by: Nico Lang
I first became aware of the fact that Taylor Swift was a thing in 2008—because the internet (and almost every girl I knew) told me that I should like her. The message was kind of like one of those Netflix recommendations. “Do you like cats, pining for unattainable men, baking cookies and angry breakup songs with a sunny refrain? Then you will love this adorably porpoise-faced teen from Tennessee! Did you know she writes her own songs AND loves hanging out with her mom?” You see, I love cats and hanging out with my mom, but I also inherently resist being told what to like by other people. Someone could tell me about this new thing called “rainbows and sunshine,” and I would be skeptical. I would ask, “But sunshine, what’s its deal really? I mean, does it HAVE to be so bright?” Sometimes I come around and sometimes there’s Grimes, who I don’t think is a real person. It’s a S1mOn3 thing, I know it.
The sunshine and rainbows of Taylor Swift finally hit me one day when I was taking a break from my crappy video store job to enjoy a moderately priced six-inch sub sandwich from Subway. As I was swallowing what I could afford on minimum wage, T-Swizzle told me that I had a smile that could light up this whole town. She hadn’t seen it in awhile since [using my Bachelor’s degree to peddle fruit snacks and Adam Sandler films] brought me down. I said I was fine, but she knew me better than that. What was I doing with a [job] like that? I was getting over a rough breakup and running on very little sleep at the time, and something about her infectiously innocuous lyrics spoke to me. “You Belong With Me” was the kind of song you could sing into your hairbrush or with your little sister, an anthem that spoke to the lovelorn teen girl in all of us. I had just accidentally gotten into Gossip Girl at the time, because things like that happen when you work in a video store and get unlimited free rentals, and the moment was just right for Taylor to come into my life.
I have a bit of a thing for people who get famous and stay infectiously nice—your Amy Adamses, Kristen Bells and Reese Witherspoons. Sure, they may be some of the most famous people in the world, but they still get giddy when they talk about sloths and stay that girl-next-door they always were. Unlike Angelina Jolie (who I think would turn me into stone or eat me alive without blinking), I could walk up to them and have a real conversation. We could talk about if we prefer American Idol or The Voice, which One Direction member we would secretly “go to second” with and then not tell any of our friends about or play “Marry, Boff, Kill” with the Romney boys. (For the record: I’d go to second with Zayn and marry Tagg, boff Josh, kill Ben.) And I liked T-Swift for the same reason: She just seemed like a girl who got famous, rather than a famous person. A lot of her songs required the talent necessary to fold clothing at a Gap, but I didn’t mind that. Her appeal was less about her songs than about her as a person. She wasn’t just America’s sweetheart; she felt like she could be mine, too. And if she ever wanted to be best friends…I mean…I could be okay with that.
The problem is that over time, that lovability has started to feel more like a brand than her “being real,” which is somewhat inevitable in the business of being a superstar. Part of being famous is about the discourse of your own celebrity, who you are and what that says about our culture of celebrity, and the longer you are famous, the more of a type you become. Some people have escaped this (like Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet), but even Meryl Streep—my favorite person possibly of all time—gets pegged for her “wig and an accent trick.” Even the chameleons can’t win. But unlike Streep who gets more beloved with each passing second, playing into the discourse of her own celebrity is really hurting Swift—because it makes her harder to root for. In her early work, her breakup songs felt real and oddly raw for someone of her age, and despite her limited range, I thought that “Back to December” showed an immense poise and maturity. Rolling Stone recently compared Swift to Joni Mitchell (which is ludicrously high praise), and that’s the only song where I’ve felt that comparison was apt. The track wasn’t just about breaking up; it was about longing and heartache, but also maturity and growth.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” are the exact opposite of that. After the critical and commercial success of Fearless, an album that (for better and worse) encompasses the complicated feelings of being a teenager, critics were excited to see how she would tackle the experience of being a twenty-something. Although her sonic palette is evolving (check out that dubstep on “Trouble”), her good-girl-gone-scorned image hasn’t changed a bit. Swift seems stuck in being a fifteen-year-old, and when she was an actual teenager, that sounded age appropriate and naturalistic. “You Belong With Me” should have sounded like it was written by a middle-schooler, but on her newest songs, that ersatz teenage vapidity feels catty and forced. She’s not channeling Joni Mitchell or even Toni Baez. She’s pulling an Avril Lavigne.
And refusing to lyrically evolve past fifteen-year-old mock bitchery makes Taylor Swift increasingly difficult to root for—because instead of being the underdog we used to love, she’s becoming one of the mean girls. When the old T-Swizzle got her heart broken or was told by Kanye West that he would let her finish, you were on her side, and the identification with Swift felt earned. You knew what it was like to be that girl, looking for love, dating the wrong guys and getting your heart torn out at the VMAs. Yours just happened to be during prom night in the bathroom after your date went home with someone else.
But these days, Taylor just seems to be dating guys for the break-up songs, and she’s never met a guy she couldn’t tell her very Personal PR Diary about later. For me, the entire Gyllenhaal relationship encapsulates Swift’s Break-Up Factory perfectly. They would date, they would separate, People magazine would cover it and she would get to write a song where she teases us about whether or not it’s about him. When Rolling Stone mentioned that she is “real-talking Jake Gyllenhaal” on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” I gave them a big Daria eye roll—because I thought we were past this, like, two albums ago. She’s apparently dating a Kennedy now, and I’m just waiting for a song on her next album called “White House/Black Heart” or “You Crashed A Plane Into My Feelings.” If she knows these guys are trouble, what’s the point? She’s said that she does things for the “fun” of it, but to quote Swift, “This is exhausting. This is it. I’ve had enough.”
A part of me loves Taylor Swift and will always be grateful for the times I belted out “Mine,” while pretending I was totally listening to that new Sleigh Bells album. And who doesn’t remember the summer of “You Belong With Me” fondly, a song whose pervasive fan videos and spoofs basically invented Carly Rae Jepsen? For a brief time in the pop cultural consciousness, we all got to be fifteen again. That was “fun” for a while, but we all have to grow up some time, and her insistence on not doing so makes me want to scream, stab something or drown a puppy. I don’t want to hate her music, but by indulging her worst instincts as an artist, she isn’t giving me much of a choice. I’m not saying I’m breaking up with Taylor Swift, but I do think we need to take some time apart to grow as people and learn from the experience. We might get back together someday, but if whether we do or not, I just ask that—for once in her life—she needs to not write a song about it. Please. It’s time to move on.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, The New Gay, The Guardian and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.