Heidi Klum struts down a runway and for a moment the stretch appears to ominously resemble a gang plank. At the end of Klum’s long walk waits a tall, thin woman with gleaming white teeth, giddily anticipating a grabby, waist-level embrace between them. Klum, a seasoned runway model, side-steps to the music once or twice, shuffling her feet to the right—one-two—and then to the left—one-two—and with every step, she looks like she’s slowing down, delaying her arrival to the stage’s finish, where she’ll be left to fend for herself in the loose hungry limbs of twenty-five-year-old Taylor Swift: pop star, diva, immaculate bestie.
It is at once crystal-clear and infuriatingly inexplicable why Heidi Klum—42-year-old mother of four and semi-retired supermodel—is on stage at a Taylor Swift concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Klum is dressed in dark jeans, a black-and-white tank top, and pointy striped stilettos and she looks incredible, buoyant. She and Swift embrace, but it is fleeting, and the lull in the crowd indicates that this Swiftian performance art—“Here is my pretty acquaintance”—is not good entertainment. Models may be nice to look at, sure, but they don’t actually do anything, and when a ticket to see Taylor Swift perform can skyrocket into the hundreds of dollars, this isn’t what the crowd had in mind when they carpooled to MetLife Stadium for an evening packed with teenage yearnings and catharsis for former heartbreaks. I assume a large faction of the younger set in attendance doesn’t even know who Klum is.
The air hangs as the song “Style” plays on, but Swift isn’t dumb. Without letting two more stale beats pass, the performer alleviates the awkwardness by shrieking into the mic, “Please welcome to the 1989 runway the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Team!” and within seconds the memory of Klum, a woman who we were previously supposed to be overjoyed to have seen, has been wiped from the minds of all 60,000 attendees as the 23 members of the victorious soccer team march down the catwalk in the direction of Taylor. The team, dressed in their jerseys and floral shorts, is waving two enormous American flags and carrying the golden World Cup trophy like a beacon. The crowd—myself included—cannot get enough of the bubbling sight. When Alex Morgan makes it to the end of the stage with the World Cup in hand, she lets Taylor Swift hold it. A few moments later, in between group hugs and jerky dance moves, Taylor demands, “Can I hold it again?!”
In a text conversation with two female friends later that night, one of them slyly notes, “Whoever’s idea it was to bring to the USWNT on stage at a Taylor Swift concert should get a raise.”
Swift’s 1989 tour is full of confusing, unscripted, and clumsily perfect moments like this—moments that drag on for far too long and feel clinically, icily intentional. When I saw Swift perform a few Fridays ago at MetLife, I was surprised to walk out of the venue at almost midnight after nearly two hours of video projections, poor gyrating, and tiresome, inarticulate pre-song speeches. During a particularly long one, the songwriter laid out her “rules for friendship.”
“Number one,” she said, holding out a nail-bitten finger lacquered with gold polish. “You have to like me.”
“And number two,” the second finger raised. “You have to want to spend time with me.”
The point Swift was trying to make was that the 60,000 people who had come to MetLife Stadium that night were now her friends because they obsequiously met both obligations for Friendship with Taylor Swift. But what she didn’t explain was what’s in it for people who become friends with her. One presumes Swift thinks getting to be friends with Taylor Swift is a good enough bargain, but real friendship is not, after all, a one-way street. While Taylor finds decorating herself with women besties to be a surefire method for finding the approval as a queen that she’s always wanted, one has to wonder what’s in it for the women flanking her thin frame. No one doubts why Taylor Swift asks Heidi Klum to walk the 1989 runway, but it’s a mystery why Heidi Klum says yes.
The reviews of the 1989 tour have been overwhelmingly positive in that cracked-smile way that makes it seem like every writer was forced to write with a gun to his or her head. They read like press releases at best and cult scripture at worse, and there is hardly a trace anywhere of any dissenting opinion, specifically anything that calls out Swift’s current co-opting of capital-f Feminism as a self-promotional tool. Is it possible that we’ve really become so dumb as to not know anymore what is simply just part of the pop mechanism and what is actually worthy of the hyperbolic pandering? Here’s a little taste from four separate reviews:
She is, on every single level, the pinnacle of American Culture as it exists today. The 1989 World Tour is the perfect pop spectacle, sponsored by various brands such as Diet Coke, Subway, and American Express who don’t even bother putting up any real advertising inside the stadium. Because, honestly, who cares? I imagine corporate execs understand Taylor Swift is the most influential person in the world, so there’s no need to have her eat a meatball sub. Yet it’s a bit strange, because the glamour of the 1989World Tour is massive and assertive, yes, but is off the path that got her to this moment, standing before an outdoor stadium full of people multiple nights in a row. She’s abandoned the “thank you for coming; you’re all so lovely” girl next-door attitude (although she still does say “thank you for coming; you’re all so lovely”) for something more empowering. That’s why 1989 is so important. She knows who the fuck she is. She no longer is asking for permission. She controls her image. She’s here. The moment is hers. And she is not going anywhere anytime.
