Is This the End of Taylor Swift?
In recent days, the hashtags "#KimExposedTaylorParty" and "#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty" have danced across social media with accompanying GIFs. In the more somber memes, Swift has been cast as a thwarted Scooby Doo villain, a deceased Pretty Little Liars character being hauled away in a casket, and -- bluntest of all -- just a grave. The harsh sentiment behind these mocking memes: Taylor Swift is over.
It's unlikely Swift will be "dead" for long. Even after two recent controversies -- her Nils Sjöberg-assisted dust-up with Calvin Harris and her public execution via Snapchat at the hands of Kim Kardashian West -- our nation's biggest Diet Coke supporter is still an incredibly powerful, popular, and rich celebrity. Plus, there's nothing the music press loves more than a resurrection narrative! But how she reacts to this -- in song, on stage, and via social media -- will be pivotal in her ongoing transformation from singer-songwriter to inescapable global phenomenon.
If she wants to remain as relevant as ever -- and the conspicuously publicity-friendly rise of "Hiddleswift" suggests that she does -- the 1989 musician can't afford to be "excluded from this narrative," as she wrote on Instagram earlier this week. Like any politician in crisis, Taylor Swift needs the narrative. As criticism mounts and her carefully cultivated image crumbles, she has two options: embrace the villain role, or admit fault. Either route is perilous, and paved with corny memes. Which adventure will Taylor choose?
Route No. 1: play the heel
To her detractors, Taylor Swift has always been a villain. Ever since she broke into the mainstream with Fearless in 2008, her public persona has been predicated on calculation, maintenance, and control. In a pop-music landscape that claims to prize authenticity, that type of cautious management tends to resonate as forced to skeptics, and fake to people who Swift would probably refer to as "haters."
In a 2011 New Yorker profile, writer Lizzie Widdicombe noted, "Swift's aura of innocence is not an act, exactly, but it can occasionally belie the scale of her success." In 2016, it's officially an act -- and an old one at that. The events of the last couple weeks strongly indicate she needs new schtick. While it's difficult to imagine her label, corporate sponsors, or PR team jumping on board with the idea, her next phase could be incredible. You already know what I'm taking about: a pro-wrestling Hollywood Hogan-style heel turn that sees her embracing the role she was born to play.
[Cue the Jimi Hendrix N.W.O. music.]
Like Hogan in the mid-'90s, Swift has reached the height of her profession, won all the shiny championship belts, and has never been more popular, but an exhaustion has set in. As many critics have pointed out, the performative #squad feminism of the 1989 tour often bordered on self-parody. It's telling that Swift mentions "overexposure" in her leaked conversation with West. She knows she's teetering on the edge. And, like the Hulkster, she loves bandannas.
A heel turn wouldn't be completely out of character for her, either. The 1989 release cycle included two videos, "Bad Blood" and "Blank Space," with darker, more sardonic themes than the sun-speckled, aw-shucks clips for older hits like "You Belong With Me" and "22." At this year's Met Gala, she dressed like a character out of a William Gibson novel. Her new bleach-blonde hair has a Bond-villain quality. And she's been doing preliminary work establishing herself as a villain for years: just ask John Mayer, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Carrie Underwood, Ed Droste, Bob Lefsetz, and whoever killed her in that one episode of CSI.
Plus, in the Kardashians, Swift has the perfect foil. The Kardashians are skilled at playfully acknowledging, subverting, and poking fun at the artifice of celebrity life. They tell you how to eat a Kit Kat bar. They release coffee-table books filled with selfies called Selfish. They thrive on the chaos of social media. While Swift's previous controversies have often hinged on public embarrassment and relationship drama, thereby making it easy for her to position herself as a victim, these recent scandals stem from backroom deals, media manipulation, and gigantic egos: the stuff of villainy. Embrace it, Taylor!
Route No. 2: seek forgiveness
A less dramatic route for Taylor to take, but possibly one more beneficial to her career over the long haul, involves seeking out yet another very public reconciliation with Kanye West, the artist she's sparred with the most since he inserted himself into her narrative at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
It might seem strange to suggest that the controversial rapper, who has made a career out of unfiltered honesty, unflattering griping, perilous self-exposure, and meta-analysis of his own fame, could act as a mentor in Swift's life. But as evidenced by the self-lacerating lyrics of "Jesus Walks" and the celebrity hall-of-mirrors video for "Famous" (the song that launched this round of his ongoing saga with Swift), West embraces the most troubling, damaged, and complex parts of his personality, and addresses his flaws head on in his work -- instincts Swift doesn't have as an artist. Her songs are filled with veiled references and codes only Taylor scholars can figure out, and she consistently aims for universality by attempting to stay above the fray. West lives in the fray. Swift could use some of that candor in her music.
What would Swift's music career look like after issuing a mea culpa? It's hard to say. What she shouldn't do is quickly write a song about this new controversy. The last thing the world needs is another song like "Innocent," the Speak Now track that tried to make sense of the VMA's incident via lines like "It's okay, life is a tough crowd/32, and still growing up now" and "Today is never too late to be brand-new." Could a collaboration between Swift and West be the thing that finally helps squash this beef? Maybe sleepy Rick Rubin can make it happen.
Of course, it's difficult to imagine Swift and West ever collaborating on an actually good song. I don't want that. I bet Kanye West doesn't want that. We know Taylor Swift's hostile fanbase doesn't want that. As the odds of an actual lawsuit about the "Famous" controversy look unlikely, it feels like this matter won't be settled in court. Instead, we'll have to wait for the next Taylor Swift album and see if it bears the marks of genuine self-reflection -- or the knowing sneer of a villain.
One thing is for sure, though: the old, pre-"Famous" Taylor Swift is dead, and she is never coming back. Let's raise a toast to her.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.