A lifetime ago, I wrote music criticism for my college newspaper. It’s a good thing the archived columns are now virtually inaccessible, because so much of what I published in those reviews was so, so embarrassing: Not merely wrong, I’m sure, on many basic facts, but typically mean or rapturous in an overwrought voice that could only have been learned from Pitchfork dot com.
This was in the mid-aughts, and Pitchfork was the go-to publication for the aspiring hipster. (Remember hipsters? That’s all we argued about back then!) Their staff were tastemakers for the indie rock scene, and they turned up their noses at the commercial bands that didn’t need them to succeed. Acts like Arcade Fire blew up thanks to the site’s glowing praise as they hammered at the mediocrity of juggernauts like Coldplay. In this period, editorially, they were drawing the line between what was for normies and what a cool, discerning listener should have in their iTunes library. Even a decade later, in 2015, they drew fire for reviewing Ryan Adams’ full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 before ever reviewing any release by Swift herself.
Since then, Adams has been outed as a creep by Pitchfork-beloved Phoebe Bridgers, among others, and Swift has put out two albums in collaboration with producer and songwriter Aaron Dessner, a founding member of the National, an indie band that broke through to the mainstream with Pitchfork’s blessing back in the aughts.
It’s as though the war is over, with contemporary musicians rejecting the snobbish divisions that prevailed in the old days. Bridgers and Maggie Rogers can break hearts with a stripped-down cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ cheesy ballad “Iris,” and Swift — one of the biggest pop stars on the planet — can pump out melancholy cottagecore tunes with Bon Iver. There’s almost no cultural capital to be had anymore by pointedly shunning or lazily dissing Swift; the formerly rockist gatekeepers will now engage and critique her in earnest, and they find plenty to like. If you can’t, well, that’s fine too. Taste varies.
Yet the impulse to moan emptily about Taylor Swift (and it is, quite clearly, a Taylor Swift thing) endures to this day. Somehow, her innocuousness — the very quality that should spare her a good deal of negative commentary — becomes the basis for grasping complaint. It’s a bit like sampling each new flavor of La Croix and saying that it does nothing for you, but also, you never really enjoyed La Croix in the first place, and you can’t understand why anyone drinks it. Taylor Swift isn’t here to shock, offend or unsettle you with her songwriting, so going out of your way to call her bland, basic or boring can always be met with a monosyllabic rejoinder: “And?”
I might put on either of the records she released this year, folklore and evermore, in the same spirit that I’d play Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The latter is widely regarded as a landmark artistic achievement, though for practical purposes, all of this stuff is pleasant, pretty sonic texture that complements a quiet hour of reading or writing at home.
When I do choose to pay closer attention to Swift’s lyrics, they strike me as endearingly corny at worst, and disarmingly nostalgic at best. It’s just a vibe. I wouldn’t say my life is changed, but then, how often does an album alter the course of one’s life? That isn’t music’s sole purpose — it’s not even the primary one. The people who can’t stop posting about how they “don’t get” Taylor seem to demand groundbreaking sound, a transcendence to explain her grip on the culture. What they never acknowledge is that people would sometimes rather drift back into themselves.
Far more than a cogent or illuminating opinion of Swift’s work — which you’re not obliged to have, by the way! — the unprompted, preemptive dismissal is the point. It’s a stubborn residue of the Pitchfork effect, the insecurity that manifests as a separation of “challenging” or “serious” art from the supposedly frivolous kind. In her dominance, Taylor Swift is a frustrating obstacle to the pretentious conversation these dudes want to have, and the cozy warmth of her music does nothing to flatter their intellect, being of broad and simple appeal. Once upon a time, it was enough to ignore her. Now you have to announce that you plan to continue ignoring her.
Sounds like a plan. But if I had to publicly list everything that doesn’t hold my interest, I wouldn’t have a spare minute to eat, sleep or wash myself. Why bother in Swift’s case? Only to establish yourself as a veteran of battles the youth don’t remember, someone stuck in a long obsolete paradigm. As fans have observed, avoiding pop is no more an identity than listening to it. And we’re not exactly on pins and needles waiting to see if you’ll lift the embargo. Your Spotify history is between you, the algorithm and anyone who cares to follow. If anyone still does.