Taylor Swift was recently honored by the American Music Awards—the Grammys of musical awards shows that aren’t the Grammys—as Artist of the Decade, following in the questionably relevant footsteps of Garth Brooks (who won at the end of the ’90s) and Britney Spears (who owned the ’00s).
Now, first things first: Taylor Swift is fine.
She’s never been my cup of tea, but I completely get why she’s as successful as she is: She’s tall, white, thin, and stunning (just ask Shania), and she pens catchy songs that don’t challenge you in any way. She’s been praised a lot because she writes her own music, which is, sadly, an increasingly rare feat, though one Mariah Carey never seems to get enough credit for. Still, I won’t deny singing along to “Shake It Off” or “I Knew You Were Trouble” because I’m a human being with two ears and a heart.
The scale of Swift’s success certainly warrants her as the top artist of the 2010s, if that’s the metric we’re going to use. When you think of the ’90s, it’s like, Garth Brooks, amirite?, (Again: Mariah Carey.) But an argument can certainly be made that Britney Spears defined the 2000s—though that also begs the question, what the hell was going on in that decade? We had eight years of Bush II, 9/11, Islamophobia, the birth of the Tea Party, the Great Recession, the start of two interminable wars… I mean, things weren’t that great. And Britney Spears, a beacon of pop perfection, suffered one of the most public, humiliating, and heartbreaking downfalls in modern popular culture.
So, yeah. The ’00s, definitely Britney. It was a decade that irrevocably tarnished the American Dream. While it did give us the election of the first black president, which ushered in a renaissance of civil rights, it also kick-started what would become the complete erosion of privacy as social media became integral to day-to-day existence. Not to mention all those drones.
But what of the ’10s? It’s been a hell of a ride, kids. The latter half has basically been a relentless shitstorm revealing the moral depravity rotting away at the core of the nation. The election of Donald Trump has been sobering, to say the least, fanning the flames of white supremacy, the true religion of America.
The triumph of Donald Trump is the triumph of whiteness. And so we come back to Taylor Swift. Once an icon of the alt-right, Swift has done something Trump cannot—publicly and unequivocally denounced white supremacy—but she’s still very much a product of it.
The Taylor Swift as we know her was born on September 13, 2009. Before that, she was just a cute little country singer beginning to cross over into pop, who, lest we forget, wrote her own songs. Then Kanye West made a valid point at a rude and inopportune time. Beyoncé, already occupying a distant throne, would eventually win Video of the Year for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”—for what West called “one of the best videos of all time”—at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, but not before losing Best Female Video to Swift. West wasn’t having it.
The image is iconic. West, the black man in all black, stealing the very thunder from this young, virginal white girl. You can see, then, why the alt-right would glom onto Swift as their icon of white grievance. Her success in spite of—and, if we’re being honest, because of—West was another rebuke against a system that seemed to turn against white people in favor of black and brown people. West would go on to reach even greater artistic heights, but his public persona has remained problematic as fuck.
With public opinion on her side (as well as Beyoncé, who welcomed Swift back to the stage to finish her acceptance speech after West cut her off), Swift was set up to take the ’10s by storm. On January 31, 2010, Beyoncé walked home with six Grammys for I Am… Sasha Fierce, setting a new record for female performers, but it was Swift who won Album of the Year for Fearless. At 20, Swift became the youngest artist to take that top honor. And a pattern of Beyoncé being routinely snubbed for the same prize in favor of a white artist began to emerge.
With each exaggerated “O” of surprise at awards show after awards show, Swift racked up accolades and sales. Then, in 2016, she made history again when she became the first woman to win a second Album of the Year Grammy for 1989, a sleek, straightforward pop record Swift largely co-wrote with the man behind nearly every great Britney song: Max Martin. 1989 beat out Kendrick Lamar’s more controversial and far more ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly, just as Beck’s Morning Phase (that seminal work) had beaten out Beyoncé, which pretty much changed the entire way the music industry works, in 2015. But the Grammys have still managed to give Bey just enough trophies—three—to make her the most-awarded female in Grammys history.
So, by the ’10s, the Grammys folks had established themselves not as an arbiter of cultural relevance or significance, but of cultural popularity. Taylor Swift is very popular. Only recently has she started to become genuinely relevant. She is, in many ways, the most powerful woman in music, predicated on her whiteness and massive success, yet she came under fire for not speaking up during the 2016 election. Of course, it says a lot about our culture when pop artists have to make their political views public as some form of civic duty. However, if you take out the “pop” part, they’re still artists, and artists have always had the obligation to speak to and for their times.
In 2012, Harry Belafonte, an actor, singer, and lifelong civil rights activist, criticized Jay-Z and Beyoncé as being among “high-profile artists, powerful celebrities” [who] “have turned their back on social responsibility.” Jay-Z initially pushed back, but both he and Mrs. Carter have noticeably become more outspoken and more visible in advocating for causes.
Because the times require it.
As she got older and grew more comfortable in her role as a public figure, Swift began to use her platform more, too. She won a shadily symbolic one dollar from a DJ she sued for sexual assault and has been advocating for artists’ rights to own their own material. She even accused Donald Trump of gaslighting the American public, tossing around words like “autocracy.” And earlier this year, the gays went wild for “You Need to Calm Down,” her pro-LGBTQ anthem (though some detractors found it disingenuous).
Nevertheless, if she’s become more relevant as a pop culture figure, Swift’s music still feels… lacking. It’s as catchy as ever, but it doesn’t challenge the listener, push the needle, or really move anything forward. It’s solid pop music. It’s very popular. Yet it’s ultimately—to put it bluntly—basic. And this decade was anything but.
The 2010s were when America’s racial chickens came home to roost. Barack Obama’s presidency, the emergence of the alt-right, Black Lives Matter, the election of Trump—it’s all America trying to reconcile its past with its future. White people are rarely forced to confront their own whiteness, while black people are constantly forced to do so. If this was the decade of reenforcing whiteness, then maybe Swift is the artist that best defines it. But if the 2010s were about trying to restart a long-delayed conversation about race, as well as about reestablishing the importance of female agency… well, the answer is clear.
That is not to say that Beyoncé is the artist of the decade. Of course she is. Thankfully, All Songs Considered already said it. Beyoncé grew and evolved with the decade. She changed the way we consume music. She changed the expectations we have for artists. And she did it all in a heel. The point is, rather, that awards and accolades are meaningless, as the Grammys have proven time and time again. What really matters is the legacy of the work.
Whomever you, or the AMAs, or the Grammys consider the most important artist of the past 10 years, the 2010s provided us with some truly legendary and absolutely crazy moments. And I think I speak for a lot of people when I say: I’m just glad this goddamn decade is almost over.