On the Occasion of evermore
Most people don’t listen to Taylor Swift for political commentary. Perhaps there is something to that, the consumption of art without consequence. However, Swift’s music provides a lens for looking at issues of class, the music industry, and economic precarity.
Coming just five months after folklore, Swift’s latest effort, evermore, is an extension of the introspective, sweater-weather songwriting brought on, in part, by the pandemic. Featuring Bon Iver, HAIM, and The National, Swift weaves a rich tapestry of interlocking stories and characters, nestling into airy strings and melancholy acoustic guitar. It’s critically acclaimed and cements Swift as one of our day’s leading musicians.
Evermore has a fascinating backstory as well. When Swift surprise-released the album on December 11, she explained that she and her team “just couldn’t stop writing songs,” choosing to “travel further into the forest of this music.” Swift is in a longstanding dispute over the ownership of the masters of her first seven albums, recorded with Big Machine Group, and she has publicly lambasted producer Scooter Braun for, essentially, selling her work for massive amounts of private equity cash.
The twists and turns of this dispute are less relevant for our purposes, however. What does matter is how one of the most famous pop stars on the planet is still at the mercy of global finance capital.
Swift’s popularity extends across class lines. Both folklore and evermore were highly praised by Pitchfork magazine, earning an 8.0 and 7.9, respectively. Pitchfork merits a brief digression; it occupies a strange liminal space between the counterculture and the zeitgeist, with equal attention devoted to truly bizarre music and to the latest pop hits. It’s an organ of the capitalist approach to art, where all must be commodified and popularized—and assigned a neat quantifier of value. Swift’s moody chamber pop embodies this, rocketing to the top of the charts even as the gatekeepers of the counterculture adulate her. Thus, she appeals to both the unlettered masses and the elites of the musical industrial complex, the musical PMC.
PMC (professional-managerial class) discourse is a bit hackneyed by this point, but a quick refresher will serve to make my argument. A term discussed extensively by sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist Amber Frost, and scholar Michael Lind, defining the PMC is nonetheless a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s pornography: you know them when you see them. Broadly speaking, they’re bureaucratic functionaries in the realms of government, finance, consulting, human resources departments, non-profit administration, and other corporate or corporatized industries. Typically (though not exclusively) urban-dwelling, the PMC has similar tastes, lifestyles, and incomes and interests, which permits us to speak of them as a class. They are younger, moving up their respective org charts, forgoing child-rearing, and predominantly liberal. These generalizations do not capture every nuance, but they are useful in sketching out the vague outlines of a particular group of people in our society.
One particularly salient characteristic of this class is their debt. While Americans of all classes (except, perhaps, our billionaire plutocrats) are significantly indebted, the PMC are uniquely burdened by high debt loads that come from education at prestigious schools. They’re also more likely to pursue expensive graduate degrees. People within this class are, by necessity, rootless and transient because their jobs are mostly urban, and homeownership rates are the lowest they’ve been in half a century.. So, we see a lot of debt and a decline in the culture of ownership, which will almost certainly present deleterious long-term consequences.
Swift is not a PMC. But she’s very popular among this class, as evidenced by the critical acclaim her two recent albums have received from several “indie” gatekeepers. This is partly because in her fight against predatory finance capital, she is attempting to change the relationship between artists, their management, and their valuable assets—that is, the art they produce. Swift signed her masters away at fifteen years old, while millions of American students sign away their financial futures at eighteen, taking on stupendous amounts of debt for a dubious return on an investment in a modern college education. Capitalist logic is at play here—Swift’s masters are far more valuable than the person she is, and locking young people into modern peonage (by rendering inaccessible the wealth-building strategies their parents utilized with ease) ensures steady revenue streams for owners at the top.
Swift inspires so many because she resists this culture of precarity and understands the value of ownership. Even the æsthetics and environment of her recent albums root themselves in stability—“cottagecore” became a mainstream term after folklore and evermore explored, among other topics, the beauty and mentorship hidden within generations of her family. Yet Swift is restless, telling stories of failed proposals, lost innocence, and trauma, either sexual or familial. Perhaps sublimated beneath the stories we can see the anxiety that comes from the increasing difficulty of raising a family, maintaining a marriage, and committing to a particular place, a particular community.
In some ways, then, Swift is the tribune of a new class, a class of decadent precarity. One sees hints of this precarity in Pitchfork’s Top 100 Songs of 2020, which deemed Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s club anthem “WAP” the best single song of the year. In a bizarre amalgamation of the sacred and profane, of the transcendent and the vulgar, their list is fundamentally liberal, celebrating the lust of “WAP” because it is “feminine” and Swift’s song “mirrorball” because she “has no one to please but herself.” Philip Rieff’s triumph of the therapeutic is fulfilled both in the rhetoric of Scooter Braun (see, e.g., his side of the story in a Variety piece: “People are allowed to grow as human beings. They’re allowed to have conversations.”) and in the lyrics of self-care from Swift herself. Therapy ostensibly solves the both the crisis of love and the legal wrangling around Swift’s masters.
This is mirrored in the rhetoric of the incoming administration, pledging to “restore the soul” of America and to “hear the voice” of every American. Issues of exploitation and economics play second fiddle to a performance of Kojèvean recognition. This is not to say that recognition necessarily precludes concrete policies aimed at solving problems, but it is also undeniable that in the face of increasing inequality, the suffering of families and small businesses ravaged by the pandemic, and the hollowing out of rural America, both Democrats and Republicans preach a politics of culture war grievance that blinds us to the chance for solidarity. The culture war allows us to feel recognized in our grievances while dividing us on issues of political economy.
We must not be blind to the reality around us. This new class of decadent precarity is by no means the most aggrieved segment of American society, yet we must be cognizant of the challenges presented by the economic and political issues that face us all. Both Swift’s biography and discography can be seen as articulations of a shifting American dream: the hometown girl making it big out of Nashville, the promise and peril of existence as a star, the saccharine sweetness of corporate pop, and finally the recovery of æsthetic and musical tradition coupled with an increasingly therapeutic approach to songwriting.
Evermore ends with the title track. It’s simple and somber, melancholic and elegiac. In the second bridge, Justin Vernon’s falsetto merges with Swift’s dusky soprano as they sing “I dreamed of you (To be certain we’ll be tall again).” Swift has “a feeling so peculiar” that “this pain wouldn’t be for/evermore.” Ending on a hopeful note, she hints at additional stories of love and loss yet to be told. Perhaps the same could be true for us Americans. Our destiny may still be within our grasp, combatting the extractive and exploitive forces within our own society. With clear eyes alert to the dangers of utopianism, we may yet still cultivate a beautiful garden of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that lasts forevermore.
See, in particular, the thirteenth track, “Marjorie.” ↩︎
Max Bodach is a senior at Ave Maria University. He is an AEI Initiative on Faith and Public Life Young Scholar and Röpke-Wojtyła Fellow at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at CUA. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.