Friday, February 2, 2024

TIME to Shake It Off

Alright Swifties and the folks who hate them, I started this piece before the Superbowl conspiracy theories began circulating about Taylor Swift trying to influence your young impressionable daughters. She'll swear that she isn't, but if your daughter suddenly decides to watch the game to catch glimpses of her in a skybox instead of Usher at the Halftime...

Remember when I said that I wasn't going to say anything about Taylor Swift being named TIME Magazine's Person of the Year? Me neither (it's been almost two months)...but I do recall that I tasted blood from biting my tongue. So fine, I have a lot to say and I guarantee some of you aren't going to like it! 

I saw the list of finalists, and it reflects all of the appropriate choices that one would have expected: controversial world leaders; the righteous working man (as represented by the Hollywood strikers); the heroic Trump prosecutors; icon(s) of popular culture; and the random inanimate object thrown in the mix to represent the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. My best guess is that Barbie actually won, but then someone was going to have to figure out how to interview a toy without that coming across as inappropriately suggestive or weird. 

So they went with the neurotic human Barbie that is Taylor Swift, and as is always the case whenever her name is trending, there was controversy along the predictable lines of people being elated, annoyed, or indifferent. What surprised me was the larger than usual coalition of people who expended time and energy on being offended

Like really? As the world burns, y'all are upset that a pop star got featured on a magazine cover? War in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Sudan. A wannabe dictator is running for President with a solid shot at winning, but Taylor Swift is the more worrisome influence on America's youth? I know that in theory, the TIME Magazine Person of the Year isn't supposed to be as trivial as the People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue can be. However, it is just a magazine cover as well, so by now (two, four, six...eight weeks or so later) we're just ignoring whomever/whatever is staring back at us from the virtual newsstand because no one keeps physical magazines anymore excepts doctors and dentists. 

And that would have been more than enough to say on the matter, until I noted an alliance of pearl clutchers between the Black Twitterati and the Moms of Liberty. That made for the kind of strange bedfellows which caused me to reconsider my silence. On the one hand, I understand the exasperated groans...Taylor Swift (again) when Beyonce is right there??!! However, on the other hand, just when I thought it might be best to *swiftly* walk away from what looked like white-on-white violence and head back to the hood, it dawned on me that Tay-Tay has become the most polarizing white woman in America since Hillary Clinton.

Again, we're talking about a magazine cover, not the Nobel Peace Prize. I know that we want Beyonce to be given her flowers and properly acknowledged, which we can do without going full Kanye at the 2009 VMAs. Nobody is denying the impact of Beyonce's World Tour. Nobody shrugs off the devotion of her BeyHive. And though we addressed this a few weeks ago with that cute picture of Bey and Tay together at the premier of Swift's Eras movie, nobody cares if they are frenemies or fake besties. Y'all need to stop pitting these women against each other! Seriously, you need to calm down.

Go on about your business and let Taylor Swift do what she does best, which is play the victim/anti-hero of her own success. Isn't that ultimately how she got this honor, by hamming up her "Gee, aww shucks, who me?" schtick to the kind of pitch perfection that has kept people talking about her all year? So stop helping her...PLEASE! 

She's talented. She's pretty. She can be charming. She likes cats. She has a lot of famous ex-boyfriends. By naming her Person of the Year, TIME has done us a solid by starting the clock on her inevitable popular decline. I know that reads like I'm taking shots of haterade (I'm not); however, I'm simply stating the obvious. What goes up, must come down. After a year of being the center of attention, the backlash of being weary of all things Taylor, Taylor, Taylor is just beginning. 

Is that what y'all want for Beyonce?

Congressional hearings over the availability and price of her concert tickets that result in nothing? Having your pleas for her to come to your city on her much-ballyhooed concert tour go unanswered? Getting denounced by the Alpha men and Podcast Bros as a floozy and the MAGA Karens as a witch? 

Consider what the title of TIME Person of the Year really means in the grand scheme of things. She gets to share that designation with some very honorable people such as Nelson Mandela, St. Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also quite a few terrible folks like Adolph Hitler, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump. She wasn't chosen because she's some inspirational freedom fighter standing up to a Bond villain dictator (nominated again this year), nor as a symbol of some significant movement in human progress. She's no Angela Merkel; however, she is a mega-successful multi-talented artist who had a really good year. Maybe it seems inconsequential, because making people happy through art isn't at all like working for world peace or curing lethal diseases, but Lord knows that we need some joy in these turbulent times. However, this choice feels like a set up, and a few months from now, she might wish they had gone with Barbie. 

Honestly, the person who should be really pissed right now is King Charles III. Consider that he's waited his entire life for these kinds of honors, only to be relegated to being just another name on a list. I got a certain amount of petty glee to note that the American daughter-in-law he keeps trying to make us hate, the one who was too busy living her life to attend his coronation...she found time and a sitter to attend the Taylor Swift concert.  

