Taylor Swift set us up to talk about the music video for “Bad Blood” for two full weeks before it premiered during last Sunday’s Billboard Music Awards. Despite Swift’s stacked Rolodex and the overstimulating aesthetics of the video, though, I’d much rather talk about something most people seem to have ignored: Kendrick Lamar’s guest verses.
First of all, it’s worth stepping back and realizing that ten years ago, Taylor Swift released a charming, low-key country single called “Tim McGraw,” and no one had the slightest idea who Kendrick Lamar was. (The top-selling rappers of that year were 50 Cent and some guy named Kanye West. If only we knew then what we know now.) Even at the onset of Kendrick Lamar’s rise to the top of the rap game, it was unthinkable that he would appear on the fourth single from any pop star’s new album. It was also unthinkable that Taylor Swift could be called, without irony or qualification, a “pop star,” as she is today.
With the world-shaking release of “Shake It Off,” the first single from Swift’s 2014 album 1989, all pretenses of Swift’s country aspirations had been replaced by a concerted effort to play in the biggest sandbox of all, with pop supernovas like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Katy Perry. By many accounts, Taylor Swift won that battle and ascended into that sandbox, and perhaps even above it. (Not that there’s any need to pit female superstars against each other, as Emma Williams reminded me in this Taylor Swift edition of The M&M Report.)
What she’s chosen to do in that sandbox says a lot about the state of American pop music. Swift released an Instagram video of herself rapping along to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” last November. She also expressed her love for Lamar’s music in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Fast-forward half a year later, and he’s in her video and all over her song. His verse includes a line lifted straight from “Backseat Freestyle.”
How? And why? And what can we learn?
Taylor Swift has connections. When she calls, you answer. She called, and Kendrick answered. Why wouldn’t he? An opportunity to expose himself to the most rabid music-consuming and music-purchasing fanbase on Earth is too ripe with possibility to pass up. And by aligning himself with one of the most successful and well-liked artists on the planet, Lamar might be able to capitalize on that exposure without sacrificing what’s unique about his own music.
Why does Taylor need Kendrick? She doesn’t – at least, not right now. Her stardom is dependent only on the dependability of her songcraft. But some face time with an artist who rolls in a different circle can’t hurt a pop artist constantly on the precipice of overexposure. Diversity – of race, of genre, of perspective – is key.
The actual verses on the “Bad Blood” remix wouldn’t rank in a list of Lamar’s 50 most thematically compelling or lyrically audacious. But they’re not creatively bankrupt enough to be embarrassing. The proof is in the response to the video, which I mentioned at the top. No one seemed even slightly surprised or confused about Lamar’s involvement in this project.
Is there an element of discomfort in watching a white female pop artist co-opt the appeal of a black male hip-hop artist in order to diversify her own image? Yes.
Is it slightly disappointing that the song Swift chose to showcase as a demonstration of her Lamar fandom is “Backseat Freestyle,” a ferocious rap song that sounds braggadocious without the humanizing context of the songs that precede it on the album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City? Yes.
Is it frustrating that this rap verse feels tacked on, an afterthought instead of an integral piece of the creative puzzle? Yes again.
But the numbers don’t lie. The “Bad Blood” remix is at the top of the iTunes chart and will surely dominate the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Taylor Swift is at a point in her career when gauntlet-throwing business decisions are at the top of the priority list. (Not that she’s above gauntlet-throwing creative decisions, of course.) There’s nothing quite offensive enough about this collaboration to merit a serious re-evaluation of Swift’s status in the culture and nothing quite exciting enough about it to generate thoughtful conversation. Unlike the attention-grabbing music video, this collaboration is musical clickbait – listen once because it exists, forget about it a few minutes later. “All my life I want money and power” isn’t just a reference. It’s Taylor Swift’s statement of purpose.