The new Taylor Swift is the same old Taylor Swift

This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs

“I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” The line Taylor Swift delivers in a lazy half-rap, half-singing tone in the bridge of her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” is perhaps the most self-aware one the singer has ever delivered.

Nearly two years of the public gradually recognizing just how problematic she can be — the embracement of white feminism as her personal brand, turning structural racism into an attack on herself, her deafening silence on anything related to that orange toddler running our country… —  culminated in a blow up scandal.

In case you forgot: Swift publicly bashed Kanye West, claiming he hadn’t sought her permission to for that now infamous couplet “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous” in his song “Famous.” West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, leaked recordings of a phone call between the two in return, in which it was more than evident that he not only asked, but that she enthusiastically approved. Gee. I wonder why nobody trusts Taylor Swift anymore.

But what this line speaks to is something bigger than the fact that no one trusts Taylor Swift because she is, personally, a snake. It’s campy and ridiculous, perfectly at home on an electroclash track that sounds like listening to a dorm room blast “I’m Too Sexy” from two doors away. (It should come as no surprise that Right Said Fred has a writing credit on the track.) It’s an entirely different sound than we’ve heard from Taylor Swift before, but it isn’t the first time she’s made such a drastic change.

“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, because SHE’S DEAD!” Swift recites near the end of song. Except, the Old Taylor is very much alive. Because even if the song was good (it isn’t), it should serve as clear proof that this is par for the course, that we should no longer trust Swift as a genuine artist. She doesn’t evolve; she rebrands.

It’s a bold, if not pointedly ignorant and out of touch, choice to release a single like this one this year. 2017 has not been good to pop stars, particularly female ones. As the climate of our country changes rapidly — Is Swift aware that 2017 America is nowhere close to the same as 2014 America, that getting up in arms about her repeated cultural appropriation offenses the last time around was mild? — they’ve attempted, with varying degrees of success, to pivot to match that.

Katy Perry tried to get woke, Lana Del Rey tried to compare Coachella to Woodstock, Selena Gomez’s single was a bop primarily because she appropriated Talking Heads, and Miley Cyrus decided pretending to be a woman of color wasn’t selling and went back to white bread country roots. It, for the most part, hasn’t worked out too well. The ones who have succeeded, like Lorde and Kesha, have done so not by drastically pivoting, but by growing artistically, by digging deeper for more mature lyrics or stripping away the facade to expose the foundation of their craft.

Now Swift is following suit. This is not the first time she has blatantly shifted her musical aesthetic in the name of trendiness and relevance. With 2014’s 1989, she made an exaggerated, public announcement that she was no longer the country star we were introduced to in 2006 and was leaving country music to embrace a fully-formed pop sound. Why? Because it sells better. Swift repeatedly lets commerce dictate her art when it should be the other way around.

We have now seen Country Girl Taylor, Pop Girl Taylor, and are about to be ushered into the era of Edgy Girl Taylor. We should have all seen this comingwhen she ditched her sparkly jumpsuits and red lipstick for Vetements and a platinum shag, just the same as when she ditched her A-line sundresses and Keds for those sparkly jumpsuits.

It seems, now, that Swift is attempting an aesthetic rebirth and rebrand on every album, attempting, perhaps, to be the Millennial Madonna. The problem is that Madonna’s constant evolution has always been just that — an evolution. It’s been about experimentation, not artifice. The pop sensibility remains the same. The only thing that has remained the same on Swift’s albums is the “pity me, I’m the victim, but I’m also petty” lyrical structure that, frankly, she exhausted two albums ago.

We expect our artists to grow and improve and broaden their horizons as their careers go on, yes, but what Swift is doing isn’t growing. It’s rebranding. It’s trying on different costumes — the latest of which she is laughably ill-suited for — to sell records, plain and simple. We should not trust Taylor Swift because the only art Taylor Swift has mastered thus far is the art of capitalism.

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White privilege protects Taylor Swift’s Instagram while racist slurs force Leslie Jones off Twitter

taylor-swift.jpg

This piece originally appeared on Inspirer, with the below updated version appearing on Quartz.

Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift had an exhausting day on the internet on Monday. In the immediate aftermath of Kardashian releasing video footage confirming that Swift did, in fact, have a conversation with Kanye West about her name drop in his song “Famous,” public opinion has taken a dramatic turn against Swift.

There were memes and think pieces galore, but on top of all that, people flooded Swift’s Instagram response with comments to let her know how they really felt. They accused her of being a liar and called out her tendency to always play the role of a victim who needs to be coddled when things don’t work out in her favor. Several simply left snake emojis.

