It’s a shitty time to be a writer. Magazines and papers are crumbling left and right, freelance money is evaporating, superb writers (and hangers-on like myself) are reduced to Net-dwelling bloggers. And yet, Rolling Stone keeps giving cover stories to Vanessa Grigoriadis, a writer who never met a subject she couldn’t condescend to. Her latest victim is current RS cover girl Taylor Swift. Now, Swift is easily the most important and groundbreaking mainstream country music artist since the Dixie Chicks, and arguably the most important female pop star since Avril (consider that Kelly Clarkson and Miley Cyrus owe a Avril a debt that Taylor does not). She is deserving of a penetrating, insightful profile, but Grigoriadis is hardly the person to deliver it.
For one, Grigoriadis is more concerned with celebrity than art, fitting for an era when the two are inseparable, less fitting for such a musically-minded artist (and one whose music is substantially more interesting than her image). Grigoriadis writes as though she’s given Fearless only a cursory listen, and hasn’t listened to Swift’s seven-million-selling debut at all. There is no mention of the masturbation reference in “Teardrops on My Guitar,” the vengeful scorned-woman-tale of “Picture to Burn,” the embittered arena rock of “Should’ve Said No,” i.e. the songs that gave Swift an identity that elevated her above the Nashville fray, transformed her into something greater. Grigoriadis even dismisses (and she’s quite good at being dismissive) “Tim McGraw,” Swift’s debut single, as “gimmicky,” when it was actually a ballsy move, so much that it inspired a minor trend (Jason Aldean’s “Johnny Cash” being the most well-known example). There’s little discussion of Swift’s music (in fact, it reads like Grigoriadis loathes not just Swift’s music but the entire country genre), swapped for futile attempts to get Swift to reveal some hidden depravity, stuff she’s probably too smart to engage in and definitely too smart to share with a vicious hack like Grigoriadis.
When Grigoriadis writes about men, she is a fawning fangirl (see her godawful Trey Parker & Matt Stone feature from 2007) or repulsed socialite (her description of radio hosts as “misshapen” in the Swift piece is a low blow). But when she writes about women, she often comes across as catty. Her skepticism for Swift’s good-girl image borders on contempt, while presenting no evidence to justify her disbelief. Even I, a 25-year-old male who occasionally dates teenagers, know that the no-booze, no-drugs, no-romance lifestyle is symptomatic of ambitious young overachievers like Swift, kids brought up during the Just-Say-No campaign to believe that a single toke will cost them a desirable and/or lucrative future. That Swift is a sheltered, wholesome overachiever is precisely why so many teen girls, especially sheltered, wholesome overachievers (the kind who choose careers over guys, and then have to weather wounded male egos as a result), connect with her, even consider her a role model. The isolation that defined Swift’s own teenage experience is not as uncommon as Grigoriadis assumes: it is the same isolation of career-minded students (often, but not always, girls) who put more time into AP and college prep classes than socialization, thus producing the singular, often solipsistic outsider’s perspective that defines Swift’s lyrics. And only rarely has the teen-girl market exploited this increasingly common viewpoint, hence why so many girls can identify with Taylor Swift in a way they’ve never identified with a pop star before.
When confronted with the intense fandom Swift inspires, Grigoriadis seems utterly unimpressed, even bored, as if she’d much rather be camped outside Britney’s mansion waiting for the next vag shot. She subtly scoffs at how Swift was ostracized in middle school, and how “Love Story” and “White Horse” were written for a guy Swift never even kissed. But she ignores how this, the ability to inhabit quotidian teenage existence like few cultural heavyweights (and no country performers), is imperative to Swift’s appeal. When you’re a teenager (“when you’re fifteen,” to quote Swift), your pain is the only pain (this is why a subset of male teens digs Morrissey)—no matter how universal the experience may be, it seems unique to your self-absorbed eyes. Subsequently, when that boy (or girl) with whom you’ve barely spoken and never touched breaks your heart, it feels like the most devastating despair you’ll ever know, the one that shatters your Disney movie fantasies of princes and castles and happily ever after with the object who intuitively understands some connection you’ve imagined. That Swift taps into these feelings so poignantly, gracefully, sometimes humorously is the heart of both her genius and her success, a heart that Grigoriadis, like a guy in a Taylor Swift song, callously stomps upon.
The entire hackjob left me nostalgic for the bygone days of Jancee Dunn and Jenny Eliscu, female journalists who could make popular culture into something more than their surrogate vibrator. But then again, perhaps it’s too much to ask Rolling Stone to cover youth culture successfully. This is a mag whose only five-star record reviews of the decade have gone to 30+-year-old acts (Dylan, Jagger, Springsteen, and as of this issue, U2). Just please don’t assign Grigoriadis the inevitable Miley cover story.