Taylor Swift’s “Slut!” and the Evolution of a Pop Star Feminist

Taylor Swift’s “Slut!” and the Evolution of a Pop Star Feminist

A few weeks ago, when Taylor Swift unveiled the titles of the “From the Vault” bonus tracks that would be included in the reissued “Taylor’s Version” of her immensely successful 2014 album “1989,” one title stood out, enclosed in quotation marks and emphasized with an exclamation mark: “‘Slut!'”

This pointed and charged word is one that Swift had never used in a song before, and it would have been a surprise to hear her sing it during the “1989” era when she was a 24-year-old former teen star carefully navigating her transition into adulthood and pop stardom. Just like her albums before and after, “1989” was closely examined for any hints of sexuality or perceived moral transgressions. Except for the occasional “damn” and “hell,” it was considered adequately, even suspiciously, clean for a woman her age.

While on a few occasions in “1989,” Swift alluded to the public’s obsession with her love life (like the “long list of ex-lovers” in “Blank Space” or the suggestion in “Shake It Off” that she goes on “too many dates”), she maintained a PG-rated language and concealed any potential anger, if it existed, about the way she was portrayed in the media.

Now in her mid-30s, Taylor Swift is revisiting the album that catapulted her to global stardom, complete with five previously unreleased and freshly recorded vault tracks. In terms of sound, these tracks are more aligned with her 2022 album “Midnights,” which leans towards a moody and wordy style, as opposed to the concise and sparkling pop of “1989.”

 

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Among these vault tracks, two particularly shine as sharply written, synth-infused reflections on past relationships. The first is the exhilarating “Is It Over Now?” and the second, even more impressive, is the pulsating “Now That We Don’t Talk.” In the latter, Swift offers a keen assessment of an ex-lover with cutting lines like, “I don’t have to pretend that I like acid rock, or that I’d like to be on a mega yacht with important men who think important thoughts.”

As for “‘Slut!’,” those who anticipated Taylor Swift to fully embrace the riot grrrl movement, akin to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who occasionally performed with the word provocatively scrawled on her stomach, might have made hasty judgments based on the song’s title. “‘Slut!’” turns out to be a dreamy, mid-tempo reverie that weaves vivid, rainbow-colored imagery (“Flamingo pink, Sunrise Boulevard”) with moments of casual social commentary (“I’ll pay the price,” she tells a man about their liaison, “you won’t”). The titular syllable is uttered breathily in the chorus and then, as the song’s intensity grows, it’s shouted like a derogatory term from a distant vantage point.

In a love-struck, lavender-colored haze, Swift croons, “If they call me a slut,” suggesting that enduring such a label might be worth it for once.

That particular lyric appears somewhat nonchalant, almost hastily crafted. While the song displays a level of self-awareness and at times offers insights into the double standard Taylor Swift faced as a young woman in the public spotlight, it loses some of its bite by placing too much emphasis on the idea that romance can be a woman’s salvation. It suggests that the affection of a respectable man can rescue a woman from the systemic scrutiny of sexism, with Swift swooning, “In a world of boys, he’s a gentleman.” This perspective somewhat softens the song’s potential impact.

Taylor Swift’s "Slut!" and the Evolution of a Pop Star Feminist

It’s crucial to consider the context of Taylor Swift’s evolution in 2014. Just two years prior, Swift had distanced herself from the term “feminist,” but she had recently started identifying as one. She credited her friend Lena Dunham with influencing this change. Two years after that, during a Vogue “73 Questions” video, Swift was asked for advice she would give her younger self. She responded, “If I could talk to myself at 19, I would say, ‘Hey, you’re going to date just like a normal 20-something should be allowed to do, but you’re going to be a national lightning rod for slut-shaming.'” This highlights the period of transformation and self-discovery in Swift’s life at the time.

During that time, the term “slut” was often the underlying subtext in discussions about Taylor Swift, although it was rarely explicitly directed at her. Swift’s race, being white, provided a degree of protection from certain forms of scrutiny, in contrast to the perception of individuals like Amber Rose, who, in 2015, organized her own “SlutWalk” protest in support of survivors of sexual assault. Swift also appeared to be censoring aspects of herself to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

While “Shake It Off” may have alluded to the consequences of “slut-shaming,” it retained a wholesome quality, to the extent that it was included on the soundtrack of the 2016 animated children’s film “Sing.” In the movie, it was performed by an anthropomorphic pig character voiced by Reese Witherspoon.

“‘Slut!’” may not be considered one of Taylor Swift’s greatest songs, but it is undeniably interesting. Given that her recent work involves critiquing and reimagining the fairy tale narratives that once defined her music, it’s unlikely a song she would write today. However, I find it more appealing than the “Taylor’s Version” of her 2010 song “Better Than Revenge,” in which a line perceived as Swift’s “slut-shaming” of another woman was replaced with a more innocuous lyric.

Despite its messiness, “‘Slut!’” feels like a more genuine reflection of who she was at a specific point in time—a young woman grappling with words and still navigating it all.

 

 

 

 

 

( NYtime Base Article )