This article analyzes paratextual strategies deployed by Taylor Swift in her transition from country to pop in the context of her articulation of her authorship as a female songwriter. This was a transition complicated by the gendered hierarchies of pop music, wherein male producers carry significant discursive weight. The article frames the “Voice Memos” included with her 2014 album 1989 as a form of paratextual feminism, reiterating the authenticity she developed as a country star and pushing back against claims her collaboration with male producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder threaten her autonomy as a female voice in the music industry. However, the article goes on to consider how these and other paratextual feminisms are inherently tied to neoliberal values of post-feminism, demonstrating that their potential as a gendered critique of the media industries is limited by the lack of actualization within Swift’s broader star text and industry practice.
The article—which is trapped behind the paywall of academic publishing, but if you’re interested reach out and I’ll do my best to get you access—was nearly six years in the making. It began with my observations during her 1989 album cycle in 2014, which I developed into a 2016 conference paper focused on the “Voice Memos” included with the deluxe version of that album. But the subsequent years—her controversial silence during and after the 2016 election, a tumultuous reputation album cycle—provided new context for that analysis, testing how the feminism of her efforts to assert her authorship of her own songs while collaborating with male producers during her transition to pop music failed to manifest within other areas of her career.
As the paper entered into the final stages of peer review last summer, Swift entered into her latest album cycle for Lover, and I spent a lot of time lamenting that I was past the point where I could address everything that was happening (a peril of scholarly publishing). I was never afraid that my argument wouldn’t be relevant, as all scholarship must ultimately “stop” at a certain point and create a foundation for further analysis. But a lot has happened in Swift’s career in the six months or so after the article finished the peer review process, and I want to take a bit of space here to identify a few instances where the article’s argument connects with the discourse surrounding Swift’s recent activity.
When I used to write weekly reviews of Glee, it was during a period where I would often search through each episode looking for a quote to use as an anchor for my analysis. Glee was a show that wore its heart on its sleeve, and so it wasn’t a particularly difficult task with the show; in fact, the biggest challenge was choosing between the numerous moments where characters said exactly what the point of it all was.
It’s therefore not a huge surprise the same could be said for Glee’s two-hour finale. The last hour, in particular, was unabashed: whether it’s opening us up to joy, or Blaine telling Kurt that he’s “the only one I know who would do something like this,” or Rachel Berry standing on the stage of a 3/5 scale recreation of Radio City Music Hall telling all of the children to believe that dreams come true, Glee could never be attacked for a lack of synergy between the message it started with and the message that constituted its ending.
Glee could be attacked for many things, most recently a haphazard final season that understood its strengths and weaknesses and kept pretending they didn’t matter, but that central message has always been strong. Even as someone who wrote about the show critically, a task that will inevitably drive a person to madness, I always believed the core message of Glee was powerful, and I wasn’t surprised to see stories emerge this week that sought to celebrate those principles. I was emotional during this finale because no matter how many wrong turns the show took during its run, the place it kept landing in was a place of hope, and it was hard to root against that.
However, it was also hard to focus on it. During the final performance of OneRepublic’s “I Lived,” with a huge collection of past and present members of New Directions and ancillary characters, the show seeks to paper over a complicated history of characters it served poorly, characters who were ignored then forgotten, and plot twists that sought to fundamentally undo the good work the show was doing in other areas. It was a moment that understood the transcendent power of “hope” and human perseverance, but—like the final season as a whole—simultaneously reminded us how rarely Glee calibrated itself properly to be the beacon of hope it believed itself to be.
In January, Scooter Braun—the head of Schoolboy Records and manager to Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, among others—gave us our first indication of how Carly Rae Jepsen would be following up “Call Me Maybe.”
“Her new single is coming in March. I told her that she couldn’t come out with anything unless it was on the level of “Call Me Maybe.” And, now we have a new one that is on that level.”
That’s a lot of pressure for a new single, and I would argue that “I Really Like You” delivered as best it could: it’s not “Call Me Maybe,” but nothing can recreate the sense of discovery that came with that song. The narrative of an unsung artist being elevated to the status of sudden stardom through the help of some famous friends was not just about Justin Bieber/Selena Gomez lipdubs—it was that the song was something people discovered, and then shared, and then acted out themselves and shared again. It became, for lack of a better term, a “cultural phenomenon” in a way we rarely see, and in a way that makes creating something on the same scale nearly impossible.
“I Really Like You” succeeds in being catchy, and got the type of attention it deserved: lots of headlines debating whether or not it lives up to “Call Me Maybe,” with none of them being able to definitively claim the single lacks the same DNA musically. The issue is that there’s no way to recreate a cultural phenomenon, which is a big part of why my personal interest in Jepsen’s followup has more to do with the album—packed to the gills with interesting producers and collaborators—than with the single, which based on Braun’s comments is engineered to tap into a vein that I would argue was a product of a specific time and a specific set of circumstances.
