Taylor Swift Always Wins

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Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston are dating. Perhaps you know about this from the The Sun. Perhaps you know about this from Taylor’s Instagram. Perhaps you know about this from three sentences ago.

But they’re not just dating. They are a Thing. An Item. A Couple. (They might even get married.) They’ve been plastering PDA photos of their romantic travails across the Internet, in what seems like a desperate attempt to convince people of something they probably would have believed anyway. A few weeks ago, Hiddleston’s parents joined the movement. On the Fourth of July, a cadre of famous people like Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds got in on the action.

And over July 4 weekend, so did the conspiracy theorists, of which I now consider myself one. (Much credit to Ellie Woodward of Buzzfeed UK for leading the charge on this important coverage.) The breaking point appeared to be the picture of Hiddleston sporting a gaudy “I Love T.S.” shirt that would be embarrassing if he were in middle school. It’s not a great look for the man who allegedly wants to parlay his T-Swift courtship into the dapper threads of 007. And, on the surface, none of this is a great look for Taylor Swift either. The charges frequently and often unfairly leveled against her — she fakes relationships for attention, she thrives on romantic drama with famous people, she perpetuates antiquated love fantasies and deludes her impressionable fans — don’t seem quite as unfair anymore.

(Caveat: slut-shaming is bad in real life, and it’s bad when directed at celebrities. Taylor Swift can date as many men as she wants, for as little time as she wants. Others might be mad that Taylor is dating another guy, but my complaints all stem from the unnecessary barrage of Swift-generated publicity.)

Or at least, they wouldn’t, if Taylor Swift were anyone else. But Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift, and she will emerge from this situation triumphant. How do I know? Because that’s all she’s ever done. She’s built a career on turning skepticism into adulation and reluctance into cold, hard cash.

Remember when Taylor Swift performed with Stevie Nicks on the Grammy Awards in 2009? Her career was over, the pundits cried. She can’t sing, she’s coasting on her youthful charm, her tenure as a country superstar has already peaked. But her career was far from over. Do you remember what Taylor sang on that night, or what it sounded like? I didn’t think so.

Do you remember every lyric from “Mean,” the song Taylor wrote about the people who criticized her after that performance? I thought so.

Even then, most observers assumed Swift’s dominance would be confined to the country space. “Mean” was a huge country hit but didn’t cross over to the pop charts. The album it came from, Speak Now, didn’t Swift’s interest in formally breaking out of genre norms. But “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” certainly did. And almost immediately, the alarm bells rang again. “What are these strange sounds coming from the Nashville girl from rural Pennsylvania?” they exclaimed. Then the song went number one, and its follow-up, the even less country-flavored “I Knew You Were Trouble,” followed suit. The transformation had begun, and we were powerless to stop it.

Let’s backtrack a bit. Did you know that Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift during an acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards? If not, is it nice living under a rock in the middle of the desert? Kanye-Taylor is the pop music feud of a generation. But it would be tough to argue what many did at the time — that Kanye’s actions impacted Taylor in more negative ways than positive. Quite the opposite. She gained sympathy and widespread exposure to an entirely new legion of admirers on the strength of that viral moment. And Kanye knows it (more on that later). Taylor’s wins that night: an award, a new set of eyes, underdog credibility. Her losses: A few seconds of time to thank people for a meaningless, prestige-free prize. On second thought…that’s a win too

(Asides: 1. This happened so long ago that Taylor Lautner was relevant. Good times. 2. Taylor calls it a “VMA Award,” which is not a thing. 3. That surprised face has not aged well.)

Do you hear that sound? It’s the clatter of the Haters. You know they gonna hate hate hate hate hate. But Taylor just shook them off. She co-wrote a song about it. That song has a guest verse from accomplished rap lyricist…Taylor Swift? It’s the corniest thing. But that song was (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) a huge hit. Now it’s in the air, like humidity in D.C. And so is the rest of 1989, an album best described as “One Banger After Another.”

“But Taylor Swift will never be a convincing pop star with dance beats and catchy hooks!” *buzzer noise* Wrong again.

Okay, this next one was a squeaker. Nicki Minaj unleashed a tweetstorm on the powers that be who chose the MTV Video Music Award nominations, and Taylor Swift fired back with a tone-deaf response that betrayed a less-than-nuanced view of race relations and intersectionality. (She’s clearly been too busy winning to pay attention in Sociology class.)

