the liberal gaze on middle america

what was trump-era theater, and what do we make now

The newsletter is back and will stick around in 2021 on subjects like the Christian left, astrology, and all those “phoebe bridgers is just taylor swift for _______” tweets. Still no paywall and still no schedule, but if you’re into this and feel so compelled:, and Venmo @kdlrose.

This monster got some editing help from fellow Hoosier-Floridian Annie Aguiar.

I’ve wanted to write about conservatism and Christianity in theater since I watched Jeremy O. Harris’ Zoom mounting of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in October—on the Christian left and how white Catholics are the worst Catholics in the world—but my thoughts didn’t coalesce until I put myself through The Prom. If your gut reaction is “how dare you evoke Will Arbery and Ryan Murphy in the same breath, they are worlds apart,” I get it, but I have some things to say to you about New York theater and its relevance to American politics.

One is a buzzy, Pulitzer finalist, fly-on-the-wall portrait of Catholic conservatives in their element, their white nationalism dressed up in “intellectual” tradition (“intellectual” as in idk what the hell Rob Dreher is but he needs to stop) and Sorkin-speed dialogue. The other is a forgettable musical I planned to avoid until I witnessed my fellow IU alumni wander into this Netflix nightmare both blessed and cursed to lack my prior knowledge, so I watched it out of Hoosier solidarity.

These two works share one crucial feature: “progressiveness” is alien. Heroes of the Fourth Turning—about four alumni of a very weird Catholic liberal arts college and their professor debating their shades of conservatism in a Wyoming backyard during the August 2017 solar eclipse—hangs on the premise that this is a conservative safe space. “I made this strong decision to not have a liberal foil in the play, or a stand-in for the audience,” playwright Arbery said in an interview with WBUR. “That's how I think you can really immerse yourself in that world.” On the more Protestant side of things, The Prom is a literal invasion of New Yorkers (“We’re liberals from Broadway,” Andrew Rannells snipes at Kerry Washington) in fictional Edgewater, Indiana, wherein four actors hope to rehab their narcissistic images by taking up an activist cause in the form of a permanently chipper high school lesbian barred from her prom. It’s nearly satirical, but again it’s Andrew fucking Rannells and that travesty of a Gospel number that shifts this musical from self-aware to smug.

To both immersion and invasion, my question is: how closed are these worlds really? How pure is a conservative context, and how safe is any space for anyone?

A question I saw multiple people pose after Heroes of the Fourth Turning was “what is the play trying to say, and is it actually distinct from what the characters say?” My sideways answer is Arbery is in the backyard, too. Silent, maybe to a fault, but he’s there.

What I’m excited by is what I think Arbery and I have in common: we are baptized Catholics who grew up in Midwestern Catholic communities and write theater. The reality outside of the play is that we liberals and leftists grow up in Christianity right alongside conservatives and reactionaries, and if Arbery was like me as a teenager, we argued. I don’t think of myself as a changeling, cursed to grow up in Kentucky and counting down the days I make it to Brooklyn, and I hope the sense of responsibility Arbery says he feels for the people in his play means he’s on a similar page. We’re part of these communities, with roots as deep as our neighbors. What we have to offer, other than two hours of photorealistic bigot bickering, are the stories of our own political education in these environments. Why are we the black sheep? What did we read or stumble upon that led us astray? Because that’s a moment of transformation, and that’s what revolutionaries can study and use.

I say revolutionaries and not liberals, and use and not understand for a reason, and it’s not to diminish Heroes of the Fourth Turning. I think the play is very successful in its humble goal of immersion, and showing us a more or less static world. “Being a theater-maker surrounded by liberal to progressive theater-makers who felt this sort of desperate need to understand who these people are who voted for [Donald Trump],” Arbery told WBUR, “…I said, ‘You know, well, I can give you access to at least five of them.’”

And Arbery never claims to represent or understand more than these five Trump voters. These Midwestern Catholic Trump voters aren’t my Midwestern Catholic Trump voters. My Midwestern Catholic Trump voters are my parents—baptized and confirmed in the Philippines before Vatican II and a case study for Republican immigrants of color that I know I haven’t seen explored in theater since y’all are obsessed with hearing hate speech come out of white mouths, I guess—and the student section of my high school basketball games routinely scolded by our priest for our offensive free throw chants. The differences between my family, my high school class and Arbery’s conservatives are clearly race and class, but I think Heroes of the Fourth Turning’s reception is a case of said liberal-to-progressive theater-makers and their wealthy Democrat audiences taking this highly specific sample size and losing their goddamn minds hearing self-described conservative Christians string together long sentences for the first time.

