By Michael Sicinski
I am not a fan of Taylor Swift, or of Adam Curtis, really, although I think both of them get off a good line now and then. But I do think that Swift would be an excellent topic for a Curtis (or Curtis-style) investigation. That’s because Swift is the most successful example of the turn in pop music away from sociality (“you” and “me” as distinct beings in an ecosystem) and toward the primacy of the self (“you” as “I” see you). I suspect Curtis might diagnose this turn toward solipsism as a hybrid form brought about by hyper-capital, since it could probably be boiled down to a resurgence of German Idealism (“the world is delimited by my perception of it,” essentially) with the relatively new counterforce of consumerism and advertising (“your world is defined by the signifiers around you”).
So if we think about “All Too Well,” the song, it’s instructive to compare it to other pop songs that it superficially resembles. Most songs on the radio last between three and four minutes. “All Too Well” (at least “Taylor’s Version”) is over ten minutes, putting it in a rather small category. Excepting certain cuts from ’70s prog-rockers, who themselves were trying to mimic the expansiveness of classical music, you’d have to classify Swift’s song alongside very different works—“American Pie,” “Hey Jude,” “Stairway to Heaven.” Those songs were rather obviously striving for an epic quality, whereas “All Too Well,” I suppose, could be called “intimate.”
But Swift’s popularity, apart from being quite anomalous in a pop landscape dominated by rap and other primarily Black and Latinx forms, is a kind of triumph for epic solipsism. It’s not just that Swift is, as they used to say, “all in her feelings.” It’s that her work is defiantly about her own personal experience (a bad breakup with a movie star, over a decade ago), aggressively raising that single, not very generalizable biographical detail to the level of cultural mythology. It is “everyone’s experience” (provided you are part of the race/gender demographic Swift’s music targets, and then generalizes as “everyone.”) But it is also somehow aspirational. She is “just like us” (young love is hard!) but also something more, something we might someday become (I want to date a cute famous boy too!).
This complex cultural formation, which we could easily just call a “brand,” is, like most pop culture fantasies, counterintuitive and easily falsified by empirical reality. So it has to be constantly maintained. “Cinema” (35mm!) is the logical tool for cementing the tall blonde mythos of “All Too Well,” and Swift’s writing and direction of All Too Well: The Short Film (official title) borrows from all available midlevel Netflix tropes to solidify its Big Feels. Swift’s directorial moves truly look like they could have been spat out by an algorithm. The glinting sun through autumnal foliage (“An Upstate Escape”), the assemblage of friends around a dinner table out of the Restoration Hardware catalogue (“The First Crack in the Glass”), all the way to the posh bookshop where the older protagonist (Swift) conducts a reading from All Too Well: the novel (“Thirteen Years Gone”)—the film is an amalgamation of over-literal narrative tropes that provide a coolly professional, Lifetime sheen to the whole affair, bolstering the music inside visual maneuvers that approximate a romantic narrative film. This application of “cinema,” primitively defined, links together various moments of agony and ecstasy embodied (by Sadie Sink) so broadly as to place themselves in quotation marks. (Dylan O’Brien, for his part, has little to do but skulk.)
With its clumsy pans, 360-degree lovers-in-arcadia shots, its petulant performances, and even its alien-planet art direction (“H-A-P-P-Y-B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y”), All Too Well occupies a strange zone, superficially resembling filmed entertainment but mostly existing as its otherworldly double. This simulacrum of romance, though, is entirely fitting, since the film (and the song) never purport to depict a relationship, in the usual sense. Rather, they are meant to depict one person’s simmering resentment, a possible relationship (who really knows?) deformed by time and turned into a personal fetish object.So, much like the song itself, All Too Well: The Short Film claims epic status for itself simply by fiat. (These would-be archetypes, after all, are called “Him” and “Her.”) A song that sounds grand but is actually about smallness is wedded to a film that assembles elements of cinema, as we think of it, but assembles them wrong—prefab IKEA materials dowelled together randomly, presented as “furniture.” This is an epic of sorts, a monument to the erasure of lived subjectivity and its replacement with spectacle and simulation, human emotion reduced to Instagram poses and lingering spite. So thanks, TIFF, for reminding us that there’s nowhere to hide from Taylor Swift. Capital has spoken, and each of us is compelled to Share Her Journey.