Personal un-branding and the financialization of whiteness: or, let’s actually LISTEN to Taylor Swift as she shakes it off

With the rise of fashion trends like K-Hole’s normcore style and the Gap’s watered-down “Dress Normal” campaign, it seems like “uncool” has itself become a way for elites to opt-out of the imperative to build “cool” human capital, a “cool” personal brand. In the same way that audio loudness is rapidly going out of fashion in favor of dynamic range, which is seen as both better for business and for the health of our hearing and the music itself, could deregulated gaga limit-pushing have maxed itself out as a profitable form of self-investment?

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” suggests that “uncool” is how elites demonstrate their individual resilience and flexibilty, their ability to transcend rigid ‘codes,’ like gendered stereotypes or racialized controlling images–or, more importantly, racialized genre conventions–and follow the distinctive groove in their head and theirs alone…A groove that, though professed to be idiosyncratic and deeply individual, also reads as un-branded, non-specialized pop.

“Shake It Off” is the lead single on Swift’s 2014 album 1989, which was explicitly intended to move her from country crossover squarely into pop territory. So, in part, the song is about her musical transcendence of the genre-based narrowness of country and conquest of the limitless possibilities of the pop mainstream and all its tributaries. We hear this in the song’s instrumentation. As Billboard’s Jason Lipschutz remarks, her previous album’s hit singles “paired their fizzy melodies with slick guitar strums, but Shake It Off” disregards the instrument altogether, instead coiling its verses around a subtle saxophone line…Swift and company clearly have been paying attention to radio trends.” She shakes off the guitar and its’ country connotations, grooving instead to some stacatto bari sax beats and a horn line. The sax reads as “pop” not only because it has been a prominent feature of some recent pop hits (Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” Meghan Trainor’s “Lips Are Moving,” for example), it also, and perhaps more importantly, isn’t immediately associated with any contemporary pop sub-genre, like hip hop, or EDM, with their powerful, synthesized bass lines, or indie rock, with its bass guitar. Because the bari sax doesn’t have any immediately obvious sonic baggage, it can represent a generic, un-branded sonic space.

Un-branded sound is exactly what she’s after. As Kevin Fallon notes, her move to pop reads as the abandonment of her formerly quirky, “raw and genuine and sometimes even a little bit off key” aesthetic that was “a little bit country, a little bit folksy, a little bit barebones and lyrical and young and meaningful.” The ability to inhabit an un-branded pop space is not the kind of flexibility and adaptability that produces more intensely differentiated individuals (sort of like Darwinian selection, the evolution of identifying subcultural or genre markers). Rather, it’s the flexibility and adaptability of overcoming and transcending the imperative to be recognizably different, to compete with others for airtime, or market share of human capital. “Musically speaking,” Fallon argues, “with the blandly perfect pop-ness of “Shake It Off,” she sort of becomes…boring.” The song is certainly catchy, but it is at the same time totally “non-descript” (Fallon). Inhabiting the sonic space of pop means abandoning not just her debts to country, but also her distinctive “Swiftian” quirks.

Just as Swift the musician shakes off the narrowness of genre for the pluralism of pop, Swift the persona shakes off the limitations of narrow gendered stereotypes, like being a dumb blonde, or boy crazy, or fickle and irresponsible. The video makes this clear: she tries on and rejects a variety of racialized femininities, most of which are tied to musical genres (classical, R&B, rap, etc.). But this move isn’t just in the video–it’s in the song itself. In the first verse, when Swift’s narrator ticks off the accusations made against her (“I stay out too LATE/Got nothing in my BRAIN/That’s what people SAY…I go on too many DATES/But I can’t make ‘em STAY/That’s what people SAY,” she ends each phrase on an accented downbeat (the all caps). The words that sit on these accented downbeats list off either what she’s accused of, or the mode of her accusation (gossip). However, in the chorus, the final “off” in the twice-repeated “shake it off” lands on this very same accented downbeat. This implies that these accusations, this gossip–that’s exactly what crumbles off when she shakes.

The song represents both this shaking and its effect. Throughout the song, there is a pattern of quarter-note handclaps on 2, 3, 4. It appears on the final three beats of the measure leading into each chorus, right after the lyrics discuss “there’s this music in my mind sayin it’s gonna be alright,” and in the bridge after the phrase (which Swift has tried to trademark for merchandising purposes) “this.sick.beat.” It also appears on the final three beats of the chorus–the 2, 3, 4 of the measure that begins by landing on “off.” Its position in the song indicates that this pattern of handclaps is the music that Swift’s character should groove to if she’s to shake off all the identity and genre baggage she wants to overcome. Eventually, at the end of the bridge, leading up to what is effectively the song’s drop, she’s followed the three quarter-note shake pattern enough to loosen the “sick beat” into a an extended “shake, shake, shake,” which she recites across four beats. After shaking up the song’s rhythms, Swift belts out a wild vocal flourish where an “off” usually goes (which is also the place in a drop where the bass wobble usually goes). Those three shakes actually shook off the song’s imposed constraints, so Swift’s character can appear to offer a purely authentic expression unconstrained by external determinants–the embodiment of the music in her mind.