If the theater spent the last four years asking “How could this happen?” via Heroes of the Fourth Turning or the very excellent Sweat, and The Prom’s so-useless-it’s-harmful “How do we teach acceptance?”, what was the point? Of all the handwringing, the white woman meltdowns to The Handmaid’s Tale, pretending we live under martial law? What was the point when all that mattered to our six-figure salaried artistic leaders who LARPed radicalism was restoring politics as usual? Did you actually learn how Trump happened? Or will you forget this fad of “explaining Trump country” until the Dems’ utter incompetence puts the White House back in the clutches of the party that’s at least honest about sacrificing the poor at the altar of the economy?

We’re past “How could this happen?” and long overdue for “How can the rural and urban underclasses build a mass movement?” And no, I don’t know that theater is the medium for it, but if theater is a belwether for the political life of its creators, I’m alarmed by how long it’s essentially thrown a tantrum and moped about the horror of it all without thinking of the hope that exists in people like me, because when I say I was raised conservative, I mean I was raised conservative.

I’m not suggesting that white nationalists can be turned. I’m saying most of “Trump country” are children, centrists, and working people too exhausted and exploited to engage in politics. The artists who really know how hearts and minds change in middle America are not middle-aged white liberals who fled, but my generation of anti-capitalists raised here under Bush and Obama who don’t have the money to leave, especially young POC. Because we know actual change is uglier and lonelier than The Prom envisions, and it isn’t redeeming the alt-right or reasoning with evangelicals. It’s how we individually unlearned the conservatism we were raised in and developed politics more radical than our peers dumb and/or wealthy enough to pay New York rent, and the possibility of a template for reaching the disengaged in the communities that made us.

I specify “young” as in like, born after 1990 because The Prom felt like a period piece. Sure, we’re supposed to feel something about a song going viral on YouTube, we hear Meryl Streep say “hashtag,” but young queer people in middle America are not that fucking alone. I don’t care how rural a town is or if it’s still on dialup, and Edgewater looks like a wealthy Indianapolis suburb anyway. If Emma was a real 2010s queer teen, she’d listen to Dodie Clark and watch Orange is the New Black and, sorry, Glee. She’d have a Brittana Tumblr, and she’d have a repressed bisexual Superwholock friend or at least someone looking out for her. It shouldn’t be that easy to exclude someone in a school that looks five times bigger than mine.

I think of my college intro to playwriting instructor, a grad student from New York, saying he assumed I was from Louisville or Lexington, like it was a compliment. “I’m surprised he’s so progressive, considering where he grew up,” my co-apprentice said to me last fall about a peer of ours from an upper Midwestern Lutheran family. This is the same co-apprentice who said to me, verbatim, a line from Kimberly Belflower’s play John Proctor is the Villain, “you just don’t seem like a Taylor Swift fan, that’s all,” written as a microagression to a young WOC.

I love that play because its characters—teenagers just four or five years my junior—grew up on the Internet like I did, and in them I see our revolutionary future and the truth of how education works now. But middle America in the liberal imagination is forever behind the times, probably because the people who escape to the city and portray it in fiction are gay white boomers and Gen X-ers who decided to make their Christian baggage from the 80s and 90s our problem, like The Prom’s sole Midwestern writer Chad Beguelin, from a 13,000-person Illinois town two hours across the border from where I grew up in Kentucky. Or more annoyingly, they’re Ryan Murphy, my fellow Indiana Daily Student arts desk alum whose entire experience of rural Indiana was probably the stretch of I-69 from Indy to Bloomington.

And there’s a few complicating factors here. I grew up in the recession and graduated almost straight into a pandemic, so there’s worlds of different circumstances between me and New York transplants 10, even five years older than me. I bullshat my way through j-school profiling older gay men who, like me, couldn’t afford to move to New York and are confident their Midwestern, heterosexual marriages saved them from AIDS, so by the way, where are The Prom’s gay elders? Can we talk about Spencer Pride? Anyone? No?

Heroes of the Fourth Turning has its prosaic peer in The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, a fellow finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize that also “explains Trump country:” a coming-of-age novel about a future New York poet and then-high school debater in 1990s Kansas. In The Baffler, critic Jessa Crispin describes how Lerner writes his autofiction alter ego as an “anthropologist of Kansas” rather than a Kansan himself. “An anthropologist has nothing to say about common people because he needs a single story to tell about common people to those back at the university,” Crispin writes. “This precludes common people from being individuals, with diverse opinions and lifestyles and experiences; all the better to pitch them as a monoculture to be explained away with a theory.”

