This is the fourth time Taylor Swift has fronted Vogue, by my count, and interestingly, three out of the four deal in some way with newness, rebirth, rebranding. The first, in February 2012, promised “a cool new look for America’s Sweetheart.” The third, May 2016, proclaimed, “Who’s That Girl? Taylor Swift As You’ve Never Seen Her Before.” And today’s quotes her saying, “This feels like a new beginning.” (The outlier is her second, the ode to besties with Karlie Kloss — but actually, that did kick off the era of the Swift Squad, so subtly it might count even though it didn’t announce itself as being part of a change or a movement.) When Taylor wants a reboot, she apparently knows who to call.
I think I like this one. It’s more confrontational than her latest album purports to be, but it ties into the notion she’s circulating that she herself will be more vocal and aggressive about taking social stances. It’s framed and centered perfectly. It’s an angle you rarely see and it positively leaps out at you, which on a newsstand ought to be effective. And it’s got an intrigue and energy to it that this one, which I assume is the subscriber cover, totally lacks:
This one is lifeless to me. It is ennui. (Also, looking at this shot all I can picture is Miles Heizer of Parenthood/13 Reasons Why. I assume this can now go on his short list for Halloween 2019.) And seeing it made me like the main cover a whole lot more.
Taylor was on Elle back in March, for which she wrote an essay about her milestone birthday and mentioned feeling responsibility to speak up for what she believes in a way she hadn’t before. This feels like the sequel to that (Vogue, again, not so much leading as following). Now, I enjoy Taylor Swift. I like her music. I think she’s deft with a catchy lyric and a hook. And I admire what she’s built: She’s a musician who’s worked very hard, and despite not having the strongest pipes, she’s made the most out of all her gifts and succeeded extravagantly. And I am delighted that she’s finally finding her voice on important causes and using this incredible platform she has to take a position and hold it. There’s far too much social-justice cowardice out there among those who wield influence.
But some of this interview felt a little disingenuous to me, and I’ll tell you why: I truly think that Taylor is a control freak about her image — I say that affectionately, and as someone who is also a control freak about some things; that’s one huge reason why no one other than me or Jessica has ever written a word on this website — and so I just simply don’t believe her when she says things like this:
“Maybe a year or two ago, Todrick [Hall] and I are in the car, and he asked me, What would you do if your son was gay?”
We are upstairs in Swift’s secret garden, comfortably ensconced in a human-scale basket that is sort of shaped like a cocoon. Swift has brought up an ornate charcuterie board and is happily slathering triple-cream Brie onto sea-salt crackers.
“The fact that he had to ask me . . . shocked me and made me realize that I had not made my position clear enough or loud enough,” she says. [..] “If he was thinking that, I can’t imagine what my fans in the LGBTQ community might be thinking,” she goes on. “It was kind of devastating to realize that I hadn’t been publicly clear about that.”
I mean… There is no way she wasn’t aware that she hadn’t been publicly clear about that. (Also, please eyeroll Vogue’s fetishizing of her brie consumption.) Aside from my feeling that this is a smart, self-aware woman who is not at all a bystander in her own life and career — that she is scrupulously aware of what she’s putting out into the world, and how, and when — the entire story is framed by the sheer amount of effort Taylor puts into coding her work with hidden messages. It opens with a lengthy exploration of it, keeps coming back to it; it even ends with the assertion that Taylor would go enormous lengths to arrange messages for her fans. To me, that says Taylor was 100 percent aware of what she was not saying publicly. The writer even kind of tips that in the next paragraph:
I understand why she was surprised; she has been sending pro-LGBTQ signals since at least 2011. Many have been subtle, but none insignificant—especially for a young country star coming out of Nashville.
