Meme-ing Feminism: Taylor Swift, Pop Music And The Politics Of Intersectionality

by Matt Hacke

Generically, there is always murky water surrounding the image and the artwork of the politicised popstar, and whilst this article will focus on the impact of these paradigmatic restrictions, one must clarify that invariably this miasma is obfuscated. Seldom however has there been such a famous and useful example of this cultural blind spot than in the image of Taylor Swift, who, in the recently terraformed political ground of our generation has become something of a lynchpin. Taylor Swift fought Apple and won for example. And, quite rightly, Swift has reclaimed her private life from something of a public joke to a striking example of the discrepancies between view of confessional lyrics produced by female and male artists. Why, Swift validly asked, should the insipid Ed Sheeran desperately pump meaning into his otherwise vacuous songs via the “Is it About Ellie Goulding?” cheat story of Don’t, when We Are Never Getting Back Together was frequently denigrated as petty and childish?

However, if you wanted to find an article that praised Taylor Swift’s glossy, Buzzfeed-generation brand of feminism, it would take you about five seconds on Google, and to play Devil’s Advocate, but more importantly to attempt to think through what I believe is a valid counterpoint, this piece will buck that trend. I am writing in the aftermath of the Nicki Minaj / Taylor Swift twitter storm, and whilst Swift did apologise, the distinct lack of understanding of the intersectionality that Minaj attempted to elucidate in response to the VMA nominations seems to make known those aforementioned murky waters that surround music politics.

What do I mean by murky waters? By murky waters I mean the infinitesimal number of possible hybridities, ambiguities, and crossovers that make the notion of intersectionality so integral to modern equality politics. The fact is, try as we might, we cannot have a single equality movement, or even three of four monolithic ones as the challenges those who need these movements face cannot be yoked together with ease. When Swift crucially misunderstood and deflected the sized / black / female section Minaj was speaking for to being an issue of solely gender, this was less, in my view, a demonstration of ignorance, and more a manifestation of a modern politic that seeks to shroud the masses of micro-discourses that intersectionality generates as a means of creating a concise collective experience that is easily diffused, easily identified, and easily branded. In this case, those waters are the unique experiences and troubles of the cross-section Minaj represents, which are concealed into insignificance by the day-glo, easy to remember, boys vs. girls binary of “Swiftian” gender studies.

But surely one should expect this of Swift? After all, her brand of feminism is at least intensely simplified, and at most, a crude caricature for a populous that progressively seems more interested in consuming information in meme form rather than in heavy text. Shake It Off, for example, can be interpreted to be about a plethora of things, but what it essentially is, is a glossy piece of fluff, with any political thought grafted on diluted to the point of near epistemological destitution. “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate hate” is hardly Mary Wollstonecraft or Martin Luther King Jr. Equally, when Swift elaborates on her politic in interview, it is invariably in pithy bite-sized chunks that seem more geared to being made into gifs than offering any sort of insight. With this in mind, surely the tweet that caused the offence is just that: a condensation of gender politics into 140 characters, which through the consequent loss of scope and meaning is actually more insulting than it is useful. The main concern here is that in the inherently fleeting, short-run, capricious nature of pop and meme culture that Swift straddles, the equality movement goes off the rails somewhat as their flag bearers inherently fail to offer any sort of useful action apart from vapid and banal slogans, which, through their purported inclusivity, only serve to disenfranchise. In missing the issue of race so glaringly in her spat with Minaj, Swift not only revealed the limitations of her own involvement in the equality movement and her correspondent tunnel-vision, but also, I believe, inadvertently drew attention to the problem at the very core of politicised pop music. Bluntly, how the hell can you fit everything, and therefore anything, into four minutes or less of audio, and a few sporadic interviews with media outlets?

This article doesn’t offer a solution, as I cannot think of one. We shouldn’t stop disseminating important ideas through popular culture, but what if the necessary simplification distorts them to the point of uselessness? Furthermore, as equality politics proves to be a point of interest with the consumer in the 21st Century, can this become further hijacked by culture’s embedding in capital economics? I can’t help wonder whether the clean, simple, meme-ified feminism Swift advocates could be at least partially part of a marketing strategy. We all know the adage “Sex Sells” but I wonder whether it should be adjusted for our generation to “Sex(-ual Politics) Sells”.