Taylor Swift has always written angry songs about the men she’s dated. In recent years, she apparently went in for a tweedier, more vinyl-friendly sort of gentleman. And she is, on her new album Red, both memorably and at length, irate about this fact. An ominous “hipster” stalks the plains of Red, accompanied by shadowy minions, all continually conspiring to neg Swift’s celebrity. On “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift snarls about the impossibility of reconciling with a man who dares to enjoy an “indie record that’s so much cooler than mine.” On “22,” she invites her friends to dress up “like hipsters” for an undercover recon operation: A bar overrun by “cool kids.” She overhears them asking, “who’s Taylor Swift, anyway? Ew.”
As always, Swift’s lyrics are grounded in her life. “We Are Never Ever,” she says, is a “definitive portrait” of a relationship with a man who “made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to.” The song – co-written by synth-pop hit factory Max Martin – was designed specifically to irritate the living hell out of this man’s sensibilities whenever he heard it on the radio.
It’s a good joke. But few mega-celebrities could get away with portraying themselves as this socially outgunned, especially when the substance of the complaint seems to be that Mr. Indie Records is the one who’s still hung up on her. Yet this isn’t an unusual move for Swift. No matter how much of the spotlight she gets, she portrays herself as a girl on the edge of the crowd.
If you ask people which song first brought Taylor Swift into their consciousness, “You Belong With Me” is a likely answer. It’s a song about a romantic rivalry, which has Swift pining after another woman’s man. But, more than that, it’s an account of a high school social hierarchy in which Swift is squarely at the bottom. “She’s cheer captain,” Swift moans, “and I’m in the bleachers.”
This pose is, again, an honest one. “I was alone a lot of the time,” Swift said of her pre-celebrity years, “kind of on the outside looking into [other students’] discussions and the things they were saying to each other. They really didn’t talk to me.”
And her early music aches with isolation and self-doubt. One of the songs on her debut album is called “Invisible.” “All I think about is how to make you think of me,” she confesses. “How can I ever try to be better?” she asks on “The Outside,” a track from the same album. “Nobody lets me in.”
No wonder the girl has spent most of her adult life getting furious about rejection. It’s not about the guys, per se. It may not even be about love. It’s about acceptance; about looking for the safe, protected spot at the center of someone’s approval, and finding it closed off or occupied by someone else. Every angry break-up ballad is another fist hammered against that wall: Let me in, let me in, let me in.
But as relatable as Swift’s fury might be, as much as any one of us has felt the ache of being stuck on those bleachers, there’s the sense that, as she’s gotten bigger, her targets have stayed proportionately small. Some part of Swift seems to genuinely not know how widely adored she is. On “Mean,” her kiss-off to music industry critic Bob Lefsetz, she sings that he can “take her down with just one single blow,” that he makes her feel “like I’m nothing,” that he’s “picking on the weaker man.” On one level, it’s a song about powerlessness; about Swift’s pain in knowing that somewhere, someone is saying cruel things that she just can’t stop and that will be allowed to define her. But on another level, it’s a feud between a middle-aged blogger and a woman with a moat and a “human-sized bird cage observatory” in her house.
Which brings us to the hipsters. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of hipster-bashing. It’s a tired joke, for one thing. It’s also a joke that often translates into bashing eggheads. This isn’t defensiveness; I don’t think I fit the stereotype. But I’ve known people who do. And they were defined, more than anything, by their passion for creation. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the precious forms that creativity can take – artisanal mustard; hand-knitted bike cozies; putting a bird on it – but the fact is, these were people who spent time making things, who made furniture and clothing and beer and food and paintings and music and literature. And they appreciated the effort of creation. They were the dwindling audience for literary fiction, the people who sought out unknown musicians and directors, the people who not only knew something about painting or photography but might actually buy it. All of which makes hipster-bashing seem like giving a wedgie to the kid who’d rather take AP art classes than try out for the football team.
Or, in Swift-speak: Like being cheer captain, and making fun of that artsy guitar-playing dork on the bleachers.
Somehow, Swift’s come full circle. In “22,” as she rolls through the bar, she’s seeing the landscape she’s seen since childhood. She’s surrounded by cool kids, kids who make her feel like she’s nothing, kids who just won’t let her in. She’s invisible. It looks exactly the same. And yet it’s completely different, because now she’s Taylor Swift. She’s the girl who’s dominated celebrity gossip cycles and album charts for several years. And she’s uttering the age-old stereotypical complaint of every spoiled celebrity in the business: Don’t you people know who I am??!?
I am often vehemently irritated by Taylor Swift. But there’s something genuinely tragic here. She’s critically adored, she’s got over 20 million Twitter followers, her last album and her new one both made headlines for their huge sales. And here she is, angry and lonely and insecure to the point of needing public revenge, because a couple of kids in a bar don’t recognize her. Or because one man – a man she doesn’t even want – doesn’t think her records are “relevant.”
Again, it’s understandable. The disdain of one person at close range can, in fact, outweigh the support of anyone and everyone else. And once you’ve defined yourself as the girl on the outside, there will always be something you can look to in order to confirm that perception. But one wonders when Taylor Swift is actually going to catch up to her own life. How long she’s going to keep hammering her fist against that wall – let me in, let me in, let me in – before she realizes she’s been hammering on it from the other side. She’s in, and she has been for years. And maybe, just maybe, the “cool kids” are pretending they don’t know who she is because they’re jealous of her.