And after she’s done changing your whole world, she talks through your problems the way only Taylor Swift can. You’re standing there in the audience, screaming up at your queen in awe because she truly *gets* you. It is therapy.
At various intervals, Ms. Swift disappeared offstage and the huge screen showed clips of some of her well-known friends — Selena Gomez, Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham, the sisters of the band Haim, and more — singing her praises. It was a public service announcement for the healing powers of female friendship.
Ms. Swift has been actively cultivating these friendships as part of her retreat from the tabloids in recent years. Rather than be known as a serial dater, she’d prefer to be thought of as a serial befriender. Even in “Bad Blood,” a song from “1989” about an intense rivalry with another female performer (most likely Katy Perry), Ms. Swift has found a way to turn it positive. The video is a feminist superhero fantasy, with oodles of famous guests — proof of the power and depth of Ms. Swift’s Rolodex and her desire to form alliances more than cast aspersions.
Between songs, towards the end of the set, Swift announced, “I don’t get nervous anymore.” What a funny thing to remind the audience, because, first, that’s quite obvious, and second: why the hell would she? Swift is not only at the height of her powers, she’s outshining everyone else—militantly and pointedly so, while maintaining a truly impressive set of impenetrable defenses, which range from deliberate (the Slumber Party Supermodel Just-Like-You Posse) to earnest (the avowed feminism, the open letter) to innate (the fact that she’s white, blonde, bone-thin, and beautiful). Most of her costumes on a curvy black woman would be viewed as aggressively lascivious; on Swift, lingerie is almost businesslike. When she came out in a white two-piece and black garters, the golf-clapping bro in the row in front of me briefly, respectably, averted his eyes.
It’s surprising to see smart people talk about Swift with such breathlessly positive overtures, not only because—like pop stars before her and pop stars after her—her music is simple and unfussy and infused with inane platitudes, but also because there appears to be something more opportunistic and sinister at play. When Taylor Swift does the mega-pop stardom act, she does it to the hilt. Swift has to be the person with the prettiest friends, the biggest records, the most popular and successful and groanworthily obvious boyfriend. The underdog narrative that the Swift machine has built is one of forced falsehoods; Swift is not coming from behind. She’s been ahead since she started. And watching her collect best friends during a moment in history when womanhood is finally beginning to feel valued does not only feel uncomfortable—it feels evil.
Take, for example, the cover story that Time ran on Taylor in November of last year, right after the release of 1989. In many ways, it’s the perfect profile of Swift because it is full of quotes that reveal exactly what her motives are when it comes to her career. Alongside open letters to Apple and missives on the state of the music industry, Swift’s fairy godmother, good-girl, best-friend vibe comes off as nothing more than what it is: a decent put-on. Here’s a quote to sit with:
“With Beats Music and Rhapsody,” Swift says, naming two competing services, “you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music. I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created, and that’s that. This shouldn’t be news right now. It should have been news in July, when I went out and stood up and said I’m against it in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.”
A very relatable 25-year-old musician who cares passionately about the artform of making music as a creative and loving endeavor, wouldn’t you say?
A quote from Carly Simon:
“I wouldn’t compare her to Joni Mitchell, Carole King or me. Onstage she’s a showman, sort of like Elton John.” Simon has recently purchased Swift’s old tour bus, since she doesn’t care much for flying. She says Swift gave her a discount (“the price you’d charge your sister”) and even left all her linens onboard.
How benevolent and kind for her to give Simon a discount on her tour bus.
On her name:
Swift likes to tell a story about how she came to be named Taylor. Well, she likes to tell two. The first is that she was named for James Taylor, the gentle “Fire and Rain” singer whom her parents adored. And the other: “My mom named me Taylor because she thought that I would probably end up in corporate business–my parents are both finance people–and she didn’t want any kind of executive, boss, manager to see if I was a girl or a boy if they got my résumé.”
This last excerpt shows exactly the part of Taylor’s persona that doesn’t get talked about enough: she is a ruthless, publicly capitalist pop star. To think of her as womanhood incarnate is to trick oneself into forgetting about “Bad Blood” and “Better Than Revenge.” Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank. Seeing her on stage cavorting with World Cup winners and supermodels was not a win for feminism, but a win for Taylor Swift. Her plan—to be as famous and as rich as she can possibly be—is working, and by using other women as tools of her self-promotion, she is distilling feminism for her own benefit.
