February 15, 2015 § 1 Comment

taylor-swift-black-space-knifeI’m as aware as anyone that I’m not a pop commentator anymore – for a few months in 2011 between bouts of nervous exhaustion, dead romance & arguing with my parents, maybe – but I wondered whether I shouldn’t write something about the new Taylor Swift. After all if, as Joshua Clover suggested a couple of years ago, Swift is to the current pop industry as China is (or was) to the current global economy, then it might be possible to figure out a few things about what’s happening broadly in the pop superstructure right now whilst simultaneously making it look as if I’m down w/ the kids. (I haven’t been completely ensconced under a rock: I mentioned Beyonce & Swift as positives in the otherwise gloomy essay I wrote for The Wire‘s Rewind issue this year, though it was cut in the final edit.) But I got stalled on the opening of Amy Pettifer’s strange review of Swift for The Quietus.

it’s tedious both to ignore and to dismiss Taylor Swift. Of course if you want to that’s fine–but I can guarantee she doesn’t give two shits if you do, and it’s unlikely to stall her in her shimmering tracks. Whether you see her as a perky nuisance, or an artist using her success to forge independent strides, it’s impossible to deny that the release of her fifth album (titled after the year of her birth) is a cultural event, deserving of attention outside of its milieu.

This says everything & nothing. The haters, we’re given to understand – no doubt to be characterised as pale, unwashed rockists living in their parents’ basements (there may indeed be some among their number) – are insignificant against the world-bestriding commercial fact of Taylor. The question that remains unasked & unanswered: what do we have to gain by not being among the haters & ‘critics’? (The scare-quotes designate a phantasm: all discussion of TS assumes that broadsheet & magazine critics professionally sneer at her & pop music generally – whereas of course the writer loves her objectively. Simple statistics show that everyone likes her.) What do Swiftians get out of their investment in Taylor? Pettifer presents Swift’s as a commercial option w/ pleasant aspects, as if she were discussing different brands of supermarket-bought cakes. Wh/ may in fact be the case: to ask what we get out of TS is another way of phrasing a different question – namely, does pop still constitute a (potentially real) universal in the way that it seemed to between, say, ’57 and the mid-80s? If the small pantheon of contemporary deities – Bey, Yeezy, Ri-Ri, (possibly) K-Pez & Swifty – are the only musicians capable of uniting the infinitely specialised & fragmented balkans of taste, what does it mean that their ‘appeal’ has to be continually decoded & explained by one section of the market to another? What does it mean that their reigns – in both commercial & artistic registers – are still precarious? (Beyonce’s loss of the best album Grammy is indicative here: Fifty Quid Man still doesn’t “get” ‘Drunk in Love’. More telling still is Rihanna’s blank-eyed progress since Rated R, in wh/ nihilism & professionalism are intertwined, the hit rate of No 1s & the sheer noncommital, shapeless quality of the singles roughly correlate.) Taylor’s famed ‘niceness’ – her much-displayed empathy w/, & acknowledgement of, her fans – is always hedged w/ the sense that it could be revoked at any time, as her equally famed not-niceness to Spotify showed. In other words, the old pop notion of collective transformation through individuated identification w/ the figure of the star – pop’s promise that you, the ordinary, awkward, provincial creature, can become something other than yourself, for “if they can get up on the stage, can too” – is, for Swift, a process w/ very set limits. Taylor combines w/in herself the two polarities of fangirl(-next-door) & the radiant star-image that offers to close her lack: instead of taking, as Anwen Crawford has demanded, the investments of the fangirl seriously, Taylor effectively sublates them; armoured & imperviously undialectical, she at once invites identification & disarms it, converts it into album sales. The invocation of “culture” at the end of the paragraph is telling, a kind of desperate elision of registers that discloses its own truth: that, as Robert Hullot-Kentor has suggested, the wrenching dissonance in the phrase “culture industry” as it was originally formulated by Adorno & Horkheimer, has disappeared; that “culture” as a set of forms & local aesthetic details to be experienced & interpreted has become contiguous with the regime of commercial facts, superstructure with base. Good in some ways: maybe our Marxism can afford to be more vulgar instead of having to do the elaborate work of decoding. But what are we left w/, having lost what Greil Marcus promises, desperately, in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, “a new language” that is really a new possibility of social being, a new momentary opening into history as contingency, aside from the exhausted shells of mystifications & a teeming array of commodities?


§ One Response to

  • Feels like something could be made out of the fact that the album is called 1989…. that Joshua Clover wrote a whole book about pop music in 1989…. that 1989 is when Fukuyama published the essay “The End of History?”

    Feels to me like an undeniably massive yet literally anti-cultural event, a vast insignificance… yet if we don’t toady to it – submit, as you say, to the commercial fact – then we’re considered to be on the wrong side of end-of-History

    Then again, I eavesdropped on some poptimists on a Facebook thread a month or two ago, they were admitting shamefacedly to being exhausted by the whole TSwift meaning-extraction rigmarole…

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