A few days after Taylor Swift released the video for The Man, one of my cinema professors played it in class and proclaimed, “For the coming week or so, every gender studies class is going to be talking about this video. It is such a teachable text.”
I don’t know if every gender studies class is actually talking about Taylor Swift right now, but there’s something so interesting about a music video morphing into a teachable text. Especially that text being written, directed, and owned – which she stresses without fail – by Taylor Swift. An artist who has been criticized for years for not making a statement but is now shunned for making the very statements she has stayed away from for a whole decade and more.
The Man is a lot of things. It’s a video that narrates the double standards faced by men and women. It’s a clever pastiche of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street – the shot where the titular man spreads his arms and stands in front of an adoring crowd of employees is pure Jordan Belfort. It’s an impressive feat in makeup and hairstyling that transforms Taylor Swift into a pretty convincing man. It’s an indicator of how Swift has matured as a lyricist – the lyrics were even referenced by the minister of Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, at a parliament debate. But on a fundamental level, The Man is also a statement – a very personal yet political statement – where Taylor Swift’s conflicting interests seem to finally converge.
The era of Lover has also become an era of statements for Taylor Swift. And unlike her previous albums Red (2012) and 1989 (2014) which marked her foray into pop, or Reputation (2017) which presented an interesting deviation in tone as compared to her former songs, Lover isn’t about a change in style. This album marks an era when Taylor Swift is finally allowed to and has decided to make political statements that are gently juxtaposed with her signature personal ballads – for every You Need To Calm Down, her most unsubtle proclamatory song in the album, there is a Soon You’ll Get Better, the intimate and heartbreaking lyrics dedicated to her mother after her cancer diagnosis. But that seemingly seamless blend of personal and political is exactly what makes Taylor Swift’s era of statements rather controversial.
The most popular argument against Swift’s music and public image stems from the idea that she only ever decides to speak out when she is directly inconvenienced or victimized. Well, welcome to the world of rich white women. There have been so many female artists who have been in long legal battles with music producers and men with so much power and privilege. Kesha‘s legal battle has come and gone, she even had to drop her charges to continue her career. Indie Music has been a forgotten area where sexual assault and legal, financial and professional exploitation has been a regular occurrence for years. But Swift had held onto her vow of silence through these women’s struggles, yet the music patriarchy finally came to her, the attention and support her legal battle had garnered has been way different. So many artists spoke up in her stead, but where were these celebrities during Kesha’s struggles?
There’s no denying that Swift is a white feminist, and that she definitely benefits from privileges that might seem to overshadow her personal and professional struggles. But at the same time, who isn’t? Why is she an easy target for criticism when she uses her own art to express her own issues? How does she ‘play the victim’ when she is merely benefitting from the very system that punishes her?
I am not attempting to create a defense of Taylor Swift or The Man. Whether you like her music or not, whether you agree with her life choices or not, there is no denying that Taylor Swift makes a damn good statement. And her political statements have often been whitewashed and deeply problematic in the past, but with every music video, documentary and social media post, she seems to be attempting to let go of the image that she had been clinging to in order to appease her fan base, but can she ever divorce herself from controversy and backlash?
Every second and frame of The Man is a slap in the face to Scooter Braun, to Kanye West, to misogynistic media, to every man who got there quicker just because they were a man. It’s unapologetic and unsubtle. And that’s what makes Taylor Swift’s new era of Lover so teachable. While one argues about the motive and wonders of the strategy, the statement is made, and it is up to the readers to take it or leave it.