Sunday night’s VMAs promise to be chock full of delightful surprises. Who will wear a dress made entirely of zippers? Which Teen Wolf will be spotted pawing at which Disney starlet? Are we old? And is Harry Styles even coming? But one thing is for sure: Taylor Swift, who is nominated for nine Moonmen, is sure to take home at least one award for her Katy Perry power pop fatwa, “Bad Blood.”
When “Bad Blood” first debuted on Swift’s album 1989, it was immediately clear that the aural F-you was addressed to fellow pop star Katy Perry. Swift, that lanky, doe-eyed piece of Wonder Bread, confirmed to Rolling Stone that the track was, in fact, a diss song. She then teased the identity of her frenemy, the elusive chanteuse: “For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not. She would come up to me at awards shows and say something and walk away, and I would think, ‘Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?’” She also added that this mysterious, no good, very bad pop star “basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour.” Any idiot with Google access and too much time on their hands (in this scenario, me) knows that Perry allegedly poached a gaggle of Swift’s “Red” tour backup dancers. Perry also tweeted an inflammatory Mean Girls reference about Swift, and they both used to bone John Mayer. You’re killing it, ladies!
If you need any more proof that “Bad Blood” is definitely about Perry, or if you just want to remind yourself that print journalism isn’t dead, you can check out The Washington Post’s dissection of the diss track, which traces the singers’ descent from mad love to bad blood. Truly harrowing stuff from the paper that broke Watergate.
The main narrative about Taylor Swift post-Red is that the singer is more empowered than ever. We’re living in the heyday of the Swift wave of feminism—go girls, no boys allowed, etc. It’s the kind of wave you ride in a highwaisted retro bikini next to your 10 most flawless, expertly cast model friends, before taking a series of artful Instagrams on your private beach. Taylor Swift’s brand of feminism is like that time your friend told you that One Direction was going on hiatus and you pretended that you were only tearing up because something was stuck in your eye. In other words, unbelievable and contrived.
After all, this is the mass-market songstress who refused to call herself a feminist back in 2012, insisting, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” That might feel like a while ago, but not much has changed. Obama is still president, nobody knows if there’s going to be an Arrested Development movie, and Taylor Swift is still misinterpreting the feminist movement.
It’s not like Swift isn’t trying. She eventually apologized for the remarks she made as “a teenager” (she was 22), explaining that, “For so long it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all. Becoming friends with Lena [Dunham]—without her preaching to me, but just seeing why she believes what she believes, why she says what she says, why she stands for what she stands for—has made me realize that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”
While we’re all happy that Taylor Swift’s found her feminist spirit animal in Lena Dunham, her current feminist scorecard is as unconvincing as a Dr. Dre apology. After Amy Poehler and Tina Fey made a joke about Taylor Swift’s love life at the 2013 Golden Globes, Swift struck back with a Madeleine Albright quote (by way of Katie Couric, of course)—“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” For some reason, hanging out in hell with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler sounds like way more fun than hanging out with Taylor Swift IRL, pretending we hate boys and trying to hold a conversation with Gigi Hadid.
Swift’s feminism is like a malfunctioning Pokémon—somehow managing to simultaneously evolve and get worse. When not damning beloved female comedians for doing their literal jobs, Swift’s feminism can be seen taking the form of white solipsism. When Nicki Minaj called out the VMAs for failing to give her “Anaconda” a Video of the Year nod, Swift chastised Minaj for complaining about the success of other women. Seriously, Taylor, why did you do that? While Minaj was making a substantive point about how the music industry undermines black female greatness, Swift essentially blew up the constructive conversation by insisting that Nicki’s tweets were a personal attack. Swift, who’s never met a white size zero model she didn’t Instagram with, didn’t need any help confirming that her specific brand of femininity isn’t exactly inclusive. The problem here isn’t that Swift is whiter than Ed Sheeran—it’s that, despite her stated boner for feminism, she couldn’t even bother to finish reading a black feminist sentiment without tweet-shouting “me, me, me!” like a middle child on a sugar high. Sorry, Taylor, but Madeleine Albright never said, “if you’re a woman and I think you don’t like me then you’re not a feminist.” Katie Couric wouldn’t even say that.
Swift’s brand of feminism is less “an intersectional approach to structural systems of gendered inequality” and more “look at my friends, they’re hot and they like me.” A Telegraph description of Swift’s social media-ready lady relationships reads like friendship goals on crack cocaine: “she has recruited a ‘squad’ of high-achieving close girlfriends, and spends what little downtime she gets baking with the supermodel Karlie Kloss, strolling around New York with the Girls actress and writer Lena Dunham or, as her recent Instagram posts indicate, whale-watching in Hawaii with the indie band Haim.”
When not whale-watching with the indie band Haim, Swift can be found saying things like, “We even have girls in our group who have dated the same people. It’s almost like the sisterhood has such a higher place on the list of priorities for us... When you’ve got this group of girls who need each other as much as we need each other, in this climate, when it’s so hard for women to be understood and portrayed the right way in the media... now more than ever we need to be good and kind to each other and not judge each other.” In addition to reminding everyone’s ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas that he is utterly replaceable, this Swift-ism reinforces Swift’s fatal mistake: believing that by simply having a group of friends, she has cracked the feminist code. Someone should let bell hooks and Gloria Steinem know that they could have avoided an entire lifetime’s work of critical thought by consoling Selena Gomez after her breakup or baking gluten-free cookies for Martha Hunt!
Since Swift’s crew is all about positive reinforcement, “Bad Blood,” in which Swift gathers her fatal posse to gang up on a lady traitor, strikes a hypocritical chord. Swift can write a great hook, and watching a woman dominate the music industry is empowering in its own right. But Swift’s Perry-takedown isn’t just cold—it’s also totally off-message. Swift has built her new brand on girl power so extreme, she’s been known to personally pick out gifts for her lady fans based on extensively stalking their social media feeds. Between the #squadgoals Instagrams and the borderline #cultvibes of her teen-friendly PR campaign, Swift is the last artist who should be releasing a video that looks like an ad FOR cyberbulling. As Perry herself noted during the great Minaj/Swift debate, “Finding it ironic to parade the pit women against other women argument about as one unmeasurably capitalizes on the take down of a woman…” Camilla Belle, the rumored subject of Swift’s “Better Than Revenge,” tweeted that she “couldn't have said it better…” Oh, Taylor… What Would Katie Couric Say?
Swift insists that her feminism is more than just “some strategy.” After all, no woman accused of practicing non-inclusive feminism would go from featuring Victoria’s Secret models on stage to trotting out a diverse list of stars from Uzo Aduba to Ellen DeGeneres to Andreja Pejic to Mary J. Blige. That would just be too transparent, right? As grateful as we all are for this video of Taylor Swift performing “Trap Queen” with Fetty Wap, it’s going to take more than a flicka da wrist to make Swift’s public image problems magically disappear. No one has the right to take a celebrity’s feminist affiliations away—there’s no such thing as a perfect feminist—but it’s sure going to be strange to watch girl power Swift take home an armful of VMAs for her girl-bashing music vid.
Or as Nicki Minaj would say, “Series of smirking side-eye emojis.”