My existence, and that of other red state leftists and POC, contradicts what liberal, middlebrow, metropolitan audiences think of middle America. We’re outliers and thus inconvenient to the Trump country bogeyman liberals tell themselves about to sleep at night, and it’s not just white liberals. It’s east coast POC swooping in for MFAs and equity points who’ve told me they’re scared to go out in public, which I grant isn’t totally unfounded with our famous farmer’s market Nazis, but that fear is more than a little myopic when these are non-Black POC who stay exclusively in college towns and cities like Louisville, saying this to me and my 23 years living here when we’re the same shade of beige.

For as long as professional theater—regional theater, New York nonprofits, Broadway itself—is produced by condescending cowards with a single theory of what middle America is, we get stagnant work that does little more than explain Trump, that scrambles backward for clarity instead of meaningfully envisioning a future. If you’re serious about engaging middle American centrists and maybe even conservatives with stories on their home turf when live theater comes back, do more than commission musicals about coal miners. There are local writers from these Christian, conservative spaces further left than you, who don’t hate where they grew up, who’ve challenged their communities for years and will write to where they come from, not the elites looking for their biases to be confirmed. And what we do have to share with New York is both conducive to change and at least a little different from your miserable, godless echo chambers.

taylor swift's giant inflatable snake is named karyn (part 2)

miss americana & the millionaire vote

Part one is here. This is both a long time coming and quite long, I know, but I promised neither regularity or a paywall. I have some more things in the pipes to do with Zoom theater, anti-communist Catholic propaganda, etc., so stick around if you’re so inclined. I do promise this newsletter isn’t just about Taylor Swift.

The most fascinating moment in Miss Americana, Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary released this January, is about an hour in. She sits on a loveseat with her mom Andrea while her cat Meredith Grey looks on from an armchair, in a green room face-off against her dad and other men on her management team about her political silence. She wants to endorse former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen in the 2018 senate midterm race against Republican Marsha Blackburn.

"She votes against fair pay for women, she votes against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act,” Taylor says, “which is basically protecting us from domestic abuse and stalking. Stalking!” gesturing to herself.

The documentary’s point in this scene is crystal clear: Taylor Swift has been silenced by men her whole life. Right before this, she offers her quick oral history of The Chicks, and what it was like to start in country music with their specter looming overhead. But the “stalking!” exclamation, and how she leads with the 1994 Violence Against Women Act—signed by Bill Clinton and co-sponsored by Joe Biden—steers Miss Americana close to the conflicting interests the national Democratic Party cannot accommodate, and a loss of faith in electoral politics that has voters divesting from the system entirely.

Miss Americana’s arrival at the beginning of 2020 is comic: a political debut by a 30-year-old millionaire just as a pandemic and recession turn an immiserated public against celebrities, whether for cringe John Lennon covers, that menacing nude “get out the vote” ad campaign, or a thrilling, simmering, justified anti-capitalist bloodlust. This documentary was marketed as “the making of an activist,” and as much as I think “activist” means next to nothing, I turn to it as a case study for individual political education that makes me both patient with and frustrated by liberalism, and an emblem of just how little we need celebrity activism.

In March 2019, at the start of the Lover era and before the cursed “ME!” music video dropped, Taylor wrote a listicle for Elle magazine called “30 Things I Learned Before Turning 30.” Lesson #28 is a classic Swiftian Easter egg, a precursor to Lover’s two political-ish songs and Miss Americana:

I’m finding my voice in terms of politics. I took a lot of time educating myself on the political system and the branches of government that are signing off on bills that affect our day-to-day life. I saw so many issues that put our most vulnerable citizens at risk, and felt like I had to speak up to try and help make a change. Only as someone approaching 30 did I feel informed enough to speak about it to my 114 million followers. Invoking racism and provoking fear through thinly veiled messaging is not what I want from our leaders, and I realized that it actually is my responsibility to use my influence against that disgusting rhetoric. I’m going to do more to help. We have a big race coming up next year.

I forgive her some things. Political education is hard. As a fellow product of private Christian schooling, I wasn’t confident in my understanding of government when I graduated either. Forgetting the activist label and the specific slice of her life Miss America covers, I’d say the timeline of Taylor Swift’s discernible politics starts on the narrow turf she considered safe for her to speak to: music royalties.

