Ryan Adams’ cover album of Tay Tay is great fodder for armchair cultural studies, but I still want to promote the greatest piece ever written about Tay Tay: “Contemplating Taylor Swift’s Navel” by Carl Wilson. Is there a self at the origin of her current pop instantiation? Does her invisible navel prove her dislocation from real human processes?
The gender debate around Adams’ covers (did he mansplain her work?) is not the right framing. The only people ‘splaining are culture critics who feel shame about their Taylorphilia and now have proof that she is not all Swedish pop-gnomes via Nashville. But the genre question (is her work better de-popified?) is also a gender question because we no longer have famous lady singer songwriters (Jenny Lewis or Cat Power are really just 90s artists who have held on in the 2000s). Ryan Adams’ covers point to the absence of an entire genre of lady music.
But so what? We live in a lady-rich pop music culture, from Tay Tay, Beyonce, Haim, to Lorde. This is not the era of Britney Spears vs. Lilith Fair. Those two poles have disappeared. Indicatively, Haim wants to reboot Lilith Fair with Tay Tay headlining.
I want to argue that Tay Tay doesn’t need Ryan Adams’ work to remind us of her singer-songwriter cred. If we compare her to Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair, as opposed to Ryan Adams or Sufjan Stevens, it’s clear that Tay Tay is part of a tradition of highly rhythmic, catchy, and emotionally simple songwriting. Listen to the anthem of my youth, Ani DiFranco’s Both Hands. No, really do yourself a favor and listen to it while laying on your floor clutching a pillow to your chest. This could be a Tay Tay song.
Maybe we have forgotten how pop-ish our favorite authentic ladies were even at the height of the singer-songwriter craze.
But Tay Tay has let me down. The recent furor over the Ryan Adams’ cover album has almost overwhelmed the true evil at the heart of Taylor: the “squad.” As someone who actually attended Lilith Fair (with my mom, all my girlfriends and their moms came too), the presentation of Tay Tay’s squad during her tour is a gross parody of Lilith Fair’s already-questionable feminism, which itself was a parody of Riot Grrrl empowerment. Tay Tay’s “friends” demonstrate the worst version of girl power: hetero-lady friendship dressed up as empowerment, tacitly stealing energy from actual feminist activists. But Tay Tay adds the gut-wrenching twist of not actually being friends with anyone on her “squad.” If Tay Tay has ever eaten pizza and watched a movie with Mariska Hargitay, I’ll eat my hat. But I’m pretty sure my hats are safe.
Thus the Lilith Fair comparison is even more important. Tay Tay should headline a new Lilith Fair and claim her lineage in the pantheon of lady singer-song writers, mostly so she can learn the most important thing about women: you don’t have to be friends. I don’t remember any demonstrations of female friendship at Lilith Fair. Women were making out with women, singing about their ex in very solitary performances, and sometimes dueting. But nobody claimed to be buddies. Can you imagine Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman being friends? Also just ’cause, let’s all take a moment and pay homage at the church of The Indigo Girls: