Daniel Schultz is a musician, visual artist, and label manager of //APNEICVOID// based in Portland, OR. Operating under numerous guises such as the lo-fi rock oriented Troubled By Insects and the religiously contemplative harsh noise project Lapsed Baptist, Daniel’s most recent work is no its becky‘s [nineteeneightynine] a “destructive rendering” of Taylor Swift’s latest album 1989. Follow his ever-prolific output and ephemeral obsessions on his blog.
December 13, 2014. It is Taylor Swift‘s 25th birthday, which has come to my attention from a multitude of sources: a Snapchat filter, a slew of pop stars writing their well-wishes on Instagram and Twitter, Swift’s own social media hat-trick (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram), an email announcing free ground shipping for any purchase made “today only” on taylorswift.com, and, at the apex of my day, a co-worker who arrived at work and said these exact words to me in this exact order: “Today is a national holiday. It’s Taylor Swift’s birthday.” For the record: I wholeheartedly agree.
Whether or not you’re willing to come to terms with it, the fact remains the same: in a post-corporate music society, Taylor Swift reigns supreme. It’s her birthday, and she’ll have her cake and stab it too, thanks. While so-called tastemakers and the carrions of pseudo-indie credibility furiously post their think-pieces decrying Swift’s business acumen while trying to discredit her belief that (her) art is worth something–particularly, that, in some form, it should be paid for–millions of fans gleefully purchase her CD, fill online shopping carts with Taylor Swift branded stocking stuffers, and purchase concert tickets at astronomical prices, without the slightest inkling of ironic culpability. You’re welcome to hate her, but she’s already penned the ultimate anti-hater anthem, and her fans don’t give a shit about any derisive commentary.
In 2014, we exist 15 years beyond the moment when the last great “American Country” artist attempted an almost identical coup as Swift; yet, where Taylor succeeded in flying colors, this artist all but dissipated into obscurity. I’m talking, of course, about Garth Brooks, whose aborted “Chris Gaines” experiment was revealed on Saturday Night Live in 1999 to an enthralled audience of, well, practically no one (ed note: Any video documentation of this performance is mysteriously absent from every corner of the internet). Brooks desire to conquer the world of pop-rock after all but being the most important modern country music figure of the 1990s found him in a position not unlike Swift during her transitional period circa the release of Red.
However, this is the critical point where the paths of these two superstars diverged. Brooks attempted to completely rebrand himself as “Chris Gaines,” yet, in reality, all he accomplished was (1) growing a soul patch that feigned more of a creepy trying-too-hard-to-be-hip youth pastor aesthetic than pop-star heartthrob, and (2) crafting a “concept album” of flaccid pop-rock songs that posited to span the entire career of his fictitious alter ego, but was in reality a dozen cookie-cutter tracks, each nearly indiscernible from the other. In doing so, he all but disappeared from the face of modern music; even forsaken by country music radio, his work exiled to dive bar jukeboxes and karaoke fodder.
What, then, has been Taylor’s secret to success? How has Swift not succumbed to the same fate as her predecessor? The answer lies in a slight but crucial variation of semantics. Taylor Swift had no need to rebrand her pop-alter ego, to “Gaines” her Brooks, to “Sasha Fierce” her Beyoncé. In a move executed as seamlessly and genuinely as David Bowie becoming “Ziggy Stardust,” Taylor Swift simply became a new version of herself. Taylor Swift became “Taylor Swift.”
So who, exactly, is “Taylor Swift?” The Rosetta Stone to that question lies in her most recent creative work: the music video for “Blank Space.” A four-minute film that is equal parts drama, comedy, and screwball horror, “Blank Space” stars Taylor Swift as “Taylor Swift,” a hyper-animated amalgamation of all aspects of her publicly perceived self, by obsessive fans and rabid detractors in kind. Swift is simultaneously sweet and sour, regal and possessed, calm and crazed. She is a pastiche of herself while unabashedly projecting the same personas that her self-proclaimed “haters” describe her in attack, owning them and disarming her detractors in the process.
And yet, all the while, she is wholly Taylor Swift, none other but herself and all her selves, inimitable, enigmatic; we know the whole world of this film is her doing because the only other person besides Taylor Swift who could exist in it is “Taylor Swift,” the one we imagined, which she co-opted and sold back to us and won’t let us stream for free on Spotify. “Suck it,” you can almost hear “Taylor Swift” say, and see Taylor Swift behind her, laughing, loving every minute.
In his 2009 essay exploring the failure of Garth Brooks’ “Chris Gaines,” author Chuck Klosterman posits: “If you want to adopt an unnatural persona, that persona needs to be an extension of the person you secretly feel like. You have to be ‘authentically pretending.’ You have to be the only person who could have become the character you embody.”
The empire that Swift has built is too shrewd and singular for it to be anything but. Country Music Starlet Swift did not become Pop Princess Swift purely by nature of age and accident. Consider the case of Julian Casablancas 2002 vs Julian Casablancas 2009. In 2002, when The Strokes performed “Take It Or Leave It” on Letterman, Casablancas may have been pretending, but he was absolutely authentic in his performance: clutching at his collar, slamming the mic stand to the ground, slipping on stage and somehow managing to make it look cool as fuck. 7 years later, Casablancas debuted his solo effort on Conan, offering a performance as limp and ineffective as his Letterman showing was vicious and raw. Age and wisdom seemed to have castrated the artist. In an attempt to give his fans what he thought they wanted (most simply wanted the return of the performer they loved), he instead “called it in” with the most uninspiring performance of his career.
Taylor Swift is allowing for no such missteps with 1989. In fact, should we assess her career up to this point, perhaps the most vulnerable moment we can pinpoint in her comparatively brief yet spellbinding career would be the exemplary meme-spawning “Interrupting Kanye” incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, mouth agape, microphone forcibly removed from (and, just as quickly, returned to) her hands.
Taylor Swift has made damn sure that no one takes a mic from “Taylor Swift,” and at this point, who could even imagine such an act? Swift (and Swift’s “Swift”) is poised to decimate anyone who could even come close to attempting such a disparaging event, all the while maintaining a coy disposition and an ever-knowing smirk. Her legions of fans request her attention passively via hashtag, and Taylor dutifully responds, #taylurking across the Internet, ever aware of her perception, re-blogging and retweeting her tribe to direct the narrative of her legacy. She has befriended and surrounded herself with the most elite group of companions: Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake, Lena Dunham and Emma Stone. Her position in the Empire is unarguable and simultaneously singular; in “Swift’s” world, the Empire revolves around her.
We have been invited to join her in orbit, and while we may only, at times, be viewing a projection of the reality of her planet, we are still so lucky to take it in. Even the reflection is breathtaking, and goddammit, the songs are catchy as hell.