2010’s near simultaneous releases of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Taylor Swift’s “Today Was a Fairytale” will not soon be eclipsed in pop significance. Beyond being triumphs in production and songwriting for the adolescent imagination, each song cemented Bieber and Swift in their roles as untouchable sensations. Both singles from the newly christened household names responded to uncertainty surrounding their growing fame with a cotton-candy embrace of unapologetic pop. The singles foreshadowed 10 years of sold out tours, Grammys, breakdowns, recoveries, number one albums, feuds, overlooked R&B mixtapes, and lots and lots of relationships.
However, as we move into the 2020’s, Bieber and Swift’s biggest accomplishments, at least according to the mainstream, are quite far behind them. Purpose and 1989 were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and regardless of objective assessment of subsequent efforts, neither have been able to replicate the whirl-wind success that came with the artist’s preceding tours, two of the biggest in music history. If young stardom ushered in the ends of their popstar life-cycles, are the artists beyond their prime?
Today, Swift is generally critically panned for reputation, her follow-up to 1989, and has been snubbed for her once requisite big-ticket Grammy for two album cycles in a row. Bieber is on the precipice of releasing what is projected to be his worst received album both commercially and in the court of social media opinion. The two singers are simultaneously grasping at any opportunity they can to stay relevant: David Dobrik video appearances, Tiny Desk Concerts, even pleas to fans to stream music on low volume while they sleep to boost numbers. In the midst of these flagellations, both have decided to release documentaries detailing their respective collapses. Somewhere between propaganda and biopic, both situate their stars at a turning point in their careers and public perception. Yet, despite their overt attempts to reckon with disapproval, and even self-victimize, neither come out innocent.
Battles with highly politicized structures lie at the crux of each documentary. For Swift in Miss America, it’s a battle with the patriarchy; for Bieber in Seasons, it’s with addiction. IBoth make many compelling arguments about their pernicious effects. However, the narratives of self-loathing and pre-emptive redemption that dominate both pieces color these critiques with an overtone of manufactured renewal. The question remains as to whether these are necessary confessions, or a last-ditch plea to live another album cycle?
“Sorry, was I loud? In my own house that I bought… with the songs that I wrote… about my own life?” This sarcastic rebuttal acts as Swift’s closing remarks before a montage of the release of Lover. Though a bit trite, the remark is as a good thesis for the project. Swift is done with “the haters,” done being told to shut up, and done with the sexist, pitiful role the industry had painted her into as the ideal, cheery, apolitical girl. However, the liberal capitalist goalposts of fame and celebrity still drive her. It’s her mansion (said in the sort of way Hillary Clinton might say madame president).
Swift credits much of her suffering of patriarchal standards of the female celebrity to her own moral code of “being good.” She recalls early on in the film that since the days of her youthful country brand she had always attached her ethical “goodness” to perception: her mission was to serve. This has quite obvious implications for the feminist narrative of the film. Her desire to be the perfect popstar drove an eating disorder, feelings of inadequacy, and especially hesitance to speak up about her sexual assault case back in 2017.
This whole premise is refreshingly candid and quite beautifully does justice to Swift’s previous relative silence on the sexual and emotional violence women face. In fact, the footage of her speech at the Tampa Bay stop on the Reputation tour is perhaps one of the more inspiring and uplifting comments on the #MeToo movement. Before launching into a gut-wrenching acoustic performance of “Clean,” Swift details the process of winning her law-suit against the abuser that sued her for defamation and laments that many women have not been afforded the same “privilege of belief.” As fans scream in between stilled statements, she holds back tears to an audience of tens of thousands. Swift is deified in her most vulnerable moment, and for a second we are afforded a glance into the real damage of celebrity.
