Is Fan Service Doing Music A Disservice?

14 May 2024 | 12:30 pm | Anna List

Can the songwriters get back to writing songs?

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift (Credit: Beth Garrabrant)

More Taylor Swift More Taylor Swift

The Music's sassy new regular pop culture columnist, Anna List, is here to drop truth bombs

In January 2023, Miley Cyrus released her soon-to-be Grammy-winning hit single Flowers. I liked it enough; it had a nice, solid bass groove, and her voice sounded so at home in that loungey, deep register.

It was a good song, but all anybody was talking about was how Flowers was a public sledging of her bastardly ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth. Theories ran rampant about how the gold dress she wore in the music video was similar to a dress one of his co-stars once wore. The house she danced around was the house where he supposedly cheated on her, not to mention the most ridiculous of all these unsubstantiated tidbits – that the song was in some way a response to the lyrics of Bruno Mars’s When I Was Your Man because Liam dedicated the song to Miley at their wedding.

I couldn’t believe how many people ate up this idea — considering When I Was Your Man is a breakup song… it’s literally in the title — there is no way this song was part of their special day. But the discourse fuelled the song’s inevitable rise up the charts.

Frustratingly (but evidently wisely), Miley never confirmed nor denied any of this. However, she did explain in an interview that the lyric was originallybut I CAN’T love me better than you can”, and the entire concept was the complete opposite - meaning it wasn’t originally a self-reclaiming anthem but a sad heartbreak ballad. But here we were, so desperate for an insight into the salacious lives of our favourite celebs that we needed to inject it into this perfectly fine, competent piece of music. We could no longer just let a song be a song.

I blame Taylor Swift.

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Just this year, we had an autobiographical album and accompanying self-indulgent film by Jennifer Lopez, who grossly overestimated how much the public cared about her personal life beyond 2005.

We’ve also seen Ariana Grande attempt to ‘clap back at the haters’ who cared too much about “whose dick [she] rides” with yes, and? – a pretty vile sentiment considering the person the public was concerned about just had a baby, and whilst they were both married.

But the thing that was most evident in these futile attempts to insert their story into the public narrative through song was that the songs themselves just weren’t great either. But it’s okay to admit that because neither Ariana Grande nor J Lo are our Lord and Saviour, Taylor Swift.

The general public has a disconcerting fascination with artists’ private lives, which is affecting their musical output and, consequently, our consumption of it.

Straight out the gate - let me tell you, I am no Swiftie. I’m a fair-weather fan – sure, I have a soft spot for Love Story, Mean, Blank Space, Wildest Dreams and even a few Reputation tunes. I love the songs when I love them, but I refuse to search for hidden meaning and dig through obscure references to try and convince my brain that it enjoys something just because of who made it.

She has trained her fans to do this, and quite frankly, the Swiftie culture scares me. And with the recent release of The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology - 31 mediocre, musically sparse bordering on dull, overwritten and under-produced songs with zero hooks about three different relationships spanning only a few months, I found myself wondering… this can’t be the same Taylor Swift who told us to “shake it off?” More importantly, are the Swifties even interested in her music anymore, or is it just Taylor Swift™?

I appreciate that she writes about her personal experiences, often with the artful and poetic flare of a true songwriter. Taylor Swift has just been fucking around and finding out for almost two decades, and it has made for some excellent music when she has been on her game.

But I’m a grown-arse woman, the same age as Taylor Swift. I simply cannot take much more of this melancholy whining from a child-free white lady billionaire who spent the year jetting around the world performing incredible shows, writing and recording multiple albums, being worshipped by millions and still managing to squeeze in regular trysts from a movie star, rockstar and a sports star.

Spare me, lady - we’ve got real problems. That’s not to say being rich and successful means you can’t be unhappy - but how do I not roll my eyes at her being sad and making 20 songs of excruciating minutiae about a six-week fling, from which she quickly moved on?

Taylor is a true singer-songwriter. She has always written autobiographically, from her very humble beginnings, wishing on a star in country music. It was endearing, relatable, and gosh darn cute.

But where Taylor used to sneak clues in her album booklets and write lyrics like veritable winks to the listener, the easter eggs are now hidden in plain sight. The Kim Kardashian diss track, thanK you aIMee, goes so far as to literally explain that she changed the subject’s name—even then, if you still weren’t sure, she’s gone ahead and capitalised the letters in the title.

Meanwhile, her other nemesis (alleged but likely), Olivia Rodrigo, released two damning songs last year, the grudge and lacy, that were almost certainly about Olivia’s experiences with her ex-idol. However, Olivia wrote the songs in such a way that they could easily be about being scorned by a lover or a friend. No need to spell it out, it’s all in the nuances. This also makes the songs digestible and relatable for the listener - something that Taylor used to be the master of - but now, unless you’ve been dumped by a rockstar and had a longstanding feud with someone named Kim, you’re on your own.

With The Tortured Poets Department, Taylor Swift has succumbed to paying fan service like Game Of Thrones did with their final season. With 30 songs about the dissolution of two relationships and the establishment of another, all within six months, she no longer seems to have the zest or the passion to turn her multitude of feelings into music that people can enjoy.

Swifties want the tea, so she’s pouring it scalding hot straight from the kettle into our open mouths… but it’s in desperate need of a little sugar.

The art is now taking a backseat to the muse. Taylor already had to change the words of Karma from “Karma is the guy on the screen” (referring to her then-boyfriend who is an actor) to “Karma is the guy on the Chiefs” (her current beau who plays football)... what if her next boyfriend doesn’t fit the rhyme scheme?

How does a song stand the test of time if it’s so intrinsically linked to a specific moment in time or boyfriend of the week? It can’t, especially since the people who made it seem to be so complacent that they will happily recycle the same plinky plonky synth sounds, elementary chords, swampy reverb and three-note melodies from the last three records.  

Taylor Swift’s fame has reached dizzying heights. She is teetering on Michael Jackson-in-the-’80s level notoriety and success.

The staggering difference here, though, is that after releasing Off The Wall in 1979, Michael spent three years writing and recording 30 songs and then chose the best nine to form the greatest-selling album of all time, Thriller.

It was another five years and 100 recorded songs for Bad. For Taylor, it hasn’t even been 12 months since she broke up with boyfriend one of three, and she’s already scribbled it all out and data-dumped every idea, good or bad, onto our heads in a callous, self-absorbed victory lap.

All of this is to say that what Taylor’s fans seem to actually want is an autobiography. To the uninitiated listener, Taylor Swift no longer makes songs as a commodity – Taylor Swift is the commodity. It’s all about the lore, the narrative, the era.

Girl, just write the book about all the people who’ve wronged you, release your 12 collectors editions and take a holiday. Get to know that sportsball fella. Take a few years and give us a Bad. Hell, I’d even take an Invincible at this point.

A person should not have to have a Bachelor's in the History of Taylor Swift’s love life and solve a bunch of riddles to win a bland, hookless pop song. Indeed, the players are going to play, and the haters are going to hate — can the songwriters get back to writing songs?