On my first listen to Taylor Swift's new single, "Gorgeous," all I could focus on was one thing: finally, a pop song that promotes the female gaze. I feel like I'm awash in a sea of songs about women who feel themselves, who are looking so good, who have confidence and have got this. Those songs all play an important role in subverting the male gaze. And I often feel, in the vast ocean that is the history of music, I'm drowning in songs that men have written about how beautiful the female object of their affections is — so beautiful that she made him buy a ring, cheat on his wife, upend his whole life, whatever.
Now, Swift brings us a rare track from the POV of a woman who sees a pretty thing and wants it so badly that she sings an ode to its beauty. She wants it so badly that it drives her to drink (something she's rarely talked about before). She wants it enough to destroy her existing relationship to possess it.
It's not the first time a woman has written this kind of song. Salt 'N Pepa's "Shoop" (and it's little sister, Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass") is the ultimate in male objectification songs, but it feels less personal than Swift's take because of all the confessional-feeling lyrics the latter includes. Dolly Parton made it into a hit with "Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That?" and so did the Weather Girls with "It's Raining Men." But those songs feel like a different genre than "Gorgeous." I think Swift's track is a lot more like Eric Clapton's famous ode to his best friend George Harrison's wife, "Layla."
The sparseness of his 1992 MTV Unplugged take on the song is probably sonically more in line than the original recording in the '60s with his then-band Derek and the Dominoes. But the thing that connects these tracks is the lyrics: neither Swift nor Clapton could stop themselves from falling in love with this person, this object of their desire. And the whole world knows the story of who inspired the songs, because it is the hot gossip of the day. (If you weren't keeping up with '60s gossip, Pattie Boyd — who inspired Clapton to write "Layla" and "Bell Bottom Blues," was married to Harrison, who wrote the Beatles iconic track "Something" about her. After an alleged domestic abuse incident and several allegations of cheating, Harrison and Boyd got divorced and she married Clapton, who went on to write "Wonderful Tonight" about her. She and Clapton got divorced due to his drug addiction, incessant cheating, and again alleged abusive behaviour.) Imagine being the person who inspired all those songs and never making a cent from it, because the royalties are being paid to your ex-husbands.
Swift is taking this old songwriting trick and make it new again by flipping the gender dynamics. I've been suspicious of getting into an intimate relationship with a songwriter since I read Pattie Boyd's autobiography, because the idea of losing my autonomy to become simply an object, distilled down to its most on-the-surface form for mass consumption is a situation women have been pushed into since the dawn of history. I'd rather be the artist than the muse, and so I find some sweet satisfaction in Swift sitting down to paint us a picture of what happened between herself and Joe Alwyn — the mysterious, unfamous boyfriend she's been hiding in her Rhode Island bunker (we kid, we kid; he's reportedly in London). It's a thrill to find the shoe is on the other foot, where some pretty boy prompts a woman to pen a charming, gossipy single in which she just couldn't stop herself from falling in love. If it's a hit, the words he inspired will be seared into our collective consciousness forever, which means the idea that men can be muses just as easily as women will become one that we simply accept.
Taking back that female creative power with this song might be Swift's most feminist move yet.