 

That tweet was probably Taylor Swift’s lowest moment, credibility-wise. Crowing out a few bum notes on the Grammys is a shame, but it’s also a celebration of imperfection, which can be endearing. Shouting down a fellow pop star for calling out instances of institutionalized prejudice in her profession is less defensible, especially when Taylor herself spent months in a petty, one-sided dispute with Katy Perry through the song and video for “Bad Blood.” Speaking of which: When was the last time you heard from Katy Perry? Taylor Swift wins again.)

How did Taylor recover from this one, though? The actual nuts and bolts of the reconciliation happened outside the public eye, but Taylor joined Nicki for her opening performance on the very awards show that had been the source of their difference of opinion in the first place. They sang “Bad Blood,” which is funny because it’s a song about women arguing, which is what Taylor Swift told Nicki Minaj she shouldn’t have been doing, even though by telling her that, she was doing exactly what she told Nicki not to do. It’s all a tad unseemly…but you can’t deny that Taylor Swift won. Who even remembers that this whole spectacle happened? Nicki’s legendary Miley Cyrus burn later that night dominated all the headlines the next morning. Taylor emerged unscathed.

I won’t linger on Swift’s past relationships, some of which were likely fabricated or at least exaggerated, then exploited as fodder for her songwriting (another win). But let’s just say Joe Jonas and Jake Gyllenhaal don’t have to worry about the rabid worldwide attention Swift regularly attracts.

LATE BREAKING NEWS THAT DROPPED JUST MINUTES BEFORE I PUBLISHED: Taylor wrote Calvin Harris’ current hit duet with Rihanna, “This Is What You Came For.” It’s as if the gods of supporting evidence have bestowed upon me a glorious gift. She wrote her ex his first hit song in two years, then they promptly broke up. A secret win that’s no longer a secret is a win all the same.

Meanwhile, the jury’s still out on her latest beef with Kanye West. She reconciled with him in 2015, presenting him with a special award at (where else?) the Video Music Awards. Taylor sat next to Kim Kardashian at the Brit Awards and danced along to West’s stunning performance of “All Day.” Rumors swirled that the two had recorded a song together. And then, in March: “I think me and Taylor might still have sex. I made that bitch famous.”

That’s a lyric from “Famous,” a standout track from The Life of Pablo, the extended ramble of an album that West released with nearly unprecedented chaos earlier this year. Through her publicist, Taylor Swift has said she didn’t know about that line before the song came out, and would never have given her blessing if she had. Kanye claims he called her and secured her approval beforehand. Kim Kardashian claims there’s video evidence of this exchange. Then this video happened:

Rich people are weird.

Will she eventually come out of this latest scrape with Yeezus looking reasonable and professional? Will Taylor Swift triumph over the skepticism and frustation surrounding her latest relationship, which was publicly announced only a couple weeks after her previous one dissolved? All signs point to yes. Whether the end result of Hiddleswift is a surprise album or a genuine romantic connection that satisfies the happy couple for a summer or a year or even a lifetime, Taylor Swift will win. Whether the end result of “Famous”-gate is a musical collaboration or a mutual detente, Taylor Swift will win. It’s what she does.

If Taylor Swift weren’t smart or talented, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In fact, it’s because she’s both, in abundance, that her stardom persists. She’s an eminently skilled songwriter whose mastery of catchy phrases and lyrical depth is nearly unparalleled among stars of her magnitude. She’s written entire albums entirely on her own, a rarity in American pop. She’s a master of media manipulation, whether it’s dropping hints about the subjects of her breakup anthems in the liner notes of her CDs or somehow convincing the CEO of Apple to change its streaming service’s policies via a post on her Tumblr. There’s also the matter of her privilege: as a skinny white woman, Swift fits neatly into a demographic archetype that American society is inclined to support.

And to be clear, I’m not arguing that Taylor Swift deserves to always win. In fact, I think it’d be more interesting if she lost once in a while. I’ve grown weary of the Taylor Swift Publicity Machine in the last year — even as I have no choice but to bow down to the Squad, part of me would appreciate if Taylor just took a nap for a little while before roaring back. Judging from the Hiddleswift barrage, that approach does not seem to be in the cards.

That’s why Taylor Swift is famous, whether Kanye made her that way or not. She plays the game so well that it looks like she’s not playing a game at all. Just when you think she’s finally come up short or tipped into self-parody, she rights the ship right before your eyes. Her latest publicity grabs suggest that she’s lost her self-awareness. That’s what she wants you to think. The twist is coming — maybe later this week or month, maybe in the fall, maybe not for a year or two. But mark my words, Starbucks lovers: Taylor Swift will shake it off.

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