But go look at the comments right now. Of course you can’t scroll through the 380,000 (and counting) comments, but even thumbing through the first hundred, you may notice something. No one has anything negative thing to say.

According to multiple outlets, Instagram users are reporting that the app is actively monitoring her post, deleting comments that contain rat or snake emojis or any sort of “hate speech.” If you try to leave a comment with snake emojis, good luck—you’ll likely run into a pop-up from Instagram warning you that they “restrict certain content and actions to protect our community.”

insta

Technically, they’re allowed to do that. Instagram’s community guidelines allow them to remove “content that contains credible threats or hate speech, content that targets private individuals to degrade or shame them, personal information meant to blackmail or harass someone, and repeated unwanted messages.” And when StyleCaster asked Instagram for a response, a spokesperson simply said, “We’re always looking for better ways to help people prevent spammy or inappropriate comments on Instagram.” But it seems as if Swift is getting special attention.

Ignore the weird implications of selective censorship for a minute—we’ll get to that. Because while Instagram was busy deleting emojis,Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was spending her Monday retweeting racist comments she’s been receiving in wake of the movie’s release.

leslie

At first, Twitter took no action against accounts hurling racial slurs and derogatory comments in her direction. Jones was forced to manually block the offenders herself, many of whom were likening her to an ape and barraging her with offensive pictures. A user posing as her was even posting homophobic comments under her name.

After several other high-profile celebrities, such as Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, weighed in, Twitter began to ban the racist Twitter accounts. Late last night they released a statement: “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

But it was too little too late. Yesterday afternoon, Jones announced that she is deleting her Twitter account.

Let that sink in.

Here’s the thing: being a woman on the internet sucks sometimes. Like, a lot. Women are harassed constantly and viciously, often for no reason other than the fact that they’re female. Very few of us are immune; a recent study showed that nearly 76% of women under 30 who are online experience some form of abuse or harassment.

I’m sure a fair amount of the comments on Swift’s post were spammy or inappropriate or derogatory. I’m sure a fair amount of the comments were pieces of hate speech that deserved to be deleted. But how do we decide when a simple emoji counts as hate speech? How do we decide where the line is drawn between legitimate criticism and harassment?

How did we decide that celebrities—but only a select few—are above this? Instagram’s community guidelines clearly state that they protect “private individuals.” Swift is a public figure. Negative comments are what she signed up for when she signed up for fame. This isn’t an issue of protecting someone from pure hate speech: It’s an issue of coddling and protecting a privileged white celebrity from any vague form of negative sentiment.

Why is Instagram stepping into this particular situation when they did nothing for the slew of bee and lemon emojis against not only Rachel Roy but also her 16-year-old daughter after Beyoncé’s Lemonade dropped? What about all the trolls on Kesha’s account? What about the attacks (full of snake emojis, no less) on Kardashian? What about real, unfamous women who experience harassment on a daily basis?

If the hate toward Taylor Swift is the kind of content Instagram wants to censor, it needs to censor it for everyone—not just a few. When Leslie Jones can be called every racial slur in the book and has to sit back and take it, but Taylor Swift’s feelings are hurt by snake emojis and are therefore removed, that’s called white privilege. There is really no other way to describe it.

The selective action of intervening happening on Swift’s social media right now is real-time evidence of how Swift represents a dangerous form of white women. As journalist Damon Young says, we all know a woman like Swift: She twists situations to become the victim and gets preferential treatment, especially when pitted against people of color. Maybe that’s why we are so actively interested in this situation.
It’s not a funny thing to watch anymore. Not in this time of such elevated tension. Not in this time when white cops are shooting black men on camera and getting away with it. And certainly not in a time when your silence on the subject speaks volumes.
No, the white-female-victim game that Taylor Swift plays isn’t funny anymore, and it has passed the point of being tired and has veered into dangerous territory. She has millions of little girls looking up to her, and her actions leave lasting impressions. They have consequences.

Girls need protecting sometimes, yes, and the internet needs to be better about the harassment we face on a daily basis. But young girls also need to know that not everyone gets special treatment, particularly if they’re not white. Not everyone gets to behave badly without being held accountable. They need to learn that crying foul any time they feel wronged isn’t an automatic fix. That, when someone says something critical of them, the best response is to work hard, succeed, and prove them wrong, not to argue about character assassination.

Above all else, young girls need to learn how to be the heroines of their lives, not the victims. Unfortunately, that’s not the example Swift is portraying today.