On the Tuesday following the concert, after I’d had a few days to properly meditate on the performative feminism that Taylor Swift was shoving in my face, I was notified to the existence of a new newsletter called Lenny. A long hm-what-would-you-call-this-oh-I-know-press-release on BuzzFeed explored what will soon be Lena Dunham’s next big project, an email newsletter about feminism that positioned itself as “Goop meets Grantland” or “Rookie’s Big Sister.” The project, as editor-in-chief Jessica Grose told the pub, will explore the idea of our current understanding of feminism: “The internet feminism conversation can be very circular and limiting and exclusive,” she said. “And it saddens me to see that a lot of the competition is about saying ‘you’re not feminist enough’: trying to kick people out of feminism rather than bring them in. And Lenny is an opportunity to say, ‘There are many different types of feminisms, and we can work together.’”
Grose is not wrong on that front, and while another source for women to talk about feminism seems exhausting, perhaps the more the whirlpool swirls, the further we’ll move forward with our conversations and the more progress we’ll make as a gender. And the idea that women are getting kicked out of feminism for not being feminist enough is—praise be—a truth we must all acknowledge. There are different kinds of feminism and inclusivity is essential.
But what do we do then with someone like Taylor Swift? White, rich, powerful, thin, and outwardly clueless to the ways in which she manipulates? I often have conversations with my female friends about the two sides of feminism: the complimentary, bestie feminism—the kind that Swift is currently selling—and the cutthroat, realistic, we-exist-in-this-male-world-too feminism, the kind that expects women to act to standards that have already been set for us, and to do so by acting better and stronger and in alignment with each other. I think that neither are necessarily “wrong,” though I do often find myself on the latter side of the fence. I trust that my female friends will have their shit together without me fawning all over them like they are helpless lambs, and I pray that they feel same about me.
The conclusion that Lindsay Zoladz, a close friend of mine with whom I attended the Taylor Swift concert, came to in her live review of the 1989 tour is that, you know, even if she’s misguided, Taylor Swift showing off her women friends is better than the alternative: “By the end of the night, I was feeling pretty good about the state of girlhood in 2015 if Taylor Swift is its most powerful spokeswoman. The message isn’t perfect — though I’m sure [Karlie] Kloss and [Lily] Aldridge are lovely people, I’m not quite sure if surrounding yourself with a squad of literal supermodels is the most effective way to cure your fan base of Instagram envy — but her heart is in the right place.” Remember the female pop star catfighting of the ‘90s and ‘00s? Swift’s feminism is something of the positive inverse to that.
And it’s true—just like Grose, Zoladz’s take is that the bigger and better and more public we are about our feminism in all the ways that we understand it, the more power we will wield. But there are notes to Swift’s takeover that feel like they will always have a net-negative rather than positive for women growing up in our already complicated world. I was an anxious, insecure teen girl once, and probably would have been a Taylor Swift fan then, had she been around. But instead I was raised on the messiness of the Spice Girls, the brashness of No Doubt, the open playfulness of Missy Elliot. Taylor Swift may as well be a man for all the progress she’s making for womanhood in comparison.
Lena Dunham said her experience on stage with Swift’s model friends made her feel chubby and short, and you have to wonder if someone in Dunham’s position feels that way, preteens and young women watching all this immaculate perfection probably feel even worse. A huge part of growing up female means battling with feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and acceptance—of oneself and next to other women—and if the biggest model for that womanhood right now can’t even acknowledge intersectional feminism without getting aggressive and barbed, then is she really working for empowerment of women? Or is her priority empowering Taylor Swift?
On the Jumbotron back at MetLife, one of Swift’s guitarists comes forward, a man with a round paunch and a “cool rock guy” look, and with his face scrunched into a John Mayerian sex grunt, he begins to shred out a meaty little solo. It goes on for way too long, no one pays attention, his presence and image feels foreign and out of place. Who invited this man to the tour? Is he part of the girl squad? He looks like Swift’s divorced uncle. He does a few hammer-ons and makes a few more pained rock faces. He is old, the crowd is bored, and anxiety builds for the return of Taylor to run around giddily in her tight little skirt.
If female empowerment was really so important to Swift as a pop star, she’d bring to the stage her astrophysicist friends, she’d have an all-female backing band like Charli XCX, she’d give speeches about intersectionality instead of “how to not feel damaged,” or maybe—if none of that sounds up her alley or workable for her current scheme to success—she’d just relax a little. There are already enough pressures for our gender to deal with—the exaggerated kingdom-building is only going to create and aggravate more anxiety.
When the man’s solo ended and he dutifully backed himself into a corner, the show returned to its regularly scheduled programming, a stadium tour that was both fun, simple, and full of buoyant singalongs. After all, no one would ever say that Taylor Swift’s hits aren’t catchy. But when I was walking out of the stadium later that night, I kept flashing back to the man and his guitar solo. If Swift really believed in what she was shilling—this feminism so huge that her stage seems bound to break from all the women she’s rallied to fit snugly under her wings—she would be deliberate about making moments like this—a backup rock guy shredding on a solo—symbolize something. But that would take real work. And when you’re Taylor Swift, who has the time?