Even I got sucked into Taylormania this year. I had just joked with a friend that I would never, only to forget that declaration when I bought tickets to the Eras film a few weeks later. Of course, they were for the Kid, under the rationale that her ability to sit through the Swift concert would determine whether she could manage to do the same for the Beyonce film (almost). We were about halfway through hour two of Eras when I realized how many TS songs I knew from just casual radio surfing in the car. And I have to give the woman her props--it was a quite a show!

So now what? Will this be the high watermark of her career?

Since I am old enough to have witnessed this phenomenon with several other global superstars, I can say with certainty that the fall ain't pretty; the splat at the bottom is ugly; and the comeback never restores the artist(s) to the heights they once achieved. Having just watched the documentary about Michael Jackson and his iconic Thriller album at 40, it reminded me of those innocent times before everything really blew up, when I was the age of many of the youngest Swifties. Back then, Jackson was setting Guiness World Records, collecting Grammy awards, integrating MTV, and overall changing the music industry. No one could touch him, but like most people who fly too close to the sun, he came crashing down to earth. 

I imagine that a similar retrospective of Eras in 20-30 years or so will find us revisiting this moment to determine where it all began to shift. Was it Taylor's fault that her presence at NFL games to cheer on her next ex-boyfriend would annoy so many people? Didn't she know that she would never overcome the ridicule of having taken a role in the movie version of CATS (2019)? How did she always manage to reach any career milestone without the "help" of Kanye West? (Yeah, I said it!)

While we can clearly see the Beyonfluence on Swift and think the worst, it isn't like she hasn't been borrowing notes and copying from the others who preceded her. Let's begin with Janet Jackson, the Fairy Godmother of every 21st Century Pop Princess. Recognize that pose from Swift's second POY TIME cover from the janet (1993) album? How many of you remember the first Taylor (Dayne) to make it big in pop music? Or that Ms. Diana Ross the Boss was the queen of multiple costume changes in a single show? I could name-drop a bunch of girl pop acts from the 80s, from Tiffany and Debbie Gibson to the Aunties Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Estefan, and Mariah Carey who were each, in her prime, pioneers who cleared away shards of broken glass so that Swift didn't get cut along the road to success. 

Heck, some of Taylor's best stuff has been ripped off inspired by others. Becoming BFFs with various LGBTQIA icons--that was Madonna in the 90s. The entire boudoir dominatrix aesthetic was big in the Aughts, which I remember well since one of the very first pieces I wrote about popular music back in 2001 was inspired by the remake of the Lady Marmalade video for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. That same year Britney Spears performed live with a snake (Swift's snake at her show was an optical illusion). Swift must have been about twelve then, the kind of "good" girl who diligently practiced her instruments and jotted down lyrics (while taking copious notes) in her glitter-covered spiral notebook. She definitely spent a LOT of time watching classic MTV videos because hello, Michael Jackson did the zombie in the graveyard thing first. And that folksy rock-witch serving Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus (1993) era was a clear nod to Stevie Nicks. How much do you want to bet that Swift assumed no one would make the association between one-hit wonderful Toni Basil and how she obviously inspired Shake It Off?  

Yeah, if Artificial Intelligence could have created the perfect pop star...

Which brings me back to where this all began with the TIME cover and how maybe it's just perfect that Taylor Swift would be named the Person of this most superlative thank-God-it-is-almost-over trainwreck of a Year. While some folks might be envious and critical of Beyonce for both legitimate and ridiculous reasons, she's a working mother of three married to a billionaire, so she's not worried about a magazine cover. And she's made it clear that she and Swift are like two vast oceans that maintain their unique attributes even as they mix, commingle, and share fans. Queen Bey don't need or want any parts of this foolishness.

On the other hand, Taylor Swift is probably writing a song about all of this backlash that will become next summer's earworm, and so all of this Taylorific disdain will have the opposite effect. She has a knack for courting controversy so that it serves her; hence, no matter what we say or how we feel about her, she's not going anywhere anytime soon. She is formidable, resilient, and she won this dubious honor over a King, organized labor, two dictators, and a $10 plastic doll. That this woman can be loved and reviled, admired and maligned, yet somehow manages to triumph is extraordinary.

Even if you're still convinced that Barbie would have been a better choice, the reality is that she would have melted under this kind of scrutiny. In the movie, she couldn't handle the perceived imperfection in having flat feet, and the other Barbies got overthrown in their own dreamworld by a bunch of idiots. Taylor (and here comes a bad pun), is too Swift to be undone by shallow insecurity or some male accessory who is only relevant because of his association with her. If for no other reason than to piss off the podcast bros who resent that she's way out of their league, Taylor Swift will always be a better choice than Weird Barbie...and the world will be grateful for that in 20-30 years.

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