In a 2013 Vanity Fair interview, Taylor Swift responded to jokes from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler about her serial monogamy with some choice words from Madeleine Albright (which Swift attributed to Katie Couric): “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
This quote deserves an update, though. It’s 2019 and we’ve endured the white feminism of Sheryl Sandberg and other “girl bosses,” Alyssa Milano’s misconceived sex strike and the revelation that Melania Trump may not deserve our sympathy, but rather, our scrutiny. The idea of blindly supporting someone just because they are a woman is more than a little naive. To paraphrase the Bechdel Cast (a film podcast featuring Paste’s own Jamie Loftus), feminism means being able to call out other women’s mediocrity. Swift’s seventh studio album, Lover, is the latest addition to such milquetoast work.
After the disaster of Reputation, Swift tries to win back fans (and likely does not create new ones) by straddling the poppiness of her much-celebrated LP, 1989, and the country-inspired Taylor of yore. It’s hard to keep a listener engaged for 18 tracks, and the pop princess certainly provides plenty of filler allowing your mind to wander and dream of better albums. “Afterglow” and “Daylight” both plod along to an uninspired drum machine, and “False God” throws in a sax solo like it’s 2015 again. “I Forgot That You Existed” and “I Think He Knows” have practically the same snappy beat that is far too reminiscent of Janelle Monae’s much superior “Pynk.”
Originality has never been Swift’s strong suit, though. She is a machine you feed cliches into, and out come songs that are recognizable enough to be catchy, tropey enough to feel relatable. Just look at “London Boy,” a tourist trap of a track that basically amounts to Swift simpering about her love for English accents, a particularly tone-deaf sentiment in the age of Brexit.
When Swift actively tries to get political, things fall apart once again. On “The Man,” she rightly points out the double standards applied to male celebrities—how they are celebrated for their sexual conquests and flaunting their wealth, while women in the same position are denigrated—but then she claims, “‘Cause if I was a man, then I’d be the man.”
Here’s the reality: Swift is The Man, capital T capital M. She’s made Time’s list of the most influential people in 2010, 2015 and 2019. According to Forbes, she’s worth about $360 million. All this to say that yes, the double standards female celebrities face are shitty, but Swift also has enormous privilege and power in the world. The underdog act has worn thin, but inevitably people will point to this song as proof of her feminism (even though she romantically sings about being “barefoot in the kitchen” on “Cornelia Street”).
At the same time, Swift has shown careful wielding of her influence for good as of late. Her response to Scooter Braun’s acquisition of Big Machine (the record label that owns the master recordings of her first six studio albums) highlighted the power that record label executives hold over artists, many of whom—Swift included—sign deals when they are young and vulnerable. During the 2018 midterm elections, Swift endorsed specific political candidates and encouraged her Instagram followers to vote, resulting in a reported spike of 65,000 registrations in the 24 hours after she posted. All this to say that while she is not quite the victim she purports to be on “The Man,” her impressive sway has recently been channeled towards worthy causes.
“You Need to Calm Down” is her other attempt at being politically relevant, this time showing off her allyship towards the queer community, but it amounts to little more than a paean for every straight girl who’s claimed, “But I’m an honorary gay man.” Perhaps she deserves a tip of the hat for name-dropping GLAAD, but it’s done in such a cheesy way—“Why be mad, when you can be GLAAD”—that it’s hard to stomach. As Pitchfork aptly noted, our pop queen of capitalism also happened to be “parroting a literal Tupperware slogan.” On top of that, some of the lyrics are so bad that to call them slant rhymes would be an insult to the term itself (“And I’m like just like damn, it’s 7 a.m.” and “You are somebody that we don’t know / But you’re comin’ at my friends like a missile” are the worst offenders).
Even the bright spots in the album’s composition—the off-beat piano cascades in “Death By A Thousand Cuts” and the pulsating synth of “Cruel Summer” (thank you, St. Vincent) are particular standouts—are overshadowed by the musical anticlimax on most tracks, especially on “The Archer.” In the hands of a pop goddess like Carly Rae Jepsen, “The Archer” would lead to an ecstatic beat drop, but the sugary-sweet synth reverb in the background dissipates into nothing, much like that sad raccoon who accidentally dissolves his cotton candy in a pond.
Swift ends Lover with a few seconds of her speaking in a voice message of sorts, asserting that, “I think that… you are what you love.” Throughout the album, Swift essentially lists the things she loves (she is the titular Lover more than any of her subjects): her mother, her boyfriend and, let’s face it, love itself. While these are all heartwarming sentiments, they amount to a statement lacking any profound meaning, backed by music that struggles to make a lasting impression.