I know nothing about Taylor Swift. I’m familiar with the song “Shake it Off” because — let’s face it — it’s difficult not to be. It isn’t quite up there with that Bryan Adams song from the early 90s, but it was still pretty damn impossible to escape. Having said that, I have nothing against the woman. She is a tremendously successful pop singer and although I am partial to a good pop song at times, I am clearly not her target demographic. Which is fine.
I was intrigued, though, to read today that Swift feels that she does not get the artistic credit she deserves for her songwriting because of the sexism of the music industry. She is quoted as saying…
If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.
At the risk of being accused of mansplaining again, can I just point out that — while I acknowledge there are people out there who will question the abilities of a woman to write a song purely because she is a woman; those people exist, they are called “asshats” (amongst other things) — I myself was mildly surprised to learn that Swift writes her own songs. But not because she is a woman… no, it’s because she’s a photogenic young pop-star.
That doesn’t preclude a person from also being a songwriter of course. And my surprise was only “mild”… I’m not refusing to believe it or anything. Thing is, I would be just as surprised to discover that One Direction write their own stuff (do they?) It’s not sexism; it’s just cynicism about the modern music industry. If you’re young, good-looking, polished and highly-successful then my initial assumption — male or female — is that you’re essentially the product of a marketing algorithm. As I say; cynicism not sexism.
And it’s not just the “young and good-looking” bit (though that is fairly prevalent). It’s more the “polish”, the genuine difficulty I have discerning a modern pop video from an advert for a trendy clothes store… I never for a moment doubted that Patti Smith wrote every syllable of every song (well, except the cover versions obviously!) Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Stina Nordenstam, Siouxsie Sioux, Joni Mitchell… women can write incredible songs. And the flip-side is also true… Jason Donovan sold millions of records singing songs written by Stock, Aiken & Waterman. Milli Vanilli didn’t even do their own singing!
So yes; there are probably some asshats out there who think “Taylor Swift didn’t write that — she’s a girl!” But most of us, I suspect, were thinking “Taylor Swift probably didn’t write that — it’s 2016 and she’s a pop star”. That assumption — it turns out — is plain wrong. But it’s not sexist. No more than the growing scepticism surrounding Milli Vanilli in 1989 was racist.