Taylor Swift sits in agitated silence on the couch. She holds her phone in her right hand, and pets her cat, Meredith, with her left. This quiet moment, one of the few in this year’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana, breaks when the phone rings. It’s her publicist—Grammy nominations are dropping. Swift’s sixth album—the commercially successful but critically divisive reputation—has been excluded from the big three categories: Album, Record, and Song of the Year.
Swift folds into herself, visibly hurt. On paper, reputation was a sure-fire hit, taking everything that made 1989 successful and amplifying it. The production was slick, the featured artists were of the moment, and it neatly built upon Swift’s narrative at that point. Yet it had been dismissed from conversation.
Her publicist is silent. Meredith stands up and wanders out of frame. Swift composes herself. ‘I just need to make a better record’, she says.
She sounds determined but looks lost. How do you make a better record than the one that ticked all the boxes; balanced the competing demands of critics, stans, and the general public; was, in theory, the poptimist masterpiece everyone was asking for?
As anarchy is to punk, and authenticity is to rock, so is poptimism to pop.
A movement, ideology, and critical framework rolled into one, poptimism is the criteria with which pop music is evaluated, and the lens used to go about that evaluation. It places a premium on personality, measuring the quality of an artist’s output against how openly they self-narrativise, and if they do so with intelligence and wit. Operating on two fronts, poptimism asks music critics to approach pop with the same latitude they do ‘serious’ genres like rock, and audiences to mythologise its stars like they would Elliott Smith or David Bowie. Codified in the 2004 The New York Times article, ‘The Rap Against Rockism’, the poptimist mission statement runs: ‘Let’s stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable.’
Poptimism asks music critics to approach pop with the same latitude they do ‘serious’ genres like rock, and audiences to mythologise its stars like they would Elliott Smith or David Bowie.
Ten years on from the Times article, almost to the day, Taylor Swift released 1989. In Miss Americana, Swift describes that record as her ‘mountaintop’, the moment where her self-prescribed narrative arc culminated. The same can be said for poptimism holistically. Swift is the success story, having made the transition from country to pop while gaining critical stripes along the way. Speak Now and Red see her dabble in various shades of rock, ‘Haunted’ is an emo-rock banger, ‘Sparks Fly’ her bona fide pop-rock moment, and ‘State of Grace’ is a stadium-rock anthem if ever there was one. By the time she transitioned into pop she had the resume and complexity of a ‘legitimate artist’, and she brought that acclaim with her, validating the assertions poptimists had been making for years.
But where do you go once you reach the mountaintop? As a critical framework, poptimism is reactionary. One need only look at the term’s etymological roots; rarely does anyone say they are optimistic without the provocation of something negative happening first. Sans a dominant culture to push against, reactionary movements become worship. And poptimism, in its assertion that ‘pop stars are real artists too’, worships the most vainglorious of all subjects: fame.
reputation is a case study in the pitfalls of late poptimism. The lead single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is designed to promote her new image, Taylor Swift the Bad Guy—‘the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now’. Conspicuously absent is the good guy. Without them there’s no narrative, no tension, no meaning. Their absence reveals reputation as a branding exercise, a ploy to keep the attention on Swift while distracting from the fact that she doesn’t know what she stands for.
Most egregiously, Swift attempted to position her new Bad Guy branding as sympathetic. It’s not her fault she’s punching down, we made her do it. reputation highlights the fallacy at the heart of poptimism; it still has an underdog mentality despite being critically, commercially, and culturally dominant. Saying ‘shake it off’ when you’re on the rise makes you easy to root for; saying it when you’re at the top makes you Marie Antoinette.
This is not to say that poptimism is devoid of virtues. One of the movement’s greatest successes has been kickstarting a genuine push against the critical bias to favour music that is straight, white and male. Pop has long been the sphere of feminine, queer, and non-white voices; it’s these voices that poptimism has brought to the forefront. In many ways, the movement feels like a reclamation of cultural space forty years on from disco demolition night. But even poptimism’s greatest success only serves to underline its largest issues. Namely, it was only envisioned as a vehicle for change, not the product.
