Taylor Swift swallows the world

by Sam Kriss

And he was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

Here’s a strange and ugly question: what does Taylor Swift actually look like? It’s strange. There are things that look like Taylor Swift – penguins, kettles, the Rapa Nui moai of Easter Island, teacups – but it’s always a one-way resemblance. They follow her, while Taylor Swift is one of those dangerous rarities: a person that doesn’t look like anything. Not strange-looking, exactly, not amorphous or indistinct, but vast: a trackless and uncharted infinity. Something hungry. Taylor Swift has always resisted the crude general categories that female recording artists are usually shunted into: never quite succumbing to the coruscatingly coquettish malice of the teen icon, or steatopygous sexual auto-objectification, or modish androgyny. She started her career in a universe of dusty country backroads, sternly Protestant plantation houses, glittered acoustic guitars; moved through bowler-hatted Instagram-filtered hipsterdom (“Who’s Taylor Swift anyway, ew?” Good question) into tragic, vampish kink-tinged opulence – but it’s not like she ever really changed; she’s always been eternally, irreducibly Taylor Swift. All these worlds were assimilated into her – and she could contain them, because she doesn’t look like anything. Her lyrics are, very deliberately, relateable. They’re a language through which we can express our own experiences, but a language can never describe the world without also reconstructing it in its own image. When a fan sings we are never ever getting back together to herself, is it because she and Taylor Swift have shared similar experiences, or because her experiences take place on a terrain where Taylor Swift rules alone, queen of all she surveys, in the dark and many-turreted castle of the signifier?

Look at the picture above. Which one is Taylor Swift? The blonde in the middle, right? Wrong. It’s a symbol. The civilisations of antiquity had the Muses, the medieval era had the Virtues, we have Taylor Swift and the Haim sisters. They represent (like Anna and Elsa in Frozen, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, or the various sides in the Syrian civil war) the opposing aspects of a single psyche. Hers? No, of course not. Yours.

The picture is also notable – it kicked off a small panic on social media sites – for the fact that it shows Taylor Swift’s belly button. For years now, she’s made a point of never showing her navel, carefully engineering various crop tops and swimsuits to keep it hidden from paparazzi and their slobbering navel-crazed public. Fine: I don’t tend to make a point of parading around my naked umbilicus either. It’s a revolting hole, a foetid salty lint-clogged scar, a gaping absence that’s only a reminder of something irretrievably lost. With only that hole remaining the condition of humanity must always be one of absolute disconnection; we’ve been snipped apart from a primal unity, and it’s not coming back until the day we die. Our genitals tell us that we can bring ourselves together, and even create something new; our navels whisper bitterly that we will always be alone. In the enlightened society of the future, they will always be covered; the belly button more than deserves its share of the socially mandated shame that somehow bypasses it in its mad rush southwards from nipples to pudenda. But it’s not just that. The navel marks a person as a created being; by feigning for so long to be without one Taylor Swift is positioning herself as a human acheiropoieton, something outside the dreary chain of reproductive existence. A new Eve? Or something more? Something that exists now, and always has, and always will?

Another question. In mid-July of last year I found myself washing up like a sea-blanched Coke can against the Greyhound station near Miami airport, just in time to miss my bus. The sky was as hard and hot and metallic as the planes searing through it; its blue wasn’t that of a high firmament but an ecchymosis, low and virulent, and between its petrol-tinged fury and the baking concrete I knew I was in an evil place, somewhere absolutely opposed to all human life. Maybe once, when it was all still bubbling, toothy swamps, someone could have lived in South Florida at the brutal height of summer, just about. Now that it’s been paved over it’s the inferno; death expressed as an architectural form. I arrived sweating, with my face in a medically improbable shade of deep scarlet. I was on the point of collapse: the last hour had been spent swimming through the stifling airless air, phoneless and mapless, trying to find the bus station somewhere among the dusty buildings (all apparently abandoned), the screechingly indifferent freeways, and the constant overhead jet-engine roar surrounding me. When I got in, I found a large fan and just clung to it, pressing my grimy face against the grille, letting the cool air blast into my sodden armpits. I stank. As the sweat dried off my skin, I could see myself slowly desiccate into a tiny, wrinkled, malodorous raisin of a man. It was at this point – probably the lowest point in my life – that someone started talking to me.

A woman, etiolated but cheerfully spherical, asked me if I’d seen the news. I hadn’t. It was her: every TV station showed non-stop, round the clock footage of her, whenever she wasn’t watching it. Limbs throbbing with exhaustion, skin dangling in sheets, I must have gaped. All true, she explained. The same power that had made her the transcendental object for the entire culture industry had granted her other strange and incredible gifts. I can tell you what you’re thinking right now, she said. She told me. She was right. All this, she said, was the work of none other than the award-winning Latin pop artist Enrique Iglesias, in his manifestation as Cloud-Man, an empyrean figure she seemed to identify with the God of Abraham. In the beginning, Enrique Iglesias created the heavens and the earth. It’s not an uncommon belief; once you notice it you’ll find it everywhere. There’s the person who exhaustively livetweets her efforts to exterminate the black race with the unflagging assistance of Donald and Melinda Trump; or John Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan at the unspoken behest of Jodie Foster; even the widely accepted axiom that Jay Z and Beyoncé are parents to the Antichrist. Nietzsche, going mad in his Turin apartment, believed himself to be violently forming a new world order in conspiracy with the French poet Catulle Mendès, very much the Enrique Iglesias of his day. The question: what’s the deal with madness and celebrity? Why do mad people, who generally have a far more unified and coherent conception of the world than the sane, require the interposition of a celebrity figure to tie everything together? And aren’t we all, without realising it, somehow doing the same thing?