In this moment, it’s not hard to give Swift the benefit of the doubt. Her articulation of her struggles with sexist structures as a celebrity are strikingly universal. Yet, almost immediately, the pageantry continues. There can be no moment of weakness without the swiftest recovery. Just when Swift appears to double-down on herself and open-up, she pivots to emotional appeals that seem all too commercially convenient. And through the rest of the film, authentic feminist critique is often mixed with half-baked rejections of the mainstream. Her frequent moments of desperate pandering open the film up to cynicism about the authenticity of her authenticity. Is this really Swift, or just a response to the logged-on, woke-signaling moment? I’m honestly not sure, and perhaps unconscious patriarchy colors my understanding of her social commentary, but the lack of clarity on these issues is precisely the problem
To address this question, we should start with her politics. This is Taylor Swift’s coming out as a woke artist. Over the course of the film we see her wrestle with the legacy of her apolitical country roots–she draws comparisons between herself and the Dixie Chicks, a group forced out of the country music world for their condemnation of Bush. Swift sets herself up as taking a similar political risk, but this time it’s an Instagram post endorsing Phil Bresden, the centrist democrat who ran against Republican Marsha Blackburn in 2018 for a senate seat from Tennessee.
The comparison here is far off base. First, by 2018 Taylor Swift had long stopped making country music, a genre generally associated with the American right-wing. For the Dixie Chicks, who sonically occupied the same space as acts associated with nationalist propaganda, being Anti-Bush was a huge deal. The sounds of 1989 and Reputation though both come from a cosmopolitan pop moment that is nothing if not liberal. Second, the Dixie Chicks were protesting the Iraq War, an imperialist project even previous Democratic nominees for president had voted for. It was a real political risk. Meanwhile, Swift was endorsing a candidate that barely falls left of the American center. Bresden has supported ending the issuing of drivers licenses to undocumented persons, has made cuts to the Tennessee state healthcare plan, and even before the November 2018 election Taylor Swift continued to support him for, endorsed Brett Kavanaugh, the rapist far-right judiciary nominee for the Supreme Court. This “stand” comes-off as completely ingenuine and solely a way to engage with the trendy nature of, in the words of Swift, “resistance” politics.
It’s also incredible, given how politically charged the documentary is, how many elements contradict her own social policy. First, the appropriation of queer culture runs deep in the aesthetics of the album she works on over the course of the documentary, Lover. After the lead single, “You Need to Calm Down,” was released, she faced backlash for the use of traditionally queer phrases like “you need to take several seats” and referencing GLAAD, an organization dedicated to LGBT representation in media. Miss Americana takes this tokenization to another level,. In one scene where Swift describes a music video idea that incorporates elements that “make you who you are,” she lists in reference to herself, “dancers, cats, gay pride, people with country western boots…” If you asked every single fan at a sold-out stadium Taylor Swift show what makes her her, I’m sure none of them would ever say gay pride. When had she ever had any stance on queer issues before it was incredibly politically convenient?
Her political pandering is exemplary of a larger trend that Swift so desperately wants to please in the same way that she’s claimed she’s moved on from. Perhaps she is loud now, but only loud in the least risky way possible. The movie starts with a scene of her finding out that Reputation wasn’t nominated for any of the big categories at the Grammys. Her devastation frames the movie as a way to stick-it to all the haters. Swift reiterates that she doesn’t care about mass approval or industry accolades. But adopting trendy political views and making an entire film about how you’re done caring isn’t the best way to show that you don’t care. She shouldn’t have to buckle to the pressure for women to adhere to strict western beauty standards, AND also embody an ethos of indifference. Indifference to public opinion will clearly never be her ethos. For me, the best version of Swift is the one that leans into her own experiences with the public, and that means the one who is caring. This is the Swift who talks so passionately about the dangers of eating disorders, and who really just wants to make overproduced pop.
In fact, the entire premise of overcoming the Reputation era is a dubious motivation. Reputation is a good album. Sure, it doesn’t reflect the sort of front-stage self-awareness of a Lizzo record, but that’s okay. The clearly orchestrated fake-laugh at the final pre-chorus of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is endearing in its careful theatricality.
Ultimately, I don’t mean to say Taylor Swift made a mistake in taking political stances or shouldn’t do so in the future, even if I see her positions on race and class to be deeply problematic. To do so would be paternalistic and misogynist. I’m well aware of the double standard for female celebrities in being held to a higher political standard. My critique of Swift doesn’t reflect any personal attack or real distaste for what she stands for. In face, there is certainly immense value in her socio-political messaging for a young generation of primarily women who might not find more radical feminist thought in the mainstream. I’m not interested in criticizing Swift as much as I am with understanding this moment in her career. What I do see, though, is a star stumbling into the era of authenticity and wokeness, trying to latch on to relevancy in a context that doesn’t support her. Regardless of awards and tweets, the last two albums were fantastic. She isn’t an enemy of the public, but a champion. The entire Taylor Swift discography holds up, and I don’t see her flopping any time soon. She doesn’t owe us political engagement, and she doesn’t owe us the insight on Miss Americana.
