Cultural Commentary: Taylor Swift’s Blank Space

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I'll write your name.

So I walk into the Fangirl Nation writers’ room this morning.

“Hey Leah, we’ve got…”
“I’m gonna let you finish but what if, instead of doing actual work, I wrote a review of Taylor Swift’s newest music video? “
“Why would… why would anyone want you to do that?”
“Too late, I already did it. It’s over a thousand words! Well, see you tomorrow!”

To be fair, they totally should have expected this, considering I basically got here by standing outside of the door shouting “You guys know you want to publish several thousand words on an obscure horror anthology show! I can see the lights on in there, so there’s no use pretending you’re not home.”

Ok Ok, I’m not really that irresponsible. I actually had this idea on Wednesday, but I had to finish my Fraggle Rock review first… which provides a nice segue. I first encountered this video when Fraggle Rock & Adventure Time writer Kate Leth reblogged it on her tumblr, with this enticing caption:

“I’m so all about how weird this is.”

The seed was planted and I watched it a few times. I opened a word doc and started writing this article as a joke, but the more I explored my thoughts, the more I realized this was a great time to talk about recent shifts in geek culture.

Kate Leth is part of the new generation of women in comics, many of whom entered traditional publishing by way of the web. They often bring new, decidedly more feminine or gender-agnostic perspectives to comics culture. My comic shop had a lot of female customers (probably because the owner was smart enough to hire nerdy teen girls who worked cheap and created a welcoming atmosphere), but most of them fit into one of a few different types: the Otaku, the Tomboy, the SCA Girl, the Goth, and the Goth-adjacent. You saw a lot of counterculture, and very little mainstream. You saw a lot of that Generation X cynicism and irony. Ah, the 90s.

While I’ll always have nostalgia for that time, I’m strongly in favor of the new trend of unironically enjoying things.  We can incorporate popular culture into nerd culture, approaching this ephemera with all the meta-analysis associated with our tribe.

Watch this video. Think of it as an important cultural artifact. If you don’t trust me, trust Nimona and Lumberjanes writer Noelle Stephenson.

UNIRONIC LOVE

Did you watch it? Seriously, don’t skip ahead – it’s so much better if you go in unspoiled. Also, you may now be addicted. Sorry about that.

I hear ya, girl.

I hear ya, girl.

This video is gorgeous and bonkers, but there’s a method to all this attractive madness.

Compelling storytelling? Defiant satire of the narrative surrounding young, female celebrities? When I clicked on a Taylor Swift video, I was not expecting either of those things.

Blank Space paints a cynical picture, derived from the hyperbole and moral panic surrounding pop stars. What if the stories the media tells about young women like Taylor were true? What if she really did see all her partners as handsome, interchangeable placeholders? What if she took every negative stereotype about the emotional life of young women to its logical extreme and just started destroying priceless vintage cars with golf clubs whenever she was upset? The media coverage of her would barely change, she’d probably have more delicious, evil, decadent fun.

What if Taylor was everything everyone said about her, and instead of shaking it off, she OWNED it?

Artists like Pink have been saying things like this for years (NSFW Lyrics), but this is Taylor Swift, the girl who had her first big hit with Love Story, for f**k’s sake.

I hate the song Love Story. I find the lyrics repellent and the video cloyingly saccharine. Whenever it comes on the radio I jam the channel change button so hard I risk putting my finger through the dashboard. At the height of its popularity I stopped listening to the radio altogether for a year, even when the only alternative was a half-melted Cat Stephens tape my mom left in my car. I was not predisposed to suddenly become a huge fan of Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, a short time ago an old friend from my theater days sent me a link to the first video from Taylor’s new album: Shake it Off. She waxed rhapsodic about the skilled demonstrations of different dance styles, juxtaposed with the goofy fun of just going nuts on the dance floor and not caring what anybody thinks. I’ve got to admit, I’ve always been a sucker for videos about finding the people who get you through dance: Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is my second favorite music video of all time. Despite my feelings about Taylor Swift’s songs and videos in the past, I liked Shake it Off.

So Ok, Taylor made another silly cute video about not fitting in, but this time it had a neat concept, a good director, and it showcased some incredibly skilled dancers. Finally I had more insight into why a lot of geeks I love are so drawn to her.

B99TS1 B99TS2 B99TS3 B99TS4
Brooklyn 99 gifs from lightsofmay.

Taylor’s songs are simple, visceral, and approachable. The vast majority of her earlier work is not to my taste, but I could at least theoretically understand why other people appreciated it. She played the game, and got her big break with a poisonously sweet, thematically-ill-considered love ballad. Another hit was a female version of the problematic but enticing ‘nerd should get the girl’ narrative. Then we get an earworm-y breakup anthem for the ages. Nothing but classic, popular sugar and spice. But what does she get for it? Haters who hate, as is their wont.

Her new album offers two potential paths for our young heroine: she can shake this criticism off, or she can move in to Charles Foster Kane’s mansion and be the evil we want to see in the world.

Blank Space’s video delivers a cutting critique of how young women are treated; serious commentary hidden in a seemingly frivolous song. The line “got a whole list of ex-lovers who’ll tell you I’m insane,” is one of my favorites. “My ex is crazy” has become a ubiquitous phrase, because the default cultural narrative equates feminine emotions with madness. But when everyone says all of their old girlfriends are insane, there’s no distinction between someone who writes too many emails and someone who sets fire to all of your clothes and then assaults you with an improvised weapon. Using the same term to describe both those behaviors results in a world where a predator like the Blank Space girl can thrive.

The video may revel in its protagonist’s actions, but it doesn’t condone them. It’s a satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift, an ostentatious exaggeration of a flawed worldview that invites the audience to question their assumptions about society before they ignorantly destroy everything they hold dear. Or, as the kids say “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” (Note: no kids have said this for over a decade).

It’s also just plain visually stunning, stylish, and cinematic, and that’s important too. Taylor breaks the fourth wall with her gorgeous sideways glances, inviting us into her schemes. “Tired of being taken to task for having emotions and a love life? Wouldn’t it be grand if we stopped caring and became monsters together?”
Eh girls?
I’m the furthest thing there is from a stiletto-wearing femme fatale, but there’s something inside me that chuckles darkly at her suggestion that maybe we should live up to the lies of those who would paint us as monsters.

Society’s “bad girls” have been hip to this for years, of course. But now even the kind of girl who used to buy into romantic fairytales wholesale is starting to steeple her fingers and consider villainy. Maybe that’s a sign that a new kind of story is coming.

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One Response

  1. Toni Adams November 17, 2014 Reply

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