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Taylor Swift and the slow death of the pop diva

Jeff Miers

"Taylor turning off her phone was the equivalent of Leonard Cohen moving to a Zen monastery for five years," writes Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield in his breathlessly glowing review of Taylor Swift's new album.

Except that Cohen moved to a Zen monastery for five years, and Taylor put her phone down for a few months. That's not really an equivalency, now is it?

Taylor-mania is still news for Sheffield and many writers who find in her career something shiny and distracting. Sheffield is not above offering this: "As one of the all-time great pop masterminds, she's trying something new, as she always does." So Swift is apparently in the same company as Michael Jackson, Prince, Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Madonna, Janet Jackson and Lady Gaga. "Reputation" must be brilliant, then.

It's not.

It's bubbly. It's interesting, if you've followed Swift's move from country music "girl next door" to pop diva. It's well-crafted and well-produced, in the modern sense of the word, which is to say, it's overproduced.

But it's about as soulful as a commercial for the new iPhone.

This is music for Twitter and it lingers about as long as your average 280-character mini-missive. The Tweeter might feel empowered, the follower might get a little bit riled up, but the bubble never bursts. It's an insular ecosystem, an imaginary nirvana where a mega-rich pop star dishes about problems resulting from living in a world where everyone knows everything about everyone else all the time.

Lyrically, Swift seems concerned with settling scores. Assuming we care about her first-world problems suggests the existence of a robust ego doing battle with insecurity.

It's not surprising that "Reputation" is culturally tone-deaf. There are no mentions of the divided country in which Swift made this record. That in itself is not a wholly damning factor – not every artist needs to comment on the world around them, and Swift's fan base probably would rather she didn't. But such lack of cultural commentary is troubling, and speaks to the music's irrelevance.

Swift is all about branding. Look at the way she rolled out teaser singles in advance of "Reputation." The idea was to stoke the fires of anticipation, and it seemed to be working, at least until cracks began to appear, and even a staunch Swift acolyte might have had trouble defending the petulant train wreck that was "Look What You Made Me Do" and its disturbingly militant video.

Swift then made it plain that she'd be keeping "Reputation" from streaming sites for a week in order to boost out-of-the-gate download sales. This followed on the heels of her decision to pursue a "fans first" ticketing policy for her tour, which comes down to added expense for fans – the more Swift merchandise you purchase, the closer to the front of the digital ticket line you get. This is smart, in capitalistic terms, for merch sales are where artists make most of their money these days. It's a little gross, too.

It all smacks of desperation. Consider that recent albums by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry sold less than expected. Though they both debuted at No. 1 on the pop chart, both might be described as flops, for they didn't stick around long. This suggests that the Pop Diva model of the past 10 years may have run its course. Perry and Gaga are still uber-famous, but they don't sell records, because no one really sells records any more. Swift seems to perceive herself as above that fact. But judging "Reputation" based solely on the music, she's not.

These are the rules of the pop music Twitter-verse. No one who embraces that world is above them. Not even Taylor Swift. Once you put your phone down, you're pretty much done.

Maybe that Zen Monastery isn’t such a bad idea after all.


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