Lack of Charisma Can Be Comforting
By Anna DornAugust 21, 2023
Until recently, Taylor Swift never struck me as worth worshiping. I couldn’t imagine worshiping a woman with bangs. And I couldn’t conceive of anyone over the age of 12 finding her cool. You know what I thought would have been cool? If instead of making Reputation (2017), Taylor’s attempt at edginess that came off corny and passé, she had instead reinvigorated the crimped-haired early version of herself who was suspected to be a Republican. In 2023, this faux-country Taylor would be alt, would thrive in Dimes Square. But Taylor will never be alt. She’ll always be predictable, reflecting the zeitgeist in its most palatable iteration.
Taylor is a people pleaser; I like contrarians, hence my writing this essay at a time when everyone and their mother is living it up at the Eras Tour. I prefer people with few friends, bordering on reclusion, whereas Taylor is famous for her girlboss “squad.” (Performative friendship has always struck me as the least interesting iteration of female insecurity.) Taylor lives to be seen as “nice” and “good”—in her 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana (I couldn’t help but hate-watch it), Taylor discusses her lifelong obsession with being seen as a “good girl” and “doing the right thing.” I am drawn to rudeness and moral ambiguity. Podcaster Anna Khachiyan said there are two types of women: (1) nice girls masquerading as mean girls and (2) mean girls masquerading as nice girls. It’s of course essentialist and reductive but I think about it a lot. I respect (1)s, who’ve developed hard shells to protect soft hearts, and find (2)s untrustworthy and worth avoiding. I identify as a (1), but maybe Jung would say my aversion to Taylor makes me a (2), as Taylor is the ultimate (2), building a persona based on helpless victimhood while amassing a net worth of $740 million, $150 million of which is tied up in eight homes—and it looks like the Eras tour will make her a billionaire.
In Miss Americana, Taylor discusses attempts to shed the good girl persona, but can only conceive of the shift in moralistic terms. She’s “bad,” in her eyes, in the service of good. Later lyrics are preoccupied with revenge. In “Mastermind” from 2022’s Midnights, she sings about being bullied as a kid and “scheming like a criminal ever since / to make them love me.” I firmly believe that anyone who publicly laments being bullied is a bully themselves. (People who were actually bullied are ashamed and don’t want to draw attention to it.) Taylor’s exes John Mayer and Joe Jonas have admitted to being hurt by Taylor’s lyrics. Reputation is essentially dedicated to taking down Kanye West for calling Taylor a “bitch” on 2016’s Life of Pablo, but Kanye released a recording of Taylor giving him enthusiastic permission to use the lyric. And while Taylor is known for biting others’ styles, her legal team is quick to threaten lawsuits if anyone so much as references her work.
“She brings joy to so many people,” my girlfriend told me when I said I was writing this. “Don’t yuck everyone’s yum.” (To be clear, my girlfriend learned this phrase from me, when I told her to stop talking shit about my beloved TV show The Idol.) But disdain is a powerful impulse, one that can easily veer into obsession, as it frequently does with me. I can't stand Emily Ratajkowski, yet I wrote a character based on her in my next book. I find Cara Delevingne so cringe, yet I am always looking at photos of her and copying her outfits. I think Kristen Stewart is comically inarticulate, yet I read every interview she does. And yes, fine, I watched Miss Americana more than once.
Recently, an editor asked me to contribute to a piece where authors choose books that embody Taylor Swift eras, asking in particular if I could contribute some “Gaylor energy.” Feeling vomit rise in the back of my throat, I composed and deleted several responses, landing on a bold and reckless lie: “Sorry, I don’t know too much about Taylor Swift.” I know Taylor has a Scottish Fold cat named Olivia Benson, after Mariska Hargitay’s character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and I know this cat has its own Wikipedia page. And if I had said yes to the editor, I would have picked Caroline Kepnes’s You (2014), which could work for any Taylor Swift era. In case you haven’t read it or watched the Netflix adaptation, You stars obsessive stalker Joe Goldberg, who fixes his gaze on a romantic target and stops at nothing to possess her, even if it means murder—but he fancies himself a nice guy. On her Midnights single “Anti-Hero,” Taylor herself seems aware of a sort of Joe Goldberg within herself: “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism”? I prefer the more femme route of covert narcissism disguised as self-loathing. Allow me …
I understand how looking at Taylor Swift shows me what I dislike and/or fear about myself. I fear we have the same type of unexceptional, bordering-on-unappealing WASP faces and share a history of throwing ourselves at people with little to no interest in us. We both identify as artists but lack something original to say, instead parroting a variety of inspirational source texts and current pop-cultural trends. Neither of us is supremely talented. Growing up, no one ever told me I was a good writer in a way I doubt anyone outside of Taylor’s family told her she had a good singing voice. Her voice is fine; my writing is fine. Our lack of charisma might be killing us. We’re both relentless in the way many overachieving millennials are. Taylor and I were both born in the late 1980s, both raised in the mid-Atlantic by careerist fathers. Taylor’s dad is a Merrill Lynch executive; mine was a corporate litigator. We both channeled a workaholism inherited from those fathers—and leveraged their financial support—into creative careers. And maybe I’m being a Swiftian bully in writing this essay, but at least I’ve never pretended to be a victim. I also lack a billion dollars.
