For millennia, women have been silenced, sidelined and ignored. Their ideas and contributions have been systematically dismissed or deemed frivolous, a surefire way to ascribe something inherently lesser value. They have been shouted over and talked down, to, told to ‘shut up and sing/look pretty/please their husbands’ and so on.
The author of this essay has noticed that there is an immediate devaluation of art or content made by young women for young women as soon as it becomes publicly available. Young women, whether they be creators or fans are instantly dismissed as valid and legitimate culturemakers i.e. creators of serious cultural artefact, and arbiters of taste. Why is that? What does this phenomenon and the art in question then teach us about the broader experience of womanhood? These are the central questions which this Capstone Project will attempt to explore.
But first, a point of clarification; ‘art’ is obviously used as an umbrella term to describe a wide range of mediums, some of which are infinitely more accessible to the general public than others. With this in mind, it feels important to specify that the medium this project is concerned with is modern music, songwriting, and the media paraphernalia that surround musicians as a result of the culture of celebrity in 2021.
The easy surface answer to the first of the above questions is clearly because we live in a patriarchal society, which at its core and across its every system is steeped in sexism and misogyny. The way society listens to and participates in conversations about music is no exception. How many times have you heard some variant of the following statement? ‘Her music’s fine/OK/good, there’s just something about her I don’t like…’ According to academic Evie Chiles, “an artist’s credibility in the eyes of the music industry overwhelmingly relies on the extent to which they can be deemed ‘authentic’, and standards of artistic authenticity have long been determined by privileging masculine sensibilities.”
Basically, a male artist can be deemed authentic based on the merit of their art, while for female artists, things tend to get a bit more personal. Chiles goes on to say, “Authenticity, by the music industry’s standards, is therefore much harder for women to attain; particularly if they are seen to be overtly powerful, emotional, or strategic”.
Honestly, with those criteria in place, this essay could have built a case study out of multiple female musician’s careers, so prevalent are these markers of gendered pressure. However, this essay will be focusing specifically on the artistry, performance and media perception of someone for whom the above labels have been consistently and expertly weaponised; Taylor Swift.
Her confessional songwriting style, which pulls real details from her own life and is often described as like reading her diaries has seen her follow in a music tradition popularised in the 1970’s by artists such as Carole King, James Taylor (for whom she is named) and Joni Mitchell.
As one of the most recognisable and successful musicians of the modern age, she occupies rarefied space in the uppermost echelons of fame, with the kind of critical and commercial success that is almost impossible to grasp. She has sold a staggering 114 million albums with collective streaming numbers across her songs and videos totalling a cool 78 billion.
She is the first artist since The Beatles to have five albums spend at least six weeks in the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 charts, the most celebrated and studied musical chart in the world. Earlier this year, she made history as the only woman to win the Grammy’s top prize ‘Album of the Year’ 3 times, an honour only previously achieved by universally acclaimed male artists Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.
But this success has not come without cost. Over the course of her fifteen year career, Swift’s songwriting has been repeatedly mocked and belittled as a result of its primarily romantic focus, indeed called overtly emotional and desperate on many occasions. She says, “For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.” This same angle and critique of confessional art is not applied to Swift’s male peers, such as Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars who have similarly built careers off the back of writing about their lives and relationships.
The tendency to slut shame or sexualise women, viewing them only through the lens of the men they are socioculturally tied to instead of valuing their achievements has a deeply historical basis. British historian, Dr. Bettany Hughes has found in decades of research that “often, women aren’t allowed to be characters in history, they have to be stereotypes. Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths; she wasn’t that much of a looker. But when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress bathing in milk. Often, even when women have made their mark and they are remembered by history, we are offered a fantasy version of their lives.
The media has in the past made sport of trivialising Taylor’s work ethic talent and skill in favour of defining her by her dating history and the men she is seen with. That critique holds no weight anymore as for the past five years Taylor has been in an extremely solid, healthy and creatively fruitful relationship with the actor Joe Alwyn.
By her own admission, Taylor defines this prior period of her life as when she became “a national lightning rod for slut shaming.”
An uncomfortable example of this is when the talk show host Ellen DeGeneres forced Taylor to play a game where she was shown pictures of men and had to ring a bell if she had hooked up with or dated. them, a cruel segment that almost left the singer in tears on national television.
