I think people sometimes have trouble being critical thinkers. In school and sometimes in life, we’re taught that there is right and wrong and not a lot of in-between I don’t totally buy into all of that because most good things could be better and sometimes bad things can be good too. (This isn’t to say that all bad things have a ~silver lining, because they don’t. But that is another post for another day.) Popular culture is easy to tear down because it isn’t necessarily based in reality. I don’t think this is a good enough reason to write off most aspects on pop culture. I will defend a whole catalog of pop culture because most of it isn’t inherently wrong, but that doesn’t mean some of the things I love aren’t things that I also take issue with. Here are a few of my favorite things…that also happen to be morally problematic to me as a person and as a woman.
One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”
In case you’re unfamiliar with One Direction, they’re a perfect British-Irish boy band that was created on the UK version of X Factor. “What Makes You Beautiful,” their debut single from Up All Night is a lovely pop anthem celebrating the insecure girls of the world. You know the ones: the glasses-wearing, modestly dressed, “average” girls who patiently wait for the right boy to come along and push their fallen bangs from in front of their eyes. Well, girls, you’re in luck! All five members of One Direction notice you being mousy in the corner and they think you’re beautiful. In fact, your mousy-ness is what makes you beautiful!
Queue poppy guitar intro. “You’re insecure–don’t know what for…everyone else in the room can see it, everyone else but you…but when you smile at the ground, it aint hard to tell, you don’t know you’re beautiful.” Ugh. How romantic. So many school dances, I sat out, smiling at the ground, hoping that some boy would walk up and tell me I was beautiful. Lucky for me, the five guys of One Direction are finally here to save the day. “You don’t know you’re beautiful–that’s what makes you beautiful.”
Wait. That’s what makes me beautiful? Not my brilliant puns or my love of contemporary poetry? Not even my well-planned outfit? Bummer. I guess these “quirks” require their own song. Something like “What Makes You The Weird Girl That Talks A Lot.” Heaven forbid I show a little confidence in myself. According to One Direction, I may not be so beautiful if I have an inkling that I might be.
I struggle a lot with this one. I love One Direction and I love this song. When I first started to read critiques of it, saying it was bad for women, I spent a whole week talking to myself in the shower trying to come up with a solid defense. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. One Direction is pretty much telling us that we need their permission to be beautiful and that the second we accept the compliment from them, we are no longer beautiful. Damn, that sucks, because this song makes me fist pump with joy. Now, when I fist pump at the red light on South Congress and Ben White, I don’t feel judged for my dancing, but for buying into these boys’ dictation of beauty.
Taylor Swift Lyrics
Taylor is my favorite pop star and I say that with no shame. She’s my age and I can confidently say that if we ever met, we would be fast besties. I defend her music and her fame to jaded hipsters and grown ups who just don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean I believe she’s a flawless creature.
Taylor is wildly attracted to romance that is all-consuming and outside of the lines and ultimately toxic. Simply, she’s a masochist when it comes to relationships. She falls hard in love with the idea of love and drives her new Maserati right past sanity and into all-consuming heartbreak.
Girls my age love Taylor’s lyrics because we feel like she found them in our diaries and 3 AM text exchanges. However, the more I think about her lyrics, the more I realize I do no relate at all. In the song “Stay Stay Stay” off her new album Red, Taylor sings wistfully about throwing a phone at her boyfriend during a fight and then proceeds to say that they should stay together because they’ve already been together for a while and he thinks it’s funny when she’s mad. What? Really Taylor? Definitely not okay to use intimidation to get your way in a fight. Also, it’s a problem if your partner doesn’t really hear you when you communicate with them because they are too busy laughing at you. “No one else is gonna love me when I get mad mad mad, so I think it’s best if we both stay stay stay.” No no no. No, Taylor. I don’t relate with you. I am wildly attracted to healthy relationships. But I digress, because this track is the catchiest one on the album and I have it stuck in my head all of the time that “What Makes You Beautiful” isn’t.
Even the songs that aren’t explicitly unhealthy have questionable messages. For instance, Taylor has a problem with other girls. Her songs “You Belong With Me” and “Better Than Revenge” are totally slut-shaming. So what if the girl who got the guy wears high heels and has sex? Those are not valid reasons to hate her. Especially because we know you do both of those things, Taylor! As a woman, with predominately female fans, putting down other girls isn’t just problematic for your career but also for women in general. If you want to hate her for stealing your man, that’s legit, but don’t hit below the glitter belt. Sing about her betrayal of sisterhood, not what she’s doing in the sheets.
At the end of the day, Taylor Swift is still my favorite singer and I play her music on a loop. I justify this by thinking critically about her lyrics and not using them as a guide for how to live my life and deal with my problems. Even from scrolling through the Taylor Swift tag on Tumblr, you can see how much young girls are internalizing these lyrics and misunderstanding the message. If we can teach middle school and high schoolers to think critically, maybe we can stop the next generation of Swifties from knowingly entering toxic relationships or trashing their peers for the wrong reasons.
Maybe if we can teach girls that they are beautiful without One Direction’s permission, then One Direction will have to start writing pretty songs about our What Makes Us Intellectual or What Makes Us Interesting. Maybe boys will look for these qualities in their crushes instead of just seeking hair-flipping and ground-smiling.
Unless we have these conversations, the messages will only ever be black and white. I encourage you to think about some of your favorite things and how they might not be as perfect as you want them to be and how you can start a conversation about making the message more positive for the future.