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Taylor Swift: The McDonald's of Pop


Taylor Swift is the McDonald’s of pop music: garish, happy, and uber-successful. Don’t get me wrong, I do not sneer at either of these institutions. Both are reliable, go-to brands that have been subject to a lot of fair and unfair criticism. Both have their place on a successful night out. However, where the nutritional content of a Happy Meal is widely understood, the musical value of Swift's songs is not.

As Swift’s popularity ascends to ever dizzying heights, she is increasingly lauded as a lyrical genius. Recently, Oxford professor Jonathan Bate paralleled her song writing to the work of Shakespeare, Brontë, and Dickinson. Whilst it’s true that they were also all wildly popular artists, her clunky, cheesy lyrics pale in comparison. Presenting Swift as an artistic great is like holding up the Big Mac as a masterpiece of culinary achievement.

Taylor Swift is a chameleonic pop singer, pumping out whatever generic beats will go down well that year. Unlike other pop stars, she has few differentiating features, hopping from trend to trend with tenacity and drive. Due to her lack of vision, she can neatly align her music with the demands of the market. She is a pop star ripe for the age of neoliberalism — perfectly content to sacrifice her artistic principles for a quick cheque.

Swift's adaptability is reflected in her politics where, as of late, she has sought to re-cast herself as an activist. This move is as cynical as it is laughable. Swift does whatever will win her popularity. During Bush’s presidency, she wrote, “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine I’ll tell mine that you’re gay!”. Following the legalisation of same-sex marriage, Swift changed tact, cringely rebranding as an LGBT activist. This was encapsulated through the unbearably jarring song “You Need to Calm Down”. To adapt to the changing demands of stardom, Swift has burnished her credentials as a defender of the oppressed.

Another big part of Swift's appeal is her blatant mediocrity. She is aspirational but not inaccessible. Her vocal range is narrow but her songs are easy to imitate. Her outfits are pedestrian but can be recreated with garments from most high-street shops. I could go on. Swift is perfect for our culture of narcissism. Today, rather than listening to music, people project themselves onto artists. Certainly, this phenomenon takes on its most extreme form through the unsettling ascendence of the para-social relationship.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest Swift has had no impact. She has gleefully destroyed the taboos surrounding the corporate sponsorships of musicians, signing a variety of lucrative brand deals. For her 2023 concert in Malaysia, she arrived in a big red Taylor Swift-themed Asia Airlines Air Bus. It's no wonder she recently became a billionaire. Whilst Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has praised Swift’s re-releases as a way of drawing attention to unfair contract rules, these tiring vanity projects reflect the increasing commercialisation of the music industry. Rather than functioning as communal property, songs have become the possession of high-net-worth individuals. Setting aside the obviously exploitative nature of Swift’s early contract, these re-releases are unworthy of celebration.

Despite its faults, McDonald's isn’t all bad. When it first landed in the UK, it democratised the practice of dining out, allowing the working classes a welcome break from domestic chores. Further, as it expanded, it adapted to different cultures, serving McCurry Pan in India, McLobster in Canada, and the Bulgogi Burger in South Korea. On holiday, a trip to McDonald's is a reliable way to get a tacky snapshot of your host country's cuisine.

Like McDonald's, Swift’s eras can tell us something about the moment they were made. Fearless captures the waspy aesthetics of Bush’s America. Reputation explores the challenges of the social media age. Folklore reflects our post-pandemic romanticisation of nature. Undoubtedly, Swift has her place, serving as a useful gauge to understand the changing face of pop culture and creating music that can be enjoyed by all.

That said, someone who writes “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby/ And I'm a monster on the hill” is demonstrably not a genuine musical talent. As with McDonald’s, Swift's success is a damning indictment of our cultural malaise.


Illustration by: Hannah Beggerow


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