This treatment was at its peak in 2012/2013 off the back of a string of breakups with high profile men. Swift says, “people were kind of reducing me to like, kind of making slideshows of my dating life and putting people in there that I’d sat next to at a party once and deciding my songwriting was like a trick rather than a skill and a craft. It’ s way to take a woman who’s doing her job and succeeding at doing her job and making things and in a way its figuring out how to completely minimize that skill by taking something that everyone in their darkest moments love to do, which is to slut-shame.” This teaches young women that the most criminally offensive thing they can do in the eyes of society is date, have desire and want to try out different things in relationships.
This deeply flawed and misogynistic dialogue provided inspiration for one of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits, Blank Space. This is a song where she fully leaned into the serial dater, maneater persona that the press had created for her and turned it into a dramatic and ridiculous parody of itself. This is clear as per the music video where she can be seen lighting clothes on fire, tossing phones in the pool, damaging cars with golfclubs and generally causing psychological torment.
In another song dedicated to dissecting the sexism that has enshrouded her career, The Man, Swift considers the potential for change in society’s perception if she made all the same choices but was a man instead. This is reflected in lyrics like, “They’d say I played the field before I found someone to commit to, and that would be OK for me to do. Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you.”
Beyond the flawed and sexist perception of her as overemotional, Taylor Swift has faced sharp critique, calling her ‘calculating’ and ‘cold’, questioning her business acumen and how much weight she pulls in her own career.
As author Mary Beard notes in her book, Women and Power, “it is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice, they do not hear a voice that connotes authority.”For anyone wondering, Swift sits at the head of the boardroom table and has kept the same team around her for the majority of her career, which is rare.
As a result of her coming into the music industry at the tender age of 14, as the youngest songwriter ever signed to Sony/ATV publishing, Taylor says, “Men in the industry saw me as a kid. I was a lanky, scrawny, overexcited young girl who reminded them more of their little niece or their daughter than a successful woman in business or a colleague.”This would only heighten with the release of her self-titled debut album at age 16, and her being the youngest recipient of Album of The Year at the Grammys, for Fearless, an album she released at 18.
From there, the narrative of ‘oh how cute she’s written some hit songs, what a happy accident’ would shift to critical, searching for fault. “The second I became a woman, in people’s perception, was when I started seeing it (sexism).” Critics would question whether she wrote her own songs, so she wrote her third album solo. Her record label Big Machine would push back against her desire to follow her instinct and transition to pop music. 1989, her “first officially documented full pop album would go on to become the most awarded pop album of all time. We tell women to be confident, to own their decisions and back themselves but call them a bitch and question their capabilities as soon as they have any power. The example of unrelenting in control calling the shots power exhibited by Taylor Swift sets a masterful example for young women and girls everywhere.
Swift’s majority female fanbase, who hold a uniquely close relationship, “having grown up together” with the singer, have not escaped criticism either. Whenever fans defend her online as this author can personally attest, calling out misogyny and sexism or times she has been mistreated by men in the music industry, there are always comments along the lines of ‘Taylor fans are all silly little girls who believe in fairytales. They’re all 12 year old girls who need to shut up.’
This infantilisation and presumption of a lack of intelligence is not limited to Taylor Swift fans, but has historically been linked to any piece of culture or art teenage girls find themselves attached to. Consider this statement from an early review of the Beatlemania phenomenon in the 1960’s; “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” Of course, those girls had the last laugh, considering the beloved status of the Beatles in hindsight as one of the biggest and most musically influential bands the world has ever seen.
Perhaps then, young girls should not be made to feel silly or their interests looked down upon and thought of as having lesser value than the interests of middle-aged white men. As musician Harry Styles says, “How can you say young girls don’t get it?” “They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
In a unique bond with fans that sees her invite them to her homes for album listening parties, send Christmas presents and routinely interact with them on social media, Taylor has consistently made a point of treating her audience as equals and respecting their intelligence, clueing them into the process behind many of her creative and business decisions.
This, coupled with her uncanny ability to traverse genres with ease and make each musical risk in a career full of them, pay off sets her apart from many of her peers in the industry. Her success has been across three hugely varied musical markets. Each of her three wins for Album of The Year has been in a different genre of music; country for Fearless, pop for 1989 and most recently, the alternative/indie genre for pandemic project folklore. This is obviously a testament to her skill, talent, and the immense work ethic she has committed to honing her craft.