Maybe she was right; she just chose the wrong celebrity. It’s recently been revealed that Taylor Swift has registered as trademarks several common phrases, including Nice to meet you, where you been; Party like it’s 1989, and This sick beat (the latter for use in, among other things, animal skins and hides, whips, harnesses, and saddlery). This doesn’t mean that her jackbooted trademark lawyers will start snatching gurning crater-eyed idiots from warehouse raves and ambulant combovers from awful office parties, imprisoning them in non-sexy torture dungeons for the crime of using these words without proper attribution. As ever, the law tends to just acknowledge the actual situation after the fact. Language as a means of intersubjective communication is increasingly becoming a property of Taylor Swift, in the same way that thought and extension are for Spinoza attributes of God. So much of all speech is already mediated by Taylor Swift (try it for yourself; at the next party you go to try to discern any conversation that isn’t in some way about her) that when she finally becomes the unquestioned universal signifier, all that will happen is that a small portion of the discussion of Taylor Swift will, somehow, have to also be about something other than Taylor Swift.

Our future won’t be too different. When you buy flatpack furniture, the little instruction booklet will, as a matter of course, show Taylor Swift (in a retro halterneck polka-dot dress) correctly assembling your crappy nightstand. You’ll soon get used to her constant presence in TV ads: loveable-loser-husband-Taylor Swift surprising bitchy-wife-Taylor Swift and the Taylor Swift kids with some surprisingly edible boil-in-the-bag rice; Taylor Swift finally plucking up the courage to ask Taylor Swift out on a date, once she’s gobbled up some extra-minty chewing gum; black and white footage of Taylor Swift falling off a ladder at work as dedicated-lawyer-Taylor Swift reads out the toll-free number. A few things might jar at first: North Korean Ambassador Taylor Swift’s furious speech at the United Nations, or the first blurry security footage of a greasy-haired and trenchcoated Taylor Swift carrying out grisly gun massacre in a Minneapolis mall – but after a while, you’ll find it hard to remember how things could ever have existed before. After all, it’s impossible to think outside of language.

Usually, this is where I’d rail against the coming Swiftopia, but here I don’t really see the point. Taylor Swift is a grown woman and a successful recording artist; if she wants to transform herself into the fundamental substance of the entire Symbolic order that’s her business, and I’m sure she’ll do a decent job of it. The signifier is essentially hollow; it doesn’t matter what it actually is as long as it performs its function. Taylor Swift might have to release a few less commercially-oriented albums to make all this fully possible – one to allow the translation of Hegel into the new language, another to make sure football commentaries don’t lose any of their immediate comprehensibility – but, based on current trends, the whole process shouldn’t take more than about a decade. The only question is why Taylor Swift is doing this; why she’s decided to swallow the world.

I think I know. It’s not for us. We’re collateral damage, that’s all. Taylor Swift first really came to global attention when her acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards was interrupted by Kanye West, who grabbed the microphone and explained to a shocked audience that the award should have gone to Beyoncé instead. Kanye is, of course, none other than a modern-day reincarnation of Friedrich Nietzsche. In 1889, Yeezy wrote that he was once the Buddha, Dionysus, Caesar, Bacon, Napoleon and Voltaire; it would be strange if he did not come down from the mountains once more to speak with us again. The man who declares himself to be a god and insists that he is the end and limit of all music is the same as the one who wrote chapter titles like Why I am so clever and Why I am a destiny. When Kanye called himself a proud non-reader of books it was with the same voice as when he wrote that early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness! Kanye doesn’t just repeat Nietzsche, or imitate him; like Pierre Menard with the Quixote he says it all again, for the first time. It can only go on forever.

Dionysus is always reborn, but first he must die: whenever he comes unto us, Nietzsche is always already doomed. There are vast opposing forces from beyond this world that keep him locked in a constant chiasmic dialectic. Apollo, Brutus, Wellington. This time it’s appeared in the form of Taylor Swift. Their two fates were forever linked the moment Kanye bounded onto the stage at the Radio City Music Hall to snatch the mic from her hands. From that day, Kanye would continue to create, to become madder and more brilliant with every passing year, sailing out across the cosmos, trying to escape her – and his destiny. But Taylor Swift entered the language. When she’s done, Kanye will never be able to interrupt her again. He’ll never be able to upstage her. He’ll never be able to speak, without speaking about Taylor Swift.

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