Other Ten Percent 12/16/14

Dec 16 2014

We argue about pop music having integrity in the moral sense but I think we need to be more concerned with their integrity in the structural sense of the word. When Grimes came out with Go earlier this year her fan-base attacked her lack of integrity in making what was essentially a pop song and, while their authenticity argument was total bullshit, in a structural sense they were right. Grimes’ persona could not contain her previous body of work and Go at the same time. One had to be abandoned and she chose to ditch pop-star Grimes in favor of the Indie Darling audience she already had.

It seems like we should be past those kind of choices. Madonna pretty much demolished any need for a cohesive artist narrative in pop around the time I was born. Madonna is vast, Madonna contains multitudes. Nobody gives a shit if the Madonna of her new album and the Madonna of her last album are mutually exclusive.

But in the land of female pop-stars this year has constantly demanded they prove the structural integrity of their personas. Everybody had to make a definitive statement of WHO THEY WERE and then they had to back that up. I mean even Beyonce had to stand in front of a 20 foot high FEMINIST sign and stare critics down like the goddamn angel of death to get people to accept her bit.

If there’s any great failing in Broke With Expensive Taste, Azealia Bank’s long (long long long) awaited debut album it’s that you leave with no cohesive picture of who Banks is as an artist. The thing’s about a third good but nobody can decide which third it is (except Chasing Time which is just objectively a great pop song). The thing isn’t just sonically all over the place though. It’s four different statement albums all smushed together seemingly at random. It sounds like Azealia Banks tried out a bunch of different personas, couldn’t make up her mind, and then shoved them all at the audience saying “fuck it, you decide.” And now that I’ve written that out I’m pretty much 100% sure that’s exactly what happened. And in 2014 you can put out a shitty album but you sure as hell can’t put out an unclear one.

Look at FKA Twigs. I’d argue the hit to miss ratio of her debut is way lower than Broke With Expensive Taste. But its hard to imagine a better statement of purpose than the Two Weeks video and so she’s the critical darling.

Nicki Minaj knows how to work this problem. She spent the year releasing alternating singles that seemed beamed in directly from “real rap” Nicki Minaj and “sell-out pop star” Nicki Minaj just to fuck with everybody’s head about which one we’d get this time. Then, of course, this week she reveals the whole thing was a long con to blow up that dichotomy and releases a real bummer of a break up album. “Screw your narratives of me,” The Pinkprint says “you don’t know me.” That secured her place as music’s greatest troll but it didn’t quite make her the winner of the pop-star integrity olympics.

No, this is the metric where Taylor Swift exits the year triumphant. She managed to take direct, public control of her persona and in doing so she steered it in an exciting new direction without raising too much of a ruckus.

When she first released Shake it Off I thought it was a brutal miscalculation on Swifty’s part. Taylor Swift can’t have an “I don’t give a fuck” anthem. Giving too much of a fuck is the entire Taylor Swift brand! But I, like Kanye West and so many country music superstars before me, had underestimated Swifty. Because then came the video for Blank Space and I finally got the bit.

(The video for Shake it Off remains awful though. Not just because it’s vaguely racist but because it tries to paint Swifty as too good to sell herself with sex like other, lesser, popstars…and then sells her with sex anyway.)

Shake it Off was Taylor Swift trying to talk herself into not caring because she’d finally noticed that how much she cared was a problem. 1989 turned out to be an album of Taylor Swift trying to come to grips with the Taylor Swift persona and trying every trick in the book to fix the problems with it. It makes sense that having finally embraced that she’s just as much of a try-hard as Kanye West she would make her own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Okay, that gives 1989 a bit too much credit. It’s not Taylor Swift’s perfect album. The fundamental craft is always there but every joke about how “Welcome to New York” sounds like a New York anthem written by a tourist is totally accurate. Plus the back half has a 3 song stretch where the lyrics sound like Swifty just heard about metaphors and was really excited to try them out.

But the basic narrative arc (protagonist becomes disgusted with themselves, seeks escape through every imaginable avenue, learns there must be a reckoning and embraces their failings) is exactly the same. And in performing that narrative Blank Space is a masterstroke.

It actually outdoes Kanye because it manages to make Swifty’s failings palatable for public consumption. Kanye’s dark side is only ever going to be the price of admission for getting the rest of Kanye West. Crazy ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift however isn’t the downside anymore, it’s the dream. Come for the blonde pop star, stay for her going batshit insane. And people are lining up to take that deal. How does she manage this trick?

First of all, let us acknowledge that the video is amazing. Taylor Swift inexplicably trying to beat up a tree is the only animated gif the internet needs anymore even if I’m going to offer a bunch more because she also dresses like a flapper and stabs a heart shaped cake. Also she stands on a horse for no reason. Also she wins the Academy Award in the newly created category of Best Crazy Eyes. Also she commits to destroying the hood of a dude’s car with a golf club with more passion than I’ve mustered up for anything in my entire life.

Swifty builds the perfect life with a J. Crew model boyfriend in a Better Holmes and Gardens mansion and then systematically destroys it all with such glee I’m continually amazed there are people who didn’t get the joke. It’s amazing how far you can get with me just by being self-aware.

But that’s just what gets her in the door. The song itself does all the heavy lifting for her persona because it’s laying all the cards on the table. For years Taylor Swift’s private life of constant messy breakups was in conflict with her public persona of hopeless romanticism. But Blank Space, as this idea channel video argues, is Swifty taking control of that dichotomy through authorship. Now there’s no conflict, there’s just an acknowledgment that both are true. “Taylor Swift WILL dump you and it will be a hellishly messy breakup” isn’t just what people think of her anymore, it’s now The Taylor Swift Guarantee. It’s the natural consequence of what a romantic she is. Swifty figured out she can just tell her audience that directly without threatening her position as a sex symbol because, no matter how batshit she goes, at the end of the day you’d still have dated Taylor Fucking Swift. And having the confidence to look her audience right in the eyes and dare them to not take that deal is what the pop star victorious looks like in 2014.

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