Is Taylor Swift's less sexualized image helping her career?

Defining why certain musical artists have staying power and others don't almost seems like an impossible endeavor. It certainly isn't talent. I learned that when Madonna clearly won out over Cyndi Lauper in the female pop singer battle of the early 80s. But there is often this indefinable substance that differentiates people like Justin Timberlake from dozens of emotive singers in boy bands whose sun has set on their career before they were 30. Or which has helped Katy Perry and her candy colored persona endure far more than other pop singers, including the quickly fading career of Lady Gaga. Or especially why Beyonce continues to be relevant across several genres of music while many of her contemporaries have faded from the spotlight.

At Forbes Magazine, Frances Bridges is trying to define the "celebrity substance" that allows celebrities to endure and comes up with some intriguing ideas. In writing about Taylor Swift's reason for her enduring career, she writes this:

So how did Swift bridge into young adulthood? Swift took the road less traveled by her peers Katy Perry, Beyoncé or Lady Gaga by not taking on a sexualized feminist persona. Instead, wrote songs about what it's like to be in your twenties. She didn't rewrite "Fifteen," or any of her other hits, and doesn't sing the same story over and over again. Swift and her music have grown up together with her fans, any artist will say that is one of the most difficult things to do well as a musician. She hasn't innovated her sound just for the sake of innovating, and she hasn't been a slave to six-month beat trends. Her songs have reached across genre isles but are still unmistakably Swiftian.

She distinguishes herself by not taking the road many female entertainers do when they're trying to enter a mature market. Instead of changing her image, Swift changes the content of her music to reflect her maturity and how she's evolved; she's done it extremely well, especially for someone her age. It has made a huge difference in her staying power and in her success.

Now while Bridges might not be saying that Swift remains popular because she retains a less sexual image, she is implying to some extent that there is a typical path towards pop star womanhood. By deviating from that path, Swift is not alienating her audience, which in turn, increases her staying power. She is not necessarily saying that someone like Perry will, on the other hand, not remain relevant or retain an audience but rather, the reasons and the relationship to the fans will be far different. (I'd also argue that Beyonce is not a peer of Taylor Swift in any way so I am not sure why she is invoked here. Not only is Beyonce's career about a decade longer than either one of them, I think conflating Perry's, Lady Gaga's and Beyonce's feminist persona does short shrift to Beyonce's gradual evolution as an artist. But that's a whole other argument).

I think there is some truth to that idea. Growing up as a woman in this culture, I remember finding it tiresome that maturity often meant a very typical type of sexualization. So when Christina Aguilera wanted to announce her transition to adulthood, she did with Dirrty. So dirty, it needed an extra r. Or when Britney went from teenage coquette in Baby One More Time to faux bisexuality with Madonna at the VMA awards. Or of course, Miley Cyrus's almost carnival-like sexuality has definitely launched her into adulthood and she even brought along noted creep Terry Richardson to help with her image.

But to be honest, that can be alienating to many women whose path to adulthood is not just about passive sexualization. I mean, sure, there is something to be said about increasingly exploring your sexuality, especially as an actor and not as a passive object. There is something about being subversive especially around female sexual imagery. I mean, in the 80s and 90s, Madonna was considered a revolutionary in some circles for her image and many cultural wars burned because of her experimentation with her image. And yes, like Bridges's writes, they often assume a feminist stance, which is great, but not all feminists relate to each other. And certainly a lot of young women aren't going to relate to how many female pop artists define their sexuality.

I remember my own path towards womanhood and finding it tiring at times that maturity in the culture was characterized by becoming more sexual in a passive, heteronormative way. I coped by listening to thrash metal, which was dark, brooding and angry but spoke about alternate experiences, ones that I could understand. Now this might sound like a stretch but it is the same impulse. It is that recognition of common experience that often bonds the listener and the musical artist and like it or not, Swift and her fans understand each other well.

I grew up in a dying agricultural town during the Reagan administration. I would say that easily the majority of adults abused alcohol, kids I knew well were abusing heroin before they reached high school and the suicide rate was very high. When you look for music, you often look for music that reflects a path that speaks to your experience. Hair metal and pop music did not exactly fit that bill for me at the time. Thrash did. I didn't like boys enough to want to listen to music about kissing them so anything else was preferable. When I was older, I transitioned into listening to grunge and bands related to the Riot Grrl movement which offered alternative views of maturity and sexuality. It was the early 90s and the idea that women could be angry, that queer sexuality could be visible and that I could be more than a passive object seemed like a revelation. I remember feeling similarly to when Tool's album Undertow came out. I could relate to this music. I felt less alone. It made me feel real. It almost seemed as if it exposed me to an alternative history that cast many of my most power emotions into high relief.

For many of Swift's fans, her experience and even more so, her feelings around dealing with love, friends and childhoods similarly resonate despite the overt differences. Her contemporaries' pop hooks and provocative images might temporarily capture her fans' attention but the same image does not promote the kind of identification that solicits more enduring dedication to an artist.

While Taylor Swift is the lightest and airiest of stars, she also is powerful enough in her own right to be in control of her own maturation, even though the media consistently tries to characterize her as desperate or silly because of her dating history. Her desire to take control of her own image has likely helped retain her fans who might find more in common with her than with people like Miley or even Katy Perry (despite Perry's occasional forays into the inspirational power ballad). Yes, you are a firework, Katy, but that mostly seems like bullshit. And maybe to an extent, the music industry will take notice that young women are often the best judges of what is an authentic trajectory of maturity because even if Swift's image is heavily controlled, there seems to be considerable evidence that she is doing much of the controlling.

Of course, the industry being what they are will likely just seek out dozens of imitators with a less sexualized approach and that will become a new way alienate women. They do it when any other act shows resonates. But you know, we can always hope for incremental change.

Image from the Guardian