The Media and Pop
No surprise, I was prompted to write this article by Taylor Swift’s latest single Look What You Made Me Do, released just a few days ago. How could I not be? Putting aside the temptation to criticize the song to shreds in this column, let me focus on the love-hate relationship between pop and the media, and why Swift’s latest song distinguishes her from her contemporaries, and brings her character into question more than ever.
Of course, celebrities have been hassled by the media for decades, but the definition of ‘media’ has changed drastically over time: While pop artists in the 60s and 70s struggled with nosey news reporters and sneaky photographers, current pop artists have a gigantic swarm of people, fans and haters included, following, reporting and judging their every move with social media, which makes being famous far more stressful. There are so many more opportunities to fabricate stories based on the slightest bit of irrelevant evidence, and it is so much easier to openly say something incredibly critical about someone you know in real life, never mind someone who you only see in the spotlight. Every current successful pop artist has had numerous negative comments, tweets and dislikes – it’s only natural. Several singers have addressed them in interviews and talk-shows. Almost every single one of them speak about the media with a brave face, making jokes, reading out hate comments in a comical voice, and laughing them off. Maybe that’s why Swift’s latest single is so jarring to me: I have never come across such a vehement retaliation to the media, one which so clearly screams that they care.
What makes it even more bizarre is that this isn’t Swift’s first time addressing the criticisms she frequently receives, but her style of addressing it has changed so drastically, and so disappointingly. Of course the media pigeonholes pop artists into specific personalities which fit the kind of songs they make, and which then influences almost everything they write about the artist: Ed Sheeran is the unglamorous, down-to-earth guy next door, Miley Cyrus is a scandalous child-star gone wrong (at least since 2013), and Taylor Swift is the fickle girl with superficial relationships. Being cast as this character has upset her enough before to be the topic of multiple songs. However, like most other artists who address criticism they receive in their music, almost each one of those songs was an upbeat, optimistic response to those to criticize her, suggesting that she wouldn’t let them affect her. The most prominent examples of this is Mean, where she sings about becoming more successful than those who critique her for no reason, and of course, Shake It Off, from her last album, 1989, which contains lyrics such as, “the haters gonna hate…I’m just gonna shake it off.” Look What You Made Me Do, depressingly, turns its back on all the positive messages Swift sent out over the years, and showcases her in a self-victimizing, narcissistic light. Then again, of course it does…the old Taylor is dead, after all.
Maybe we should have some sympathy – it is no secret that Swift has been part of more than her share of scandals since the beginning of her career. Celebrities are human after all, the stress must get to them sometimes, and after all, isn’t their art an outlet to express their emotions? Maybe this is how it is supposed to be. Maybe more pop artists should stand up to the criticism they receive on a daily basis. But then again, why should they need to? A pop artist like Taylor Swift is clear evidence that rumours and criticisms don’t get in the way of success – in fact, she is the subject of so much speculation because she has become so successful in her career. This is what makes her overwhelming bitterness towards everything in this track, including her ‘old’ self, so bizarre – isn’t her old self the one who got her to the peak of success she is on now? Several pop artists have experimented and changed their music, their lifestyle and their appearance drastically over the years, which is completely fine, but none of them have been deluded enough to show such resentment towards what got them there.
In a way, I suppose Taylor Swift has been successful in her mission. She wanted people to know how ‘bold’ and ‘unafraid’ she is to confront her critics now, and this is proof of that. Unfortunately, while trying to incorporate that into her music, she lost a lot more than she gained.