Taylor Swift opened the Billboard Music Awards last night with a marching band. You know where this is going – where else could it go? The comparisons were inevitable, non? Like, there is no way no one wouldn’t have picked up on it, especially since we just came off that major milestone of a cultural event.
As usual, Twitter came through. How about our very own Kathleen with a hall of fame tweet:
I sent this one to her later, because if you know it, you KNOW it. LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.
Is Beyoncé the first ever artist to use a marching band? No. Other artists have brought out marching bands. Madonna did the marching band several years ago, several years before Beychella and Homecoming. When Madonna did the marching band, though, it wasn’t for a performance that would go down in pop culture history as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, live shows in history, a show that is now branded in our collective memories. And, also, Homecoming is FRESH. It’s like two people wearing the same outfit a week apart. If you were planning on a certain look but someone else happened to be in the same look before you, if you had resources, would you come out a few days later in the same look – or would you maybe wait a while before you decided to go out there in that look?
So this is the issue. And this is the discussion – if you’re Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, basically the biggest name in the game, sent out a marching band for the masterpiece of her already legendary career, what’s the work strategy behind choosing to go with such a similar visual? Taylor’s fans and supporters will say that the marching band is in the “ME!” video and that she was continuing with that aesthetic, that she’s done marching bands before in her videos, and that this was never intended to be a copy of Beyoncé. OK but then that brings up another question…
If she’s done it before…
Well, it appears that “new” is not the operative word. Taylor is no longer declining interviews, she’s been doing interviews the last several days to promote the single and the upcoming album. Last night Taylor walked the carpet, performed, and was in her seat in the audience for at least half of the show, up on her feet, singing along, dancing along, shouting encouragement to her fellow artists. The old Taylor was back in the building, the old Taylor is on the phone right now. The always Taylor has never been subtle with the imagery.
The “ME!” video opens with a snake that explodes into a butterfly – because Taylor, apparently, is the only one who benefitted from Thanos’s snap. In an interview with Zane Lowe for Beats 1, Taylor says that she has shed the personal she adopted during the reputation era. Per Variety:
“This new music is much more playful and actually inward facing,” she said, comparing it with the defensive tone that characterized several of the key “Reputation” tracks two years ago. “Like, when you get into this album, it’s much more about me as a person — no pun intended with the song title. But it’s kind of taking those walls, taking that bunker down from around you that I felt like I had to put up…”
Swift talked about the good vibes on the “Reputation” tour affecting her decision to go quickly back to an every-other-year album cycle instead of the three-year wait that preceded the last album.
“The aesthetic for the music I make is usually a reflection of how I feel as a person,” she said. “During the ‘Reputation’ stadium tour, I started to feel my life. … like a different soundtrack playing behind my life. And I really do credit the fans for the complete resurgence of exuberance and excitement towards music and making new music. … I’m ready to kind of do it a little bit more like I used to. I feel more comfortable.”
Looking back on the darker tone of “Reputation,” Swift also acknowledged that the 2017 album had twin narratives. “At the beginning of that entire album process, I was very defiantly putting up a defense mechanism. It was like reflecting on the persona you had felt had been crafted and constructed for you. And that was the first time I’d ever done that with an album. The album kind of had two different sides to it. You had very weaponized songs that were very much antsy. And then you had the real story of the album, which was basically about love and real love and real friendship and finding those things in and amongst feeling very, very misunderstood in a lot of ways in your life.”
The no-interviews policy had to do with “certain times in your career where if you say something it’s going to be misconstrued, and if you don’t, it’s going to be misconstrued. You might as well just make music and do what you do and keep your head down. I at the very beginning of the album was pretty proud of coining the term, ‘There will be no explanation. There will just be reputation.’ … I stuck with it. I didn’t go back on it. I didn’t try to explain the album because I didn’t feel that I owed that to anyone. There was a lot that happened over a couple of years that made me feel really, really terrible. And I didn’t feel like expressing that to them. I didn’t feel like talking about it. I just felt like making music, then going out on the road and doing a stadium tour and doing everything I could for my fans. … I didn’t need to try and get every headline or try to get the cover of this or the cover of that. I just needed to think of ways to reach out to them in ways I hadn’t even thought of before. So the relationship between me and fans really actually strengthened throughout the course of ‘Reputation.'”
Basically, then, a teen emerging from a goth phase to become… who she was before? The thing about so many of the greats is that they don’t want to do what they did before. That’s how Madonna became the Mother of Reinvention. It’s why Beyoncé keeps raising her own bar, never content to fall back on past highs. Taylor Swift has established herself as a first class songwriter. That is her undeniable gift. She is so, so, SO great at songwriting – but the question is: has there been growth? Does “ME!” as a song represent growth? And does the performance of “ME!”, both in the video and on stage last night at the BBMAs, represent growth?
One of the guiding themes on this site has been the relationship between “want” and “need”. Duana introduced it over a decade ago when referring to storytelling: always give them what they “need”, not what they “want”. In movies and in TV, the “want” vs the “need” is played out in fan service. On Game of Thrones, for example, seeing Jon Snow ride Rhaegal for that long, “A Whole New World” styles, was fan service. The scene didn’t need to go on forever. The length of it doesn’t advance anything. If the Hound fights his brother, Cersei’s monster, a matchup that fans have called “Clegane Bowl”, that is fan service too. The Clegane Brothers headlining WrestleMania does nothing for the story – it won’t add to the Hound’s character development and nobody gives a sh-t about the Mountain’s character anyway. That is “want” not “need”.
Taylor Swift has a special relationship with her fans. They hunt down all her clues, they play the simple games she designs for them. They sustain her. She rewards them. It’s not a bad thing… until it becomes more “want” over “need”. Until the fan service stops advancing the story.
So far, with “ME!”, Taylor hasn’t advanced the story of the songwriting, perhaps because she’s servicing the “want” of her fans over the “need”. That said, this is just one song. The album, whenever it comes out, whatever it ends up being, might be much more “need” than “want”. I hope so. As noted many times in this space, I’m a big fan of 1989 because she moved forward, not back. Let’s see if the new album, overall, goes in the same direction.