Tagged: The Hills

Dammit, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, America's sweetheart; image courtesy of villagevoice.com

At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it. 

For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill. 

Just so we're clear, none of the girls in this heterocentric male gaze imagining of a slumber party are Taylor Swift; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business. 

Cover to the "You Belong With Me" single (Big Machine/Universal Music Group, 2008); image courtesy of buzzworthy.mtv.com

Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.” 

Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go. 

I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her. 

I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music). 

Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.

I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article. 

I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify. 

Beth Ditto: my kind of pop star; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling? 

Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying

That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent

Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.

Beth Ditto queers the popular stitch

So, Beth Ditto is a style icon. No two ways about it. If you know this, then you probably also know that Beth Ditto just launched a clothing line for Evans in the UK. You may have already read SparkleBliss’s rad, insightful post about it on her blog (which, if you haven’t, you should — go here). And, if you follow SparkleBliss on Twitter, you may already know that she just bought herself a cute outfit from the collection.

Selected items from Beth Dittos collection for Evans

Selected items from Beth Ditto's collection for Evans; image courtesy of blog-lilirosaly.com

Now, women in music dabbling in fashion is nothing new. Indeed, women in popular culture writ large dabbling in fashion is almost de rigueur — another way to circulate your brand, add more hyphenates after your name, and give your fan base more tactile, tangible access to “you”. Everyone seems to be have at least attempted at designing a clothing line (Gwen Stefani, Victoria Beckham, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, Eve, Kate Moss, Rachel Bilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Chloë Sevigny, an assortment of women on The Hills . . .) or work as a spokesmodel (M.I.A. for Marc Jacobs most immediately comes to mind).

But you’ll notice that a lot of the women I mentioned are presumably straight and all of them slender.  Thus, the majority of female celebrity clothing lines align with normative identities of what women and girls should be. This indeed makes Ditto’s entrance into the world of fashion and retail (which she intimated in Bust as “dancing with the devil”) “a queer, fat cultural moment” as Charlotte Cooper at Obesity Timebomb purports it to be (and that SparkleBliss reprinted and linked in her post — seriously, go read it). It’s too bad that Margaret Cho’s High Class Cho line didn’t take off (complete with non-numerical sizes named for bombshells like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe) — if so, we could add “woman of color” to the list of signifiers.

Also, looking at Ditto’s body and orientation is important when contextualizing her within pop music’s landscape. Slender pop stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are also interested in fashion and with putting together their own clothing lines, but while Perry and Gaga flirt with queerness, Ditto is out. And while Perry’s look most clearly aligns with vintage, pin-up Hollywood glamor (albeit to a heightened, campy degree) and Gaga’s look is definitely severe couture (perhaps even a bit fascistic in ways reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux, but let’s give this issue its own entry), Ditto’s collection is at once hip, wearable, distinctively Ditto, and specifically for plus-sized women and girls, perhaps more closely aligning Ditto with her fan base than Perry or Gaga could.

Katy Perry, covered in sushi; image courtesy of thegurglingcod.typepad.com

Katy Perry, covered in sushi; image courtesy of thegurglingcod.typepad.com

But we’d be doing a disservice to sing the praises of Ditto’s collection without (as SparkleBliss and Obesity Timebomb point out) a) acknowledging the inherent adherence to capitalism and b) being conscious of the (often cheap, exploitative) modes of production and labor responsible for putting this collection out into the market along with potential class issues and limitations among various consumer groups. Even the ways in which the unnatural, weird, non-human look of the mannequins wearing her clothes suggest we have a ways to go as a culture before a large female body becomes a natural body.

Weird mannequin, right?; image courtesy of sugarscape.com

Weird mannequin, right?; image courtesy of sugarscape.com

Alongside this, we can’t extol the virtues of Ditto’s collection without acknowledging that Ditto launched her line in the UK, where she is actually popular, instead of in the United States, where she’s slightly less than obscure.

I still feel like there’s something really important in having a space in the market for full-figured women and girls to have a cool clothing made explicitly for them, just like I thought it was rad for there to be Tracy Turnblad dolls to coincide with the release of the remake of Hairspray. Of course, I can’t exalt these instances without acknowledging the ickiness of capital, using niche groups supposedly under the guise of serving them while in actuality creating greater gains for the corporations and retail chains that create and disseminate the brand, and clogging our homes with stuff . . .

Yet, I do think these cultural moments are not to be overlooked, even if these moments are dependent on consumerism. It’s important for women and girls to have access to clothes that include them in the world of fashion that look good and make them feel good. Likewise, it is important that queer women and girls (perhaps more pointedly femme women and girls) have a spokeswoman creating an inclusive space for them in popular culture. Because there’s a lot of joy to be had in finding an item that was made for you.