The Averageness of Taylor Swift

She’s completely unremarkable, and that’s precisely her appeal.

job posting just released by USA Today calls for a “Taylor Swift Reporter” who can “quench an undeniable thirst for all things Taylor Swift with a steady stream of content across multiple platforms.” Indeed, Taylor Swift is no stranger to headlines. She breaks and sets records, whether for ticket sales, song downloads, or Grammy awards. Her net worth exceeds $700 million, and she has over 100 million monthly listeners. But why does anyone like her?

It’s wrong to characterize Taylor Swift as a singer, since her lack of vocal talent means she’s usually just talking in a whispery voice. When hearing a Swift song, I’ve never thought, “This is great.” Rather, I’ve heard her glorified elevator music and thought, “This must be Taylor Swift.” Her music is distinct, but her songs are indistinct from one another.

It’s also wrong to characterize her as a songwriter. There’s something so un-stimulating about her music; the beats are boring, and the mundane lyrics have the shallowness of a mommy blogger. Consider this chorus: “Welcome to New York, it’s been waitin’ for you / Welcome to New York, welcome to New York / Welcome to New York, it’s been waitin’ for you / Welcome to New York, welcome to New York.” The song is aptly titled “Welcome to New York.” And let’s not forget these Shakespearean lines: “I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I shake it off, I shake it off / I, I, I, shake it off, I shake it off.” Incredibly, the song “Shake It Off” topped the charts.

Swift promises vulnerability, yet she gives no sign of an interior life beyond sometimes liking an unimpressive guy who wears pilled cardigans. She brands her music as confessional, but it lacks either depth or epiphany, leading only to the anticlimactic admission of “oops, I upset a boy,” which is sung in either a celebratory or a depressing tone.

Instead of revealing nuanced emotions, she provides a step-by-step guide to whatever she did and observed on an uneventful Wednesday: “So it goes / He can’t keep his wild eyes on the road, mm / Takes me home / The lights are off, he’s taking off his coat, mm, yeah / I say, ‘I heard, oh / That you’ve been out and about with some other girl, / some other girl.’” Her attempts to sound free-spirited actually portray her as conventional: “We could leave the Christmas lights up ’til January / And this is our place, we make the rules.” Leaving Christmas lights up for an extra six days doesn’t make her endearingly quirky; it just tells us she’s an ordinary woman who likes sparkly things and holiday spirit.

Her songs feel unfinished, as if she sort of gave up halfway through writing them. She might have used a gloomy version of Mad Libs when composing “Cruel Summer,” the song currently ranked No. 1 on her Spotify artist page: “Hang your head low in the glow of the vending machine / I’m not dying / You say that we’ll just screw it up in these trying times / We’re not trying.” She faintly captures teenage hopelessness, but there’s nothing refreshing or insightful about her characterization; it lacks the self-exposure of a diary and instead reads like a passage in an unedited young-adult novel. Her music is surely accessible — even what liberals might call “inclusive” because its scarcity of substance renders it unobjectionable.

Finishing a Taylor Swift album leaves me wondering, “That’s it?” It’s reminiscent of going trick-or-treating in the wealthy neighborhood but finding that all the lights are out; you expect something, but there’s nothing — yet you know there must be someone home. I want to give Swift a poke and nudge her, Do something. But all she can muster is variations of “he didn’t like me back” or “I broke up with him,” like a child’s stuffed animal with a push-activated voice box that repeats a few anodyne phrases.

Sometimes performers with merely decent talent are hailed as superstars because they are stunningly good-looking or have a captivating presence onstage. Taylor is certainly attractive, and she knows her way around a spotlight. But it’s not enough to explain her stardom.

And there are plenty of famous performers whose music is subpar but at least put on a good production, with great dancing and a groovy light show. But Taylor’s dancing skills are nonexistent. She could be replaced onstage with one of those inflatable tube men waving outside a car dealership. Why would anyone see her in concert, let alone pay $11,000 for a ticket?

Taylor Swift is completely unremarkable, and that’s precisely her appeal. She’s the avatar of boringness, and girls find refuge in her averageness. The message of her music is clear: “Embrace mediocrity.” She’s the opposite of aspirational. Despite her success and massive fortune, she is not a “girlboss”; Swift is a de-motivational speaker who encourages self-acceptance rather than self-improvement. Concert attendees leave feeling consoled rather than exhilarated. Girls don’t want to be Taylor Swift, they want Taylor Swift to be like them.

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