What pop stars of Taylor Swift’s flavor do, suggests Jonathan Compo, is provide an external emotional processor for their fans.
There are many flavors of pop stars, and new ones are coming to the market every album cycle. The role Taylor Swift plays is one of external emotional processor. In her more recent work, it may be argued, she has resigned her old role, but this article argues she has not.
For at least her first three albums, Swift’s main audience has been pre-teen to teenage girls. Taylor Swift, Fearless and Speak Now all deal explicitly and at length with issues common to girlhood. The intense, detailed love songs and equally intense, detailed break-up songs which characterize this period—more than vent Swift’s personal frustration—reconcile her audience’s intense, detailed emotions.
For preteens and teens (and for all humans) emotions can be hard to process. Specifically, those produced in the ups and downs of love and lost love can feel larger than life. “Now you understand why they lost their minds and fought the wars,” Swift writes in her de facto manifesto “You Are In Love”: “And now you understand why I’ve spent my whole life trying to put it into words.” Love, in Swift’s creative universe, is a force which can overcome the placidity of day-to-day existence. Day-to-day existence, though, is all most people have. And day-to-day existence, as it exists in modernity does not have outlets big enough for Swiftian Love.
Emotion’s that big are expressly unmodern—in her definitive work, “Love Song,” she equates herself with Juliet and her desired lover with Romeo, and, though in her telling the lovers don’t end up dead, the evocation of Shakespeare captures the grandeur of the feeling nevertheless. For those of us who can’t drive a Masserati down a dead-end street in order to be able to compare it to losing a significant other, Swift’s dramatic songwriting allows for the cathartic experience of feeling love as big as love should feel.
Forever and Always
To fully understand this point, consider Mexican pop star Paty Cantu. Cantu, like Swift, does big break-up songs well—her “Afortunadamente No Eres Tu” is “Forever and Always” on Hispanic-pop-rock steroids—and the most recent in this lineage, off Cantu’s most recent album #333, explicitly captures the dynamic we’re discussing. “Romper Contigo” is the song in question, and the title reveals the work it’s trying to do. The music video for the song features Cantu acting out the most obvious interpretation of the song’s lyrics. She discovers her lover’s infidelity and breaks up with him. (Romper contigo means “Break Up With You.”)
The video, though, contains two other arcs, both of which take more liberty with the song’s meaning. One follows a young woman dealing with a chronic illness. The other follows a woman dealing with gender dysphoria over her masculine presentation. In these latter two stories that which is being broken up with is not a person at all; the title, “Romper Contigo,” doesn’t really make sense in these cases. Instead, what the video suggests is that the literal content of the title and lyrics are a vessel onto which the listener may impart their own pain, whatever form it takes, whatever they want to break up with. The title, then, comes to refer not to Cantu and her lover, but Cantu and the listener—she has made this song so that she may go through your challenges alongside you, and let you reconcile yourself through her challenges, she promises to break up with you.
The title of Cantu’s song makes it clear the work the song is doing, but many of Swift’s early songs work similarly. Their lyrically specificity, instead of limiting their relevance to that specifically in the lyrics, enables the song to become a notebook into which the listener can record the particularities of their situation and make a personal symbol out of all the song’s lyrics. One needn’t have dated John Mayer into order to get something out of scream singing “Dear John.”
You need to calm down
Which brings us, finally, to “You Need to Calm Down.” Swift’s newest single and accompanying video has come under fire for equating homophobia with the pop star’s own haters. The song opens with a verse about Swift receiving criticism online. The next verse goes after counter protestors at pride parades. A pure textual analysis of this song would lead to the rather nonsensical reading that Swift is equating homophobic protests with criticism of her celebrity. This, I think, misunderstands the dynamic Swift has with her fans, the role she still plays. The song is not creating an equivalence between homophobia and her haters; it is creating an equation. It is saying to her LGBTQ+ fans that if they insert their experiences of marginalization and the negative emotions associated therewith into her song, she will, with the language she has to process such things, process it for them.
The critics of the song do have a point. When the subjects of songs become political, which hasn’t been a problem in the past for Swift but is with “You Need to Calm Down,” there are more complex questions of ethics and of who is benefitting. Swift is, after all, putting out a product and as commenters have noted elsewhere, there are better places to aim your attention and send your dollars if you concern is ultimately with the cause. Criticism of a celebrity extending to fans, though, is rarely justified. This essay is in their defense, not Swift’s. What I hope it sheds light on is how one may continue to get something out of a pop star’s production like Taylor Swift’s, independent of the quality of the music or her corporate motives. The emotional work which is done by songs such as “You Need to Calm Down” is separate from their quality as songs or the quality of their artists as people, and when evaluating fans of personas as complicated as Taylor Swift’s, this should be kept in mind.