Both innocence and fame are classically American obsessions, but they can make for strange, even contradictory bedfellows. Desiring to be famous is a clear sign of ambition; but ambition is opposed to humility, and humility is intrinsic to innocence. Becoming famous requires reflection, strategic insight, some measure of shrewdness regarding the more shadowy sectors of the human spirit; yet innocence, radiant with goodness and goodwill, casts no shadows and gives rise to no reflections. Innocence, then, is nothing more or less than the price of fame — not all of us can admit this, but at some level we all understand it. Not all Americans become famous. As with much else in this country, you can pay the price but never get the goods. But seeing as all Americans desire fame, then it’s fairly certain, in any case, that none of us are innocent.
Nonetheless, it’s somehow tempting to believe that one can be at once innocent and famous. It would be un-American to believe that you can’t have it all, especially when you really happen to be very famous and even more especially when you happen to have gotten very famous by presenting yourself as an innocent. Taylor Swift wasn’t the only one to do this, of course: There’s been no shortage of female pop stars who have been initially offered up to the mass audience as a wholesome and untainted figure. But what’s separated Swift from contemporaries such as Miley Cyrus or Ariana Grande has been Swift’s tenacity in maintaining her innocence.
While her other white peers, after coming of age, represented themselves as less naïve and more sexual, Swift has persisted in playing her original part, that of the wide-eyed underdog ingénue fighting against the indignities visited upon her by dishonest men. And in an era where rap and R&B had merged into mainstream pop, Swift, beginning her career as a precocious country artist before seamlessly transitioning to the polished pop mechanics mastered by Max Martin, was the great outlier. Her pop seems to emerge from an alternate universe where black American music and culture fail to resonate. Listening to her albums, it’s clear that the main impression left by her work is that of an extremely high technical proficiency which, more and more, substitutes for felt emotion instead of amplifying it: machine-perfect music heightening the sense of pristine quality emerging from chaste lyrics framing a clean persona. Whatever the realities of her actual existence, in her art and publicity she remains the same romantic, asexual, self-evidently virtuous figure that she had put forward in her first, self-titled album in 2006 (an album which, it should be said, is very good).
Swift’s song remains, essentially, the same, but her circumstances have greatly changed in the intervening decade, and changed precisely because of her gift for melody and tone. She’s no longer the high-school freshman protesting, with uncommon intelligence and eloquence, the caddish behavior of a senior boyfriend. She’s an adult celebrity who commands a gigantic audience, holds tremendous clout within the music industry, and, almost as an afterthought, is unfathomably wealthy. She’s not just a celebrity, but an empire. Socially speaking, Swift will never be an underdog again; professionally and personally, she’s now at a permanent advantage. None of this just happened to her, either. She wanted to be famous, extremely famous, and, together with her family and handlers, she was shrewd enough to realize her desire. No one can become so famous and still retain any genuine innocence, least of all regarding fame. A certain degree of hypocrisy is inevitable for Swift, as it would be for any celebrity. Yet her insistence on her own faultlessness remains so sustained as to verge on the neurotic. For all of her canniness, she seems unable to progress beyond an idealized image of herself as someone who is ever the target of malice and never its source.
If Swift has made herself rich and famous in large part by projecting a vision of innocence wronged, Kanye West has made himself rich and famous by transmitting a message of complicity confirmed. Kanye’s lyrics have always been animated by his keen sense that the price of elevation to mainstream fame for a black artist involves embracing, if only in part, collaboration with racist power structures — involves being, in effect, a “rich slave in the fabric store picking cotton.” And if Swift’s vision of innocence precludes any display or acknowledgment of sexuality, it’s certain that whatever the ultimate meaning of Kim Kardashian West ends up being, that meaning will be sexually charged. Proving Kanye was guilty of a tasteless and gratuitous reference to one day having sex with Taylor Swift in a song (and then music video) called “Famous” is beside the point. Whatever Kanye’s faults, not admitting to his faults has never been one of them: His life and art are structured around the assumption, confession, and then paying back of enormous debts, whether financial or spiritual. Kanye’s point was never that he is innocent, but that we (whoever “we” are) are guilty. Finding Kim to be unscrupulous or underhanded in exposing Taylor Swift as mendacious and disingenuous is equally beside the point: It’s not as if she swore allegiance to a code of chivalry, and more than anyone she knows that the game of fame and reputation has always been played without rules.
The only point that matters is that Taylor Swift has been exposed as mendacious and disingenuous: The spotless image she’s carefully cultivated and profited hugely from for at least a decade has been irrevocably marred. But even if Swift doesn’t manage to squirm out of the pinch she’s put herself in, it’s not as disastrous for her as it may look. Her vast army of core fans, who adore her as they do themselves, would rally around her even if she were filmed firing pistols at a caged penguin. The sales for her next album won’t suffer — spurred by the anticipation of more drama, they’ll rise to new heights.
What would be best, though, is if Swift recognizes the opportunity — favor, really — that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have presented her for what it is. She can reconstruct, as best she can, the bubble of exceptional innocence that’s surrounded her for almost half her life, if not more: Preliminary signs indicate that she’s doing precisely that. But, assuming she can overcome her sense of humiliation, there’s a chance for her to abandon a posture which has increasingly limited her range and interest as an artist. No amount of expertise with words and harmonies can compensate for an untenable basic tone: Favorites shouldn’t play at being underrated, and the famous shouldn’t play at being unexposed. (If there was a point to Kanye’s “Famous” music video, it was probably that.) Whatever her real character behind the mask of fame may be, Taylor Swift is a musician of rare gifts. She’s very good in that sense. But for some strange reason, greatness involves an open admission of one’s faults and imperfections, and until she manages that, there’s nothing to expect from her except more of the same. Innocence sounds nice enough but, left alone too long, it’s hard to tell apart from boredom.