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In two days, Taylor Swift’s third album is launched. OMG!! It’s hard to contain oneself. OK, that was maybe uncalled for. But I am actually interested in the event, not so much musically but because Swift did, after all, become the youngest person to win a Grammy for album of the year. The new disc, it has been suggested, may sell a million copies in its debut week. And her fans (Kanye West aside), include Kris Kristofferson and Beyoncé, as well as almost every tween in existence. Two of which – full confession – live under my roof, which is perhaps why I have paid more attention than I might otherwise to the young crossover star. Not to mention what she wears.
If she’s going to have a big influence over the next generation, and her ability to capture the angst of high school in her songs seems to indicate that she does, I want to know what she’s about. And what she’s selling, both literally and, by default, through her appearance.
Happily, up until now, it’s been fairly benign. Swift’s fashion sense can be summed up as: “fairy princess”. If it’s sparkly, she likes it, as in the midnight blue spangled Kaufman Franco numbers she wore to the Grammies and the strapless gold-spangled cream tulle Reem Acra she had on at the Country Music Awards. In the grand scheme of rock dressing, there are more frightening people to emulate (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse). A few weeks ago, however, something happened that makes me think this may all be about to change.
Swift showed up in Roberto Cavalli at his fashion show in Milan. Cavalli has had a long relationship with the music world. He’s friends with Lenny Kravitz, has dressed Shakira, and made the costumes for the Spice Girls’ 2007 tour. His aesthetic can be summed up as “leopard and fringe”, as demonstrated by the show Swift attended, which marked Cavalli’s 40th anniversary and featured ... leopard and fringe. And exposed flesh. The only other show she could have attended that would have been equally suggestive of an alternate rock aesthetic would have been Balmain’s, where a punk fantasy of ripped and safety-pinned jackets, vests, and mini-skirts emerged.
Which makes me wonder: is Taylor Swift, with album number three, now that she is finally almost old enough to drink and finished with school, attempting to change her image?
I mean, just the next week, in Paris for Cavalli’s anniversary party, the 20-year-old went to a café in black tights, a black mini-skirt and a Rick Owens black leather jacket – as otherwise seen on Courtney Love. Still, the cover of the new album, which features Swift swirling around in a long purple dress and looks, as one blogger said, “like a perfume ad”, would suggest sartorial continuity. On the other hand, this summer Swift appeared at the Country Music Television awards with her ringlets ironed straight, wearing a burgundy corset-topped Galliano dress – which suggests yes to the image evolution. As does the fact that at Cavalli’s show, I was sitting next to Terry Jones, editor of cutting-edge magazine i-D, who leaned over to ask what I thought of Swift as her people were pushing the singer for a cover. And then there’s historical precedent.
After all, the fastest way to an image change for young pop stars is always fashion. Get a new look, and your fans see a new you (how they feel about that is, of course, another matter). Take Miley Cyrus, who dumped her cutesy Hannah Montana self via an Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair shoot in which she posed nude with a sheet and then via videos such as “Can’t be Tamed”, in which she writhed around on peacock feathers while wearing a silver corset. Britney Spears did the same thing when she ripped off her Mickey Mouse Club’s schoolgirl threads for “Baby One More Time” on her way to going entirely off the rails. It’s a tried-and-true technique.
But I can’t help wishing these pop stars would be a little more subtle about it, and trust their sound to, well, speak for itself. After all, who is the image change really reaching? Readers of people magazines, probably, and maybe those who trawl gossip sights, and video viewers. But otherwise, the person singing the song is invisible to the person listening, which may be why they all feel extremes are necessary: to make people pay attention, to get lots of screen time or paparazzi photos, you need a lot of noise. And Roberto Cavalli certainly dresses women so everyone can hear them roar.
But Swift’s new album is called Speak, Now, not “Scream, Now.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if she managed to cross not only music genres but fashion clichés? If she broke out of her Cinderella fantasies to work with young designers, such as Proenza Schouler, whose dip-dyed dresses are grown-up and pretty but also cool, or Christopher Kane, whose neon lace sheaths and twin sets suggest royalty-through-the-looking-glass. If she showed her fan base in their formative years that you can have edge and independence too; that you can grow up, and into life’s complications, elegantly.
Plus, it might have a knock-on effects on sales. Just think of all those grateful mothers holding the keys to a household’s iTunes account.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman