High school me wouldn’t listen to Taylor Swift, but she didn’t know about no wave either

Um, no -- I reject Taylor Swift's hailing of the geek, even if I must interrogate my own geekery to do so; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Yesterday, Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style posted an entry on Taylor Swift, which I read while waiting for her to unpack what’s going on with Demi Lovato in what I hope will be a future post. Given her interest in contemporary gossip culture, she focuses her attention on Swift’s success in cultivating her own celebrity through her music and savvy use of social media and the tabloids. As she has generously before, Annie linked an entry I wrote on Swift some months back. She also called me out as someone who didn’t like Swift.

Well, “call out” isn’t exactly the right term. It suggests I had something to hide. I’ll be clear. I dislike Swift’s music and persona to such a degree that I have to keep my misogynistic tendencies in check (yes, feminists can be lady-haters too). In fact, I recently asked Kristen at Act Your Age to redirect a foaming-at-the-mouth ALL CAPS rant I was launching into toward a more productive discussion. We shifted gears with a conversation about the Spark Summit “Girl Activists Speak Out” panel Shelby Knox moderated, which I recommend viewing.

My acrimony toward Swift hasn’t altered much, though it would give me much to talk about with Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess following their recent Swift-related exchange for Tiger Beatdown. I find her passive-aggressive revenge anthems against boys who wronged her and pious missives against sluts she takes upon herself to shame unbearable. I still take offense to celebrations of her guitar playing and songwriting as exceptional, interpreting it less as evidence that young women and girls are making tremendous in-roads in the music industry and more as condescending ignorance toward the perennial presence of young female musicians society chooses not to prioritize. Her constructed authenticity bothers me, a criticism I wage against the majority of contemporary country musicians and virtually every white man who plugged in an electric guitar in the 1960s. Her upper-middle-class family moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville and home-schooled their daughter in a Christian tradition so she could break into the industry.

As her star has risen, her lyrics gesture toward a keen, callous awareness of how gossip culture operates. It’s almost like she got linked to John Mayer in anticipation of writing a song about what she may have done in a hotel room with him so Jezebel could speculate over it. She’s also become more indulgent, further evidence that her false modesty belies a wicked sense of entitlement. Forgiving Kanye? Devoting nearly 7 minutes to John Mayer? Calling Camilla Belle a mattress gymnast? Speak Now? Ann Powers  may be on to something when she says Swift has matured musically, but I’ve heard enough. It may get her magazine covers and move units. But I find her capitalizing on supposed victimhood to be as monstrous as her personal life is boring.

I take particular umbrage with Swift’s nerd drag. She may have endured hardships in her teen years. She may have felt uncool and threatened by weird girls with hip sensibilities and less normative interests, though I can imagine high school yearbook coverage distorts this perception, if not her recording contract. She may have been misunderstood and it may be manifested in her music videos where she wears thick glasses, but she gets to hand those back to wardrobe. Many of the nerd girls I know had prescriptions. Being a nerd was intrinsic. As a result, they were harassed by their peers. They endured homophobic epithets or having garbage thrown at them. The best they could hope for was to be ignored entirely, as if their existence didn’t matter. Some were queer. Most had little interest in extra-curricular activities, focusing instead on riot grrrl, comics, science fiction, or Anne Sexton, though one of them played softball and volleyball while distancing herself from the in crowd. They may not have been as calculated, but all of them were smarter than Swift ever play-acted at being.

What was especially funny for me when reading Annie’s post was my incidental soundtrack. Roughly twenty minutes before, I put on a no wave mix from the Free Music Archive while doing some office work. When I started Annie’s entry, I was about 14 minutes into a live recording of “Sweetness,” a song by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s side project Northampton Wools. For those familiar with a subgenre that formed as an extreme reaction against punk’s relatively tame dalliances with nihilism and (aural and physical) violence, it might come as little surprise that this is the section that sounds like a lead violinist is tuning to a test tone in the center of a beehive. A better juxtaposition couldn’t engineer itself.

I don’t bring this up to cast myself as some diving rod of subterranean cool. I hardly think of myself as any reliable barometer and would challenge such an impression if one exists. I may romanticize my discovery of college radio during high school. It was certainly informative of the sardonic feminist crank I’m proud to be today. But I didn’t form a band. I didn’t sneak out of the house to attend gigs at Fitzgerald’s or Mary Jane’s. While my interests in underground music developed (though not much deeper than Liz Phair’s Matador years), I didn’t harness it in any oppositional way. It didn’t even occur to me because I was too busy taking down the minutes at National Honor Society meetings. It was a curio I kept to myself, bringing it out of my bedroom on rare occasion. I still subscribed to Rolling Stone. I fancied myself an intellectual because I read rock anthologies I got at Barnes and Noble. Talk about nerd drag.

Rather, what crystallized in reading Annie’s post was that, in identifying with Swift, her descriptions of a relatively normal teenage existence weren’t dissimilar from my own. I had a sense of this from taking a girls’ studies class with her, wherein personal anecdotes of feminine adolescent experiences would seep into discussion. We grew up in small towns. We didn’t have animosity toward them but had ambitions beyond them that involved tending to a decorated résumé. Having read Anita Harris’ seminal piece on can-do and at-risk girls, we shared the sentiments held by much of the class when relating more closely with the former. We didn’t challenge this binary in our teen years with recreational drug use, shoplifting, or truancy. In our aggregate social interactions, I sense that our exchanges would be similar if we were in high school. I don’t think we’d be close friends, bifurcated by different social allegiances. However, we would be cordial in the hallways, respectable toward one another’s observations in Socratic seminars, and partner up for team research projects. We probably would’ve been in French Club together.

