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).