Saying ‘shake it off’ when you’re on the rise makes you easy to root for; saying it when you’re at the top makes you Marie Antoinette.
Throughout May and June, pop stars were criticised for starting drama, calling each other out, and saying out-of-touch nonsense. In other words, for doing what they always do. COVID-19 has called attention to the artificiality of poptimism. Prewritten narratives and celebrity drama feel especially vapid amid a global pandemic; now that people have the time to pay attention, they’re quickly realising that there’s no meaning anymore. A pop star makes music to gain fame to make more music to gain more fame. Fans evolve into stans and they create echo chambers dedicated to cults of celebrity personae, which in turn eclipse output. The movement loses its ability to culturally franchise the critically underappreciated, and it becomes exclusionary. Good pop feels like a party where everyone is invited. Late poptimism—with its inward focus, and fervent stan culture—feels just the opposite: VIP only.
Asking the general public to celebrate this cycle, especially in a crisis, feels reprehensible. Rightly there’s a growing malaise among the general public. As stans become increasingly fortified in their devotion, the world at large is becoming increasingly critical of what they worship. Pop stars are quickly learning the same lesson that Taylor Swift did with reputation: Their echo chambers are hermetic, and the cultural currency they trade in only has value within them.
Swift learnt this lesson so well that Lover sees her actively decoupling from the threads of her star narrative in favour of an outward focus. The opener, ‘I Forgot That You Existed’, dismisses her usual subjects, her exes. Meanwhile the record’s most classically Swiftian track, ‘You Need To Calm Down’, can’t commit to being about ‘ignoring haters’ and pivots away from them halfway through to address (albeit very awkwardly) the broader issue of LGBTQ+ rights. For over a decade now Swift has been pop’s compass, pointing toward the next great trend. With Lover, she laid the groundwork for a rebirth of poptimism, admitting that her music—and by extension, all pop music—would do well to self-aggrandise less.
Good pop feels like a party where everyone is invited. Late poptimism, with its inward focus and fervent stan culture, feels just the opposite: VIP only.
As with the growth of apathy toward old poptimism, COVID-19 has accelerated the move toward new poptimism. The genre’s knack for escapism feels especially urgent, and the artists best suited to providing it are being pulled to the forefront. One of 2020’s biggest pop records, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, recalls the 70s and 80s when the genre was less concerned with narrative and more concerned with groove. Lipa herself is a non-entity, an anti-popstar. Her brand as a ‘female alpha’ is corroborated entirely by her music—dark, confident, and openly feminist.
Charli XCX’s how i’m feeling now and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA, major lockdown hits from pop up-and-comers, operate on the same principle. Their creative sensibilities engage their listeners. Their personas are enigmatic, which keeps attention on the music. The relationship that builds is more egalitarian, that of performer and audience, as opposed to the elevated pop star and the subordinated fan.
It is Swift, however, who has emerged as the clearest product of COVID-spurred new poptimism. folklore—her new record, conceived and created in lockdown—reads as a wholehearted application of ideas trialled on Lover, and thus an antithesis to reputation, and values that record represents. (A small detail noted by many a keen-eyed Swiftie is that reputation and folklore are both styled with lower-case titling, only adding to the notion that they should be read as dyadic). Swift’s previously autobiographical style is relatively obscured; on the record’s inspiration, she has said: ‘I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met’.
Many of the creative decisions that make the record noteworthy, like its indie-folk inflections, are enabled only because Swift will never have to play these songs to a stadium-sized audience. It is unlikely that Swift would have made folklore under other circumstances, and so it cannot be read as a wholehearted rejection of old poptimism. Traces of reputation-era Swift are easily found by those willing to look. The third track, ‘the last great american dynasty’, hinges on Swift inserting herself into the narrative of the song and linking the story of Rebekah Harkness to her own. Even as Swift looks outside poptimist structures, she still leans back into them. Whether she stays the course remains to be seen.
But if nothing else, with folklore, she at least made a better record.