At the Golden Globes last month, Taylor Swift couldn't catch a break. She arrived alone following the recent break-up with One Direction stand-out Harry Styles -- a relationship widely framed as publicity stunt. Fashion commenters weren't crazy about her dress. She lost "Best Original Song" to Adele, and all of Twitter was clamoring for a GIF of her "bitch face" reaction shot. And then she became the butt of host Tina Fey's joke: "You know what Taylor Swift," Fey riffed, "you stay away from Michael J. Fox's son." (Fox's teenage son, Sam, had just been honored as Mr. Golden Globe.) As you can see in the clip, Fey adds that Taylor "needs some 'me' time to learn about herself." The audience roared with laughter.
No joke makes its way onto the Golden Globes without broad national appeal and resonance. In other words, Fey could make fun of Swift's proclivity towards boy-craziness because everyone knows about it....and everyone knows about it because Swift has made it her trademark. Or, to put it in the language of star studies, she's made it the "groundnote" of her image.
It wasn't always this way. When Swift first broke into the country music scene in 2006, her songs were about romance and heartbreak, but discourse primarly focused on her songwriting ability. She was, in pop critic Sasha Frere-Jone's words, a "prodigy." Her next album, Fearless, featured several songs rumored to be about ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas; still, media coverage was weighted towards her "feud" with Kanye West and her revilitatization of the music industry.
Swift's next album, Speak Now, established the current understanding of Swift: if you date her, she will write about you. Indeed, with her most recent album, it's become a game to match song with very public ex-boyfriend. Is this song about John Mayer? Jake Gyllenhaal? The new Kennedy? What was once cute and confessional, just one part of what made her music work, has turned into the defining characteristic of her music and her public image. Swift consumes boyfriends, and then she turns those boyfriends into product.
It's a clever strategy. There's always a new boyfriend for us to read about; a year later, there's always a new song to consume. But at some point -- and perhaps that point is now -- the strategy gets tired, and the crux of the image, once so very compelling, becomes a punchline.