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The Poisoned Well
On Swift, Rich Men North of Richmond, and the corruption of art
Art is often treated like an accessory, an emblem, a representation of whatever you hope your identity to be. The prints on your wall, the music in your playlists, the books you have read or pretended to read—all add up, in this shoot-first digital culture, to a capsule of who you are for others to quickly swallow. Those who still profess to care about art, in this era, may tremble from time to time. Do I like the right things? Are my choices good enough? Good is less a function of talent than some moral calculus. Right-wing and left-wing each revel in this exercise. The Right hopes their favored artists can initiate another round of lib ownership. Jason Aldean has happily become their new totem. Or they’ll settle for “Rich Men North of Richmond.” On the Left, there’s a bit more neurosis, an affect of strained curation. Whatever I like, it must be good for the Democrats. All of this accelerated when Donald Trump became president and plenty of it has lingered into the 2020s.
A few weeks ago, the model Emily Ratajkowski indulged. Speaking on her podcast, she said she was not always a fan of Taylor Swift but that changed when she went to one of her concerts. “I was not a Swiftie and now I’m like, ‘You know what that means? That means I was a misogynist that I didn’t fuck with Taylor Swift,” Ratajkowski said. “I went to her concert and I was like, ‘This person is an incredible songwriter, an incredible performer, and anybody who says anything else? Like, they have issues. And actually maybe not a very sophisticated palette.’ … If you don’t like Taylor Swift, then, like, you don’t understand things.”
This view, in left-liberal circles at least, is fairly widespread. Dissent against Swift simply cannot manifest. Prominent critics of her music, if they ever existed, have melted away. Even writers of the anti-woke faction demand obeisance to Swift, positing that she is not praised enough because she is a straight white female with uncomplicated politics. Swift, rather brilliantly, now occupies a goldilocks political zone, too inoffensive to invite backlash from conservatives but in good standing with social justice liberals, thanks to her support for abortion and LGBTQ rights. Neither pose any risk to her brand—unlike, say, defunding the police, backing same-sex marriage and the right to an abortion puts you in the firm majority—and her music, sonically pleasing and produced by committee on a quasi-regular basis, comfortably thrums through drug stores and elevator banks. Do not fear, I am no hater. Once upon a time, I purchased 1989 on vinyl.
But how the American music scene, in the last half century, has transmogrified and ultimately shriveled. Once, many different genres—rock and roll, hip hop, R&B, soul, disco, and country—could fight it out on a Billboard Top 40. Now most pop seems to be EDM derived or a rehash of staler movements, like early 2000s pop punk. Swift sells out arenas and she deserves accolades. She’s a tireless performer. What should be asked of Ratajkowski is why that isn’t enough. How much more can a winner run up the score? Must Swift also be Bach? Susan B. Anthony? Swift is probably going to end up a billionaire, and she’s kicked up Beatlemania-style crowds during her Eras tour. She’s conquered all.
The last few who have not yet paid absolute tribute must be misogynists or something worse. They are suspect, even deviant. The left-liberal culture’s puritanical strain comes to the fore at moments like these. Swift is God and dissenting from God entails, in this instance, the ultimate punishment—to be called a hater of womankind. A person who doesn’t “understand things.” A person who has “issues.” Aesthetic difference is a matter of political war, light against dark. Ratajkowski never explained whether she’d apply this standard to all female artists—do Vivian Girls or Missy Elliot merit the same blind worship?—and her absolutism implies there can only be, like in Christianity, one savior. The most strident Puritans reviled pluralism; they came here, to the wilds of America, to worship in their particular faith and exclude those who dared to believe in God in a different manner. With the exception of Roger Williams, they were ruthless to the indigenous, believing America to be their divine land alone.
When politics completes its final fusion with art, puritanism wins. Art itself vanishes. A message of ambiguity is nothing against furious moral clarity, nothing against propaganda. A vibrant artistic scene demands pluralism and ultimately democracy, the freedom to decide, for yourself, what works and what doesn’t without fear of reprisal. It demands what Ratajkowski and her ilk wish to obliterate altogether. In the new world she hopes to will into being, there will be Swifties and there will be the bad people. Sort yourself into the former camp or find yourself banished to the latter. It is not enough, now, to find that morality clarity in politics: Right versus Left, Red versus Blue, rural versus urban. That moral clarity must be transposed everywhere. “Rich Men North of Richmond” is a viral song from a previously unknown guitarist and singer from rural Virginia. It is suddenly the anthem of conservatives everywhere because the man who wrote the song, Oliver Anthony, howls about high taxes, welfare abuse, and child trafficking. Liberals, in turn, hate it. To go online now and watch the song debated is to be inducted into a world where aesthetics are dead. No one cares, in particular, how Anthony plays his guitar, sings, or arranged the song. There are no callbacks to others artists or movements. It is the message, only, that resonates, and since Anthony is plainly right-wing, each camp is told how they must enjoy the song. I personally don’t care for it; I prefer the existential longing of Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell, songs like “Wichita Lineman” that could conjure the fear and loneliness of the American working class without any cheap political allusions. My sense is the song, like most, will come and go; maybe Anthony has a large repertoire and he’ll produce for years to come. Maybe he has an LP in the works. Few seem to care, one way or the other. Anthony is now a symbol and nothing else. For a time, he’ll be happy with this, because he is momentarily famous. But it’s a flimsy way to live, and he’ll find that out soon enough.
What if Anthony, in the exact same timbre and with the same exact melody, sung about the evils of Donald Trump? What if he wrote a paean to Jack Smith? Joe Biden? Millions of liberals would suddenly stream his song and flock to his concerts. If the writers weren’t on strike, he’d be a prime guest for Colbert. The Democratic senator who did share his song would have been flooded with praise, not scorn. Conservatives would have ignored or ruthlessly mocked him. He would have been persona non grata for Greg Gutfeld and Benny Johnson. The art is not relevant, either way. It is never allowed to be.
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