A Swift Response to Indie Sleaze and Recession

Sixteen years into her career, Taylor Swift is still dominating the music industry and media as a living legend. Eleven months since her last album release, Red (Taylor’s Version), headlines have been swirling Swift and the complicated drama surrounding the rerecordings of her masters. She announced in August that she is ready to feed the girlies once more with her entirely new tenth studio album, Midnights. Capitalizing off of nostalgia and the “indie sleaze” aesthetic revival, Swift’s artistic choices are a response to the United States’ current economic recession.


What exactly is “indie sleaze,” and why is it emerging now? Associated with the “hipster” movement of the late 2000s to mid 2010s, “indie sleaze” is an alternative fashion and media aesthetic that has emerged in response to the economic recession. With in-your-face, colorful, logomania, Y2K aesthetics dominating pop culture over the last few years, the current economic recession is shifting trends to more grunge, muted aesthetics as it did in 2009. Think: Cobrasnake, Sky Ferreira, skinny jeans and Myspace. And now, Taylor Swift.


At the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards, Swift won Video of the Year and Best Direction for “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version)” along with Best Longform Video for “All Too Well: the Short Film.” For the past year, Swift’s brand has revolved around herself, releasing only rerecords of her old albums with a few bonus tracks after a legal battle over her masters. Swift kept that theme going by wearing an Oscar de la Renta dress inspired by her 2009 VMA’s ensemble, where she was infamously interrupted by Kanye West while accepting her first VMA for Best Female Video. This year, headlines buzzed around Swift’s acceptance speech for her announcement of her tenth studio album, Midnights.


Midnights will be Swift’s first entirely new album since her 2020 release of evermore, an indie “sister” album to Swift’s folklore. Although the album will contain 13 new tracks about “sleepless nights scattered throughout [Swift’s] life,” Midnights is a continuation of Swift’s nostalgia branding. Unlike the promotion for her rerecorded albums, Midnights emerges as an album leading the “indie sleaze” revival in pop culture, media, and art. Fans have drawn parallels between its album art and the branding of American Apparel in its mid-2010s heyday, a pillar of the original “indie sleaze” aesthetic. Swift also praised The 1975’s album on social media, affiliating her with one of the leading artists of the movement as well.


At the time of indie sleaze’s original popularity, Swift was deeply integrated into the pop genre, with Speak Now and Red serving a more mainstream audience. After multiple genre switches, from country to pop to indie and beyond, Swift seems to be capitalizing on the nostalgia that her now more diverse audience feels for the alternative, Tumblr scenes of their middle and high school years. Her last two original albums, folklore and evermore were regarded as a step away from Swift’s traditionally Top 40 pop and towards a more folk/indie sound. Midnights is expected to continue this trend.


Swift is not the only pop diva to capitalize on reinvention. Beyonce’s RENAISSANCE, released in July, was a genre-blending masterpiece that redefined Knowles’ sound. Elton John has been partnering with pop girlies like Britney Spears and Dua Lipa to remake hits from before either woman was alive. With economic recession setting the tone for the music industry, consumers are latching onto stars that are familiar to them, and labels are pushing reliable artists they know they won’t lose money on. Swift’s nostalgia marketing reflects a response to not only current societal trends, but also a knowledge of her fanbase. It wasn’t until 2012 that Swift aligned herself with the “hipster” aesthetic (à la “22” music video), when a large demographic of her fanbase were tweens scrolling through “Taylor Swift outfit inspo” on Tumblr. Midnights is expected to draw upon the hipster imagery of Swift’s Red era and the indie sound of Swift’s folklore and evermore era for an iconically Taylor Swift sad girl album that rides the wave of what chronically online fans want and need.


Midnights is set to release on October 21 (1 + 0 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 0 + 2 + 2 = TS10, by the way), and all eyes will be on Swift as she leads the cultural zeitgeist for a tenth time.

 

Olivia Baisier is a Junior studying Justice and Peace Studies, Journalism, and Chinese.