Style, a new song by Taylor Swift. The lyrics tell the simple story of a fraught relationship. Swift is picked up by a male lover who she can’t stop thinking about despite the fact he rarely calls and is rumoured to have been sleeping with other women. He drives a little recklessly and they eventually go back to her house. He admits the rumours are true and Swift also states that she has been sleeping with others. A catchy chorus intersperses these dramatic moments:
“You got that James Dean, day-dream look in your eye
And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like
And when we go crashing down, we come back every time.
Cause we never go out of style,
We never go out of style.”
The chorus captures two central themes of the song. The first is that of crashing: be it a car or a relationship. Nevertheless, Swift asserts that they will survive the metaphorical car crash of their partnership and keep returning to one another. The second theme concerns their looks – they are both classically and timelessly attractive. Other verses sing of his “long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt” and her “good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” Meanwhile, the video shows Swift and a male model casting smouldering looks, walking in front of projected images, holding up pieces of glass, striking poses, getting wet by the sea and generally doing what conventionally good-looking people do.
However, there is something very concerning about the central message of this song. The fact that Swift and her partner will never go out of style because of their looks is basically a threat: if you’re not one of the stylish few then you never will be. If a man does not look like James Dean and if a woman does not look like Taylor Swift then it’s off to the ‘ugly’ pile. Now, a social hierarchy based on looks is no new concept but it does often rest on the presumption that beauty is an objectively measurable scarce resource possessed by a lucky few. Furthermore, the less this view is questioned and contextualised the more it seems that the timelessness of beauty is an unquestionable truth. Hence, Swift’s ability to never go out of style.
But I like context and ours is one of capitalist, consumerist patriarchy. Bodies are constantly commodified and objectified by consumer capitalism’s endless quest to turn everything into profit. Advertising, films and television fall back on simplistic tropes of body image in an effort to get us to hate our bodies and buy their products. It is not that the people we see on adverts are more beautiful than the rest of us – bearing in mind they are heavily made up and airbrushed – it is that a group of predominantly male ad execs with limited imagination and social awareness will have once again failed to exercise any creativity or compassion. Meanwhile, whilst sexism is continually being challenged it still remains rampant – in the streets, in work places, in the home and in presentations of beauty. Watch 4music for any prolonged period of time and more often than not it is women who are presented sexually on-screen and reduced to sexual objects in lyrics. It happens to men too, but not as much. Furthermore, these women are often held accountable for how they appear rather than the larger dehumanising cultural and political milieu. In essence, sexist, consumerist capitalism dictates to and sells us a very limited, dubious conception of beauty.
So what could beauty look like in a world beyond patriarchy and consumerism? Imagine a beauty that transcends gender binaries, one that is happy to embrace queer bodies and blurred boundaries, rather than forcing us into little boxes. Imagine a beauty that ages, one with wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hairs, rather than one that relentlessly presents youth as the one thing worth possessing even though aging is the one thing we all do. Imagine a beauty that is not dictated to us by billboards and those who profit from them, not predicated on the fear of loss, and not treated as a scarce resource in constant need of capitalisation, but one that is an abundant commons available to all, hierarchy free, enjoyed as it changes, enjoyed because it changes and never answerable to currency.
This unfettered beauty already exists in our society and is available to all, should we wish to engage with it. Of course, it can be very difficult to feel beautiful in a society where we are constantly made to feel ashamed of ourselves for the way we look. Challenging this agenda will be tough but worth it as we prove that style is something for all of us and not just reserved for the James Dean and Taylor Swift lookalikes, although they are welcome to partake of it too.