On Taylor Swift and the Myth of “Limited Space”

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift album cycles are starting to feel like Fall Out Boy lyrics circa 2005: Which came first, the music Taylor Swift record or the misery discourse? And I’m like, I just, I mean… this is exhausting, you know? 

This time around, Taylor did something very new (for her). In a move that honestly only really works for the highest rollers in entertainment, she surprise-unleashed a 16 track full length, titled folklore, on the unsuspecting internet at large. Response was massive, immediate, and polarizing. For a huge number of listeners, both in the private and critical spheres, this release has been lauded as one of her best yet. It credits indie heavyweights Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on the track “exile,” and the record’s production has The National’s Aaron Dessner all over it. To the more casual Swift listener–or to be exact, the “I’ve heard her singles, and that’s it” listener–this venture into the world of “indie” is out of character and out of left field, and as a result… feathers have been ruffled. And as tends to be the case with these things, the resulting discourse has, yet again, overwhelmingly failed to validate its own complaints. As usual with Taylor, it does this by focusing on snippy critiques mired more in misogyny than in the actual issues at play here.

This has layers. I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again: Taylor Swift the individual does not need to be defended. She’s (clearly) doing just fine, and is blossoming into the artist her fans have known she was since she was a curly-headed teen singing over twangy guitars. But there’s the rub: this conversation is not actually about Taylor Swift the person. It’s about Taylor Swift, the symbol, and all of the layers that figure contains and the role that figures like her (and the power structures behind them) represent in the music industry. It’s not a house Swift built, but it’s absolutely one she lives in.

It’s easy – natural, even – to be angry when it feels like your space is being encroached upon. And I’m not even going to sit here and tell anyone it’s unwarranted, because that’s not how anger works. But if you’re a non-man in music and you’re contributing to the high-grade misogyny surrounding the Drama of Swift, you’re not doing yourself, or those beneath you in the social hierarchy, any favors. All of the high horses and moral superiority in the world won’t stop the same people patting you on the head for piling on Swift from doing the same to you when the dice land differently. Because… that’s how power structures work. They tend to do whatever it takes to protect themselves.

It feels harmless because of who Swift is. I get that. And on an individual basis, that could be true. Nobody (meaning: me) is saying you can’t criticize Taylor Swift. Go for it. There are absolutely valid critiques to be made, as is true with all rich and powerful public figures who benefit from said power and fame. But harm isn’t simply individual. It’s systemic. It’s contributing to a conversation and a toxic mindset that says “women (or anyone perceived as one) did not create what is theirs.” 

So if you’re going to make certain critiques, I will continue to ask you to interrogate where the critiques come from and what spirit they’re actually in. Because it matters. If a critique is plucked from a tree whose roots are in misogyny, it matters. Even if it’s about someone with all the power and privilege of Taylor Swift. 

Think of it this way: Taylor Swift is white, wealthy, and beautiful. But they “question how much of this [she] deserves” with Beyoncé too. With Cardi B. They do it to Hayley Williams. Hell, it’s happened to ME, and my project only has like five dedicated fans–who I adore and wouldn’t trade for the world, but you see my point. Are we really going to pretend it stops at the top? If this is how someone at the top of the privilege mountain is treated–how can we pretend that anyone lower on said ladder will receive better? If all the money, power, and privilege in the world doesn’t stop people from pretending she had nothing to do with her own success, what does that mean for people who lack those things? 

Are we content to say misogyny leveled against the rich and powerful stays there? Are we comfortable deciding which levels of privilege mean women “deserve” misogyny and being relegated to footnotes in their own creations, knowing how those very same goalposts can and will always be moved to suit the narrative at hand? There’s absolutely a conversation that needs to be had about the role money and power (and tokenism–the idea that “we have one girl, that’s enough”) plays in indie music, a space that at its most prominent and visible levels is dominated by whiteness, by the way. But that conversation absolutely cannot be had if we’re pretending big money and trust fund kids hadn’t waltzed through that “bedroom pop” door long before Swift put a foot in. And we absolutely cannot have the conversation if we aren’t prepared to interrogate why we as a culture so frequently find ourselves needing to like female artists in order to give them their due, regardless of medium, in a way that we simply do not with (usually white) men. 

