In defense of Taylor Swift

Photo by Jean-Baptiste Bellet.Yesterday I sat on a wooden stair on a seawall as the tide came in all around me. I thought about how easy it would be to accidentally drop my iPhone into the surf below - hundreds of dollars worth of magical technology and irreplaceable data gone in an instant.

It fascinates me that something that takes so much insight and sophistication to design and manufacture can be destroyed in a flash. It takes far less effort to tear something down than to build it up.

Criticism is easy. Much easier than creating whatever it is that's being offered up to the critic.

It is with this in mind that I undertake a thoughtful criticism of Lizzie Widdicombe's profile of Taylor Swift in The New Yorker this week. My main issue? Ms. Widdicombe herself was too critical of her subject and missed the larger story of Taylor Swift's significance and influence.

Taylor Swift is an easy target. Resentment of the young, successful, and wealthy is a familiar trope. Loathing of the beautiful and thin is a favorite pastime of jealous women everywhere. And if you wear your heart on your sleeve, you will attract snark and derision.

The subtitle of Widdicombe's feature is "How Taylor Swift made teen angst into a business empire." That sets the tone for the piece, which is subtly mocking of the "seriousness of a C.E.O." which Swift brings to her work. Elsewhere, Widdicombe is more openly scornful of Swift's business acumen: "I found it hard to believe that she could feel enthusiastic about a sales opportunity at Starbucks."

But Taylor Swift is a C.E.O. She's in the driver's seat of her career to a degree that is truly remarkable for a young woman. While Widdicombe is dismissing the young singer/songwriter as "pretty, but not aggressively sexy" and pointing out that to some, Swift "promotes a noxious, fifties-style ideal of virginal, submissive femininity" she is oblivious to the ambition that would make Swift want to do a deal with a Fortune 500 company.

Taylor Swift is not an out-of-control former teen star, a diva, a puppet, or a phony. We know this because Widdicombe tried her best to out her subject using each of these angles even though there was no dirt to dig up: "As a manager, she cuts a figure not unlke the teen-age monarch in the 2009 film 'The Young Victoria,' gracious and vulnerable but also, given her position of power, a bit terrifying." Comparing a twenty-one-year-old Grammy winner and Billboard's Woman of the Year to a teen queen - it's a type of misogyny we're so used to that it's not even shocking. Like so many jabs at Swift in this profile, it just comes off as desperate.

Swift is pretty square, which does get a lot of airtime here. That's hardly news. To note that the business side of music trumps rock star excess ("...the atmosphere of a Taylor Swift tour is professional, if not downright corporate - less 'Almost Famous' than Apple board meeting") shows a bit of naivety with regard to the modern music industry. Yet Widdicombe wants to know why so few songs are "about work," as though Swift is somehow inauthentic if she doesn't write songs about being on tour. However, Taylor Swift knows her brand, and her artistic vision proceeds accordingly.

Taylor Swift would be remarkable even if she were simply the decision maker of a major corporation (which she essentially is), without the music career. Her age and gender, even taken separately, would make her notable in her position. But of course, she is an artist as well, and a hugely influential one.

As a songwriter, Taylor Swift creates music that young girls can relate to. But she is not the first to do this. She is, as far as I can tell, the first artist to be significantly responsible for inspiring untold numbers of young girls to play the guitar and write their own songs.

This is a big deal. In tenth grade in the early nineties, I became the first girl at my high school to play guitar. I had grown up around guitars because my dad played, but it did not even occur to me that I, myself, could play until I was fifteen. There was just no example I could relate to. Seeing someone like Taylor Swift and her sparkly guitar would have been mind-blowing.

It's not only the image of Taylor Swift that is exciting and relatable. The songs themselves are built upon simple chord progressions and predictable structures. This is a good thing. Young musicians, who in my experience are very intuitive about what they will be able to play, are drawn to the songs. The elegantly repetitive nature of the guitar (and piano) parts make it very easy for students to sing and play at the same time.

The simplicity of the songs makes it possible to learn one after another, while the engaging imagery and emotional directness of each lyric make it acceptable to sing one song after another without getting bored. In time, students will have absorbed the musical patterns so completely that they will find themselves writing their own songs.

Photo by freakyfangirl90 via Flickr.The ten and twelve and fourteen-year-old girls that make up Taylor Swift's core concertgoing fan base don't think of her as the insightful entrepreneur that she is. They make a heart connection with her - they want to be like her, they want to be her friend, they want to be her. They respond to the authenticity, self-directedness, and strength at her core even as they aspire to the sparkly girly-ness of her exterior.

That story is far too treacly for The New Yorker, but it's the truth. The legacy of Taylor Swift is not that her coming of age "has been free of embarrassing incidents" or that her "penchant for thank-you notes and thoughtful gestures may be a talisman against the fickleness of public opinion." It's that she is an inspiration to a generation of young women, particularly young musicians.

Taylor Swift is a trailblazer, and trailblazers tend to attract criticism. They also tend to not care about it. Just keep doing what you're doing, Taylor - it's working. Best of all, in ten, fifteen years there will be a throng of new artists citing you as their inspiration. Skip the next "Mean" - you won't need it. You don't need it.