Taylor Swift is Indie Now, Apparently

Taylor Swift wants to live like common people. Her new album, Folklore, is her inevitable attempt at an “indie” album, and to help her capture that style, she enlisted critical darlings Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National to assist with the writing and production. I wrote about my rather unique hatred of Swift a couple years ago, and while the post wasn’t very good, I stand by my read on her psyche: she is a ruthless careerist whose music is marked by an insecurity and a desperation to be loved by all listeners. Folklore represents her final ambition: a chance to prove that she’s a “real artist” who is more than just a corporate pop star.

The target audience for Folklore is critics — not just the music writers, who will undoubtedly salivate over this tedious exercise like they do for Bon Iver and The National, but the remaining holdouts who dislike Swift’s music and don’t take her seriously as an artist. Swift wants people who hate her to hear this and think “you know, she’s actually pretty good.” And honestly, in some ways it succeeds at that, even with me: this album is not bad to listen to, and it’s free from the ego narratives that have previously made her music grate on me. They’re replaced by something that is far more insidious and repulsive.

The whole rollout and presentation of Folklore is meant to portray Swift as an honest, hard-working artist who isn’t motivated by money or status. She casually dropped it into the world on a day’s notice in an effort to show she doesn’t care about the typical P.R. hype cycle. The cover shows her alone in the woods, like Bon Iver was when he recorded his For Emma, Forever Ago album, which created the cliché “indie” playbook she’s working off of here. Most hilariously, the album and song titles are in all-lowercase, which is a common shortcut for people who want to seem emotionally sincere and profound but don’t know how to actually do that. Once they stop using the shift key, that’s when you know it’s something totally legit.

I realize I’m ascribing motivation to a lot of seemingly innocuous aspects of this album. My belief is that Swift is a cunning businesswoman who cares a lot about her brand, image, and career, and she doesn’t make any action that affects those things without thinking a lot about it. It might be happening on a more subconscious level, but she is trying to win over the “haters” she has obsessed over for years by doing her version of the music she thinks they like instead of her. And that is also how these songs sound to me: almost like an alien version of a certain style of “indie” music that has been run through a Swift filter. It’s a hollow facsimile of the real thing.

The tragic part of Folklore is hearing Swift aspire to something that will never be in her reach. She can assemble all the beloved songwriters and producers in the world, and market it in a way to make people think it’s authentic, but she can never capture the traits that make people actually love indie music: sincerity, flaws, lived experience, the feeling of hearing music that is made out of love or need and not just to make money or tick off another chapter in the artist’s calculated narrative. Most of all, those moments when you stumble upon a lesser-known artist who sounds like they make music just for you instead of for a mass audience. None of that can be manufactured.

Swift has always been good at pretending, and she puts in a decent effort with these songs, which check off various “indie” boxes with the stripped-down piano and guitar arrangements, less flashy production, and lyrics that are about like old oil heiresses instead of typical pop stuff. But it’s all an act that becomes increasingly transparent over the album’s egregiously long run time. There is nothing genuine about this; it’s Taylor Swift (net worth: 360 million dollars) cosplaying as an indie artist, presenting her shallow idea of what indie music is to an uncritical public who she knows will eat this up. What she seems to most associate with indie is a total absence of charisma or charm, which makes sense given the choice of Bon Iver and The National as contributors. At least with Swift’s old music, I didn’t like it, but I could understand the appeal of her personality. This is pleasant to listen to, but also very samey and dull, resembling the kind of white-bread Lilith Fair soft pop that everyone usually makes fun of. If Swift is going to go “indie,” she should be compared to other artists in that arena instead of graded on a pop star curve, and no one will convince me that Folklore holds up to the kind of music I typically listen to in terms of artistry, depth, or creativity.

I don’t want to completely paint a picture that every indie artist is legitimate and brave and all pop stars and rich artists have no insight. There is a lot of bad indie music out there and also plenty of good pop music. People would probably be disturbed if they learned how much I’ve listened to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia this year. The difference is Future Nostalgia knows what it is and doesn’t present itself as high art. The pretensions of Folklore are insufferable and the music can’t live up to its billing because Swift can never be what she purports herself to be. So what’s left is an album with a generic pseudo-indie sound, with the admirable values of such music replaced with a sense of calculated pandering.

Swift is co-opting indie values here, and also encroaching on spaces previously reserved for independent music, which makes this more offensive to me than a normal ignorable pop album. The Current is now playing her songs because Folklore appeals to that audience, which is all part of her strategy. Every independent music publication is going to gush over this album because it’s “cool” to loudly show your love for pop music now, and it’s specifically catered towards their tastes. In this way, Folklore is like a musical version of predatory capitalism. This is Wal-Mart moving into a neighborhood and putting mom and pop stores out of business; it’s Amazon bankrupting your cool local book store. Music isn’t quite that zero-sum (it’s not like Swift succeeding literally kills indie music or something), but this album is still going to take up a lot of space that could be spent on independent artists who rely on critical praise and word of mouth.

