Home > Culture, Music, Politics > Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Gender Politics of Celebrity Melodrama

Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and the Gender Politics of Celebrity Melodrama

American pop megastar Taylor Swift released the second single off of her latest album 1989 last week, entitled “Blank Space”. More importantly, she released a music video to go along with it, a self-proclaimed “film” directed by Joseph Kahn. It’s a nutty slice of aristocratic opulence and purposely overwrought hysterics that is either slyly brilliant, deeply problematic, or quite likely both. Either way, it has to be seen to quite be believed.

Swift inspires unswerving devotion from a young generation and everything from chin-stroking benefit of the doubt to hostile dismissiveness from a slightly older one. She’s clearly come a long way from the country-tinged castles-in-the-sky idealized romances of her early releases, now properly classed as mass-selling juvenalia. Her turn to Top 40 synth-pop on 2012’s Red gained her the regard and qualified support of the indie music intelligentsia, with her lyrics increasingly focused on her public image, relationships, rumours, and personal identity. As a young female artist and songwriter, Swift is far from unintelligent and is not self-unaware; her lyrics scratch fitfully at gender roles and romantic tropes now in a way they did not in her more innocent days. But her perspective is so predetermined by her own specific experiences and perceptions that she has a tendency to miss the forest of social politics for the trees of her personal feelings.

Taylor Swift is getting a bit wiser as she ages, though, and with 1989‘s singles is cultivating the image of a goofy, down-to-earth girl cheekily undermining the celebrity machine of monolithic glitz that has made her a star but also threatens to swallow her identity at every moment. This was certainly the impression generated by “Shake It Off”, which cast a wacky Swift as embodied tropes of fragile femininity such as the ballerina and the cheerleader while also gussying her up as a twerking hip-hop queen and a contemporary performance-art pop star like Lady Gaga. The concept is that she dances to her own beat in terms of both traditional and more current conceptions of a young woman’s identity, a square peg that does not fit into any of these round holes of entertainment-media convention.

The video for “Blank Space”, meanwhile, is an overblown but fascinating assumption of the character of a hysterical, practically psychotic jealous woman by Taylor Swift. Her fledgling acting career looms large; this is an ambitious audition for screen roles, of sorts. That the stock character Swift plays is hugely troubling and problematic from a feminist point of view only seems to dimly register with the young woman playing it. But it does register, it seems; indeed, “Blank Space” contains suggestions of satiric intent, if one looks hard enough.

The entire clip proceeds visually from a striking, quasi-poetic early couplet in the troubled-romance lyrics: “I could show you incredible things / Magic, madness, heaven, sin”. Set in and around a palatial country estate (it’s nearly something out of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), Swift and the male object of her affection (and hostility, played by Sean O’Pry) carry on a tumultuous romance, beginning as idyllic, opulent scenes of privileged love before degenerating into over-the-top melodrama. Before she knifes paintings and lays into a tremendously expensive sports car with a golf club in rage over her dude’s insensitive texting at a picnic, Swift stars in Kahn’s nigh-on surrealistic tableau of emotional hyper-drama: weeping mascara tears, singing passionately, fist pounding at a well-appointed fireplace, an impassive deer behind her. Later, Swift is clad in riding gear on a hedge-framed path in the house’s gardens, standing on the saddle of a horse. It’s an image out of a lost Magritte painting.

But what does all of this mean? Can we give Taylor Swift enough credit to claim that she or her collaborators are saying anything with the “Blank Space” video? Is it a subtextual critique of the public appetite for moody, dramatic celebrity relationship antics, pantomimed with convincing loopiness by Swift? Is it a reinscription of discriminatory constructions of irrational, emotion-driven women or an explosive blow-out of those pernicious discursive stereotypes? Is its setting of aristocratic wealth a subtle reference to the neo-Gilded Age elite who utilize the media discourse to dazzle the voyeuristic masses with images of privilege and riches and compel their compliance via aspiration? Or is it serendipitously tapping into deep veins of gender politics, celebrity fascination, and class distinction in an unambitious effort to make a memorable video for a relatively unmemorable pop song? Maybe the title is a clue: this text may be construed a “blank space” to be filled in with our own understandings or with the lack thereof.

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Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

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