits and her ilk just to have Leonard Cohen back", or indeed, still on the subject of Swift, this classic: "What she actually needs to do is to get far away from the teeny boppers she’s been embracing for so long and find herself a earthly man of 30 who has NO ties to entertainment whatsoever and NOT make her private life a song and a dance." They’re all there, typing away, waiting to send you screaming back into the arms of poptimism’s shock troops, beginning for another Rihanna reaction gif to cleanse your mind.

And it is, talking of Rihanna, mainly the women of pop who attract this hyperinflation of praise. She and Beyoncé are in a different league to Swift, of course – much of their adoration relates to their increasingly daring and complex articulation of black women’s experience within the pop form; Lemonade and Anti are a class above anything Swift is ever likely to achieve. To expect the addictive, euphoric songs of 1989 to carry the cultural expectation that was placed on them was, frankly, a category mistake. But if Beyoncé and Rihanna are worthier of worship, and their pedestals rest on stronger foundations, they’ll still have to be incredibly sure-footed to stay up there. The poptimist pantheon, the volte-face on Swift suggests, is a zero-sum game: you’re either a paragon or a pariah.

The intense adulation of pop women is doubtless well-intentioned; there’s a growing din of antifeminist voices out there, and the world is in general, an utter state. You can understand why so many long to throw themselves beneath the chariot wheels of a pop goddess in imperial phase, yelling "KWEEN! SLAY!" with their dying breath. But heaven help the deity who proves their humanity by erring.

The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote a great piece last year about the intense discourse surrounding famous females, writing "it’s clear that women still attract a certain kind of heated veneration that can’t yet be entirely separated from hate. The process of anointing an idol is dangerous to our idols, and perhaps to our own psyches, even when conducted on the best of terms."

Idols always fall, and it always gets ugly: it’s a surety that when these women fail to live up to ludicrous expectations, those who formerly praised them (or commissioned praise) will seek to save face by overcorrecting their overestimations with a new raft of negative hot takes. (And all the while, editorial time and space are being detracted from other, smaller acts, who would be happy with just one little tepid take.) There was great critical writing about Swift: Ellie Woodward’s Buzzfeed article painted a powerful picture of her as calculated, always playing the victim while manouevring for the upper position, Devon Maloney’s Medium essay invited us to look behind the veil and see a cynical, self-serving manipulation of her fanbase, masquerading as girl-next-door niceness, and Laura Snapes provided a lucid overview of the madness in the Guardian. Such articles are necessary: as one of the highest-earning musicians in the world, Swift’s business practices should be scrutinised every bit as much as a multinational CEO, and if she did need defending, most would struggle when it came to her embarrassing and tiresomely half-arsed public tit-for-tat with Katy Perry or worse, her Verified Fan scheme, which encourages loyal Swifties to do promotional work for her in order to be able to buy tour tickets. (There’s something too, in the criticism that she chooses only the parts of feminism that are easy, fun and make her look good, like the ideological equivalent of a Halloween sexy witch; though taking a groper to court can’t be that fun, no matter how good your one-liners on the stand are.)

But salient points about Swift’s mistakes were caught up in a weirdly vehement wave of dross such as articles debating whether Beyoncé and Gaga were a better example of female friendship than Swift’s "squad" based on a couple of Instagram posts, and in familiar-feeling misogynist narratives: the hidden ugliness behind the beauty, the hypocrisy of the "Nazi cheerleader" to borrow Camille Paglia’s dreadful phrase, who presented herself as an average, good-hearted goof while all the time being a mercenary snake. Her fuckups and failings were presented not as missteps or flaws, but revealing indications of the evil that we all should have seen behind her new-best-friend facade back in 2014.

But maybe whether, in the parlance of poptimists, you are Team Taylor or Team Not Taylor, we should have our eyes open from the start when it comes to pop stars. We’re all grownups, no matter how many firework emojis we deploy, and we all know how the pop business works – all music that’s sold for consumption must find a balance between art, fan community and profit, and commercial pop is termed such because it tends to skew more towards the latter. Poptimism encourages us, rightly, to see the art in pop as we see the art in big-budget movies – but with both, we should be mindful of the business end too.

And there’s the rub. Taylor Swift is, as Noisey’s Sarah MacDonald amusingly observed, too big to fail. Her album Reputation was the biggest-selling of the year in the US, and topped the UK chart. Snake emojis cannot strike at her heel, catty tweets cannot scratch her. Her downfall was far more damaging for pop fans than it was for her, not least because bullying behaviour – and yes, snarky tweet-offs are bullying behaviour – is bad for the bully even if the blows don’t land on the would-be bullied.

Plus, talking about pop in this boom-and-bust way devalues it, playing into the hands of those who view it – sexistly, rockistly, yes – as hysterical, superficial, empty. Appraisal of pop, or any music, shouldn’t be sober and serious-faced – it should fizz with excitement, but one finger at least should remain on planet Earth. We undersell the magic of pop when we talk about it as if its brilliance has shorted out most of our language circuits. And we often undersell other genres, too – analysis consistently tells us that we are past the age of musical tribalism, yet I still frequently see people setting exciting, shiny pop music against boring, hoary old rock as if they are rivals. Pop has, in commercial and critical terms, if not out there in the wilds of Below The Line, already won; it can afford to be a beneficent, live-and-let-live ruler, and its courtiers can surely relax a little. In 2018, let’s take a lesson from the less-than-surprising notion that one of the richest and most successful young women in the world is not only funny, smart and a good songwriter, but – shock – driven, fallible and occasionally as much a bit of an arse as most of us. Pop songs might occasionally feel like magic, but there are no real unicorns.

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