January is Taylor Swift month in the Green household. If, like me, you have three young daughters, then every month for the last ten years has been Taylor Swift month. Still, Swift’s new album, Reputation, has driven the Swiftometer to an all-time high. Three copies arrived by courier on release day—one each, to avoid blood being spilt on the lyric book. Since then, the house has echoed to the thud of beatz from closed bedrooms and mealtime discussions of Swift’s metamorphosis from the Shirley Temple of country to the most savage mean girl, like, ever.
Personally, I prefer the old Taylor, which is to say, the young Taylor, the one who wrote love songs with melodies and recorded them with a live band—the one that my then-infant daughter, intuitively grasping Swift’s poppy shuffling of country archetypes, called “Trailer Fluff.” I’m not her target audience, only her target demographic for the sale of CDs, concert tickets, and memorabilia. But I do try to keep up so as not to embarrass myself, like when I asked whether an A$AP Rocky was one of those toys that hatch and grow when you put them in water.
Part of keeping up means reading up on matters meta-Swift. Swift is so famous that she exists in a double state, like the children of the Olympian gods. She is human, and sometimes, as her Twitter feuds with Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian prove, all too human. Swift also has the attributes of divinity. Her ability to sling lightning on social media and her sharp ear for musical trends give her superhuman power. Her personal life occurs in the clouds of myth, too. She may not live forever; pop’s pantheon is more fickle than that of religion, and the world has forgotten who Rudy Vallée was and why Neil Diamond thought it necessary to remake The Jazz Singer. For now, though, Swift lives everywhere. She touches us with or without our consent, because these days the clouds of myth are the digital clouds in which all our minds are floating.
So I was not surprised to find that Swift, when not targeting ex-boyfriends and the Kanye-Kardashian media complex in her lyrics, was also a target of meta-Swiftian vitriol. For her success connects her to every part of the culture, including the unsavory parts where racism and sanctimony mingle with bandwagon-jumping and ambulance-chasing. Perhaps it was inevitable, obligatory even, that sooner or later I would find myself typing the words “Taylor Swift, White Supremacist.”
Last September, Popfront, a website offering “Culture + Politics from the Left Coast,” carried an essay called “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation.” Popfront editor Meghan Herning sought to draw “mainstream attention” to “the idea that Taylor Swift is an icon of white supremacist [sic], nationalists, and other fringe groups.” If true, this is unfortunate. How true remains unclear, for we lack polling data. Anyway, all this is beyond Swift’s control. She cannot stop me from buying her albums in triplicate, either.
Herning claimed that Swift actively panders to racists. The lyrics of Reputation’s first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” contain “dog whistles to white supremacy” and “read like a defense of white privilege and white anger.”
I don’t like your kingdom keys
They once belonged to me
You asked me for a place to sleep
Locked me out and threw a feast
These lines, Herning averred, are “explicit in speaking to white anger and affirming white supremacy.” They “speak to the white people resentful of any non-white person having a position of power and privilege.” They “seem to play to the same subtle, quiet white support of a racial hierarchy” as “American support for the Nazis,” and join a tradition of “racialized politics” that runs from “segregation in housing (e.g. redlining), banking, xenophobic immigration policies, reactionaries against the civil rights movement, the Reagan era, the War on Drugs” to the decline of the West in the election of Donald Trump.
What? When I heard “Look What You Made Me Do,” what spoke to me was that Swift had lifted the chorus melody from Right Said Fred’s 1991 comedy hit “I’m Too Sexy.” Swift’s lawyers, alleging malice and disregard for the truth, threatened Herning with a suit. The ACLU jumped in for Herning and beat Swift’s team to the crucial, meta-Taylor lyric reference: “Criticism is never pleasant, but a celebrity has to shake it off, even if the critique may damage her reputation.”
Herning’s article is more of a libel than a critique. Then again, her objection to the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” isn’t wholly wrong. “At one point in the accompanying music video,” Herning wrote, “Taylor lords over an army of models from a podium, akin to what Hitler had in Nazis Germany.” This sentence would have benefitted from the attentions of a grammar Nazi. And does the subliminal reference to Lord & Taylor refer to the Marxist historiography that identified fascism as the end product of capitalism? How accurate is the historical parallel? Even Ernst Röhm never addressed the Aryan masses in thigh-high leather boots and an S&M parachute harness, as Swift does in the video.