There are obviously things I respect about Taylor, things that fuel my obsession. “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative” was the perfect response to Kanye West’s attempts to start beef in 2016, and seven years later, I still use the quote in various contexts. I am also endeared to Taylor’s stalkerish romantic behaviors, like when she had a crush on that underage Kennedy and bought a house next to his family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. I’ll never forget the 2019 Us Weekly headline: “Taylor Swift’s Ex Conor Kennedy Was ‘Nervous’ When She Bought House Near Family Compound Weeks After Dating, New Book Reveals.” Slay!
But mostly, I respect that the bitch can write a hook. A lesbian cynic, I am not the target audience for songs about how men are bad romantic partners. (I lack the fortitude to even touch “Gaylor.”) But my big secret is that I’ve been listening to Reputation single “Delicate” privately for years. I thought my love of “Delicate” was the exception to the rule: I hate Taylor Swift and everything she represents. But then this summer, after spending three days with a nine-year-old Taylor Swift superfan, I realized my love of “Delicate” was the rule: I love Taylor Swift’s music. I know. An earth-shattering revelation I’m still emotionally processing.
At first I was playing Taylor Swift exclusively for the nine-year-old, let’s call him Z. (He’s my friend’s son, so it was appropriate for me to be hanging out with him.) The way Taylor made Z euphoric reminded me of why I like music—of how it was my very first drug. Driving around blasting Taylor with Z demonstrated how, while music can often be used by snobs and bitches (hi) to exclude and judge, it can also be used to bring people together in a sincere way. Most of my favorite music isn’t just about the music; it’s about a memory of listening to it with someone, someone I love, and enjoying it together.
Soon I was listening to Taylor Swift without Z. On purpose. Loudly and frequently. Taylor’s music hits like fast food that contains salt, sugar, and fat in addictive ratios. She’s like stopping for a McFlurry on the way home from the party and then belting the soundtrack to Wicked. It’s not cool, you aren’t proud of it, but it feels amazing. I’ve even come around to Taylor’s dancing, which is so cartoonishly dorky that it almost reads as camp—it’s giving M3gan. And the positive side of Taylor being a style-biter is that in over nearly 20 years and 10 eras, there has been literally something for everyone. For me, it’s romantic desperation Taylor, unrequited love Taylor, face of SLAA Taylor. The one who sings, “Lord save me, my drug is my baby / I’ll be usin’ for the rest of my life.” I once saw Taylor as the anti–Lana Del Rey in that one is accessible, one controversial; one up-tempo, one down; one East Coast, one West—but the millennial pop songstresses are united by a profound sense of romantic anguish. “She’s really pathetic,” my friend Aaron texted me of Taylor. “It’s relatable.”
I’ve never really found a church for me, but a good concert can mimic a devout experience. Kanye West at the Forum in 2016 for the Saint Pablo Tour. Rihanna that same year at the same venue touring Anti. Grimes at the Shrine that year (great year) for Art Angels (2015). Lana Del Rey at the Hollywood Bowl in 2019 for Norman Fucking Rockwell! Every time Azealia Banks has actually showed up (I’ve bought tickets five times and seen her thrice). Being surrounded by fans who are as excited as you are, who know every word to every song, who can’t stop screaming, makes you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. Celebrities have always been my religious figures. They represent all that is good and unattainable and bring people together for euphoric experiences of worship. They embody a fearlessness, a messiness, a magnetism—a poetic distillation of the human spirit that draws me to them as idols, that inspires me and gives me hope.
I still don’t think Taylor embodies any of that, but I am coming around to what she does offer. Right now, post-COVID, people are desperate for community, for hope, for safety and predictability, and Taylor provides all of that in spades. Before each show on the Eras Tour, concertgoers exchange Taylor-themed friendship bracelets, and Z was ecstatic to show me the bracelets he traded at SoFi Stadium. His mom told me that Taylor didn’t offer much banter between songs, but when she did, she was mostly hyping up audience members, telling them how beautiful they looked. And while I might think Taylor is full of shit in her acts of generosity, it doesn’t really really matter. The point is, the Eras Tour is making a lot of people happy. In an era when the world seems increasingly precarious, Taylor’s childlike and exuberant pop music calms our collective nerves and provides a surge of much-needed dopamine.
There is some comfort in coming around to the people you once hated. Maybe Jung would say that I’m facing my shadow. When I was younger, I worked hard to enjoy music and film and books that were abrasive and challenging. Now I only read and watch and listen to things that bring me joy without much effort. Growing up is partially just embracing your own simplicity, the ways in which you are not unique, but rather are just like everyone else. And my newfound love of Taylor is perhaps the paragon—or, to quote “Anti-Hero” again, “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser.”
Anna Dorn is an author and editor living in Los Angeles.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Apoorva Tadepalli reviews Annie Ernaux’s “Look at the Lights, My Love.”...
Anna Dorn explores a career in rejection (and eventual success)....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.