This is all prelude to why I was listening to this no wave mix when I read Annie’s post. I was revisiting Ut, a seminal no wave band that I didn’t hear until college. I did know about them in high school, but that’s because they were mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” For those following along, the band is nestled between Billie Jean King and DJ Kuttin Kandy. I learned about it in Spin, because it was supposedly hipper than the Boomer rockism Jann Wenner privileges in his publication.

Ut, a band so ahead of their time they didn't even bother coming up with a Google-friendly name; image courtesy of julietippex.com

Sally Young, Jacqui Ham, and Nina Canal of Ut deserve as much tribute as Lydia Lunch, Y Pants, or the Bush Tetras. Though I’m a fan of the Contortions and DNA and proselytize the contributions of their female members, no wave was introduced to me as a dude’s fetish toward dude music. You know, Swans’ fans who can’t get enough of Michael Gira’s pilot outfit pummeling them with purposefully grim songs about cops, slaves, and rape. It has a function, but I question its import. It’s also fairly tedious, as is usually the case when white men try to confront people with their definitions of ugliness.

Ut is a good way in. Like Young God founder Gira, they also ran their own label, Out. By committing to the sonic austerity and infusing it with feminist rage against personal and systemic oppression, Ut created well-crafted and truly terrifying music. Regrettably there’s little live footage and reissued material isn’t especially easy to come by, which I think make their contributions worth greater attention. I may not have listened to them in high school, but I embrace and aspire to learn from the kinds of girls who did and would. Taylor Swift fans are welcome at my lunch table too, so long as we can trade mixes.

6 comments

  1. g2-3f293304af385123135aa2a7cedffc49

    Did you hear Ut have reformed and are playing some live shows? Nowhere near Austin, of course, but it’s still exciting news. You can see the dates here: http://www.utmusic.net/news-tour-dates. My old lj friend Andrea built the site for them and it just went up recently. Lots of good photos and stuff.

    • Alyx Vesey

      I did, but I’m forgetting where I read about it. Maybe on the Typical Girls listserv? Thank you for bringing it up, as I forgot to mention it. Also, what a boon of information your friend Andrea is providing by building this site up for them. Thanks for passing all of this along.

  2. Kathy

    High school me wouldn’t have listened to Taylor Swift either, probably because high school me wasn’t listening to much of anything. My teen years were spent in that weird twilight between the 80s and 90s, so what who would my Taylor Swift be? Debbie Gibson? Tiffany? I didn’t like either of them. The first song I heard that made me feel like I could have some sense of agency was Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” and I think I was twenty-years-old when it came out. The popularity of Taylor Swift leaves me flummoxed, not because I’m old and jaded (though I guess I am by Swift’s fan standards), but because her music is supposed to transcend teen popdom , and that to criticize Swift is a feminist no-no.

  3. Annie Petersen

    Alyx,

    As I just posted on Twitter, hooray for blog dialogue! I’ve been thinking about your response since I read it last night and am still not quite sure how to response — other than oui, bien sur, we’d be in French Club together, if my school would have deigned to cut enough football funding to throw a few dollars towards humanities development.

    I’m also glad you got me to think more about the type of music that I’d listen to in high school (and whether Swift would be amongst my choices). In my own post, I mention Swift most reflects what my high school experience was like, but I certainly wasn’t listening to music that reflected my reality. Whether Dr. Dre or Fiona Apple or Nirvana or Built to Spill or Simon and Garfunkel, very few spoke to my daily existence. But isn’t that part of the beauty of high school? We’re trying on identities and realities that we’d like to embrace when we get out of the strictures of school and parents, where our (read: my) type A personality and small town existence made it nigh impossible to “live” feminism or grunge or even late ’60s folk/protest?

    The concern, then, is that Taylor Swift doesn’t encourage her listeners to dream — about anything other than the fact that when you get famous the boys about whom you’re boy crazy also become famous. Or is that too reductive?

    • Alyx Vesey

      Here here, type A girls! We need to save spaces for each other in the cafeteria. Extension of high school metaphors continue!

      Annie, I really enjoyed your comments about who you were in high school in relation to your fandom of Taylor Swift alongside your fandom of Fiona Apple then (which I’m sure, like mine, carries into the present). This comment about what music spoke to your daily existence is really interesting because, when I think back on what I was listening to, so much of it was aspirational (or instructional) about what life could or would be like when I got older, or what it could be like if I existed outside the realm of modern existence altogether. Not a lot of stuff I was listening to spoke directly to experiences at the time, which is probably the number one reason why I wish Girls Rock Camp existed when we were growing up.

      This question about Taylor Swift discouraging listeners to dream is an interesting one, though I hesitate with it. In my previous post I mentioned that Kristen and I always bring Swift up in our GRC workshops and she is met with great enthusiasm each time we talk about her. Girls always mention how they like that she writes her own material and, echoing back to your comments, are heartened by her candor about stuff she went through that they are currently going through. So while I really really really wish she’d open the scope of her subject matter, I appreciate the possibilities she represents to those girls.

  4. Pingback: Internet Roundup: Wake Up To Something New « The Ruined Auditorium

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