Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parent Regrets: Why I Wished We Never Went To See Taylor Swift

My dear friend Andrea happens to be a remarkable writer.  Below is her inaugural blog post, originally published at Huffington Post, where the number of blistering comments complaining about her criticism of Taylor Swift's message to young girls is itself remarkable.  I feel confident in assuming that the readers of Fair and Unbalanced will be more receptive.

By Andrea Lampros, cross-posted from Huffington Post

A note to moms: If you're thinking about taking your daughters to see Taylor Swift as their first concert, and maybe your first show since the Indigo Girls in 1996, please don't. If you're thinking you'll see a sweet Southern singer/songwriter on stage with her guitar, a few pretty dresses, and simplistic but heartfelt lyrics, you won't.

The overwhelming message of the Swift concert to the sea of girls ages 5 to 55: be pretty, be conventional, be quiet (well, it's OK to scream for me), and definitely put on some lipstick.

When my 10-year-old daughter learned to belt out "A Place in this World" on her guitar a few months ago, I began to feel some affection for Swift. Country music up until the quasi-country, anti-Bush Dixie Chicks had never appealed to me, but Swift's commitment to writing her own songs and to making her own way in the music business was compelling. And she even maintained some dignity after being publicly berated by an obnoxious Kanye West.

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, my husband and I splurged on Swift tickets for ourselves and kids -- an 8-year-old boy and two girls, ages 10 and 12. We thought the young singer would be especially inspirational to our daughters who love her music and are avid musicians.

We joined the ebullient, predominantly female concertgoers in floral H&M jumpers and cowboy boots streaming into DC's Verizon Center. Many arrived holding their daughters' hands before the first two opening bands to stand in long lines for Swift t-shirts and merchandise and take photos next to the towering Swift cutouts in the lobby.

The scene was sweet until you got to the CoverGirl stands (Swift is a CoverGirl) where girls of all ages sat on stools before stage mirrors to receive makeovers -- perhaps selecting the lip and eye colors that Taylor wears.

The message -- you're not really beautiful until you cake your tiny, pre-pubescent face with makeup -- wasn't the empowering one I had envisioned. (I later watched a five year old with ruby red lipstick pouting because the color had come off in her cotton candy. Welcome to the hardscrabble world, baby.)

OK, I thought, that's advertising -- not Swift's fault? Actually the pre-tweens in makeup set the scene for the CoverGirl meets Disney extravaganza.

After her opening "Sparks Fly," that featured an inordinate amount of hair flipping, Swift stood on the stage for what felt like a long and awkward few minutes, taking in the screams of her girl fans, eyes wide open with feigned amazement. Glancing to the far reaches of the arena where fans paid upwards of $130 per ticket (the going rate on Craigslist), she gazed left. She gazed right. She beamed. She stood still and put her hands to her heart.

Throughout the concert, even the best songs -- "Speak Now" and "Fifteen" -- were convoluted by an elaborate stage show and a relentless multimedia set with projected live images of Swift inside a gigantic framed mirror. Hearts and words with curly-cue lettering flashed on the screens. (The most ironic image projected was of a girl's quaint bulletin board with a tacked up ticket stub for a concert that cost $10.)
Dancers swirled up and down a staircase in the middle of the set and around Swift like something out of Glee, but not as entertaining. The music and lyrics (which do speak to girls) were secondary to the sparkle and fireworks -- literally -- of the stage.

Fleshing out the princess theme, Swift even drifted just above the crowd in a floating balcony -- her eyes seemingly meeting the eyes of each concertgoer. My husband was sure she was singing just to him.
My 10-year-old girl stood rapt on her chair, taking in everything. Like most of the girls (except the 13 year old making out with her boyfriend in the row in front of me) she loudly sang along with each song.

I didn't expect Taylor Swift to make any radical, edgy, feminist remarks, but I also didn't expect Gidget meets the Little Mermaid. What an incredible platform for Swift to say something as simple as "Girls rock!" or something even crazier like "Love yourselves!"

Instead, she finished each song by looking wide-eyed into the crowd and noting how "amazing" it was that so many peopled came to the show and how "beautiful" everyone looked (incredible how she could see people with all those lights in her eyes).

Maybe my family got the vacuous experience we deserved. That would be true if it were just a benignly bad concert experience. The problem is that it was an insidious concert experience that emphasized everything but the artist's voice -- the flowing fairy dresses and saccharine monologues covering up Swift's real power. Covering up girl power.

The best moments were rare authentic ones with Swift's top lip a wee bit sweaty, hair oh-so-slightly disheveled, strumming "Mean" on a banjo and later "Fearless" on a ukulele. That's what we had come to see, but it was fleeting.