Details apart, the video is undeniably in the long and ignoble tradition through which pop associates with that most fashion-forward of movements, fascism. As Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick have noted, fascism, and Nazism in particular, anticipated pop’s attention to staging, youth revolt, power dynamics, and the Wagnerian ascent from sex to death. Pop, and rock especially, regurgitated fascist imagery as fake edginess: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones dressing in an SS uniform, the glamorization of Hells Angels as “outsiders,” the Nazi fetish in punk, the leathers and gratuitous umlauts of heavy metal.
In 2015, Camille Paglia attacked Swift’s penchant for “wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props,” a “Nazi Barbie routine” redolent of the “fascist blondes who ruled the social scene during my youth.” Really, the only Nazi Barbie was Klaus Barbie, a model long out of production. Pop’s echoes of fascist propaganda testify not to pop’s pretend radicalism, but to its merciless commercialism.
The director of Swift’s video is . . . Joseph Kahn, who doesn’t look Jewish, and is, according to Vulture, “a wildly outspoken 45-year-old Korean-American.” In other words, a cynical adult, like all the other cynical adults who’ve been fleecing the kids since the day that Elvis signed with Colonel Parker. If Kahn’s imagery whistles, it is not for fascism, as much as against the parents in order to fascinate the children.
Of course, once the ACLU got involved, the story became a “meme.” It ended up in the home of the left’s lost causes, The Guardian. The day before Reputation came out, The Guardian ran a long essay by a “culture writer” named Laura Snapes. She denounced Herning’s article as a “ridiculous” example of the “bad faith that dogs Swift,” but then offered better examples.
Swift, Snapes alleged, had used “her muscle to intimidate a blogger, rather than denounce the alt-right.” She is “boy-crazy” and cares more about her image than about “social justice.” She misrepresents her success as resulting from talent and hard work: “What if her white privilege—which she had unwittingly exploited in her music’s dynamic of innocence and victimhood—gave her an advantage?”
The next day, an adult called Kitty Empire reviewed Reputation for The Guardian. “In nodding to R&B cadences, is Swift guilty of cultural appropriation, as Miley Cyrus was circa 2013’s Bangerz?” Empire asked.
Is “cultural appropriation” a quasi-legal offense? Personally, I enjoy Jessye Norman’s appropriation of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, and Billie Holiday’s appropriation of “Some of These Days,” a tune whose cadences owe more to Eastern Europe than to the Americas. Of course, I would rather have a tooth pulled than go the distance with Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz. But, copyright theft aside, it makes no sense to judge “cultural appropriation” in the moral categories of good and evil.
All culture is appropriation. American culture, a vast synthesis of imported ideas, is more appropriative than any other. Appropriation, the adoption and refashioning of other people’s ideas, should be judged in the categories suggested by that thoughtful music critic Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). If a new work enhances life, it is good; if not, it is bad. Miley Cyrus’s solo career is not life-enhancing, so Nietzsche would call Bangerz a bad business. What would Nietzsche make of Swift’s Reputation?
As music, Reputation has too many mechanized bleeps and too few melodies for a codger of my vintage. But its every clatter and squawk will be drilled into my memory, and the associations it acquires in the process may enhance my life in the long run. Certainly, its exhausting self-affirmations will enhance my daughters’ lives in mostly harmless ways. I wonder, though, what will remain of Swift’s reputation, now that the mob suspects her of insufficient commitment to other people’s causes.
“We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them they have chosen to show to us,” Swift protests in the liner notes to Reputation. Can she still choose what she shows, and did she ever control what people saw? She has fabricated an image, a money machine from which she can never escape.
“It is we alone,” Nietzsche wrote, “who have fabricated causes, succession, reciprocity, relativity, compulsion, number, law, freedom, motive, purpose.” We, the Swift people, made her. Some of us seem to think that we own her. Swift is the most famous blonde in the business since Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana—more famous now than Madonna was in the nineties. As a parent, I fear for her.
Dominic Green is an historian and critic. He is the author of four books.