If, for marketing purposes, Rihanna had to say she was once a good girl who went bad (to contrast herself with someone like Christina Aguilera, a bad girl gone sad), or if Britney Spears had to proclaim that she was not a girl not yet a woman (to place herself between Debbie Gibson and total commercial irrelevancy), what is notable about Taylor Swift’s good-girlness is that it is so obvious as to not need its own song. For her to make a single out of the matter would be like Justin Bieber recording a track called “Three Cheers For My Unthreatening Sexuality.” If America had its own Marianne, she would be a lot like the megaselling singer, who is (perhaps unintentionally) styled to look like Princess Buttercup. She becomes literally wide-eyed when someone pays her a compliment; her family owned a Shetland pony; she wrote her first hit single in math class.
As a result of her public image and the general lack of explicit content in her songs—even when nightclubbing comes up on Red‘s “22”, it’s portrayed as ending with “breakfast at midnight,” hardly “and ’round about four you gotta clear the lobby” antics—she’s widely spoken of as a role model for young girls. For her first and second albums, this quality was a boon; for her third album, it was a starting point. But it’s starting to become a liability. A younger pop star who’s relatable and who can convincingly reflect teens’ self-perception of their own lives back to them, while also making parents comfortable enough to chaperone their concerts, can, in this Glee-loving era, sell a dumptruck full of records.
But where do you go from there? Naïveté is a charming quality in the young, but vaguely unsettling in an adult, and certainly not a good quality for a pop star. (Aguilera was right that idols should be Dirrty, but wrong in assuming that the public wants them to openly announce that fact.) Tavi Gevinson, the 16-year-old editor of Rookie who made a well-known video of herself crying while lip-synching Swift’s “You Belong To Me,” wrote that she had “decided to get back into Taylor Swift, whom I hadn’t really listened to since middle school,” saying that she “felt a pang of desire to be part of that culture of friendship bracelets, and making the shape of a heart with your hands, and taking silly high school drama really seriously.” That image of Swift—an entirely accurate and useful one—is great for catalog sales, but not so great for cultivating a fanbase that’s interested in growing with her.
How does someone whose appeal rested on trinkets and hand gestures convincingly embody a character who is edgy, world-weary, and wise? During the naughts, conventional wisdom dictated that the only way to do this was to slowly roll out a more sexualized version of the initial incarnation: The Disney Channel star has to stop being a clean teen and start being a gritty pop artist. The only former idol who seemed to do it successfully was Justin Timberlake, who mostly did it by making two classic pop albums and rending a woman’s clothing on live television.
The prototypical example of this transition—which is to say the one that went totally, utterly off the rails—is Britney Spears. The strenuous attempts to define “adult Britney” as “sexy Britney” ran headlong into the reality of what actual adult people do, which is some combination of running around acting like a super-fun asshole and/or getting married and having kids. This tension between the marketed image of Spears as a domineering, erotic creature of the night and the private—but immensely visible—image of Britney as someone who mostly wanted to eat junk food in her sweats while hanging out with her kids and occasionally get drunk with friends (as one does!) culminated in her tumultuous mid-naughts, from her quickly annulled marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander in January 2004 to the loss of her kids to ex-husband Kevin Federline in October 2007. She was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital in January 2008 and has been under the conservatorship (which is to say total legal control) of her father ever since. [...]