Try to imagine a sequence of events in 2014, with 1989 in the works and Spotify growing by the day, that leads Taylor Swift to write an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called “The Future of the Music Industry is a Love Story.” It’s both light on detail and a classic example of Taylor Swift’s long-game album release press strategy. “It's my opinion that music should not be free,” she wrote in July, four months before she pulled her catalog from Spotify and filed lyrics like “this sick beat” and “cause we’ll never go out of style” with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

Her music returned to Spotify in 2017, after she had already entrusted it to Tidal and Apple Music. This was ahead of reputation’s release which, as previously mentioned, was also Taylor’s first time beefing up her Target-exclusive CD releases with collectible extras to encourage her most loyal fans to buy multiple copies. Two volumes of reputation magazine were followed by four distinct lyric and bonus content books with Lover. With the pandemic, literally in *this* economy, she sold folklore’s eight (eight!! 8!!!) limited CD and vinyl editions through her website while supplies lasted, subsequently releasing the hitherto physical-only bonus track “the lakes” on streaming services. At this rate, there will be 16 deluxe editions of folklore’s follow-up and 32 deluxe editions of TS10.

A fair if reductive response to this is to call it greed, and Taylor Swift a stone-cold capitalist, as you would any millionaire. But I forget that cis womanhood is a nightmare of its own, and when she sings “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” on folklore, I think of how liberal women of any race, who climb the ranks of patriarchy only to perpetuate patriarchy themselves, start out by defending what little power and property they have. Taylor Swift is keenly aware of what she owns and what she’s earned, so her dispute with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun over her master recordings only makes sense. Her signing with Republic Records after over a decade with Big Machine is consciously absent from Miss Americana. The closest thing to acknowledgment we get when she and director Lana Wilson discuss internalized misogyny:

TAYLOR SWIFT: Sorry, that was a real soapbox. “Sorry,” why did I say sorry?

LANA WILSON: Because we’re trained to say sorry.

TAYLOR SWIFT: Yeah, we legitimately are. We’re like, “sorry, was I loud?” In my own house. That I bought. With the songs that I wrote about my own life.

This single sentence contains so much: a steely rage borne of ownership from one of our greatest writers (period), and, tangentially, an utterly casual wealth that boggles my mind: her multi-home ownership that colors both the “Cornelia Street” rental and “the last great american dynasty.” In Miss Americana, there’s an exchange between Taylor Swift and Brendon Urie that’s probably meant to be fun and light where they commiserate about their respective stalkers, and Brendon Urie’s reaction to hearing about a man breaking into Taylor’s apartment and sleeping in her bed is “You can have that apartment,” a flippant joke about disposable wealth and property that’s plain nuts to me.

Real estate aside, her master recordings and songwriting are the nucleus of the big machine that produces eight editions of folklore whose only distinguishing markers are different images of Taylor Swift. When I consider the scene I described at the beginning where Taylor Swift indicates her own body to punctuate “stalking,” it’s now coupled with Emily Ratajkowski’s essay published by The Cut last month. “All these men, some of whom I knew intimately and others I’d never met, were debating who owned an image of me,” Ratajkowski wrote. And later on, as she and her former agent scramble for a model release from years ago: “If I hadn’t been protected during my shoot with Jonathan [Leder], what did that mean for all the other thousands, maybe millions, of photos of me that had been taken over the years?”

In a June 2019 Tumblr post, Taylor Swift wrote, “This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone [Scott Borchetta] for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept,” after Borchetta sold Big Machine to Scooter Braun. “And when that man says ‘Music has value’, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.”

Ratajkowski gave up pursuing legal action against the photographer who assaulted her and continues to profit from her image due to the expense, the exhaustion. As much as Taylor Swift’s wealth remains incomprehensible to me and I’ve rolled my eyes at “The Man” for over a year now (wow), its bridge reminds me of Andrea Dworkin’s assessment that “On every economic level, the meaning of money is significantly different for men than for women,” in 1981’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women. “In the hands of women, money stays literal; count it out, it buys what it is worth or less… Money in the hands of a man signifies worth and accomplishment; in the hands of a woman, it is evidence of something foul, unwomanly ambition or greed.”