However, this versatility is also deeply gendered. “We live in a world where women in the entertainment industry are tossed in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re 35” says Swift in her powerful Netflix documentary and Sundance pick, Miss Americana, a film, dedicated to unpacking so many of the narratives that can be damaging for young women to internalise.
She also talks candidly about the incredible pressure and double standards on female artists surrounding ageing and the idea of constant reinvention in a bid to stay relevant and successful. This is not expected of male artists. There is no societal pressure on them comparable to the pressure on women that says, “be new to us, be young to us—but only in a new way and only in the way we want. Reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting and a challenge for you. Live out a narrative that we find interesting enough to entertain us, but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.”
The last fragment of that quote brings to mind much of the media dialogue and public spectacle made of the careers of Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Madonna among others. Society has a voyeuristic tendency to just continue watching, enjoying and ruthlessly criticising or cutting down women who stray from the unwritten narratives about who they’re supposed to be. In Britney’s case specifically, much can be said about the perverse pleasure people seemed to draw from her very public breakdown, often making fun of her shaved head and hysterics, instead of examining why she was behaving that way and what systems were complicit in making her that unhappy. It’s only in recent years with knowledge of the disturbing and restrictive conservatorship she has lived under, and the rise of the #FreeBritney campaign that the general public and media alike have re-examined their complicity in this dialogue.
Given that Miss Americana was released a month or so after Swift’s 30th birthday, this line of thinking around ageing and by extension body image feels particularly charged, especially because she goes on to say, “I want to work really hard, while society is still tolerating me being successful.”
This same societal mindset of toleration and expiration dates is clearly not encumbering male artists at the same rate, given the number of male musicians like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen and many others who have had careers for decades, reinventing themselves not out of necessity but purely by choice. If they choose not to pursue reinvention, they can still enjoy great success coasting along in their carved-out niche.
But the complex double standard expected of women in regards to ageing and body image is not a phenomenon exclusive to the music industry. Women from all walks of life on a global scale are constantly faced with intrusive media, advertising, and other forms of messaging about their bodies and the roles those bodies are supposed to play in service to others. Over recent years, with the advent of social media and ‘Kardashian culture’ which is to say the privileging of a certain hypersexualised physical aesthetic with boobs, curves, butt and still an incredibly toned fit body, the pressure has only heightened.
As Swift says, in a fiercely candid moment in her documentary, “There’s always some standard of beauty that you’re not meeting. Cause if you’re thin enough, then you don’t have that ass that everyone wants. But if you have enough weight on you to have an ass, your stomach isn’t flat enough. It’s just impossible.”
This conversation orbits around two major revelations from Taylor; the first that she’s struggled with an eating disorder for much of her time in the spotlight and the second, discussing the impact of the sexual assault trial she won back in 2017, after a radio DJ sexually assaulted her at a meet and greet, “latching his hand onto her bare ass cheek.” After reporting it, the radio DJ lost his job and sued Swift as a result. In order to make an example out of that behaviour and loudly position it as not OK, Taylor countersued him for a symbolic $1, in an important precursor to the #MeToo movement which would soon sweep Hollywood.
In her only interview of 2017, after being named one of Time Magazine’s Silence Breakers for that year, she said, “People have been largely very supportive of my story since the trial in August, but before that, I spent two years reading headlines referring to it as ‘The Taylor Swift Butt Grab Case’ with Internet trolls making fun of what had happened to me.” The example set by Taylor Swift being bravely vulnerable and loudly open about the struggles she has experienced will pay dividends for the ways in which young people identify and respond to these issues for years to come.
In conclusion, while it’s true that society’s default setting is still to instantly devalue, undermine and dismiss art made by young women for young women, the needle is slowly shifting. Women in the public spotlight, such as Taylor Swift who over the course of her career has been put through the wringer, are being unapologetically loud about what’s happened to them, and even better, are being heard. Defences of young female fans as culturemakers, arbiters of taste and people who can generally spot the value of media are becoming more common. The experience of modern womanhood, for all its trials and tribulations is finally being presented not as something to grin and bear, merely surviving but as a place to know your power, demand respect, and thrive.