Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, feminism and the art of Show & Tell

This is a lot less timely than I would have liked it to be, but I’m a busy girl okay I have lots of working commitments and social obligations nowadays. Let’s just pretend it’s two weeks ago or whenever and that Taylor Swift has got Apple Music to pay artists during their 3 month free trial period and Katy Perry has just been announced as the Forbes cover girl in her capacity as the highest paid female entertainer of the year. Cue the dreamy, floaty, flashback music!

“It’s a bold move.” That was my instinctive response to Taylor Swift’s “open letter” published on her Tumblr page, beseeching Apple to pay artists fairly. “Monumental” and “potentially game changing” are my second and third thoughts. In the streaming war, everyone knows that Apple are more Galactic Empire than Galactic Republic. To challenge Apple is to be almost recklessly defiant. If Jay Z and his Tidal accomplices make up the Rebel Alliance in this hamfisted Star Wars analogy, Taylor Swift set herself up as Han, Luke and Leia rolled into one. The unexpected outlier that could change the course of history.

In the end there was no battle. In less than 24 hours, senior VP Eddy Cue rolled over on command and barked like a dog. Taylor patted him on the head, said “good boy” and released latest album 1989 to the service as a reward for good behaviour. What had started out looking like a bold, Mockingjay act of dissent took more of the colour of a well executed power play designed to bring maximum good PR to both parties. Nevertheless, the tide was turned. New boyfriend, Calvin Harris declared “his girl had changed the music industry” and Taylor Swift was a hero. Curtain call to standing ovation. The end.

Taylor’s motives are perhaps by-the-by, all things considered. She got the job done. Artists (and songwriters) will be compensated for their work as is just and good. Still, it unsettles me a little that ostensibly the most powerful woman in music right now would position herself as just-an-itty-bitty-artist-asking-oh-so-sweetly-for-the-big-men-to-be-nice-to-everybody instead of as a shrewd business woman who knows her worth to the cent demanding the money that is rightly owed to her.

taylor swift apple

And make no mistake, Taylor Swift is mercenary. We’re talking about a woman (and brand) who trademarks commonly used phrases, threatens legal action against fans who make merchandise for Etsy, and pulls down audience video of her concerts from YouTube in case the shitty quality, shaky hand footage proves satisfactory enough of an experience for a casual ticket buyer and robs her of a sale. Her parents work/worked in the financial sector and if she wasn’t a popstar she would almost certainly be a stockbroker or an accountant by now. If you thought Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video was gruesome, you definitely don’t have the stomach to even imagine what might happen when Taylor gets mean about the green.

My patience with the over-the-top feting of Taylor’s feminist credentials wears ever thin, but what really can be admired about her is the fact that she is not afraid to put dollars in the bank. As a quality, it’s proven to be mostly lacking in the average woman. We don’t know what we’re worth. We don’t know how to ask for the pay that we deserve. We are paid 80% of what our male counterparts are. Even if the wage gap is closed, it’s hard to see how we will change this deeply engrained under-confidence in asking for the money we want and deserve. This is an under-confidence Taylor Swift doesn’t have, and she squandered an opportunity to set a huge example for young women worldwide by not showcasing her formidable business acumen on a world stage like that. The open letter, posted guilessly to Tumblr, advocated fairness for all, but anyone who has been even vaguely following Taylor’s history with streaming services and her stance on the value of music, could tell that even if this noble reckoning was a factor, the real issue was that the bottom line wasn’t right for her. The honest (and more powerful) (and moreĀ empowering) stance from a woman who has the ear of just about every preteen, teen and young adultĀ  would have ran something like: “I am the biggest female popstar – wait, scratch that – I am the biggest popstar period on the planet right now, and you, Spotify, Tidal and all the rest of you fuckers, are not paying me what I am worth.”

Which leads me on to Katy Perry.