All Romantics Meet the Same Fate Someday: Some Thoughts On Taylor Swift and Her Taylor Swift Award

This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68, and he told me: ‘All romantics meet the same fate someday: cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café. You laugh,’ he said, ‘you think you’re immune — go look at your eyes. They’re full of moon.’”

For some reason, today I felt like I was bombarded with stories about Taylor Swift.

Stories like “Who Said It: Taylor Swift or a Famous Female Historical Figure,” where lyrics to Swift’s song “Change” were put against a dueling image of the singer and Benazir Bhutto. Yeah, that Benazir Bhutto. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan who was the first woman to be elected to lead any Muslim nation and was assassinated in 2007.

Stories like “Taylor Swift’s Denim Jumpsuit is Iconic — Get the Look!” Clearly, some outlets have an extremely liberal definition of iconic.

These are all things that are very easy for most people to ignore, but when you work in media like I do, especially social media, you’re surrounded by it. It’s inescapable.

I have a lot of problems with Taylor Swift. They’ve been well-documented, and I’ve been able to write about them for a major news outlet. My issues came to a head today, though, with news that she will be receiving a BMI Pop Award in her name. She’s the second artist in history to have an award solely in her honor from BMI. The first was Michael Jackson.

“This evening is a true celebration of music and a tribute to the artistry of songwriting that spans generations as defined by three of the most prolific and influential music creators in the industry: Taylor Swift, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil,” BMI President and CEO O’Neill said in the press release.

What I want to know is when this

Became on par with this

Both of these songs are from BMI songwriting winners. Think about that for a second.

The news got me so angry that my heart was racing. I got short of breath and sort of sweaty. Basically, I had every symptom for a heart attack, which isn’t cool. I know I shouldn’t be that bothered by something like this, but I am. I am, because I love music with every drop of the blood that runs through my veins. I am, because music means so much to me that I can’t even put into words. I am, because brilliant songwriters who have been honored — and ones who have gone woefully unrecognized — have helped shape the sort of writer and person I am today.

So I came home tonight with this intense urge to really, truly listen to music. Not just listening to it in headphones as background noise. I needed to have a moment to really feel it. It crept up on me on my subway ride home — the A train ran local and my typical 25 minute commute home was doubled, giving me more time to stew in my own thoughts, which is always a good time. It crept up on me the same way a panic attack does and there was nothing I could do to stop it, just an overwhelming need to make it better. I needed to remind myself what pure art sounded and felt like. The minute I got into my apartment, I changed into pajamas, lit all of my candles, put Joni Mitchell’s Blue on my turntable, and lay down on the floor.

By the end of the record, it hit me. Maybe Joni’s Richard was right. Maybe I’ve romanticized music for so long that things like Taylor Swift winning a Taylor Swift award hurt, why things like that bother me more than they bother most people. Maybe I’ve let moons cloud my eyes for too long. Maybe someday I’ll be a cynic boring someone in some dark café. Maybe I’ve become that cynic already, boring people on Twitter.

Maybe that’s why this bothers me so much. Taylor Swift’s work doesn’t differ much from Britney Spears in her prime. No doubt, she’s produced radio hits that are fun, catchy, and easy to sing along to. The verses of “Bad Blood” are no more profound or prolific than the verses of “Toxic”. Fun, but mindless. The thing is, Britney Spears never won an award like this in her name for shaping pop culture the way she did in the early aughts, nor was she heavily lauded for songwriting. Britney Spears was never treated like the next Messiah of the music industry or the golden child of songwriting. We recognize Britney for what she is: an entertainer. Why don’t we recognize Taylor Swift in the same light?

I’m starting to wonder what awards really even mean now, because it just seems to me like this is such a slap in the face to writers whose work truly is profound and prolific — writers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks and Paul Simon — who not only wrote beautiful words that have changed so many lives, but words that helped shape society and pop culture as we know it today. To say that Taylor Swift’s work is on par with theirs just baffles me. At best, her writing is on the same level as a high school English student. If anything, her songwriting has regressed from album to album, not matured with age. The less award-worthy her work gets, the more awards it receives.

So here’s my cynicism talking: Is this how the music industry works now? Words like “iconic” and “prolific” or even “good”, when applied to songwriting, are defined by how many records someone sells? What is it about Taylor Swift that gives the music industry (and the media, too) such an intense need to be her biggest cheerleader? Really — is it a money thing? Because if that’s the way it works, then I’m just sad. Maybe my strong opinion is jeopardizing my future as a writer and journalist. Maybe my name is on some sort of blacklist. Maybe my criticism will come back to haunt me someday. I don’t know.