However, I don’t mean to suggest that I felt I needed to “justify” my interest in Jepsen’s rise to sudden fame by writing about it – the people who are following Jepsen as a fan, the Beliebers jumping on the bandwagon at the behest of their master, are just as justified as I am. That being said, though, there is a point where I want to be able to turn my interest into something more productive: while for fans this might mean writing fan fiction or creating a fan page, for me it means writing a scholarly blog post on the subject.
This brings me to the subject of this post, which is another pop culture obsession of sorts. I did not know British boy band One Direction even existed until I turned on my TV one morning to discover the band was performing on The Today Show. It was an unseasonably warm day in New York City for mid-March, but that wasn’t enough to explain the screaming throngs of teenage girls watching the performance. Even if Matt Lauer and Ann Curry weren’t pushing the comparison, it certainly evoked the aesthetics of Beatlemania (complete with the floppy hair), and the performances raised what was (to me) an intriguing question: what exactly does a boy band look and sound like in 2012?
In an internet age, the answer was only a few clicks away: Wikipedia offered some background on the band’s creation (formed as part of the British X Factor, finishing in third place), YouTube offered some clips of previous performances (including a preview of their performance on last night’s episode of iCarly), and Spotify allowed me to listen to their album, Up All Night, in its entirety over the course of the past three weeks. Pop culture curiosities are dangerous in this environment, as it’s all too easy to fall down the rabbit hole and come out the other side knowing most of the lyrics to an album of frothy bubblegum pop.
What I’ve been waiting for is an excuse to discuss the whole situation, which for me often means some sort of connection with television. Last night was therefore a golden opportunity, given both the aforementioned appearance on iCarly (which I’d consider highly logical given the band’s target audience) and their slot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live (which I’d consider much less logical). And given that Ryan McGee has jokingly identified One Direction as my favorite band in his recap of last night’s SNL, I figure the least I can do is spend a bit of time discussing how this performance fits into my “more expansive than I initially intended” knowledge of their oeuvre, as well as ongoing controversies surrounding the show’s musical guest bookings this season.
What do people really want to know about HBO’s Game of Thrones as it enters its second season?
When the first season premiered, writing a pre-air review was an easy process. Fans wanted to know how well George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire had been adapted for the screen by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and non-fans wanted to know if the result still qualified as a television show worth their time. These questions were conveniently interlinked, in that the show’s success as an adaptation (faithful but not slavish, episodic without losing broader narrative complexity) was very much part of its appeal to non-readers.
However, I found myself somewhat stumped as I sat down to write about the first four episodes of the second season. The challenge is that we’ve already answered those broader questions, and to my mind the answer hasn’t changed – the show is still a compelling and worthy adaptation of Martin’s series, and that still results in some tremendous television. I have some specific comments about nuances in the adaptation, and some opinions about how certain stories are being depicted, but I don’t feel as though I have anything new to add to the growing chorus of people praising the show upon its return as a preface to my post-air reviews which will go up over the next four weeks (and which will delve into those nuances and opinions in more detail).
Looking to solve my writer’s block, I opened up the conversation to my followers on Twitter and the users at NeoGAF (where a lively community has been built around the show), asking them whether they had any lingering questions they had which they didn’t feel had been covered by the mass of reviews to date. While I want to address a few directly, the larger takeaway was that readers and non-readers might have more in common as the show goes forward than I had presumed, a notion I’d like to explore further.
In principle, The Voice is about something grand and meaningful. By having the show’s judges be unable to see the singers they are judging, the show purports to finally have a singing competition in which physical attractiveness and age are no longer a driving factor. In a music competition space in which Steven Tyler objectifies young female contestants and Paula Abdul’s most lasting impression on the pop cultural space is the predication of every American Idol comment with “You look beautiful,” The Voice seeks to focus solely on the eponymous instrument.
However, The Voice is not “important.” Showing that a pretty girl with a solid voice would get noticed even when she can’t be seen, or showing that even an American Idol reject with a controversial past can still get attention, does absolutely nothing to impact society’s obsession with looks or their opinion of people who choose to sell their bodies; The Voice is not going to change America in any way shape or form, and that part of the show is somewhat cloying at the end of the day.
And yet, lest you consider me cynical, I actually found The Voice quite refreshing in that it managed this sentimentality while maintaining a sense of fun. This is not a show that will change America, but it is a show that demonstrates the value of chemistry between “judges” and which in its central conceit creates an endless stream of “television moments” that channel the series’ central altruism in ways I found charming if not as life-changing as NBC would like us to believe.
In reviewing last week’s penultimate episode of MTV’s Skins, “Tara,” at The A.V. Club, I sort of offered my general take on the show thus far: while it has not lived up to the British original, it has made enough variations to define itself as largely independent from that series’ successes and failures. While it remained uneven throughout its run, things started to gel towards the end: actors improved, plots became more interesting, and the branching out into Tara’s perspective was a welcome departure from the British model.