Our second subject for analysis is, of course, Justin Bieber. Seasons frames Bieber not as the victim of political restraint, but instead as a victim of addiction and arrested development. The documentary series finds Bieber, similar to Swift, at the beginning of a new era. After his failure to complete the Purpose World Tour from burn-out, the dream-boy sensation went into hiding for several years. Now though, motivated by a Coachella performance alongside Ariana Grande, Bieber is ready to make his first album sober, married, and fully devoted to God. This context would suggest that this would be the most mature version of Bieber we’ve seen. However, his pivot towards authenticity exposes the most bizarre conclusion, he acts like a fucking baby.
With the way this project makes Bieber look, I’m genuinely surprised the whole team signed off on the project. The dichotomy that appears to motivate the series is growing up from the reckless irresponsibility of Bieber’s early 20s, but throughout Seasons, Bieber isn’t ever captured without some authority figure doing all his work for him. His manager, Alison Kaye, largely narrates each episode, explaining each studio-session she scheduled, and meetings she set up with one of his 20 life coaches. In the studio, we only ever see him shift around papers as his producer, Josh Gudwin, works with his writer, Pooh Bear. But by far the most incredible relationship, is that with his wife Hailey, who, honestly, should just leave him. Hailey acts as a walking support system in the worst way possible, reminding him to take his meds, waiting up until 4AM in the studio with him. She’s operatively reduced to his anxiety relief chamber.
Bieber’s past addictions to sex, drugs, and alcohol are used as an excuse for this sort of immaturity, framing the documentary as his statement of intent to finally grow up. Now that he’s sober, Seasons posits that Bieber can be his real authentic self. In the same way that Swift uses her political confession as the only barrier to her genuine expression though, Bieber is put in a position of announcing his own self-hood. Turning to the camera during a confessional to state that he’s ready to start making music on his own terms, and then doing a promotional video with a YouTuber is again not a good look for Bieber.
The emphasis on addiction, similar to Swift’s statements on progressive politics, dilute the larger cause Bieber is trying to promote. Alcoholism is in a way trivialized in its use as a plot point in the great redemption story. It is no longer a condition to be destigmatized for the masses but designed to appear as Bieber’s curse for which we, the audience, should take responsibility with our sympathy. The teenage exploits of a rich white hunk are in no way comparable to the average American story of addiction, and the excess of resources the Bieber team dedicates to recovery are certainly unimaginable for the masses. This isn’t an addiction story, it’s a Justin story, which would be excusable if he came out the other end at all likeable or mature. But he didn’t.
Despite my general dislike of both projects, Miss Americana and Seasons still don’t completely dissuade me of the future potential of a 2010’s star going forward. Bieber and Swift both correctly identify that they’ve been given too hard a time for their meticulously crafted pop personas. Both have had an incredible track record of commercial success and infectious pop-bangers. The notion that their stylistic allegiance to the early 21st century has to change with the TikTok age will only create the sort of awkward politics that fall so flat in their documentaries. Both have such strong ties to major label and industry power, which I suspect pushes them more in the direction of 2020 relevancy, but our collective obsession with authenticity makes mimicking the aesthetics of 2020 pop even harder. Bedroom pop recorded in a Calabasas studio doesn’t make much sense. The best way to come off as authentic is to well… just be authentic. If the style of 2014 is the most “real” context for your music, why not just embrace it?
Thankfully, the sonics of each’s newest album reflect at least some homage to the before era of “Blank Space” and “Sorry.” Bieber choosing to return to the R&B ideas of his overlooked Journals and Swift offering sugar-coated empowerment drawing from Red. If both stay faithful to this musical direction, perhaps I can skip out on the documentary woke musings and just jam some “I Forgot That You Existed.”