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Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" Video Isn't Dumb At All

There is a competence that wafts around everything she does, as if she read a stage direction at the beginning of her life that said “spunky yet poised”

27 might be the fated age when young stars pop their clogs, but it’s around 24 when the unravelling begins. It’s when Britney got the clippers out, it’s when Lindsay went to jail, it’s when Rihanna took a second job as a professional speedboat weed smoker.

Taylor Swift is 24-years-old, yet the chance of her accidentally letting slip a labia as she gets out of a car high on molly and poppers is somewhere around 0%. She’s is less pop tearaway, more second-term congresswoman with ambitions for a cabinet position. There is a competence that wafts gently around everything she does—as if she read a stage direction at the beginning of her life that said “spunky yet poised” and is waiting to receive further instruction. Whether she’s pouring a bucket water over her head for charity, leaving the gym after a heavy workout or selling a shit-tonne of the most delicious beverage in the world, she makes the corny look dignified and the superficial look profound.

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Last night, Taylor dropped "Shake It Off," her first new video in over a year. In one of the grimmest months of news in recent memory, it provided a brief respite from the horror of our Twitter feeds as people gawped at Taylor’s questionable rapping ability and dodgy dancing.

What shocked people is that in this video Taylor is anything but composed. She makes gawky facial expressions, she can’t keep up with the other dancers and her lyrics are knowingly naff. Taylor is a gifted songwriter, she knows lyrics like “To the fella over there with the hella good hair” aren’t the best she can do. So what’s going on?

As we’ve written about before, the Miley Cyrus model of pop music—having a couple of good songs, a striking visual identity and getting your waps out at every opportunity—doesn’t work that well anymore. Perverts just don’t buy pop music the way they use to. But at the same time, squeaky-clean girl pop isn’t doing that well either. Little Mix aren’t doing too badly in the US, but there hasn’t been a successful American girlband in over a decade. Simon Cowell’s big all-female hope, Fifth Harmony, are failing to conquer the charts. Wholesome pop singers like Kelly Clarkson and Lea Michele have struggled in this climate. Last year only three albums by female artists made the Billboard top 20 of the year: Taylor herself, P!nk and Rihanna—and unless Taylor wants to start making music for drunk divorcees or strip club compilation CDs, she can’t follow in their footsteps.

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She could of course, carry on making country-tinged pop, for which there remains a massive US market. But after four albums of that shtick, it’s clear she’s ready for a change.

So she’s looked at what is doing well in pop: boybands. One Direction had the best selling album globally of last year. In this week’s Billboard albums top ten, two spots are taken by bands in their mold: 5 Seconds Of Summer and The Vamps. Obviously part of their success if that teenage girls are never going to stop enjoying clean-cut heartthrobs. But there’s more to it than that, One Direction created a, now much copied, new model for boybands. Instead of the brooding, moody pin-ups of the 90s, they are carefully crafted jokers who appear to be self-deprecating and self-aware while at the same time taking their fans to the cleaners.

A big part of this constructing themselves as the antithesis to a fictional corporate-pop complex. In the “Best Song Ever” video, for example, they argue with money-hungry label execs and stylists (played by themselves) who want them to do cheesy dance routines and wear tacky clothes but the best example of this is the One Direction perfume ads, which are cleverly parody the genre while still selling a shit ton of perfume. They even go as far as to parody the making of videos in an accomplished take-down of online content for the sake of content.

The message is always the same. Aren’t we goofy, subverting the system, playing with convention. But the reality is they know that this subversion works better than the real thing, and they sell another million units of glorified Air Wick to dupable tweens.

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Taylor can’t match boybands on cute messy locks and prepubescent sex appeal, but she can tap into this new convention for subverting convention.

It’s there from the opening line, “I stay out too late, got nothing in my brain, that’s what people say.” Well, it’s not really is it? The stereotype of Taylor isn't that she's a thick party animal, if anything it's that she's a high-society maneater. But once you set up the evil bitchy outside world, no matter how much of it is a fantasy, it’s easy to take it down. It’s the same in the video - no one expects Taylor to have the grace of a ballerina, the back-off of a twerker, the frivolity of a cheerleader. But there she is, not conforming to those rules no one asked her to conform to by acting goofy.

It's looks especially cynical because we know that Taylor isn’t that kind of person. Give her the challenge of ballet or cheerleading and she’d go into it all eyes and teeth, the congresswoman ready for a photo opportunity. She loves conforming, so you get a pop paradox, where in order to be as poised and successful as she can be, Taylor has to dumb herself down, yet even this she manages to do with a weird adorable aplomb.

So congratulations Taylor Swift, you've done it. You're a one-woman boyband. Can't wait till you split-up in two years and your left arm makes a shit indie solo album.

Follow @samwolfson on Twitter

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