Of course, just because the show is now being considered largely based on its own standards does not mean it won’t fail to live up to those standards in “Eura/Everyone.” In some ways, the finale is the ultimate test: as stories reach what more or less resemble conclusions, the strength of the series’ storytelling is challenged. Skins is a show that tells stories by limiting its perspective, as individual episodes are framed by one narrative while intersecting with others. As a result, an episode like “Eura/Everyone” where the frame character is notable in her absence asks the series’ collective cast to fill in the gaps, never quite allowing any one of them to fully take over (as evidenced by the “Everyone” side of the title).
Ideally, the characters will have taken on such a complexity that the ensemble feel should feel like a culmination of a season’s worth of development. More realistically, however, “Eura/Everyone” will reinforce the hierarchy between characters, their “resolutions” revealing which of them became three-dimensional teenagers and which were left to feel like characters in a story.
That hierarchy is strikingly evident in this finale, although I’d argue that “Eura/Everyone” is more successful than not when it counts the most.
Tonight, the Grammy Awards opened with an extended retrospective. As a collection of contemporary female vocalists paid tribute to the music of Aretha Franklin, it established that this was a night to reflect on Grammy history. It was a narrative picked up by Miranda Lambert’s performance of “The House That Built Me” later in the show, which she dedicated to those performers who came before (and who appeared on the screens behind her in a nostalgia-tinged multimedia component), and cemented with a “rare performance” from Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger’s first ever Grammy performance.
However, earlier in the show, Lady Gaga took to the stage to perform her brand new single, “Born this Way.” Although one could claim that this too is a bit of history, given that the song borrows liberally from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the song premiered only last week. In another performance, a trio of young performers (Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, and B.O.B.) were introduced by Ryan Seacrest as being the next generation of Grammy legends, albeit in a performance which had a definite tinge of nostalgia given Bruno Mars’ black-and-white, Jackson Five throwback performance of “Grenade.”
It’s no secret that the Grammys have long ago stopped being an “awards show,” having transitioned into a concert event so blatantly that everyone noticed (if you’ll forgive me the inversion of a classic Simpsons line). However, during tonight’s show (and especially given the few hours I spent half watching the non-televised portion of the awards online), I realized the degree to which this shift has seemingly been designed to disguise the fact that the Grammys, more than any other awards show, utterly fails at capturing the last year in its respective medium.
And how, despite some unquestionable success at making the show “memorable,” it sort of confounds the notion of memory altogether.
The performance episodes of Glee have been pretty universally strong: both “Sectionals” and “Journey” avoided relying purely on spectacle, delivering episodes which consolidate season-long developments. The first episode confirmed that New Directions could survive without Will and come together as a team, while “Journey” brought both Sue’s relationship with New Directions and Rachel’s relationship to Finn to a triumphant close.
“Special Education” is notable in that it is the first performance episode that doesn’t serve as any sort of ending. With “Sectionals” positioned as the closing hour of the show’s original 13-episode order (and filmed before the show became an established hit), and with “Journey” as the first season finale, there was always a sense of closure. By comparison, “Special Education” isn’t even closing out the first part of the season (the Christmas episode airs next week), which means that the event is going to be considerably less climactic than what we’ve seen before.
While not perfect, I quite like what Brad Falchuk and Paris Barclay did with this hour. A self-reflexive deconstruction of the balance between the individual and the group within the series, the episode lacks subtlety but resists the urge to smooth over its various conflicts. While the show doesn’t quite commit to the character drama to the point where it avoids the cheery group number at episode’s end, I thought it had some legitimately interesting insight into what that balance means to the series. The spirit of the show may not be broken, but there are enough cracks in the armor that “Special Education” successfully delivers spectacle and transition without resolving anything.
Hype is Glee’s currency of choice, for reasons that make a lot of sense: they want to sell downloads, they want to trend on Twitter, and so I understand why they released the full performances of both “Teenage Dream” and “Start Me Up/Livin’ on a Prayer” ahead of this week’s episode.
And yet, there is something very weird about the hype for “Never Been Kissed,” in that the musical numbers promote joyous musical explosion while the commercials for the episode promote the start of what Chris Colfer refers to as Glee’s “bullying saga” (which each writer will put their stamp on during a three-episode arc). While I talk a lot – probably too much – about the idea of the 3 Glees as it relates to the three writers, there are also ways in which the promotion and hype surrounding the series becomes highly contradictory. It is not that an episode can’t be both of these things, per se, but rather that the promotion works to the much-hyped extremes and fails to properly merge the two modes.
The result is that this episode inspires extreme trepidation: the word saga gives me great pause, and the musical numbers revealed concerns that had me pre-writing my criticism in my head late last week. And while there are parts of “Never Been Kissed” which had the potential to be something of value, the tonal mash-up is so extreme that all we’re left with is…well, nothing of value.