All of those insults are at least doubled during this pandemic, which has been brutal for independent artists who relied on touring to try to scrape by something resembling a living. It’s one thing to be less successful than a mega-talent like Beyonce who is crafting arena pop spectacles. How must it feel for those artists to see Swift get all the critical adulation for a mediocre copy of the music they make? What if all the energy that will go into hyping and discussing this album was dedicated to artists who weren’t already rich and could actually benefit from the exposure? Swift’s condescending take on indie isn’t just insincere and uninteresting as music — it’s a slap in the face to the artists who actually live the way Swift is pretending she does.

Look What You Made Me Do

Last week I decided to drive to work downtown instead of taking the light rail because it was a Friday night on a long weekend and I figured there would be light traffic at most. Minutes later, I’m waiting in a line of cars just to get into downtown and I realize something horrible is happening. I look out the window and see an endless line of semi trucks outside of U.S. Bank Stadium emblazoned with Taylor Swift’s face. She’s staring at me, judging me, while she makes me late for work.

It is a fitting incident because Swift is the one pop star I can’t seem to get away from. While I am generally like a 90-year-old man when it comes to being up on current pop music because I just don’t care, Swift sticks in my mind more than I’d like to admit. I have an entire list of grievances towards her: she was born a day before me so I always hear about her birthday on the eve of mine, my college roommate played one of her albums non-stop, and I absolutely despise her music in an active way despite knowing I shouldn’t have an opinion on it. I hate her, in a weird way I kind of admire her, but more than anything, I fear her.

As I type this, I am terrified of Taylor Swift. Because I know that if any massive pop artist were to ever find a random blog post like this and sue me for slander, set her fans on me, or possibly pay to have me killed, it would be her. Nobody in the music industry is more cutthroat and ruthless than Taylor Swift. I believe her life ambition is to make every single person on earth a fan of hers, and she’ll squash anyone who stands in her way like a bug. She once put her music back on Spotify just to get people to listen to her instead of Katy Perry’s new album. Cursory research indicates that she and Perry have “mended their friendship,” but it’s likely just a prelude to Swift’s final unexacted revenge.

Much has been made of Swift’s penchant for writing vengeful songs at various exes and the general sense of neediness that comes out in her lyrics. I view it all as an extension of her weird pathology that requires everyone to love her. While most pop stars have no interest in me listening to their music, Swift badly wants me on her side. Even in the face of massive popularity, she remains obsessed with her “haters” and she writes lyrics about boyfriends who like “indie records that are much cooler than mine.” No success she achieves will ever be enough to satisfy her ambition and ego. A more warmhearted person than I could probably have sympathy for Swift and her inability to be satisfied with anything, but I find everything she does too grating to have any sense of compassion.

The Swift empire isn’t built on any kind of musical ability, but on a carefully curated brand image and the presentation of the character Taylor Swift to the public. Her business acumen is far more interesting than her music, which I find to be dull even by pop music standards. It gets overlooked because Swift is a cute young woman, so people underestimate her and make the sexist assumption that a bunch of men are probably controlling her career. But I think much of Swift’s success is due to her own knowledge of how to play the pop music game and her ability to take advantage of people who underestimate her. She is always in control of her own narrative, and every move she makes is calculated.

The moment that always sticks out is at that one Video Music Awards, when Kanye West stomped all over Taylor Swift’s moment, setting forth the narrative that Kanye is an egotistical dick and Swift was the put-upon and maligned girl next door. You’ll never convince me that this wasn’t a scripted plan, executed like a professional wrestling angle, and it influenced the way people perceived both celebrities. Swift has spent the rest of her career playing off that image of the nice girl who always gets mistreated, partly because it blandly appeals to the most people possible.

It’s fitting that one of Swift’s most famous songs is “Blank Space,” because that’s kind of what she is as a musician. Her music is apolitical, it doesn’t inspire the imagination, and it doesn’t really show any kind of prodigious musical skill. It’s just a series of sounds that exist to advance Swift’s image and narratives about herself. It’s an approach that I find utterly loathsome and antithetical to everything that makes me love music, but I have some begrudging respect for how Swift doesn’t even pretend that her music is about anything but making money. If the concept of capitalism became human and pursued a career in music, it would take all the same steps that Swift has.

Swift’s ability to become one of the most popular musicians on earth while possessing little to no musical talent is a testament to her true genius as a marketer and businesswoman. Maybe this is a misanthropic viewpoint, but I don’t think the actual music really matters anymore when it comes to being a pop star. It’s all about marketing yourself, having an image, and probably paying certain people to do certain things. Once you’ve established a fanbase, you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want in today’s era of creepy, cult-like fandoms, and through years of shrewd machinations, Swift has built an army of people who will defend anything she does, even if it’s “borrowing” a hook from Right Said Fred.

Swift understands all of this because she’s smart, and she’s figured out that success in today’s climate isn’t about music. The songs I heard from her last album were so half-assed that for a moment I almost thought it was some kind of Lou Reed anti-art thing. But it’s more Swift realizing that all she needs to do is get the internet buzzing for her, positively or negatively, and that means having some vaguely controversial lyrics and tinkering with her image/persona, not having actual good songs. All of her detractors, including me, got their zingers about those songs in on social media, but as always, it was Swift who had the last laugh: Reputation was the best-selling album of 2017, she sold out both of those shows at U.S. Bank Stadium, and she made me late for work.