This vocal flourish can be heard as embodying the practice of Attalian composition as a structure of subjectivity, the sonic equivalent of what the lyrics call “Dancing on my own/Make the moves up as I go.” However, musically, it’s not “composed”–it’s not an emergent process, nor is it a proper sonic parallel to the apparently unstructured dancing we see at this point in the video. She belts that lick in an uncharacteristically Swiftian pop-diva-like move. To pull off that vocal flourish, Swift has to be a really good, practiced singer. This may actually be the most properly, traditionally “musical” moment in the whole song. And, it comes at a very compositionally savvy moment–a drop that is climactic precisely because it is (compared to other pop drops, even the one in her earlier single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) so demur. We may find it fun to watch apparently unchoreographed dancing, but would we really want to listen to an untrained singer or fifth-grade band students play this song? Or is this song musically pleasurable–”catchy”–only because Swift is a skilled musician working with a very smart team of collaborators?

This tension between the advice the song professes–shake off the rules–and the compositional and performance practices it follows–no, actually, please follow some rules–is reflected in what Kevin Fallon identifies as the “odd hypocrisy to the song and video as a package. The music video and the song’s lyrics are all about breaking the rules unapologetically…How confusing, then, that “Shake It Off” musically represents…Taylor Swift’s arrival as a run-of-the-mill, straight-and-narrow pop artist.” It cheers for individual distinctness in the most generic voice possible. But this tension isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It articulates a paradox central to white identity in a white supremacist society: for whites, the generic and the individual coincide because the generic is nothing but a false generalization of/from white existence and experience. In “Shake It Off,” what appears to be uncontrived expression is really the contrivances of whiteness as they materialize in Swift’s body and musical performance. She can simultaneously follow no explicit rules and yet perform in accordance with those rules because those rules are embodied in her supposedly authentic, natural self anyway, as her white, cis/heteronormative, feminine, “able” body (here we run up against Kant’s theory of genius working “as if” he followed no rules). (This is deregulation, par excellence: the carefully-manicured background conditions ensure that no matter what emerges, it’s safe.) That body also determines how her supposedly unruly expression is interpreted: it’s not toxic unruliness in need of quarantine (like Mike Huckabee describes Beyonce as “mental poison”), but relatable, accessible, and so unthreatening and non-transgressive as to feel boring.

“Shake It Off” leverages the undesirability of genre-branded human capital (‘cool’) in Swift’s favor: betting against her coolness, Swift actually wins. She appears to be breaking the rule of self-entrepreneurship, but in fact she’s found a way to make even better investments in the specific self she embodies. Her performance of pop genericness is an investment in her whiteness–acting and sounding uncool, Swift risks an uncompetitive performance, of failing to be exciting and buzzworthy enough to perform well on the record charts (and in social media metrics). Like, there are no dancing sharks here. However, because she is white, her non-branded-ness reads as uncool rather than as pathology: she doesn’t fail to meet the imperative to be cool, she transcends it. Swift shakes off both gendered and genre stereotypes, and the external judgment of others: she doesn’t need to concern herself with the market value others place on her, with her reputation. She’s free to be boring and vanilla (because that’s what she is). This freedom–the ability to succeed while being resolutely average (think George W Bush)–that’s the whiteness Swift’s hedged bet returns in abundance.

Swift’s un-branding financializes her whiteness. Think of it this way: if traditional white hipness passes through a performance of blackness (and/or femininity), it’s the M-C-M equivalent to uncool’s M-M1 intensification of whiteness. Blackness and femininity still play a role here: instead of occupying the role of the commodity in the M-C-M transaction, they are the exception. Rehearsing racialized, gendered genres and stereotypes as that which Swift overcomes, “Shake It Off” calls them up and articulates them as valueless in themselves, as risk that can be leveraged only by her, not by the people performing them earnestly. They’re not value or human capital that can be intensified as such, but risk that must be ventured by others in service of compounding the value of Swift’s own self-investment, risk that she shakes off as she closes the M-M1 circuit. And that’s what the performance of uncool does here: it intensifies the value and power of whiteness by rendering unprofitable risk as exception.

Later, in another post, I want to think about how this financialization of whiteness works as a post-feminist technology that folds some women performers into patriarchal privilege, while relegating others to positions of structural feminization. What distinguishes Swift’s performance of un-branded boring from Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl performance of branded spectacle (those sharks! the beach-ball bikini!), which many critiqued as boring (i.e., she wasn’t really into it, it was all spectacle no talent, etc.)? Was Perry’s obvious attempts at entrepreneurially manufactured excitement read as feminine, sort of in the same way commodity music has been feminized? And by “feminine,” I mean structurally devalued, occupying a position of little privilege or value.