This is a frustrating article. It points to something important about the way critical communities have grown comfortable with moneyed, corporate-backed cultural production, but in the process it veers toward personal attacks and regressive attitudes about pop music and culture in general. It is absurd, as this essay asserts, to label Taylor Swift an “underdog” in the pop music scene. There is no honest context in which that label makes sense for her cultural position.
It’s also absurd to describe one of Swift’s songs as being “about her relationship with one or another celebrity actor or singer or Jonas Brother,” which this writer does. It’s not hard to read between the lines here: this is old-fashioned sexism, written in such a way to suggest that Swift’s assumed promiscuity somehow discredits her as an artist. But it never states that opinion clearly, so it sort of shields the writer from an accusation of outright misogyny.
This seems to be a recurring problem with a lot of the critiques of poptimism that make waves online. While they aim their sights in an important critical direction, they get stuck in conservative attitudes about which art is worthwhile and why, and still view pop music and musicians with derision. In the process, whatever arguments they might be making about complacency with entrenched power structures are rendered irrelevant. If you’re arguing against the critical acclaim of modern pop music because you want to revert to some golden-age-of-rock/indie era, or because you disapprove of the personal affairs of pop artists, then I’m not sure you’ve earned the readers you hope to reach.
For this discussion, I don’t think it matters much whether Swift came from a privileged background because I haven’t heard her misrepresent her personal history, although I may have missed something along the way. It’s possible that she and her family could have spent a bunch of their own money on a potential music career and come up without much to show for it. Other factors, like talent and work ethic, are relevant to her success, to be sure, though her wealthy upbringing certainly gave her access to resources that most other aspiring artists do not have. Mostly, I’m not convinced that the author of the original New York Times piece in question intended to use the term “underdog” to refer to Swift’s privilege – it seems more like he pereceived her as an underdog in terms of her cultural status in the pop music world, which is not quite the same.
What does matter, I think, is how we discuss her position relative to popular culture after her success became concrete. This is where poptimism seems to me to have lost its way somewhat. It once provided a powerful reaction to a decades-old tradition of music writing that heavily favored rock music made by white men by highlighting marginalized voices in genres that were unfairly maligned and exposing the inherent racism and sexism of the music press. This is still important work, as this author’s dig at Swift’s romantic life demonstrates. But lately, the poptimist approach has seemed more than content to wholeheartedly embrace pop stars without acknowledging the relationship they have to capital and corporate interests.
This is different than suggesting that pop music is unworthy of its critical acclaim. I think there is a lot of excellent pop music out there, as there has always been, and Taylor Swift has written and performed an admirable share of it. But an acknowledgement of the quality of pop music, and the excellence of its stars, can sit safely alongside a discussion of the dominant financial and cultural forces that work behind the scenes to ensure maximum profitability, displacement of smaller artists, total command of audience attention, and all of the other factors that keep mainstream pop culture from being questioned or disturbed.
In Taylor Swift’s case, the narrative was laid down early and repeated throughout last year. “1989″ was going to be an artistic rebirth and a tremendous risk. But it was insincere; even if we ignore her earlier breakthrough success as a crossover country artist, 2012′s “Red” was an enormous success by any measure and was already pop-oriented enough to secure her standing as a true top 40 artist. Considering Swift’s skill as a pop songwriter, her commitment to her craft, and the incredible resources at her disposal, it was almost inconceivable that “1989″ might fail, despite the story surrounding its release. “1989″ didn’t reinvent a country icon – it doubled down on a winning formula. There isn’t anything particularly surprising or wrong with that.
A more skeptical critical community might have seen this narrative coming and understood it as something like a savvy marketing scheme. We didn’t, which is how we end up with the idea that Swift entered the pop scene as an “underdog.” It might be a good album, but it was as close to a guaranteed smash hit as we will likely see in our lifetimes. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with acknowledging both of these things. What’s wrong is falling back on personal attacks, conservative cultural mores, and plain sexism to try and make the case for a critical stance on pop music.