It’s worth noting how Taylor Swift’s statements regarding her masters repeatedly single out men (and eventually blow some major dog whistles by naming the Soros family that seems to have flown under the radar, but okay). She’s on a similar financial playing field to Scooter Braun, so it’s a war of genders. But there’s a gulf of wealth and fame between her and Emily Ratajkowski, a difference I weirdly argue is legible in how Ratajkowski is a Hot Girl for Bernie and Taylor’s out here baking Biden-Harris cookies. “I was still holding on to a faith in our system,” Ratajkowski wrote about her legal battle, “a system I had thought was designed to protect people from these kinds of situations.”

Miss Americana covers Taylor Swift’s 2017 sexual assault civil lawsuit, four years after a radio DJ groped her during the Red tour. She recounts her experience of giving testimony over watercolor courtroom illustrations:

I was so angry. I was angry that I had to be there, I was angry that this happens to women, I was angry that people are paid to antagonize victims, I was angry that all the details had been twisted. You don’t feel a sense of any victory when you win because the process is so dehumanizing. This is with seven witnesses and a photo. What happens when you get raped and it’s your word against his?

It matters that Taylor Swift won this civil suit and walked away with a symbolic $1, because as much as she seems to recognize how fucked up the American legal system is, it worked and has worked in her favor. She still has faith. The documentary’s courtroom sketches are followed by her “Clean” speech from the reputation tour’s stop in Tampa, a year later to the day. “I think about all the people who weren't believed, or the people who are afraid to speak up because they think they won't be believed,” she said at the piano. “I just wanted to say that I'm sorry to anyone who ever wasn't believed.”

Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden is just one point of tension between voters and non-voters, and it's certainly not anyone’s place to question how Taylor Swift or any survivor deals with this presidential election. For what it’s worth, Taylor’s enthusiasm, and that of liberal women closer to me in life, seems to be reserved for Kamala Harris, and she never mentions Biden without her. “The change we need most is to elect a president who recognizes that people of color deserve to feel safe and represented, that women deserve the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that the LGBTQIA+ community deserves to be acknowledged and included,” her endorsement in V Magazine goes, to which I say: what the hell does that mean?

Nevermind Biden or Harris’ records and promises on any of these fronts. What does “deserve” mean?

Taylor Swift’s experience of the courts and cops is that they keep her, her loved ones and her property safe, which wouldn’t be the case if she wasn’t one of the world’s highest-paid women. And she thinks everyone deserves to feel the level of safety and freedom she enjoys, and better, as guaranteed by the law—the classical liberal to idealist philosophy of right. But poorer people, even poorer famous people, know the law protects the interests of rich, by design. Taylor Swift took her time learning out of a sense of responsibility to her fanbase, and my plea is for that paternalism to be obsolete because we consume pop culture and pursue political education separately, and—ultimately—recognize millionaires as adversaries. No matter if they taught us everything about feeling feelings and writing feelings and feel like an older sister and it feels like we grew up with them.

This thing is a long mess that really went nowhere, but the last thing I’ll point to is the essay “Voting is Not Harm Reduction: An Indigenous Perspective.”

taylor swift's giant inflatable snake is named karyn (part 1)

𝔯𝔢𝔭𝔲𝔱𝔞𝔱𝔦𝔬𝔫 revisited, personal justice & writing from the center

I’ve been waffling about with this for probably most of 2020, but then Taylor abruptly ended the Lover era, so here ya go. It’s part one of two (for now).

lLWYMMD with Karyn in HD on We Heart It

If Taylor Swift fantasizes all the things she’d get away with if she were “The Man,” I fantasize all the things I’d say, all the names I’d name, all the institutions I’d burn to the ground, all the feelings I’d pour out in public if I had an ounce of Taylor Swift’s confidence that my perspective and victimhood matter.

And maybe “The Man” is in part Taylor recognizing that people dismiss everything about her, including her pain. It’s an easy knee-jerk reaction and why reputation is a polarizing album. Swiftie as I am, I love Kanye and think the whole “Famous” saga amounts to kayfabe and Taylor apparently never seeing women reappropriate “bitch.” But reputation was my favorite Taylor Swift album until folklore, and it’s all I listened to for most of June.

June was a convergence of a lot of things: protests for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, liberal publications and arts organizations virtue signaling to the moon and back, and my second unemployment from these two industries in the year 2020. I downloaded The Sporkful’s “A Reckoning at Bon Appetit” episode, cut out audio of Dan Pershman’s interview with Sohla El-Waylly, and tracked it like a motivational tape. I have a playlist that intersperses these clips with reputation and Fetch the Bolt Cutters, taking me from “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me,” to Sohla describing the Zoom meeting where she told Adam Rapaport he should resign to his face, to “Look What You Made Me Do.”

