The Evolution of the Taylor Swift Music Video
This is a Gaudy long-form essay, the third in our continuing series.
I heard Teardrops on my Guitar for the first time the same year I got cable TV. “This is by Taylor Swift,” said Kendall said, hand draped over her guitar, “an up-and-coming country singer.” Kendall had a driving license and a decent voice, and she warbled her way through the Swiftian lyrics in the dimmed lighting of the parish hall, substituting “so darn funny” for Taylor’s damn; we were in a church, after all. I was a dowdy fifteen-year-old home-schooler moping in a new town who had spent the summer watching Disney Channel. I didn’t know what else to watch. By the time I heard Kendall sing Taylor, I recognized each scene in the Hannah Montana credit sequence. Season two.
In the next five years Taylor Swift, of course, up and came. She crossed the culturally-restricted boundaries of country to sell millions of albums, win 6 Grammys, and date the celebrity Adonises of People’s Most Beautiful. She became biffles with Ellen and gave thousands and thousands of dollars to disaster relief; and she did all this, it is worth noting, while remaining unnaturally likeable as an off-stage personality.
Part of her appeal is the conversational way she approaches her topics and thus her lyrics. Swift is an inherently narrative songwriter, and this part of her country music heritage follows her even as she transcends genre into a more pop-driven sphere. Her narratives are simple and even simplistic, by most accounts, chronicling the romances of Swift-as-speaker as she loves one boy, gets heartbroken, and finds love again. One does not get the sense that Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf line her bookshelves; there isn’t much room after yards and yards of Stephenie Meyer.
Feminist bloggers who read Friedan and Wolf criticized Swift’s Wonderbread feminine archetypes. In 2010, Riese criticized Swift’s outsider persona on Autostraddle.com
“Swift’s insistence on casting herself as the outcast or the proverbial “girl in the bleachers” while prettier girls date her crush objects is really silly. Her standard-issue prettiness conforms to a hegemonic Caucasian beauty standard and she’s selling her fans short to claim otherwise…”
Riese also pointed out that fairy tales play a significant role in Swift’s music.
Dodai Stewart at Jezebel
re-blogged the article and commented illuminatingly in-house on the relationship between Taylor Swift and feminism. Both writers emphasize the difference between Taylor Swift the product and Swift the person, recognizing that Swift is almost lovely as a human being can be given the robotic chumminess of talk show couch conversations. It’s aggravating how much we like her.
Yet what interests me is the fact that I don’t think Swift began her career painting herself as an outcast. Rather, both her description of herself as-outsider and the increased use of fairy tale archetype rise along with, and perhaps cause, her phenomenal popularity. Swift’s music videos become more and more like Disney princess short films where she, the misunderstood and invisible beauty, is socially persecuted in her pursuit of true love. By recognizing this, we uncover an intriguing discussion of the stories that pop culture imposes upon young women, the stories we in turn share, and how we then react to them.
Teardrops on My Guitar & the Ambiguous Narrator
Teardrops on my Guitar
is the story of a land-locked friendship. Swift is in love with Drew; Drew loves someone else; this makes her sad. We do not learn much else from the lyrics. In the music video, we see Swift placed among other people in high school, the locale of most music videos after this. Yet her position in this high school is vague. She wears lab goggles in the laboratory, but does not seem nerdy; she is not bullied, but she also does not interact with anyone except weepy-chorus-inducing Drew. Who is Swift? We have no idea.
Then the scene shifts to her bedroom, where we discover she is a princess. Swift sings on her bed in a mint-colored dress longer than the Royal Wedding Gown, eyes made-up in the traditional two-pounds of eyeliner reminiscent of Egyptian murals and her face bedazzled in a constellation of sparkling rhinestones. She is a fairy tale character thrust into real life.
And in this, Swift reveals that quality that other commentators have noted and that which I think is her greatest appeal: she sets the day-to-day teenage girl experience within the narrative context of fairy tale, that of a particularly Disney-ish variety. She translates twenty-first girlhood into the heroines and villains, ballgowns and bed curtains. This isn’t original, of course, but it’s executed skillfully and repeatedly, as we shall see.