The Forbes cover, headlined “AMERICA’S POP EXPORT” and featuring Katy dressed in a power suit patterened with golden glittering dollar signs is a lot playful, a little tacky and very sledgehammer obvious, no real finesse. Much like Katy herself. It’s an uncalculated “realness” (and an admitted lack of proper, formal education) that leads her, in my opinion, to be very polarising and certainly more of a lightning rod of hate than her peers. There is no ambiguity with Katy Perry; you very much say what you see, see what you get and get what she’s gonna give you. On announcing her Forbes cover, in an instagram post, her words were as bald and univocal as ever:

Before accepting the offer to be on the cover of Forbes, I was told that a lot of women have previously shied away from doing it. I wondered if it was because they thought socially it would look like they were flaunting or bragging or it wasn’t a humble decision. Ladies, there is a difference between being humble and working hard to see the fruits of your labor blossom, and your dreams realized. Hopefully this cover can be an inspiration to women out there that it’s okay to be proud of hard earned success and that there is no shame in being a boss.

This statement came a mere week after the resolution between Taylor and Apple. A mere week after I had lamented in a long iMessage conversation to a friend that Taylor had failed to own what could have been a glorious feminist moment to warrant all the feminist praise she only seems to get because she has lots of friends that are women. And now here Katy Perry was making the point so explicitly, but apparently getting none of the credit. Why?

imrsInterestingly, both Taylor and Katy have gone through their own personal 180 on feminism recently, having shied away from self-ascribing the term “feminist” before realising “wait we are incredibly successful women making equal amounts of history in a male-dominated industry and lots of what we do is feminist even though we don’t use the word but also the word is quite fashionable at the moment so maybe we should use it after all.” The rub, for me, is that while Katy may not quite have the talk down pat, she is confidently walking the walk, whereas Taylor is very much all mouth and no wearing-the-trousers. But guess who’s getting all the credit?

The art of telling and not showing is an art that Taylor Swift is the master of. She has spent the entire 1989 campaign advocating female friendship and supporting other women (because she is a feminist now and that is what feminism means to her) by posting carefully orchestrated, spontaneously planned fun photoshoots with a small country’s worth of gorgeous second string starlets (and Lena Dunham), even carefully seasoning with some colour after the rumbles that she didn’t seem to know anybody who was black grew too loud to ignore. Wool carefully pulled over eyes, she then spectacularly reverted to form with ‘Bad Blood’, a lukewarm diss track aimed at Katy Perry (allegedly for stealing her dancers but more probably for dating her ex-boyfriend) by recruiting all her famous friends to make a Sin City style venegance video. Taylor Swift has yet to really do anything feminist other than say that she is one now, but that doesn’t stop everyone from Buzzfeed to Jezebel and all that lies in between hailing her as our new feminist saviour.

Katy Perry, on the other hand, has pushed an agenda of female unity – without ever really saying so – from the very beginning of her career. From her first music video which featured a pre-‘Tik Tok’ Ke$ha as an extra, through to her astonishing career-changing Teenage Dream-era which has given her the power to handpick support acts ranging from Robyn and Janelle Monae to Marina & The Diamonds and Ellie Goulding and more recently artists like Kacey Musgraves, Tegan & Sara and Tove Lo, and via a long and genuine friendship with Rihanna, the history of Katy Perry’s support for other women is there for all to see. Even her response to Taylor’s baiting warranted a mere “beware the Regina George in sheeps clothing” tweet and nothing more. She of course does not have a clean social justice rep sheet, but when it comes down to who you’re more likely to see burning a bra – for want of a less awful cliche – the smart money is on Katy, not Taylor.

We are, perhaps, growing weary of the “who is a feminist” and the accompanying “who is a good feminist” narrative, but it warrants notice that a statement as uncompromisingly strident as the statement Katy made in not just agreeing to a Forbes cover (when other women before her had shied away) but in saying what she did about her decision to do so, has gone relatively unnoticed, unhighlighted and unpraised for the precedent it sets and how inspiring it can be for working women at boss all the way down to entry level. I look forward to the moment Taylor so blatantly speaks or acts on feminism without using it merely as a convenient shield to deflect personal criticism. It is almost a deceit to appear as though she gets by on sunshine, lollipops, rainbows and politely written letters alone. She is a hugely dominant and influential player, and it would be super badass if she started showing it.

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3 thoughts on “Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, feminism and the art of Show & Tell

  1. Love this! If I’m honest I’m starting to find all Taylor’s friendships a little bit irritating, she’s constantly showing off all her contacts as if feminism means you have to like everybody- but then the second she dislikes someone she makes another huge deal about it? I really respect her as an artist but it’s like she can only do things in extremes. Really interesting post it summed up lots of things I was wondering!
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    Like

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