Saturday 25 May 2019

Sealed with a hiss - ‘The undeniable force of her personality comes through in her music’

As a defiant Taylor Swift prepares to unleash her Reputation tour on Croke Park, Ed Power looks at the events that have helped shape the pop star's new-found resolve

Shaking it off: Taylor Swift has battled through criticism from her peers, and social media trolls, to present her most successful album to date. Photo: Getty Images
Shaking it off: Taylor Swift has battled through criticism from her peers, and social media trolls, to present her most successful album to date. Photo: Getty Images

Ed Power

The last time Taylor Swift played Dublin she paused halfway through the performance to deliver a heartfelt address to her fans.

"When you start to compare yourself to other people, please change the channel in your mind to something else," she said, plunging into the stump speech about bullying she had given throughout her 2015 world tour. "When it comes to how we see ourselves, other people are really mean."

Three years later, a very different Swift materialises at Croke Park this evening (she's back tomorrow night for seconds).

Her Reputation tour is literally a pop viper-pit, with Swift surrounded by images and effigies of snakes (in addition to being flanked by her new squad besties, support singers Camilla Cabello and Charli XCX).

Is this a metaphor for fame and how it can bite you in the heels when you least expect? Ironic commentary on the media portrayal of Swift as calculating and careerist? Does the world's biggest pop star whose name doesn't feature the words 'Ed' and 'Sheeran' just really, really (really) like snakes? The answer is probably all of the above.

Swift's Reputation gigs follow an album of the same name in which the star bared her fangs at her detractors. As announced by supremely snarky lead single 'Look What You Made Me Do', this was Swift as we'd never seen her: snarling, high-kicking - not in the mood to take prisoners. It was, above all, an artist asserting ownership of her persona.

Attack: Kanye talked trash about Taylor on his album
Attack: Kanye talked trash about Taylor on his album

Swift, lest we forget, has been targeted with uncommon savagery by the gossip industry - portrayed as aloof and controlling and accused of waging one-sided feuds against other pop stars. Reputation was her wrestling with this - seeking to assert ownership over her image.

She is right to feel hard done by. As fans will tell you, the negativity is misdirected, with Swift's entire life in the spotlight best regarded as an example of a woman standing up to those trying to beat her down.

Swift certainly knows what a bully looks like. As the privileged but shy and somewhat nerdish daughter of wealthy parents, she was picked on mercilessly at school in Pennsylvania - and, crueller still, excluded by classmates. It is tempting to conclude the lessons learned in that vulnerable period continue to shape her, both as individual and artist. "Junior high was actually sort of hard because I got dumped by this group of popular girls," Swift told Teen Vogue. "They didn't think I was cool or pretty enough, so they stopped talking to me...the kids at school thought it was weird that I liked country [music]. They'd make fun of me."

As with many musicians, she appreciates, too, that what doesn't kill you makes you more interesting. "There is a tendency to want to get thick-skinned," she said in 2010. "There is a tendency to block out negative things, because they really hurt. But if I stop feeling pain, then I'm afraid I'll stop feeling immense excitement and epic celebration and happiness. I can't stop feeling those things, so I feel everything. And that keeps me who I am."

She even took an 18 month sabbatical from social media. Ultimately she concluded that if people were being unpleasant toward her, she was better off knowing about it. "I went through a few years where I just never went online and never looked at blogs," she recalls. "This was around 2013, when the only thing anyone wanted to write about me was about me and some guy. It was really damaging. I didn't go online for a year and a half. I actually forgot my Instagram password. But now I check in and see what's happening. That stuff does matter."

The mean girls no longer ignore Swift (when she returned to play a hometown show she was struck by their squeals of adulation - had they forgotten their treatment of her?).

Still, plenty of others have dumped on her gleefully. Kanye West notoriously crashed her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs and, as if that wasn't enough (apparently it wasn't), rapped lewdly about Swift his 2016 album Life Of Pablo. The latter incident is a major influence on the new tour. In the aftermath of the Pablo controversy, Kanye's wife Kim Kardashian posted audio of a conversation between her and Swift which appeared to suggest Taylor was forewarned about Kanye's reference to her on the record. Swift was duly branded a "snake and liar" on social media - with Kanye, not she, painted as the aggrieved party.

Swift has not been giving interviews to promote Reputation (a further meta commentary on her relationship with the media). So her first opportunity to address Kimye-gate came on the opening night of the Reputation tour, at which she was flanked by plastic representations of the serpent figure she had been compared to.

"A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media and it caught on," Swift told the audience. "And then a lot of people called me a lot of names on social media. And I went through some really low times for a while because of it. I went through some times when I didn't know if I was gonna get to do this anymore. And I guess the snakes, I wanted to send a message to you guys that if someone uses name-calling to bully you on social media and even if a lot of people jump on board with it, that doesn't have to defeat you. It can strengthen you instead."

This was her 2015 anti-bullying speech, remixed and rebooted. However, the message remained the same. People will try to do you down and you'll probably feel terrible. But it's important never to give up (a theme she had already spelled out with 2014 single 'Shake It Off')

How strongly the message resonates with her fans of course depends on which fans you are talking about. Uniquely among pop stars of her generation, Swift's following ranges from children to the middle aged.

In the latter camp you will, for instance, find Ryan Adams, the 40-something alternative country singer who turned to Swift's music following the breakdown of his marriage to actress Mandy Moore. He was so smitten by Swift's songs that he released a cover of her entire 1989 album - a record he compared to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska."

"You hear the tone of her voice or the clean line of a song and it's just clear," he continued in a conversation with Rolling Stone. "You think, 'Well, of course, this person is who they are in music'. The undeniable force of her personality comes through in her music. There are certain people, like Keith Richards, who have that thing."

Yet she is also beloved by younger fans, many of whom will be accompanying their parents to Croke Park tonight. Indeed one reason Swift has maintained a squeaky clean persona, she has stated, is that she doesn't want the mother and daughter who paid good money to attend her concert to go online and see pictures of her staggering out of a nightclub.

Bullying is, of course, a reality even among pre-teens and, while references to snakes and mean tweets may soar over their heads, Swift's message promises to nonetheless resonate strongly: ignore the haters and just be proud of who you are.

At a time when social media pumps out so much vitriol, that's the important message, the accompanying bells, whistles and giant animatronic serpents mere glitter on top.

Irish Independent

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