Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor Swift subtly gets the lower case “kkk” in formation with “Look What You Made me Do” An anti–Marxist Mixtape review.
A little over a decade after her musical debut, Taylor Swift has made a career out of being portrayed as a good girl unjustly wronged. Her song catalog is stocked with tunes about how innocent she is, and how men seem to wrong her. But the most notable moment of the Taylor-as-an-innocent-victim narrative may have come when Kanye West interrupted her Best Female Video acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards to drunkenly ramble about how Beyoncé should have won.
Kanye upstaging Taylor in that moment not only gave that narrative merit in a lot of people’s eyes, it also looked like the personification of many a long-standing white fear: a black man taking away a white woman’s power. And Taylor has been playing off that narrative ever since, while America has embraced the notion of white victimhood — despite the reality. Kanye West is still hated for that moment, and the media has documented further fights between Taylor Swift and other pop stars such as Katy Perry, Calvin Harris, and Kim Kardashian. There is no shortage of media details about these “feuds”, whatever their purpose may be.
On the other hand, the idea that Taylor Swift is an icon of white supremacist, nationalists, and other fringe groups, seems to finally be getting mainstream attention. But the dog whistles to white supremacy in the lyrics of her latest single are not the first time that some have connected the (subtle) dots. A white supremacist blogger from neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer was quoted in a Broadly article in May 2016 as saying, “it is also an established fact that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi and is simply waiting for the time when Donald Trump makes it safe for her to come out and announce her Aryan agenda to the world.” What “facts” the blogger is pointing to are unclear (and likely invented); still, his statement exemplifies how neo-Nazis and white supremacists look to her as their pop icon.
A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.
One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading →
“Only hipsters like zombies,” my friend commented as she watched the zombies prance around in Watsky’s “Kill a Hipster” music video. The zombie-hipster metaphor is particularly apt given the racialized origins of both hipsters and zombies: Zombies originated in Afro-Caribbean Haitian folklore—corpses that could be reanimated through necromancy—yet in the past decade that history was mostly forgotten, as the zombie became a semi-humorous staple of Western youth culture (evinced by the popularity of media like the book Zombie Survival Guide  and films 28 Days Later and World War Z).
The hipster, too, has its origins in appropriation of both African American and other cultures—something Norman Mailer first noted, but which Watsky does an effective job of illustrating. “Hummus, hummus, I’m getting hummus, hummus,” he chimes at the zombified hipsters lounging in the park, practicing Spanglish at the taco truck. Watsky and the video hipsters’ adoption of keffiyehs—a symbol of Palestinian resistance that became completely stripped of meaning after its hipster appropriation, on ironic par with Che Guevara shirts—illustrates the same kind of cultural forgetting. Continue reading →
Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same. Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.
In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading →
Taking Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” at face value, the song offers a critique of consumer-oriented capitalism and the cynical culture industry that drives it by juxtaposing the opulent wealth celebrated on Top 40 radio (is that term even meaningful anymore?) with the lived experience of its listeners, who have “never seen a diamond in the flesh” and for whom the life described in those songs is mere “fantasy.” And as was almost immediately pointed out, some of that ish was kinda racist. That is, Lorde makes her case against capital by targeting particular forms of wealth (gold teeth, Cristal, Maybach) that are strongly associated with popular black culture— or at least hip-hop, as one side of it. At best, black culture is collateral damage, and at worst, Lorde allies herself with the forces of white supremacy that claim their power in part by dismissing strategies of survival in black communities.
Now, I’m not about to say that she shouldn’t have known better or that lyrics by a fifteen-year-old are excusable—not to mention the number of other industry workers and executives involved with the song’s production, marketing, et al—because white folks need to be held accountable at every level. But the fact that the song was written not by an American white person, embedded in the particular set of race relations that in part gave historical rise to hip-hop as a cultural form, but by a New Zealander should give us pause. The racialized content of the song reveals the United States’ global cultural imperialism—in how it exports an American version of whiteness, with its sites of racial conflict. Indeed, another arm of that same global imperialism may be responsible for her hometown, at a cultural margin, being “torn up.” Continue reading →
The populist genre of the 1960s and 1970s was folk music. When Neil Young or Joan Baez took the military-industrial complex to task, they strummed and crooned about it; in a sense, their aching voices were the voice of the sixties, a peaceful, critical call-to-arms.
Does it make sense that, nowadays, it would be nü metal?
Featuring Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass
Music video directed by Gus Van Sant
In 1995, two years prior to his death, poet Allen Ginsberg published “Ballad of the Skeletons” in The Nation magazine. The poem, a scathing condemnation of Newt Gingrich’s America, received attention from other aging artists, including Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and the considerably younger filmmaker Gus Van Sant. With rallying, Ginsberg was able to convince the four of them to work on producing a song and eventually even a music video to accompany. Continue reading →
PopFront is proud to introduce Marxist Mixtape, a regular series about music, culture and politics. The goal of Marxist Mixtape is to cover individual songs from any era or genre that could constitute a contemporary popular front; that is, music that contains some progressive or leftist content, even if it’s just a blip or a few lyrics.
Pieces are short (2-6 paragraphs) and include a link to the song, usually on Youtube. For every 10 songs reviewed, we will create a Youtube playlist—an online mixtape that you can jam to from any computer, tablet or device with an internet connection.