Ask yourself: If there was a song on folklore that you liked, did you find yourself assuming it was the creation of one of Swift’s male collaborators? Are you actually familiar enough with her catalog to be confident in that assessment? How does this same pattern play out in the way you process the work of other non-male artists? How is your assessment impacted by their race? By their gender identity? By their physical body? By their sexual orientation? By your own? Because I can assure you: the impact is there. If we’re going to make any progress in these areas, we all have to get a lot more comfortable with these internal interrogations.

I’ll be honest. I’m trying to picture a scenario where a man trying something new1 would be told he was taking up space by other male artists. It doesn’t really happen, because we as a society don’t see male artists–white ones, at least–that way. They simply aren’t asked to justify their own existence as non-male creators are asked when they create new art in the same way. 

I also want to be clear: the non-male artists who came under Swiftie fire for being upset over folklore’s apparent “intrusion” into their space are not upset in a vacuum, either. The reason internalized misogyny exists is because it is routinely taught and reinforced by the system these people have built careers trying to participate in. Women and non-men (and all people of color, especially Black people) believe there is finite space for them because, simply put, that has likely been true in their experience. I read an article some years ago that offered the following example of how this problem manifests itself: if you take a group of ten people, and eight of them are white men, one is a white woman, and one is a man of color, the largest group will see that as being equality. As diversity. As representation. 

As a young woman growing up the last two decades loving alternative music, I can tell you right now that you need look no further than the covers of Alternative Press to see this phenomenon play out in vivid color. AP isn’t “indie,” but… the example tracks across genres. It doesn’t mean that marginalized musicians don’t exist,  don’t work to build their fanbases, or don’t enjoy levels of success in their careers. It just means that there is finite space reserved for them at the top. This reality is man-made, but it isn’t made up. I say this because I want to make it clear that I’m not minimizing the circumstances that lead us to this moment.

To that point: it’s reductive and unfair to pretend all Swift has to do in order to “take up space” (ostensibly reserved for the apparently finite number of other typically white women allowed in the room) in indie music is work with prominent alternative co-writers, lay back on production, do a grayscale photo shoot in the woods, and use lowercase letters. 

The woman herself has made no claims to be “indie” now; it would be completely absurd if she did. You cannot get less indie than being one of the biggest names in music. So what are we really basing this on? The presence of her collaborators? The “vibe”? Is that really all “indie” (the genre, not the state of being self-funded or unsigned) is? An aesthetic? Are we as a musical community really prepared to die on that abysmally bleak hill? That particular take pays dust to the extensive body of work created by other women and non-men in this specific realm of music, and to see that be self-imposed in some cases is incredibly disheartening. 

It also ignores the very real truth that any Swift fans who are new to that sonic world have just been handed a giant gateway to the very artists some are pretending Swift has somehow slighted by putting out this record. We’ve been living in the myth of finite space. In reality, the world is big enough for both. It always has been. We just have to decide to let it be big enough.

There are, of course, hints of legitimate critiques woven into these frustrations. To name a few: how do we usefully encourage the parts of Swift’s massive fanbase to walk through the door to discover and consume the work of smaller artists in similar sonic spaces? How do we move the dial even one notch closer to something resembling a level playing field for BIPOC artists? For non-men? For LGBTQ+ artists? For disabled artists? For poor artists? For artists who simply aren’t “cool” or connected? For the myriad ways these identities intersect? Is such a thing possible? How do we avoid falling prey to what so often happens; losing the desire to fight the fight once I get mine? 

Above all else, we cannot forget how pervasive the protections of whiteness, maleness, and wealth are, even in places where folks are marginalized in one sense and privileged in another. Because if one thing is true, it’s that using words like “fair” feels pretty absurd given the reality and state of the world around us, now more than ever before. I’m not sure I’d say that means it’s not worth trying, but the reality is projecting all of these problems onto Taylor Swift doesn’t fix them. 

