Earlier this month, Taylor Swift made an appeal to her fans via Instagram in which she attacked the voting record of the Republican candidate running in Tennessee’s mid-term elections. “I cannot support Marsha Blackburn,” Swift wrote. “Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act … She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not my Tennessee values. I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives.”
Swift’s intervention has boosted the Democrats in Tennessee. According to the New York Times, voter registration in the southern state increased dramatically. To quote one report: “More than 166,000 people across the country submitted new registrations … 42 per cent of whom were between the ages of 18 and 24.”
Times columnist Margaret Renkl called Swift courageous, saying: “There’s a good reason for any female artist, especially one who got her start on country radio, to think twice about wading into politics.”
I’m not convinced. For a start, Swift’s album sales increased dramatically following her statement. Second, many of her traditional fans will have strayed a while ago, given that her albums once resembled Trisha Yearwood’s; but her latest album, Reputation, is predominantly electropop with no country songs.
Reputation is also tinged with extreme bitterness which makes Swift unrecognisable to old fans like me. Of course, it’s normal for artists to develop their repertoire, but somehow her new style just doesn’t ring true. Swift has gone from singing about God, boys and pumpkin patches to rapping about deadly revenge and carving lovers’ names into bedposts.
A single she released last year, Look What You Made Me Do, warns:
The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama
But not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma
And then the world moves on, but one thing’s for sure
Maybe I got mine, but you’ll all get yours.
When I discovered her music about 10 years ago, Swift’s style was notably different. She had a sense of right and wrong which came through in her music. She championed the cause of the little guy, possessing the narrative flair of Springsteen, the romance of Faith Hill and a sort of Dylanesque schadenfreude that few can pull off.
One of her earliest hits, Mean, was an anthem for victims of bullying:
You, with your voice like nails
On a chalk board, calling me out when I’m wounded
You, picking on the weaker man.
You can take me down
With just one single blow
But you don’t know what you
Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
OK, it seems cheesy, but Swift could also be profound. One of her most famous country songs, Fifteen, reminds us that “when you’re 15, if somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them”.
As the song reflects on that turbulent age, she sings about her best friend, Abigail, who “Gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind. / And we both cried.”
Swift managed to write about men treating women badly without hashtags and virtue-signalling but rather through the simple power of storytelling.
Some of the old Taylor Swift still remains. Although Reputation is not my cup of tea, there are some well-crafted tracks on the album; it’s just that they’re closer to Sophie B Hawkins’s style than Shania Twain’s. Delicate, for example, is a sweet and original piece of work, resembling Hawkins’s distinctive sound (but without the bunny boiler lyrics).
The final track on the album, New Year’s Day, is also a touching reflection of Swift maturing from a girl who once sang about infatuated teenagers to a young woman writing about what love looks like in the everyday:
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.
So I haven’t given up on Swift yet, despite her new sound and right-on Instagram posts. A more generous person might even reason that Swift’s dive into politics is just a natural extension of her tendency to stand up to the big guys. But then again, she is putting her weight behind some very fashionable grievances, which seem to be unanimously supported by the rich and famous.
I prefer the Swift who told the story of heartbroken women like Abigail and allowed the listener to draw their own conclusions, not this mouthy zillionaire directing Americans at the ballot box. I just hope that, in future, Swift will spend more time alone with her guitar writing songs and less time on Instagram.