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The Strange Anti-Woke Case for Taylor Swift
It doesn't quite connect
Are the elite gatekeepers and tastemakers not celebrating Taylor Swift enough? That’s one contention of a provocative new column from David Samuels on our shriveling popular culture. Samuels, a decorated long-form journalist, argues convincingly that the worlds of cinema, music, and publishing have been captured by creativity-stifling monopolies. The broken streaming model has played a significant role in a writers and actors strike that may drag on for many more months. Today’s cultural institutions don’t manufacture and promote talent like they once did. Samuels points to Swift and Christopher Nolan, the director of Oppenheimer, as the outliers, genuinely original purveyors of mass culture. “Hollywood’s problems are only the latest in a series of culture industry cataclysms that have overtaken American journalism, book publishing and the music business, and which make both Nolan and Swift seem more like the freakish end-products of bygone eras (Nolan released his first feature film in 1998; Swift’s eponymous first album came out in 2006) than harbingers of future glory,” he writes.
This is likely true, though the future is always unpredictable. Samuels, however, is not making an argument against new generations of talent—he is simply saying entertainment institutions are too fragile and corrupted to properly nurture them. Major studios feverishly pump out sequels and elevate elderly movie stars. They are thirsty for new IP, with Mattel’s toy line set to supplant Marvel superheroes, subjecting yet another generation to retread entertainment. Box office sales have not rebounded to pre-Covid levels and old, reliable streams of income like VHS and DVD sales have long dried up. Streamers in the film, television, and music realms all lose money, and there’s no longer any proper way to know whether a hit show will be lucrative. Once upon a time, ratings were tied to ad sales, but on the internet, a hot comedy or documentary doesn’t necessarily lead to a commensurate surge in new subscribers. Music streaming is even worse; after Napster convinced everyone in the early twenty-first century that music should be free, Apple’s iTunes stepped in to cheapen the single and crush the album. Spotify, a money-losing European giant, eventually overtook iTunes, and now musicians are drowned out by inscrutable algorithms. Compensation for most of them is awful. The good news is that Spotify can’t last and record labels could, if they were wise enough, take advantage of the vinyl resurgence, drawing from their profitable back catalogs, as major book publishers do, to fund new talent. It remains to be seen whether any of this will happen.
Samuels is at his best when diagnosing these ills. Where he errs is in trying to cram manifold economic and cultural dynamics into the tiring frame of woke vs. anti-woke. Over the last decade, elites in academia, publishing, and the media have all migrated leftward on cultural concerns, foregrounding identity at the expense of class and elevating a number of rapacious DEI consultants. The height of “woke,” for lack of a better term, was 2020, and much of the fervor around these issues has dissipated. Consider that the New York Times newsroom, three years ago, revolted when an editor decided to publish an opinion piece from a right-wing Republican senator, Tom Cotton, that called for federal troops to intervene during the mass protests following George Floyd’s murder. James Bennet, the Times editor and former Atlantic editor-in-chief, was forced to resign, and a lengthy and unprecedented editor’s note was later attached to the piece, going as far as to say Cotton’s op-ed should not have been published at all.
Last month, the Times published an opinion piece from Christopher Rufo, a conservative scholar at the Manhattan Institute who has become well-known for his multi-year siege against critical race theory and social justice politics. There was no public staff outcry and no jobs lost. On Twitter, a liberal podcaster denounced Rufo and said Times employees should ask “why your editors tolerate publishing people who hate your minority colleagues.” The tweet was liked several thousand times but the outrage went nowhere. The Times quietly published Rufo (and other conservatives) and moved on. It was all emblematic of where the political mood used to be and where it has migrated. There were a sizable number of people who were enraged by Rufo’s appearance in the Times. That number, though, was simply not enough to matter. No news cycle was generated. No virality was achieved.
