Camille Paglia Eats Taylor Swift

Our cultural hatred for aging and growing up (20-somethings still rehearsing teenage personas; 60-somethings botoxing) has Camille Paglia (aged 65) seriously annoyed, and in a recent article for the Hollywood Reporter, one of her targets for criticism is Taylor Swift, the 22-year old–twenty-two!–pop singer who sings about, well, stupid teenie topics:

Despite the passage of time since second-wave feminism erupted in the late 1960s, we’ve somehow been thrown back to the demure girly-girl days of the white-bread 1950s. It feels positively nightmarish to survivors like me of that rigidly conformist and man-pleasing era, when girls had to be simple, peppy, cheerful and modest. Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee formed the national template — that trinity of blond oppressors!

As if flashed forward by some terrifying time machine, there’s Taylor Swift, America’s latest sweetheart, beaming beatifically in all her winsome 1950s glory from the cover of Parade magazine in the Thanksgiving weekend newspapers. In TV interviews, Swift affects a “golly, gee whiz” persona of cultivated blandness and self-deprecation, which is completely at odds with her shrewd glam dress sense. […]

Her themes are mainly complaints about boyfriends, faceless louts who blur in her mind as well as ours. Swift’s meandering, snippy songs make 16-year-old Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry if I Want to)” seem like a towering masterpiece of social commentary, psychological drama and shapely concision.

What jumps out here (at least to me) is this part of Paglia’s critique:

In TV interviews, Swift affects a “golly, gee whiz” persona of cultivated blandness and self-deprecation, which is completely at odds with her shrewd glam dress sense.

Yes, they are at odds, and maybe this is the point: irony. And being passive-aggressive can be cunning; a winning strategy. In Taylor Swift’s defense, what if her shtick is Nefertiti on ice, stealing the show from patriarchy via her mesmerizing glamour?

Ambivalence is salty; it’s oceanic and Dionysian. And Swift has that. She doesn’t know whether to love men or hate them; grow-up or say fuck it. And maybe that’s her appeal: to inhabit these very contemporary tensions in herself. She is a modern woman processing the real double-binds in the culture; she’s not taking sides and then pretending to feel no turbulence. I don’t think Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds ever really displayed much by way of serious ambivalence about their largely passive and supporting roles to men, but Taylor Swift does. And in her anger, she also seems to be having fun (which is pretty good revenge):


Swift is not a wallflower. She controls the door. And her royal assuming of center stage recalls for me “queenie” in John Updike’s short story, “A&P” (if we’re going to reach for early 1960s cultural touchstones). She straddles dirty and decent, and is fully capable of asserting her Dionysian energies, as this amusing mash-up with Korn brings to the fore:


And for perspective, Cindi Lauper had reached her 30s–her thirties!–when her video “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” hit MTV in 1983 (Lauper was born in 1953):


Okay, so that’s my defense of Taylor Swift. Contra Paglia, Swift is not a conformist in the way that Lesley Gore was. She is not a teenie-bopper crying in the back bedroom of her suburban home, but Carrie Meeber of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel, Sister Carrie (a single young woman with small town roots navigating the big city for the first time).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Camille Paglia Eats Taylor Swift

  1. Staffan says:

    Honestly, has there ever been any great art that has been full of political and social commentary? That idea is the reason why so little from the 1960s is memorable. Unlike Paglia who just comes off like another talentless atheist, you can appreciate that Taylor Swift is talented. But you must try to make her modern in order to suppress the fact that hardly any modern art is any good. That’s why someone like Willem de Kooning is a concern for academics in the humanities only, while people from all walks of life still listen to Lesley Gore,

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s a great video, and you make some good points.

      Paglia’s goal, in my view, is not to be politically didactic, though. Her Catholic baroque tastes in art, however, do seem to make her rather viscous toward Protestant reserve.


  2. Abandon TV says:

    When we discuss Taylor Swift’s songs, fashion sense, political / social content and even her personality there is the built in assumption that she really is the person who is most in control of these things.

    In reality nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Taylor Swift’ (like all mainstream pop acts) is a product (a brand) which is manufactured by literally hundreds of professionals working in various industries – a product which is projected onto a good looking young woman who also happens to be called Taylor Swift.

