In the opening shot of the video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” the lead single of Taylor Swift’s new album, we pan in on a graveyard until we’re confronted by a tombstone for Swift’s “good girl” reputation. It’s an image that gives the album its name, Reputation, and it calls to mind Joan Jett’s 1980 solo album, indelibly called Bad Reputation after its own lead single.
Jett, a queer punk rocker, wrote that song in frustration and defiance after 23 labels refused to sign her for failing to live up to their docile-yet-sexy 1970s expectations. Now, it’s 2017 and every major label would kill to sign Swift. But what makes New Taylor’s reputation so bad? She wears snake rings and fetish gear? She wants to have sex? She tries to rap?
It all reads like a throwback to a time even before Jett’s day, when all it took to be a “bad girl” was to not be Donna Reed. New Taylor may seem like a far cry from the one who sang that a girl (not her, heavens no) who had sex at 15 “gave everything she had / to a boy who changed his mind,” but look closer and you’ll see that her ideas about what makes girls good and bad haven’t shifted an inch. She’s only changed her own location in that very old-school paradigm.
It’s an especially tone-deaf play at a moment when women—both famous and not—are risking very real things to truly rebel. Beyoncé’s Lemonade both defied genre boxes and redefined contemporary Black womanhood, and the imagery in her video for “Formation” hurt the Miami police chief’s fragile feelings enough that he called for his comrades worldwide to refuse to protect her at her shows. Kesha risked her entire career trying to free herself from having to record with Dr. Luke, her producer and alleged rapist. When that effort failed, she wrote her entire comeback album about healing from that abuse while still on his label, and then released the song in which she tells him off as the lead single. And of course, our actual political resistance is being led by women at every level, whether that’s the women who founded Black Lives Matter, the women who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein and launched a national conversation about workplace harassment, the women activists of ADAPT and Indivisible who literally put their bodies on the line to save the ACA, or the women who organized and marched on Day One of the Trump Administration.
That tangible sense of stakes is what’s missing in Swift’s new persona. Notoriously apolitical, it took Lena Dunham to get her to even utter the word feminist in relation to herself, and she famously declined to endorse a candidate in the last election. Just this week, Swift found herself in hot water with the ACLU for threatening a defamation lawsuit against a writer who criticized Swift for not publicly denouncing white supremacist fans. But while her silence may allow her acolytes to project onto her whatever they want her to be—icon of women’s empowerment! Nazi bride!—it’s not the kind of platform on which you can stage a real rebellion.
It’s especially puzzling to think about Swift’s Bad Girl Lite act in the shadow of her powerful off-stage performance this summer in a Denver courtroom. Testifying against a DJ who a jury determined assaulted her in 2013 by non-consensually grabbing her ass during a photo op, she was crisp and unequivocal: She knew what happened, because it was her body. And she knew who was at fault: the owner of the groping hand. Listicles of quotes from her testimony lit up the Internet, and for good reason. She embodied the unashamed entitlement every single woman should feel to our bodily sovereignty, but few of us do.
But if she has such a fire in her belly, why don’t we hear about it in her music? Instead, the first three singles off Reputation have delivered oblique references to celebrity feuds and fantasies about her boyfriend. These are valid topics for pop songs! Swift has no obligation to “wokeness.” But when she wraps up the calorie-free content in a Nasty Woman costume, it’s hard not to see her as trying to capitalize on the cultural power of transgressive women without having to actually transgress.
She wouldn’t be the first. In 1993, a loose group of female punk musicians, already fed up with misogyny in the punk scene, were inspired to broaden their political ambitions by Anita Hill’s testimony and treatment. With lyrics like “in her hips, there’s revolutions,” Riot Grrrl confrontationally equated sexual agency with political freedom. Bikini Kill, widely considered the band at the heart of Riot Grrrl, produced a fanzine called “Girl Power,” which expanded on their lyrics, telling raw, angry first-person stories about rape and abuse, rejecting male objectification and dominance, and generally encouraging girls and women to take up all the space and make all the trouble they want in the music scene and in their lives in general, to hell with anyone who didn’t like it.
But if that slogan sounds familiar, it’s likely for another reason. In 1994, as Riot Grrrl was gaining cultural power as the soundtrack to the Third Wave of feminism, another musical revolution was brewing in a UK lab. They were called the Spice Girls. They were safe—the most they ever demanded of men was probably “if you want to be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.” They were conventionally pretty and nearly-all white, but for Scary Spice (of course). Their glitter-pink slogan was emblazoned on everything from the ubiquitous ‘90s baby tees they helped to popularize to ersatz Barbies of the band members: Girl Power. Only this version didn’t signify a call to upset patriarchy. Instead, the Spice Girls brand of Girl Power was about looking cool, feeling confident, and being loyal to your friends. Individual “empowerment,” not cultural power. By the late ‘90s, they had licensing deals with literally hundreds of brands and products, from Polaroid to Pepsi to PlayStation. Bikini Kill broke up for good in 1997. The next year, The Spice Girls earned $49 million, setting a record for the highest ever annual earnings by an all-female group.
There’s nothing, of course, wrong with liking the Spice Girls. My second book uses one of their lyrics for a title. So, too, has Taylor Swift has produced a lot of irresistible music. But I’m less concerned about the sound and more about the side effects. Perhaps this is how it has to be under capitalism: Someone will always figure out how to latch onto an insurgent political movement, strip it of any power to change the culture, and sell it back to us at a markup. Still, I can’t help feeling that, in a political moment where ordinary women are risking everything to save each others’ lives, we deserve a new standard for “girl power” in pop music, one where stars who want to transgress have to put more on the line than leather and a sneer.
Adapted from Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All by Jaclyn Friedman.