As the house lights came on, my older daughter, age 12 and a half, gave me a deflated, knowing look. My younger daughter was tired but managed to quietly gush: "I loved it." My son loved his glow stick.

I hope more discerning parents than us might think twice about Swift tickets. Better to have to explain the explicit sexuality of someone like Gaga and her "Born this Way" message than to have to undo the message of female powerlessness -- especially from an artist who is so fervently emulated by girls. If you have tickets already, perhaps you can prep your music lover. It's sort of like a game of I Spy: look hard and look deeply for Swift's voice. It's there, just buried in the fluff.

Speak Now tour? More like Speak softly and smile a lot.


Anonymous said...

I think Taylor Swift is a wonderful role model for my daughter, who is 9 years old, and this article gave me no reason to change my mind. I really do not understand her disappointment! She is disappointed because there was a princess type theme to the concert? I think that is a great theme for a concert which is for young girls! My daughter would love that! Also, she complains about the make-up sessions that young girls could participate in before the show. I see nothing wrong with that either, frankly. My young daughter does not wear makeup, and so she would not be allowed to do a makeup session before the concert. However, most teenage girls do wear makeup, and so this would be a fun thing for them to do! Parents who take their daughters could decided individually whether that was right for their daughters though.
She also complains about Taylor telling her audience they are beautiful; really?? Why does she assume Swift is addressing physical beauty here, and not telling them that each of them are beautiful human beings? Swift encourages young girls to be themselves and to be happy with themselves as who they are, not to look a certain way. Anyone who follows her music would know that.
It seems to me the writer was hoping for some kind of feminist rant from Swift, and when she didn't get that, she was disappointed!

Anonymous said...

I would not say that the author deserved a vacuous experience, but I wonder why she thought she was purchasing anything other than that? She states that she did not expect any radical, edgy, feminist remarks, but neither did she expect "Gidget meets the Little Mermaid." Why not? Had she never heard Taylor Swift's music, or seen any of her videos? Would her expectations have been similarly dashed by the Twilight films?

Everything about Taylor Swift screams corporate rock. The author apparently did not realize this, because "Swift's commitment to writing her own songs and to making her own way in the music business was compelling."

It's hardly accurate that Ms. Swift is committed to "making her own way in the music business." Everything about her is corporate (the CoverGirl endorsement is a pretty big clue). As for writing her own songs being a "compelling" attribute--there are a host of assumptions there that ought to be unpacked and examined.

A good place to start is this--How do you know Taylor Swift writes her own songs? Because it's advertised to death. It's a staple of her marketing machine. That should tell you all you need to know. It's like the marketers are saying, "Look over here--it's a *girl* who writes *songs* all by *herself*! Can you believe it! Isn't that amazing!" Can you imagine "writes own songs" having been a marketed attribute of young phenoms like Bob Dylan or Kurt Cobain? Or women musicians like Tracy Chapman, Tori Amos, or Sarah McLachlan? Of course not. "Writes own songs!!!" is a boast unique to the corporate-rock marketing machine, particularly (if not exclusively) in service of its promotions aimed at the youth demographic. For contemporary examples, see also: Hanson; the Jonas Brothers; etc. etc.; for an earlier example, see Ritchie Valens.)

Another clue to the fact that the author was purchasing a corporate-rock experience is the fact that buying the tickets was a "splurge." If the tickets are expensive and the show is in an arena or other large venue, you are purchasing a corporate rock experience. That experience will be devoid of any edgy or political message, with the exception of shows by a few phenomenally successful artists whose political attitudes are part and parcel of their persona (established, aging, artists like Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and to a lesser extent, U2; or younger ones like Green Day.) If the show is at a large venue and the target demographic is kids, forget it. You're getting a corporate experience that is vanilla at best, and insidious at worst. I'd expect a Taylor Swift show to be somewhere in between, judging by what I've heard of her music and seen of her videos and performances on tv. From the author's description, it sounds like that's about what she got.

So, I don't think the aspect of this article that addresses the author's disappointment with her purchase and experience to be very compelling--it's more a testament to the author's naivete than to anything negative about Taylor Swift.

It would have been far more interesting if the author had known what she was getting but relented and took her family anyway because she figured the kids would enjoy it and she could help them separate the wheat from the chaff of the experience. I'd like to read a thoughtful, well-written piece about that.

Also interesting would be an exploration of how an obviously thoughtful and intelligent person can be taken in by corporate marketing, simply by letting their guard down for a moment. That's a hazard of parenting today, and plenty of folks would be interested in insightful observations on that front.

But an article revealing that the author was shocked--shocked!--to discover corporatized drivel at a Taylor Swift show is frankly somewhat embarrassing to all concerned. I truly don't mean to be rude. But come on, it was Taylor Swift, not Sleeter-Kinney!

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