Right now, all I know is that I’m sad. I’m sad that Joni’s Richard was right. I’m sad that I have a reason to be cynical. I’m sad that we may never get to hear today’s equivalent of “The Last Time I Saw Richard” because we were too busy talking about Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s fight against Big Music doesn’t make her a champion of the creative class

taylor-swiftThis piece was originally written for Quartz

Taylor Swift fights for the little man. Except for when she doesn’t.

The pop superstar graces the cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue in a wide-ranging interview that includes new details about the back story of her now-famous open letter to Apple. Calling upon the media giant to pay artists, writers, and producers royalties during the three-month free trial period of their new music-streaming platform, the nature of the response was very different from Swift’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last summer, in which she called out Spotify. While Spotify ignored Swift’s demands, Apple did an about face less than 24 hours later.

While certainly not lacking for accolades as far as her musical career is concerned, Swift’s recent, politicized headlines have catapulted her into a different realm altogether. Since the Apple row, she’s been lauded as an activist for musicians, a savior in the fight against greedy music-industry titans. But there’s one problem with this media narrative: Taylor Swift is not an underdog. Taylor Swift has never been an underdog, and the media’s painting of her is silly and ignorant.

For one thing, underdogs do not sign record deals with RCA at 13 years old. Their fathers are not investors in their labels. They don’t typically sell more than five million copies of their debut album or boast a comfortable net worth of $200 million. They don’t have access to The Wall Street Journal or Vanity Fair when they’re shopping their latest manifesto.

No, Taylor Swift is an incredibly savvy capitalist and businesswoman—and that’s okay. But we should acknowledge her success for what it is, even if that success is less Occupy Wall Street and more Wolf of Wall Street.

Before now, streaming platforms like Spotify have skirted the topic of how rights-holders of music— the producers, writers, and singers—are compensated every time a song is streamed. Spotify states that rights-holders are awarded about 70% of Spotify’s revenue, but that average payout ends up being between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream. After labels and publishers take their cut, an artist could expect about $0.001128 per song. Meanwhile, an artist gets between seven and eight cents when a 99 cent song is purchased on iTunes.

It’s not that Swift’s accusations against streaming services and her demands to pay artists more are wrong. Indeed, as music sales continue to dwindle and streaming continues to surge, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But it’s a bit disingenuous for Swift to act as if Spotify in any way threatens her income, or that she doesn’t have anything to gain from dismissing it. After pulling her albums from Spotify’s catalog last fall, CEO Daniel Ek estimated that an immensely popular artist like Swift was on track to earn more than $6 million in royalties from Spotify in a year.

If $6 million isn’t enough, she can always supplement it with her hugely successful tours, branded merchandise, and sponsorship deals. But Swift has something to gain from pulling her music from Spotify that’s bigger than income. Earlier this summer, 1989 became the first album to break five million units sold since 2011. While it would have been a huge success even if it were available on Spotify, it’s difficult to ignore the strategic move to keep the album off streaming platforms as a way to drive up impressive album sales.

Then there’s the fact that for a newly-anointed David, Swift seems to have been hurling quite a few of Goliath’s javelin at individuals recently.

This January, Swift sent several Etsy sellers cease and desists, alleging trademark violations. These are not massive corporations like Wal-Mart selling products in her likeness, mind you; they’re fans. They’re people who sell cross-stitched pillows with “Shake It Off” lyrics for $25, barely making enough money to cover production and shipping costs.

Going a step further, Swift petitioned to trademark specific lyrics from 1989—general phrases like “this sick beat”—in a slick business move meant to deter further unofficial usage.

But it’s not just knitting circles who have incurred Swift’s wrath. In the immediate aftermath of Swift’s critique of Apple, concert photographers called her out for actively curtailing their ability to make a fair wage. Swift says she’s standing up for the rights of artists, and yet her management company, Firefly Entertainment, serves up aggressive contracts limiting the artistic rights of others. Concert photographers in particular are limited to “one-time use” publication rights and must concede that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” their work in any promotional content—without compensation. Those who don’t comply face the threat of destruction of their equipment.

“You say in your letter to Apple that ‘three months is a long time to go unpaid.’ But you seem happy to restrict us to being paid once, and never being able to earn from our work ever again, while granting you the rights to exploit our work for your benefit for all eternity,” wrote UK photographer Jason Sheldon, one of the photographers who shared his contract with the internet in an open letter to Swift.