I’m trying to write a play about liberalism, and how living my whole life in Kentucky and Indiana the worst racism and misogyny I’ve experienced has been from white liberals in arts nonprofits (and if you’re one of those white liberals I’ve met in a nonprofit I have no interest in letting you rest easy thinking you’re one of the good ones, so fuck off). There’s a deep irony to this sonic diet of mine: I have an axe to grind with some specific white people and the systems that benefit them, so I channel Taylor Swift villainizing Kanye West. I channel my rage at all the racism me and my peers have dealt with via a song whose music video contains dogwhistle fascist imagery she threatened to sue a leftist blogger for pointing out.

Taylor Swift's Look What You Made Me Do video: all the references ...Every Reference From Taylor Swift's “Look What You Made Me Do ...

I often go back to this NPR Music essay from 2018. “It's impossible to imagine that Swift didn't learn how to be a pop star by watching and listening to rappers,” Leah Donnella writes. “She has capitalized on that universal appeal of rap: centering the underdog, the underappreciated, the hated, the disenfranchised. She has taken this narrative and spun it on herself and those in her ilk: the young, white, wealthy and beautiful.”

I’ve made a messy connection between her songwriting and this advice from Viet Thanh Nguyen:

I suppose I’m doing something like running a Google Translation back through Google Translate: from the margins, I emulate Taylor Swift emulating how people write from the margins. Or I’ve tried. The specific way this white woman marinates in how people have wronged her is a level of self-pity I haven’t indulged until now. In that same NPR essay, Donnella quotes Taylor circa 1989:

I think the best thing I can do for [my fans] is continue to write songs that make them think about themselves and analyze how they feel about something and then simplify how they feel. Because, at that age […] what can be so overwhelming is that you're feeling so many things at the same time that it's hard to actually understand what those emotions are.

“A huge part of Swift's draw is the acknowledgment […] that our strongest emotions don't always correspond to the world's biggest injustices, and that we're entitled to them anyway,” Donnella writes. “Her music doesn't make fans feel guilty about feeling what they're feeling. It provides space for them to be as angry or heartbroken or in love as they want to be.”

So I make “Look What You Made Me Do” about the injustices I face—as what? A queer Asian-American, sure, but to differentiate feeling guilty for feeling from having class perspective: one with a college degree, coping with the micro and material aggressions of having a job with a cubicle.

Taylor Swift’s willingness to center her suffering, however relative, is exactly what Viet Thanh Nguyen means by writing “as if you are the majority.” You could say Taylor takes this lesson, too, and writes with the confidence of a man like Bruce Springsteen, but she’s long since entered a class of her own. (Tangent: my favorite part of Pitchfork’s Fine Line review is how it rates Harry Styles’ songwriting shortcomings and triumphs relative to a “Swiftian” quality.")

Taylor Swift's 'reputation' magazines: What you'll find in ...

I haven’t owned a Taylor Swift CD since Speak Now, so it’s purely through Genius that I know reputation was the first album to break her tradition of hidden messages in the lyric booklet. Instead, it came with one of two collectible (Target-exclusive) reputation faux-tabloids that’s more of a zine with handwritten lyrics and poems, like one called “If You’re Anything Like Me.” I’m obsessed with this stanza:

If you're anything like me,
There's a justice system in your head
For names you'll never speak again,
And you make your ruthless rulings.
Each new enemy turns to steel
They become the bars that confine you,
In your own little golden prison cell...
But Darling, there is where you meet yourself.

Crime and punishment run throughout reputation. It’s a Trojan horse of an album that’s more about falling in love with her milquetoast British boyfriend at the eye of the storm than it is about the storm itself, but some of its carceral language off the top of my head includes:

  • “he can be my jailor, Burton to this Taylor” (…Ready for It?)

  • “they're burning all the witches even if you aren't one” (I Did Something Bad)

  • “gold cage, hostage to my feelings” (So It Goes…)

Donnella’s hip hop analysis and reputation’s metallic, urban-industrial soundscape support a lineage from gangsta rap, and I’m tempted to draw a sloppy line further back to Waylon and Willie and outlaw country with “Getaway Car.” Then again, Taylor is the daughter of a stockbroker from Pennsylvania who’d be out of place on both “Highwomen” and “Highwayman.”

reputation’s love-it-or-hate-it legacy ultimately rests on the album’s distracting affectation. Try-hard aesthetic aside, Taylor’s self-prescribed fixation on being a “good girl” is the underbelly that makes reputation ring false. And that’s fine; pop culture lives on facade. But it’s something more insidious than the people-pleasing, “mirrorball” truth of her.

