Teenagers, nostalgia, and female subjectivity… or a few thoughts on Taylor Swift

On Sunday, a Dear Friend invited me to attend a Taylor Swift concert in Atlanta. Tickets to this show were purchased for Friend’s daughter’s birthday back in the summer, but the show had been re-scheduled. So Friend, Friend’s daughter, Friend’s daughter’s friend, and I headed to Atlanta to join 14,000 of our closest young girlfriends to see Taylor Swift perform.

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of pop music in general, nor do I generally keep up with star culture (outside of what may be presented on NPR or ESPN). By extension, I’m not a fan of Taylor Swift and know very little about her and her music. What I know about Taylor Swift is from the Kanye thing, and from a clever and interesting presentation on auto-tune at an academic conference. I knew enough to expect to be entertained with great production, but I had relatively low expectations for the musical performance and general abilities of Ms. Swift.

Overall, we had a great time (impeccable company cannot be overstated) and the show exceeded expectations. Further, I walked away with a different perspective on, dare I say appreciation of, Taylor Swift. As expected, her voice was nice and effects-y whenever she was singing, but I was surprised that she was basically on pitch for the majority of the night. Also as expected, her band was great and the production was impressive, but I was pleasantly surprised that she featured a fabulous group of dancers/performers on stage throughout the entire show.

A few of her sets were academic paper-worthy, though I was mostly amused by the nice little nod to nostalgia with a “down-home” town square set she used for the two songs she played banjo on (with appropriate costumes for the dancers/band, along with the stylized hoe-down dance moves – the songs were “Our Song” and “Mean.” I think).* I believe this set and these songs were there to remind us that she is a Country Star, because based on the rest of the show, one might have been inclined to forget that (apparently on Saturday Usher made a surprise appearance, and at this show, T.I. was the surprise guest).

Overall, despite the fact that by the end of the night I was much annoyed by her doe-eyed, surprised facial expressions that she held at least five seconds too long after each song (along with some annoying mannerisms that I generally associate with flighty teenage girls), I can honestly say that I was impressed with her as a female star. Her star image isn’t overtly sexualized, and I appreciate that she plays instruments. Also, she is clearly a fine songwriter that presents a female subjectivity. And while the female subjectivity that she has become identified with is sometimes stereotypical and formulaic, this positionality is something that is generally lacking (and generally undervalued) in popular music.

If young girls choose to idolize and identify with a female star, I suppose there are worse women to choose from. However, I don’t think I’ll be buying her albums any time soon.

*Apparently, this set and imagery align with other ways the song has been presented. This photo is from a performance of the song at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the video is also similar.


3 thoughts on “Teenagers, nostalgia, and female subjectivity… or a few thoughts on Taylor Swift

  1. I heard “Mean” a few weeks ago on the radio and immediately read it (for better or for worse) in the context of the anxiety over cyber-bullying that has emerged in the last year or two, most likely because I identify Swift’s narrative stance as a songwriter with a teenaged female perspective (as you point out). ???

    • She seems to emphasize that her songs come from her experience, but I think she’s beyond her teenage years…. but really (insert materialist/Marxist framework), couldn’t it be more of a marketing thing of knowing your audience? Is it that she writes from that perspective and it draws that many teenage girl fans or the other way around?

  2. Good point! The web of associations that a listener brings to a song is so vast and varied and complex that I suppose at any given moment someone else could be interpreting “Mean” in the context of nursing home residents being uncharitable to one another…

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