Taylor Swift performs live from Times Square on Good Morning America yesterday. (Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images)
Taylor Swift released her album Red two days ago and she's already sold 262,000 copies, with predictions that she'll sell 1 million before the week ends.
Swift, as well as being talented, is clearly a canny businesswoman. Let’s remember that at 22 Taylor Swift is the same age Lady Gaga was when she released The Fame. And yet Swift seems content to paint herself as one reviewer described it, ‘ as the perpetually lovestruck-cum-hurt-cum-angry girl.’ That reviewer, Melinda Newman, deconstructs Swift’s ‘brand’ beautifully in this article, in which she makes the point that,
"Lyrically for Swift, every sense remains heightened, every emotion goes to 11. Every chance feels like the last chance, the last opportunity for one last glance, one last kiss, one last moment together. She’s constantly on the edge of a heated, passionate precipice, which has to be exhausting. Even a simple declaration such as “I just like hanging out with you” turns into “I’d like to hang out with you...for my whole life.” A man simply opening the door for her can cause her to spin off into the promise of love everlasting."
While it’s true that teenage girls – the biggest fans of her music – are themselves going through an intense, hormonal period of their lives without the proper skills to understand or navigate their feelings, (literally, the human brain does not really begin to make rational decisions until it hits 25!) it’s interesting to note how many girls fall so willfully and deeply into ‘the-helplessly-in-love-do-anything-for-a-relationship’ narrative – seemingly without understanding or knowledge, or probably, (truthfully), any care of how destructive this can be.
If this narrative was simply part of growing up; part of being a teen, then we have to ask: why don’t we hear more songs, hell, more Facebook posts, more confessions from boys about the heartbreak that comes from a broken promise, a missed meeting or indeed, A MISSED TEXT? Boys fall in love, boy bands sing about love, but the 'lover as victim’ trope is not half as pronounced as it is in lady music. I would argue it’s because girls are socialised to believe – from the time they are very young – that a boyfriend, no matter how horrible = a life made. And no boyfriend = a life not worth living. With the stakes this high, it's hardly surprising that Taylor Swift’s lyrics resonate with so many teenage girls. Take a look at this from her song Love Story.
Romeo save me, they try to tell me how to feel
This love is difficult, but it's real.
I’m sorry? Romeo save me? That’s right, because it’s not about two peers enjoying a relationship together– it’s about escaping a semi-crappy teenage girl life with all its complications and pressures by diving into the arms of someone - anyone - who will have you. Not only is your crush supposed to offer you a life raft – girlfriend, your crush is a life raft! And you don’t have to listen to more than a couple of Swift’s songs to find out that if you elevate a male to the position of LIFE SAVER, you’re going to have serious heart trouble.
What if he doesn’t look at you in the right way at the right time of day when the dappled sunlight is falling just the right way across your face? Well, you’re going to WANT TO DIE. Is it any wonder Swift's songs contain so much wounded anger when her expectations are so teeteringly high? Which guy could ever live up to this Instagram-worthy narrative and still be considered a human?
Of course, Swift is not alone in constructing this faulty survival kit. This, ladies, and younger ladies, is a societal problem.
Hugo Schwyzer, who wrote a fantastic piece on the dangers of being a young girl ‘with so much love to give', in Jezebel makes this excellent point,
'Fed by Disney movies and pop songs, magazines and movies, most girls run into the notion that love conquers all early on. Some fiercely resist it, of course. The discourse suggests, however, that those who most fiercely resist making romantic love a priority are fooling themselves; from Jane Austen's time to our own, we have countless fictional heroines who are initially dismissive of love, but in the end, succumb to its all-consuming power.'
Swift is by no means the first woman to sing about all-consuming love gone bad. Everyone from Carole King to Fiona Apple, to Nina Simone to Alanis Morrisette have all thrown down their smashed up, bruised feelings and made loads of money from them. But the difference with Swift is that she never positions herself on the same level as the man she’s falling in love with – the man who, because he's so pedestalised has nowhere to go but down; eventually disappointing her. And all because Swift has lifted him up, like Simba before the sun - as a king, a person more powerful than she could ever be.
Is this the narrative we want for young women? For any women? More to the point, is this truly reflective of Swift’s personal narrative?
I acknowledge that ‘the heart wants what it wants’ but we also have to take into account why the heart wants what it wants. The simple answer, is of course self esteem. But is this singer really just a sad, powerless victim of love? Writer and blogger Elaine Lui frames this question in even more pointed terms:
'Taylor Swift had her own publishing deal at 14. She wrote over 250 songs but would not let the labels hand them off to other singers because she wanted to hold on to her own material. By the time she was 20, she set the record for youngest artist ever to top the year’s best selling album list. (Source) I could list all her awards and even more accomplishments but you already know my point -- that Taylor Swift is an extremely accomplished young woman. Taylor Swift knows a lot more than just love. But for some reason, what we get about Taylor Swift, from Taylor Swift, is ONLY love. And I’m not sure where the circle starts here -- whether or not it’s an image she insists on pushing or whether or not it’s an assumption we insist on pushing on her.'
I’d say it’s a little of both. Swift probably started out with those authentic feelings of real, raw love and rejection but the formula was so successful it’s now a little too difficult to step away from.
But I think the problem - this female formula of elevated, life-saving love that always disappoints - is bigger than Taylor Swift. Hey, look at Adele! (There’s a slight difference - Adele has devoted one album to her breakup, whereas Swift has devoted several to several breakups. )
I’m not suggesting that Swift start behaving more responsibly with male actors named Jake or Kennedys or anything. Because she's not going to. [Update: Swift and Kennedy have now split.]
But perhaps we grown-up ladies can communicate the fact that early-stage, romantic love - the type that burns out after the fourth date - is not a life and death scenario, and it needn't be taken so seriously. Boys generally aren’t socialised to take it to dizzying heights and abysmal lows, so why should girls? Maybe we can communicate that love in all of its mad splendour and aching torment is but one of the many ways we can be happy – or sad. And we can start doing this by living that concept out in our own dating lives. Which means maybe holding back on organising our wedding before we’ve met the dude, for example. As if a wedding were the primary goal. And maybe we can begin to do this by valuing ourselves - to paraphrase Billy Joel when he was madly in love with his horrid ex-wife- just the way we are.