At a June 2 concert in LA.
At a June 2 concert in LA.

#Newsmaker: Taylor Swift has a new song out, a new album and a new persona

The pop superstar has rebranded herself, this time as an LGBTQ ally. With hundreds of millions listening, should timing and nuance matter?
Hindustan Times | By Zara Murao
PUBLISHED ON JUN 22, 2019 05:17 PM IST

The dominant colour in the Taylor Swift rainbow is pink. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

So far, she’s been the quintessential pop superstar. She sings, but you couldn’t pick her voice out of a line-up. She dances, but only to match the music. If anything explains her success, it’s that she’s easy to listen to, easy to dance to, and if you’re a certain age, easy to relate to. That last bit is crucial.

It’s made her, well before her 30th birthday, one of the highest selling artistes of all time, reputedly worth more than Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Scarlett Johansson. But you’d never think it to look at her sweet smile, or the way she sends hampers to fans and invites them over for cookies and previews of her music.

She doesn’t just make her success look easy, she makes it look accidental. She just wants to be your friend, she says it at every concert — at one of her earliest gigs, following a heartbreak song, she fell to her knees, close enough to the edge of the stage to let fans pet her head.

She’s Britney Spears meets Shania Twain, but with none of the former’s meltdowns and very little of the latter’s sass. So it was a bit of a surprise when she suddenly dropped a new song last week that was in-your-face political. But it was all part of the plan. 

The grown-up Disney princess template would have got really old really fast, so as with most major brands, you get a slightly repackaged Taylor Swift every few years. There was the sweet teen, the heartbroken girl, the annoyed/angry/sad young woman. Then came the spats with her peers, allegations that she pretended to be upset about a Kanye West song mention that she’d know about all along. People started to wonder, what else has Swift been lying to us about?

With this next album, then, the packaging has been refreshed and the pink has acquired a rainbow fringe. On May 31, as Pride Month dawned, she posted to her combined 201.5 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, a message that urged them to support the Equality Act.

She also shared a copy of her open letter to her senator, Lamar Alexander, urging him to support that Act and help outlaw discrimination in the US against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Her letter was on monogrammed stationary that said: ‘Taylor Swift. Born 1989. Loves cats.’ In a similar, ‘Hey, I’ve kinda got something to say’ way, she donned rainbow colours at a June 2 concert in LA, with a tasselled outfit that remained dominated by pink.  

And then she launched her newest song, ‘You need to calm down’, last week. The lyrics reference GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in America), as in, ‘Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?’ Another line goes, ‘Shade never made anybody less gay’. The central refrain is, ‘You need to calm down; you’re being too loud’. She had said her new album would be political. And she’s done it with a feather brush rather than a cudgel.

The video she released for the song this week is distinctly more rainbow-pride than the lyrics, but addresses the issue of equal rights through an array of shocking stereotypes, clichés and partial truths. Still, it’s a step forward for a young woman with an unbelievable amount of clout, who has consistently shied away from issues of political debate.  

She‘s wielded that clout in other ways. Her open letter to Apple forced them to change how they paid the artistes whose music they carried. She was 25 at the time. Last year, when she posted on Instagram asking young adults to register as voters, officials reported a spike in voter registrations that they still can’t explain.

In 2017, amid the #MeToo movement in Hollywood, she went to court against a DJ who had groped her, and snippets of her beautifully blunt testimony flew across the globe. But there was consternation when she then appeared on a Time cover honouring the voices that launched the movement.

Some said she was appropriating a cause; the counter-argument was that her voice reaches millions. Her surprise gig last weekend at New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn, where the global gay rights movement was kick-started 50 years ago, has caused a similar rift in opinion.

But in an era of exhaustion with White privilege, she leans into it. Where Madonna uses female sexuality as a weapon, and Beyonce wields fierceness like a sword, Swift offers just a very precise version of herself, a girl standing in front of the world asking it to like her.

She won’t shatter things, or break things, or shout. She’s the rainbow. It makes sense that she would embrace it.

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