    The same is true of most of these ‘asymmetrically hyped’, mainstream, corporate pop (and R&B, hip hop etc) acts.

    We’d never dream of discussing Ronald MacDonald as if he made up all the recipes and flipped the burgers himself. We’d never talk about a commercial pilot as if he was the person who designed, built and owns the planes he flies.

    These brands (Swift, Rhianna, Jay-Z, GaGa etc) can be thought of as a kind of ‘technology’. On the most basic level they are used to make lots of money (obviously), but they also represent the increasingly sophisticated synergy of a whole bunch of corporate and other interests (music industry, media, military industrial corporations, governments, advertisers, social engineers and the various cults who make up the ‘entertainment industry’).

    Mass entertainments have *always* been to some extent weaponised. Even advertising is, by definition, a form of weaponised psychology. Even though we don’t mistake adverts for ‘reality’ (we know they’re just adverts) they still affect our behaviour to the tune of $billions each year.

    What differentiates a ‘TV advert’ from a ‘pop video’?

    A modern day TV or magazine advert is a hugely sophisticated form of mass mind control which tends to be quite entertaining at the same time (the entertainment factor being a big part of the psychological strategy). Why can’t a pop video be regarded in the same terms?

    We all recognise the huge power of music and the power of performers to influence the youth as role models and ‘spokespeople for their generation’. There are times in all our youths when to these role models pretty much define our world view.

    So why *wouldn’t* mainstream, corporate music be used in the same way that adverts are used: to change our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours to suit the interests of others?

    In other words, why not use mass entertainments to influence the youth’s attitudes and world view so they grow up to be perfect ‘happy consumers’, ‘smiling depressives’ and dumbed down ‘tax cows’.

    If I was part of the ruling classes and my job was to make the masses dependent on our rule (no matter how corrupt and immoral we became) I would probably encourage the youth to be shallow, vacuous, conforming, materialistic, narcissistic and socially competitive so I could lock them into the social hierarchy. I would probably do this by presenting them with various manufactured celebrities who embody these traits to perfection and who appear to have achieved great success, wealth and adoration as a result. Monkey see, monkey do.

    If old style propaganda was all about manipulating people’s thinking on important issues, the new style of propaganda is just to make thinking about important issues totally unfashionable.

    We think western culture is not censored because bare breasts, gruesome violence and loose morality are all permitted. We never consider that western culture might in fact be censored precisely *because* all we ever see these days is bare breasts, gruesome violence and loose morality………. and philosophy, morality, imagination, depth, critical thinking, non conformity never get a look in. These crucial aspects of grown up human consciousness have been airbrushed out of society like soviet dissidents!

    I mean, a million civilians have been slaughtered in recent illegal wars of genocide for which Blair / Bush have already been convicted of war crimes under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the entire global economy is collapsing, we are on the brink of WW3 and we see an Orwellian police state being set up in front of our faces based on out of control fear mongering about terrorism (which is in itself a form of terrorism)….. meanwhile the charts are full of a kind of sugar coated pathological narcissism or THIS sort of thing.

    If mass entertainments were NOT being used as a weapon against the general public (especially the youth) today, it would be the first time in history.

    Should we just bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything is perfectly normal, or should we spend, say, half an hour researching who actually controls this industry and take a good long hard look at WHAT SPECIFIC MESSAGES they are injecting into everyone’s minds 24/7?

  3. Anonymous says:

    reply to Prometheus Unbound and Abandon TV-
    Are we naught but puppets of corporate greed…only? I find Paglia hard to accept at times, but I think she is an aesthetic pugilist/trainer. Even accepting your description of Swift as corporate tool/circus act, isn’t it incumbent on all of us to rail against the establishment and “abandon TV’ if we can? Bette Midler, Ben Affleck, Orson Bean, are all popular personages (Orson dates me back to the 60’s) who find ways to let us know what they really think about what they do. I am unaware of comments by T. Swift that let us know how she sees herself in the real hierarchy. Please enlighten me if you know of any. I am thankful to both the efforts of Tarafella and AbandonTV, in bringing this discussion to current notice.

  4. C.M. says:

    “Abandon “is smart.

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