Last week, Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” landed with a thud in everybody’s news feed. The typical blizzard of unrestrained hysteria, intermingled with the typical eye-rolling from those not yet converted, blew around the internet as per usual. Because after all, we love Taylor Swift. “Serious” pop music critics (what does this term even mean anymore?) talk about her with a level of respect and thoughtfulness usually reserved for the darlings of the indie circuit. It’s all a bit reminiscent of that time last decade when Pitchfork, arch-elitist stronghold of ultra-serious music journalism, randomly decided to get really passionate about Justin Timberlake. But this time it’s broader. What other teen-pop star commands the kind of attention that Swift routinely receives from the musical establishment? Slowly but surely, she has become an institution. And everybody loves her. Except for the haters. But the haters are gonna … you know.
When was the last time a mainstream pop celebrity figure whose name does not begin with Kanye received this kind of near-universal acclaim? It was five or six years ago, and the subject back then was Lady Gaga. Of course, Taylor Swift was around back then too. She was singing cutesy, charming country stuff like “Love Story” – the song that still, for this writer, delivers the biggest sugar rush in her sugar-loaded catalogue. Gaga, by contrast, was giving us hyper-theatrical, dementedly stylised, self-consciously weird dance-pop. To this day, she remains the only top-tier musical celebrity of the 21st century who can walk down a street without being swarmed by fans: hands up, anybody confident that they would recognise Lady Gaga in normal clothes. And yet Gaga has faded from view entirely. She came in like a comet, dazzled all onlookers, and in a year or two, burnt out. While quietly, ever more confidently, Swift came up from behind.
Because let’s make no mistake: Lady Gaga was a more daring, more creative, and more interesting musician than Taylor Swift. But Swift has usurped her. The video for “Bad Blood” only makes obvious what has been evident for some time: the fact that Swift now occupies basically the same cultural space that once belonged to Gaga. Self-consciously glamourous, assertively sexy, the champion of misfits, the self-appointed spokeswoman for the uncool and the individualist – even while she revels in, and celebrates, all the trappings of mainstream success in the commercial pop industry. A surprising turn of events for a woman who started out saturated in the innocent sweetness of Nashville country-pop.
Musically, “Bad Blood” is hardly the best advertisement for her triumph. The chorus is only vaguely hummable, and the lyrics are even flatter than we’ve come to expect. (“Now we got problems. And I don’t think we can solve ’em. You made a really deep cut.” Did somebody get paid to write this?) But the song will be overshadowed in popular consciousness by its ridiculously overblown video, which in style and spirit recalls the ten-minute-long, Tarantino-worshipping video for Gaga’s “Telephone”. Basic attitude behind both clips: this song is frankly not very interesting, so let’s flood the video with irrelevant whackiness and everyone will be overwhelmed by our sheer sass.
Swift’s video is much tamer and more family-friendly than Gaga’s, and that is emblematic of the difference between them. Taylor Swift will probably never surprise us like Gaga, or display Gaga’s startling imagination. (Of course, we’re talking “startling” in a radio-friendly pop context here.) But what she has done is take up Gaga’s mantle and speak to the same audience of self-identified weird kids, even while broadening that appeal to take in most of the cool kids too – certain remarks in “22” notwithstanding. And the breadth of this support base has allowed her to endure and to continue flourishing in a way that Gaga couldn’t. The trade-off is that she does everything a lot more conventionally, and this means it sometimes gets hard not to miss the Gaga heyday. But then, did Gaga ever give us a song as directly and potently hooky as “Shake it Off”? This may be one case where aiming squarely for the mainstream has led to better things.
This article originally appeared in The Oxford Student on 21 May 2015.