Taylor Swift could never be an outlaw, a gangster, a member of any minority Viet Thanh Nguyen refers to. reputation’s criminal, persecuted posturing could only ever be posturing because Taylor Swift loves the law, both personal comeuppance (“all I think about is karma”) and the written law. Because the law protects her, and it protects her interests as one of the richest women in the world. That’s why her recent political awakening is perhaps the zenith of liberalism’s contradictions, and the class conflict that makes stan culture one of the worst things to happen to electoral politics. And that’s how we ended up in this circle of hell:

part two coming soon

I didn’t directly reference it, but this is in conversation with Vrinda Jagota’s excellent reputation-era essay “On Loving Taylor Swift While Being Brown.”

Don’t know that I have many action items apart from watching these labor moves:

reading new plays from the margins

trauma! in the lit office

I wrote this in September 2019, a month into my Actors Theatre of Louisville apprenticeship as an indirect response to a play that sent me to therapy. It's meandering and about surviving abuse, content warnings, dramaturgs + playwrights of color, white supremacy, j-school baggage, all that jazz. I thought it had something to say adjacent to We See You, W.A.T., so here you go.

Soundtrack for this essay.

One of the reasons I nearly flunked out of my journalism major was I chafed against objectivity and “the view from nowhere.” Which is in the American theater canon, too, and what we describe as “universal” stories. So what I’ve appreciated about theater is that emotion and bias are what make art, specific is relatable, and personal reactions and first impressions are valuable to script analysis.

I appreciate that a dramaturg’s humanity and identity aren’t considered conflicts of interest. But I struggle to separate my emotional response to this play from formal analysis, and the depth of this reaction is unlike any other play I’ve read or seen. It’s different from evaluation or reporting being skewed due to personal stakes — it’s visceral, for my health I can only think of this play sparingly, it’s retraumatizing.

I don’t believe in explaining race to white people, or volunteering personal information for sympathy, or mining trauma for content, and I won’t share why reading this play felt like shitting a cheese grater from the butthole of my soul.

I don’t think I’m special because I tick some minority boxes. Someone somewhere read How to Defend Yourself and spent the rest of the day in shock, too, or maybe someone somewhere in another literary office also witnessed an accidental death by [redacting this reference, kind of a pre-coronavirus proprietary secret?]. There is no way to pick away at a script pile and know what you’re getting.

I don’t move through life seeing all Asian and queer plays as minefields, and it would be ludicrous and offensive to any script reader to preface anything with “this play deals with x community, so it might upset you.” I had an idea of what I was getting into by page 5, and I have no regrets. I’m glad I read it, it just ruined my week.

I like content warnings as an audience member, which I realize are probably written by us, who are the first to lay eyes on said content. I also think the content warning for this play would amount to “gun violence” and little else.

(Can a trigger warning really help when all trauma is unique? It’s one thing for someone who’s never been near a gun to be upset by live gunfire because of current events, it’s another for a play to uncannily model the behavior of one person’s abuser — a blanket “child sexual abuse” warning for How I Learned to Drive does plenty, but what if an abuse survivor feels appropriately prepared by that warning, and then they’re triggered by something more minute, a certain turn of phrase, oysters? What if a CSA survivor is triggered by Oklahoma!? I think “trigger” has been hijacked for any content warning you’d want on an MPAA rating when an actual trigger is a smell or a silhouette or a turn of phrase, you know?)

I’m not describing a problem in the system of reading new plays. Maybe. The job of literary management feels like corporate roleplay that forgets we handle living, volatile art. It’s healthy and noteworthy for a script to shock me out of office mode. Part of me thinks we should read scripts by candlelight, in bean bag chairs, with tissues and therapists close at hand, but I guess plays that annihilate dramaturgs with trauma are few and far between. Or we just don’t talk about it.

I really think theater is dangerous for everyone involved. I think a literary office is something like a first line of defense, or an embassy, or a scout sent to the front lines of war. These are all combative metaphors which unfortunately make new plays sound like disease and literary management an immune system. If you want to invert these from defense to offense, there’s also something weird and imperialist about saying we’re frontiersmen.