Both woke and anti-woke commentators struggle to acknowledge change. This is true of most political factions. Once an idea has been set in motion, it’s very difficult to recalibrate or change course. The left-leaning journalist Ryan Grim, who has reported on the excesses of performative social justice politics within progressive political spaces, recently interviewed Rufo and successfully countered most of his arguments. Rufo, not surprisingly, suffers from a degree of monomania, believing certain theories of identity and race relations are a very threat to American civilization itself. He is unable to differentiate between cultural liberals and economic leftists; Ibram X. Kendi, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Adolph Reed Jr. all belong to an identical Left stew. Liberals have a similar problem when it comes to the Right, unable to fathom that the Republican Party has been engaged in a robust foreign policy debate for several years now, torn between hawks like Cotton and the Trumpian isolationists, including Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Samuels uses the word “woke” several times in his column and I’m not entirely sure why. All of his analysis could have stood without such asides. There is Barbie, the “woke doll movie,” and laments over Hollywood’s “culture bureaucrats” giving “free rein” to “Me-Too corporate witch hunts” and “injecting woke politics into shows that audiences refuse to watch.” It is easy enough to see where Samuels is coming from, but his argument gets more peculiar when it lands on Swift and her startling success. Swift, in his view, has not yet “received her due” from America’s pop culture “taste-makers.”
Swift is a single white woman in a pop medium at an identity-obsessed, politically-divided moment when her particular identity is deeply unfashionable. The fact that she seems as utterly devoted to her craft as Christopher Nolan makes her even less sympathetic to critics who would prefer that her talent wasn’t so outsized, or that her songwriting wasn’t rooted in the storytelling tradition and strong female characters of country music, or that her skin was a different colour, or that she was a gay man or lesbian instead of a straight woman who develops needy crushes on men, or that she was an outspoken proponent of sex in marriage instead of wreaking vengeance on her long list of ex-boyfriends, or whatever else. Good luck to them.
The trouble with this contention is obvious enough: critics at prestige media organs have all praised, sometimes lavishly, Swift’s recent music. At the Times, the New Yorker, or Pitchfork, there is no such thing as a Swift takedown. Midnights managed a 7 out of 10 from Pitchfork, which once catered to indie sensibilities, and prior albums racked up scores as high as 8 or 9. Amanda Petrusich of the New Yorker, in a piece entitled “The Startling Intimacy of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour,” is apologetic for ever doubting Swift’s mastery, writing that she has “come to understand this criticism of Swift as tangled up with some very old and poisonous ideas about genius, most of which come from men slyly rebranding the terrible behavior of other men.” The Times has produced a fusillade of Swift coverage, all of it largely positive.
If a liberal, college-educated culture obsesses too much over identity and tokenizes anyone who isn’t white, all of that plainly doesn’t matter at the level of pop stardom. It’s curious Samuels misses this. Justin Bieber isn’t any more or less popular because he’s a white male from Canada. Lady Gaga doesn’t entrance millions because she’s an Italian American woman from New York. Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Mariah Carey aren’t transcendent pop icons because “woke” culture decided to elevate, at any particular moment, the careers of Black women. They are all tremendously popular because they are singularly talented and millions of people decided to buy their music. Swift, of course, is now enjoying that level of fame and adulation.
Samuels would have been better-served to ask the opposite question: why does Swift get so much credit for songs rooted in the “storytelling tradition” or “strong female characters in country music” when none of that is particularly remarkable? Why is Swift lauded so much for her songwriting capabilities when some of her biggest hits were produced with a team of experienced hands, including Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff? There is nothing wrong with collaboration or songs conceived as a unit—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin all made the Beatles hum—but there is a long history of songwriters who did not have to credit as many as a half dozen different people for a particular song. Joni Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Both Sides, Now,” and many other classics all by herself. Carole King was the primary songwriter for Tapestry. Stevie Nicks has the sole songwriting credit on “Landslide” and “Dreams.” There are, of course, enough songs that are credited to merely Swift and Antonoff or Swift herself. Many pop stars don’t write much music at all. It would be easier to make that argument: Swift, unlike Ariana Grande or the aforementioned Bieber, really does prioritize songwriting. She has had a hand in many of the most well-known songs of the last decade. Her pop is not especially revolutionary, but what is these days? Her talent is self-evident. The doubters Samuels imagines are few in number and lacking any tangible platform. The poptimists have won in a rout. Samuels’ column is evidence enough of that.