Exactly who is Taylor Swift standing up for? Who are these underdogs she champions? In the Vanity Fair interview, Swift claims her Apple letter was spurred by a text from a friend.

“The contracts had just gone out to my friends, and one of them sent me a screenshot of one of them. I read the term ‘zero percent compensation to rights holders,’” she said at the time.

But standing up for the little people is about more than just saying they should make more money. You can’t generate income from higher streaming payouts if no one is streaming your music. If Swift really were standing up for the little people, she’d be giving unknowns spots on her tour, or including them among her famous, ever-expanding clique.

Perhaps we should look more closely at Swift’s own words. “With Beats Music and Rhapsody, you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music,” Swift told Time last November.

Essentially, Swift believes her music should be a premium service, and should cost more than her competitors. Although she may have positioned herself as a hero of the creative class, Taylor Swift taking on music streaming services is not an underdog story. If anything, it’s the clash of the titans.

As Popularity Booms, Music Streaming Needs to Embrace Social

This piece originally appeared on Three Degrees.

The way we consume music has been shifting dramatically in the 21st century. Album sales have been falling since the late 90s when MP3s began to dominate the market. The digital age made music convenient and accessible. You weren’t swapping CDs with your best friends; you were sharing files with someone across the country. Then streaming came along, and threw the industry for another loop.

Streaming is to digital sales what digital sales were to CDs. It’s a game changer. It’s an evolution. It’s a threat. It’s social. Or, at least, it should be.

Between Pandora, Google Play, Spotify, and this year’s debuts of Apple Music and Tidal, the market is beginning to get a little too saturated. Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses, but none seem to get the social aspect down.

Apple Music in particular, which was released earlier this month, sought to make music more social by facilitating interactions between fans and musicians with Connect, its own social network. It could be a platform for artists to upload media exclusive to Apple, like concert dates, photos, and news. While some artists and bands share content like this, most are using it as a portal to push links to their albums on iTunes. It’s not social. The conversation isn’t with fans; it’s at them.

Death Cab for Cutie, Dave Matthews Band, and Peter Gabriel are three bands and artists on Connect who are using the platform to connect on a more compelling level with their fans.

Whereas Beck, Britney Spears, and Wilco have primarily used Connect to push links to purchase music.

What Apple Music has going for it in terms of social networking is the ability to connect with other users and share playlists (the modern day mixtape) with friends. But Spotify, Apple’s biggest competitor, does that, as well. So does Pandora or even services like Rhapsody or 8Tracks.

Tidal is another high profile streaming service recently released. Backed by Jay Z and a slew of other celebrities, the platform’s launch was met with mixed reviews, and it’s been suffering since. Despite hosting exclusive content, such as music videos and new releases, it fell off the top 500 apps shortly after release due to high cost ($20 a month versus Spotify’s $9.99), and skepticism about its intentions as being for innovation and not purely money.

Streaming services could be a revolutionary moment for music. People are always going to find a way to find music for free. So whether a platform is free, “freemium” (free with ads or a monthly subscription for ad-free streaming), or subscription, having something different to offer is what will make it stand out among the cluttered field. Instead of each platform focusing on exclusives, which will ultimately hurt the industry by turning consumers off, streaming platforms should seek out ways to further their reach in social media.

Source: Nielsen

Sales of music are down, while streaming has boomed exponentially: 2014 saw a 54.5 percent increase in streams compared to 2013. Artists can make up for it by touring and landing sponsorship deals, which is why social networking is vital to spread awareness, recruit new fans, and turn casual listeners into artist evangelists.

Taylor Swift put the financial concerns of streaming in the public eye through her breakup with Spotify and her open letter to Apple, but failed to acknowledge the long term benefits streaming — particularly if the usage becomes more social — presents to talent. Artists need to think of streaming not as people sharing music with each other as a loss of money, but rather, a gain.

Sharing music through social media creates a chain reaction. When one fan shares something with friends, there is a very real chance that, at the very least, one new fan will be made — one who will in turn buy that artist’s music, merchandise, and tour tickets, and spread the artist to their own network of friends.

This is where streaming platforms have an opportunity to make the connection. Users want to not only share what music they’re listening to — be it blasting out the artist’s page on their channels or sending a new playlist to their followers — but they want to connect with musicians themselves. Spotify touches on this, and Apple Music came close with the intentions of Connect, but so far, its execution has been flawed. Platforms come and go; to truly make a difference, these services need to step up their networking game.