I think about Sarah Ruhl’s love note to dramaturgs. I’ve known what a dramaturg is for less than four years, but the image in my mind is blank, “the view from nowhere” also seems like another way of saying “the audience before the audience,” and what is a theater audience or a news market in the middle of America but overwhelmingly white? A dramaturg is inherently supportive and peripheral to theater making and there in service to a writer or institution or audience, so it’s easy for me to slip back into my journalist’s guilt about being selfish or distracting from a work in progress.

I think all dramaturgs are vulnerable and choose to be vulnerable to discover new plays. But I also think dramaturgs can be “flayed open and exposed,” which Sarah Ruhl says of playwrights in rehearsal. We are vulnerable in order to be brave for writers and audiences.

And I think of the dynamic I frequently see, of a white literary team producing a writer of color, or a dramaturg of color teaching a white writer or director, and there’s a hierarchy that leaves the POC vulnerable no matter their position. This is also true of a non-Black POC dramaturg or director working on a play about anti-Black racism and vice versa. We give up less as outsiders and burden others to embody or explain their oppression, all while feeling like allies who amplify unheard voices. 

If a dramaturg is there for a second opinion, and their value is that they are not the playwright, or that they live outside the work (where the playwright never could), then the implication is that they are “the view from somewhere else.” To go to a logical extreme, a dramaturg should share nothing in common with the playwright, or a dramaturg with too much of a personal stake has an interest that conflicts with the job they’re there to do.

This is my loose understanding of Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints, or at least as described by Anne Bogart on collaboration. She said Overlie considered calling them Windows, and it takes many people looking at an event through vastly different windows to create a clear picture. She means technically, with a play on its feet, how a lighting designer can see something a director misses, but I think the same is true of text. Is there danger in a playwright and dramaturg sharing a Window? Mechanically, they don’t since their roles are different, but I also think Viewpoints can mean cultural and experiential difference, in which case — is there danger in homogeny?

Of course most of us don’t want to be siloed away into a certain kind of work or collaborator, whether that’s some kind of race separatism or actively avoiding working with your own people. But I also think rehearsal rooms with no white people are safe. Even if we’re working on something that hurts, it’s safer to collapse with people who share trauma.

It’s not so much that a dramaturg who is part of a play’s community is less able to work than someone with more objectivity. They will work differently, and whichever one is better for the play is a case-by-case question.

But literary management is a blunt task, in a way the antithesis of production or developmental dramaturgy. We promise each script consideration, which like any service is self-effacing. There has to be times that erasure is harmful not just to the script reader, but to the playwright. It’s valuable to know your script has the desired effect on the exact community you wrote to and that they’re represented in the literary office, but if they’re expected to evaluate your play like it’s any piece of writing, it’s the same stupid question plaguing newsrooms: why hire reporters of color if ultimately you will force them to conform to “the view from nowhere”?

While overt censorship or editorial whitewashing aren’t an actual practice in the internal, archival purposes of script reporting (as far as I’ve seen), how do we evaluate plays we can’t compartmentalize into “this is what I see the play doing” and “this is what this play makes me feel” when the most consuming thought is this is what this play did to me?

We shouldn’t avoid plays that destroy us like this, since our reactions have value distinct from impartial assessment. I think what I’m going for is there should be space for more than plain evaluation.

I don’t see that much written about dramaturgs feeling things, just love notes from people who think we have our shit together, and advice from dramaturgs with the privilege of distance from the plays they read and work on.

I think we’re first responders. It’s an intellectual and emotional labor to dive into and then step away from a script, and we don’t always make it back out. 

The metro council president who also represents my district is a former LMPD officer (lol), and they passed the 2020-21 budget last Thursday with no major cuts to policing—details here thanks to the Courier-Journal’s Darcy Costello—so we’re far from done with calling for divestment.

The following action items are from Root Cause Research Center’s Invest/Divest Louisville toolkit. Use these scripts for direct and social media messaging.

  • Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the LMPD chief after the National Guard murdered David McAtee. Fill out this police chief survey and tell the metro government to defund and dissolve LMPD.

  • Call 502-574-2003, email and tweet at Greg Fischer to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, and that LMPD fires Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove and revokes their and Brett Hankison’s pensions.

  • Call 502-564-2611, email and tweet at Governor Andy Beshear and state legislators (I’m hitting up my Louisville and old Paducah reps, because why the hell not) to repeal Kentucky’s Blue Lives Matter law and mirror Breonna’s Law at the state level.

And from BLM Louisville:

I’m diving into Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s 1993 essay Anarchism and the Black Revolution, which I recommend for anyone with time on their hands who’s new to abolition and/or looking to read Black anarchists.

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