Is Taylor Swift so likable that she can save us from ourselves?
I stood in the magazine section at the Fred Meyer’s on 39th and Hawthorne for twenty minutes reading the GQ cover story on Taylor Swift. The article and interview were authored by Chuck Klosterman , a talented writer and pop culture connoisseur. I wouldn’t say Klosterman is a critic because I don’t feel like he criticizes all that much. That’s not to say he only says nice things, but I just think that he surrounds himself with people, places and things that he likes so that he doesn’t have to be a critic. It sounds quite nice, actually.
If you listened to the latest What Do You Think? w/ Max & Greg podcast then you know that last week I was convinced (without proof) that Taylor Swift doesn’t write her own lyrics or compose her own music. My wife overpowered me with persuasive language (without proof) that Taylor Swift does, for the most part, write her own lyrics. The reason I picked up the article is because I saw her on the cover, and then I saw that Klosterman wrote the piece. “He’s a smart guy,” I thought, “Let’s hear what he has to say about this person that, up until a week ago, wasn’t a part of my life in anyway.”
About halfway through the article Klosterman describes the problems that even the most, “high minded considerations of Swift’s music” face. The problem is that, “she’s an utterly credible musician who is consumed as a tabloid personality.” That, “Swift writes about her life so directly that the listener is forced to think about her persona in order to fully appreciate what she’s doing creatively.”
Klosterman, accurately, denotes that, “This is her greatest power: an ability to combine her art and her life so profoundly that both spheres become more interesting to everyone, regardless of their emotional investment in either.”
The problem that Klosterman presents to us is: what happens when a hyperreal character is extremely likable? And not just likable, but talented, credible and is also probably a truly compassionate person?
Swift is profoundly self-aware, and it has played no small part in her success as an artist and a celebrity. Any artist worth their proverbial salt must constantly search the depths and boundaries of self in order to challenge their creativity. As a celebrity, one of the reasons that Swift is so likable is because of her aversion to controversy and the other tired tropes that so many untalented celebrities rely upon in order to stay in the spotlight.
I don’t think we (as a culture) know what to do with a likable, hyperreal personality. One of the defining qualities of a hyperreal entity, in my opinion, is that we have a collective script that tells us how to relate to them. Think of how you feel when you are exposed to a piece of media about the Kardashians. A perfect, tragic example of this is the latest mass shooting in Oregon. We were all going through our collective motions before the day was even over. The pundits were pandering, the politicians were trying to break through the clutter, Facebook was a storm of pro-gun/anti-gun posts. A lot of it may have been authentic and heartfelt, but we were still following a script. The script will change, and hopefully one day it will become unnecessary, therefore bringing the hyperreal massacres back to reality where we can properly deal with them as a nation.
Taylor Swift breaks us out of that cycle by being exceptional at managing her own hyperreality. We don’t know what to do with a hyperreal cultural character that we can’t help but love, and our reaction is to try to box her in by arguing that there is no way she writes her own music. However, her proficiency at understanding her relation to the public and her fans has created a dynamic where we are able to let go of our script and find joyful refreshment. Taylor Swift set us free!
However, as much as I respect and joy Klosterman’s article and his career in general, I do have a problem with how he ends the article. He writes, “Taylor Swift is 25 years old. But she is older than you.”
It’s a clever line (nice job Chuck), but it is also a condescending and harmful way to end a piece. Taylor Swift gets to spend her days answering phone calls from Justin Timberlake and blurring the lines between hyper-reality. She is a smart, capable person who has the luxury of playing with the highest forces of culture as she struts and frets her hour upon the stage. She holds a place in the highest echelon of what our culture, and while she holds it with love, celebration and compassion it is still only a reflection of our authentic selves. Tayor Swift is not an old soul, she is a hologram, albiet a perfect one.