The way we critique people, the language we use, and the biases and power structures that we play into and off of, matters. Even if you have a valid point, it gets lost when you reinforce misogyny, racism, transphobia, ableism, and so on, in order to make said point. When you rely on existing harmful tropes to criticise members of marginalized groups, instead of critiquing the power structures at play, it just snowballs into the avalanche of bullshit (intended or otherwise) that will inevitably land hardest on the most vulnerable people in the industry. If there are exceptions to this rule, I’m hard-pressed to think of a meaningful example of one.

And in the case of this specific record: if you honestly believe that the writers who chose to write about this record did so at the expense of other artists, then what you have an issue with is the payola & clickbait bullshit this industry has been mired in for years. Which is something we should frankly all have an issue with. But to make this particular young woman–who has, despite massive success, had so much misogyny lobbed at her in the name of ‘music purity’ over her career that you’d have to live under a rock to not realize modern critiques cannot exist outside of that frame of reference, however “well intentioned”–a mascot for that problem is… well, for lack of a better term, lazy. 

You want to talk about the cult of idolatry? You want to have that conversation? Then have it. It’s long overdue. But ask yourself when said idolatry bothers you the most, and why. Because I promise there are inconsistencies in the narratives that play in all of our heads. That’s how confirmation bias and implicit bias works. Follow the thread all the way back to the source. You might be surprised where you end up, and which kind of artists your unconscious bias is targeting whether you’re aware of it or not.

These conversations are important. They need to be had. And a lot of hard truths need to be grappled with. For one, the myth of the purity of the beleaguered indie artist has to be dispersed. As a poor, queer, Latinx and quite literally independent musician, I can tell you right now that a lot of the loudest folks on their indie high horses aren’t as far from Swift’s kind of privilege as they want to believe from my perspective. Because this all boils down to perspective. Is their privilege perhaps less extreme? In some cases, absolutely. But seeing not-insignificant players in a scene dominated by whiteness complain about a rich white girl “taking up space” because of her privilege can easily read like sour grapes to those outside of that circle. 

And as far as the implication that her very real money and influence is the only reason for this album’s success… I mean, ask Paris Hilton if simply being wealthy, white, and powerful alone can create a lasting music career. And maybe that’s why Taylor bothers these specific folks so much: because they see that despite everything, despite the legs up and the paths that were smoothed over and despite that immense privilege of hers, none of this could have happened the way it did without her, the artist. Taylor Swift is lightning in a bottle — what she’s done couldn’t have been done without her, but her ability to do it was absolutely, inexorably linked to her circumstances and access. One without the other may have amounted to nothing. It’s even possible that in another timeline, the same talented young woman with all the access in the world decides not to learn how to play guitar or write a song in the first place. And that’s a frustrating reality to have to consider when one is trying to grapple with where the lines between privilege, and talent really get drawn. To figure out where they render the game “unfair.” It’s the least satisfying of answers: because if we’re being honest, the answer is that there are no simple or easy answers here. 

Clearly, nobody has to agree with me on any particular point. As I said, we are all made up of our perspectives and experiences, and I fully own that for every place I’m “disadvantaged,” there is another where I have plenty of privilege. In short: it could be worse, and is worse for someone else. This is always going to be true. And if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that privilege, while not automatically a reflection of one’s character, creates blind spots. So what I’ll say is this: at the end of the day, this record is the culmination of 15+ years of musical and internal evolution by a young woman whose way with words has been uniquely hers from the jump. Her co-writers can, and do, attest to as much. 

The music industry is an unfair and deeply toxic place, mired in fucked-up power structures and underhanded dealings. It needs a serious reckoning, and “indie” is no different. That is without question. If you consider folklore to be the canary in the proverbial coal mine on the infiltration and subsequent death of indie by the much feared “mainstream”… if you believe that one young woman’s record has the power to cause that much destruction, then I suppose we must simply agree to disagree. I’ll try to keep my laughter down while we do. 

But if there’s one thing I’m sure is true, regardless of the think-pieces and the angry tweets and the noise, if Taylor Swift truly broke the world of indie music, then I can only assume that she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

  1. Nothing about this record, be it sonic or lyrical, was a complete departure for Swift and is in fact, a quintessentially her record.