In the video for her single “Mean” (from 2010’s Speak Now), we see a boy in a school locker room wearing a lavender sweater and bow tie, surrounded by football players. In “Welcome to New York,” the first track on 1989, she sings, “And you can want who you want. Boys and boys and girls and girls.” Two years later, she donated to a fund for the newly created Stonewall National Monument and presented Ruby Rose with a GLAAD Media Award. Every night of last year’s Reputation tour, she dedicated the song “Dress” to Loie Fuller, the openly gay pioneer of modern dance and theatrical lighting who captured the imagination of fin-de-siècle Paris.
I mean, great, but yeah: subtle. The average person, and even some big fans, would still have to do a fair bit of research to know where she donates money, whom she presented with an award, or that there’s a kid in a purple suit in one of her videos. Far more people aren’t going to do that work, because they’re doing their own. All this cutesy code bespeaks an unwillingness to be any louder than that. Taylor is allowed to comment or not comment on whatever she wants, obviously, but this “Aw shucks — how could they not know?” honestly puts blame on the fans, in a weird way, as if the writer is suggesting that it’s our fault for not paying enough close attention, or as if to say, “Gee, I guess I have to shout it so that they get it?” Yes, I think you do. If this matters to you, then why not shout?
She also says:
I ask her, why get louder about LGBTQ rights now? “Rights are being stripped from basically everyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male,” she says. “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of. It’s hard to know how to do that without being so fearful of making a mistake that you just freeze. Because my mistakes are very loud. When I make a mistake, it echoes through the canyons of the world. It’s clickbait, and it’s a part of my life story, and it’s a part of my career arc.”
Again: super! At least, on the surface. But pretty quickly it hit me like a string of excuses. Because I think a lot of people already know that you can advocate for a community of which you’re not a part. Well, for one thing, we are all a part of THE WORLD, so there’s that. But it is not only immigrants fighting at the border and donating to RAICES and loudly protesting what’s happening down there; it’s not only residents of Newtown, Gilroy, Dayton, et al, who are demanding gun reform; and it’s not only LBGTQ+ people who are saying, “This community deserve equal rights.” Women have been asking men for a LONG time to care as much about our equal rights and equal pay as we do. I’m not trying to make heroes out of any of us for doing things for our fellow man; rather, to point out that the notion that she somehow wasn’t aware she could advocate is bonkers to me, and rings false. I comprehend her reticence to “make a mistake,” but what mistake about supporting LGBTQ+ rights was she thinking she was going to make? She blames her silence not just on her fame but on the way people might react to her, also, which seems to put the onus on anyone but herself. It’s essentially saying she didn’t take political stances because people might yell at her about it. Sigh. We get yelled at weekly for not covering Melania Trump, but guess what? We’re still not doing it.
The Kim/Kanye situation comes up, too. Certainly I understand her sense of betrayal and humiliation; she didn’t know she was being recorded and was surely blind-sided by them releasing that. But… she also said stuff in those recordings that was at odds with the way she had gone after Kanye publicly for how he wrote about her in “Famous,” and instead of presenting that time in her life as a chance to reflect on the power of words — something a songwriter like Swift understand very well — she simply talks about how it was humiliating, suggest people haven’t thought about how hard that was for her, wonders why did it have to happen to her, and refers to herself as having been cast by the world as a good girl before that — as if she’d had no stroke in her image at all. Which, coming back around to my original gripe, I don’t believe. Taylor Swift is a lot of things; a wallflower is not one of them. That’s one of the things I’ve liked about her, in fact.
Why have I gone on so long about this? How could I be anything but a hater? Well, I don’t know what to say on that front, other than to restate that I enjoy her music and I root for her, and I think she’s a smart woman and musician who has made fascinating PR choices. This latest iteration and evolution is interesting to me for the way she chooses to express it, and what that suggests about how little or much she has learned. But, look: None of it really matters if the end result is that Taylor Swift shows up. If she really believes what she said to Elle about what she abhors in our current leadership, and if she truly has felt an activist’s passion in the last few years — from speaking out about being groped, to now advocating for the LGBTQ+ community — then we should start to see a stronger, wiser, and louder Taylor Swift coming to the party, and I welcome her there. Better late than never.