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Tina Fey vs. Taylor Swift: An Adventure in Overanalysis and Not Being Able to Take a Joke

Taylor Swift, in belligerent red

Vulture, New York Magazine’s “pop culture” blog, had an item earlier today about Taylor Swift hitting out at Tina Fey over remarks the comedienne made about her in January, while hosting the Golden Globes. At one point, Fey turned to Swift and said “Stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son.” The line got big laughs, likely trading on Swift’s tabloid reputation for going through boyfriends quickly and then writing thinly-veiled songs about them. Vulture quotes an upcoming Vanity Fair piece, in which Taylor Swift responds to a question about the evening by citing a favorite quote of Katie Couric’s, which is actually a quote by Madeleine Albright: that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. Edith Crawley, you’re on notice.

The initial reaction to this insinuation, if the Vulture comment section is any sort of representative sample, has ranged from incredulous to downright hostile. There are a couple reasons for this. First, Swift is an attractive and successful recording artist with a well-publicized record of dating famous men and then writing songs about them when things go wrong.  This sort of behavior (i.e. writing songs about your experiences) is apparently going to win you enemies.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the studio

Secondly, for a majority of educated young people, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are akin to saints: they are considered incorruptible and irreproachable, 2008′s Baby Mama notwithstanding. But beyond defending Saint Tina against criticism, it seems that a lot of people are taking exception to the fact that Swift even dared to be upset by what Fey said. A common theme among these comments is that Ms. Swift should A) STFU and/or B) Take a joke.  But should she A and/or B?

It’s probably worth explaining my biases here. As seen in my 2012 Year in Music, I was a big fan of “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” Facts are facts: this track is a jam. For several years before this, my friends and I would listen to Taylor Swift songs ironically during semi-ironic dance parties, but with WANGBT, Tay has officially broken the speed of irony and is now drunkenly danced to in earnest. During my great American road trip of 2011, I blasted the hell out of “Mean” when cruising through the streets of Nashville, TN. I am not ashamed of these things because I enjoy listening to her music. Does this mean I have bad taste? Maybe. I would respond, however, that one might as well disqualify a food critic on the basis of his love of Snickers or an art critic because of the children’s water color paintings he has on his fridge.

Anyway, back to the task at hand: a lot of the reaction I’ve seen to Swift’s comment seems to represent indignation that Swift could possibly accuse Fey of misogyny or anti-feminism. I’m not sure Swift’s quote above necessarily indicts Fey for either of these, at least on purpose, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume she intended to do just that. Is she wrong? The presence of response A as described above certainly suggests there might be a slight misogynistic streak underlying this attitude, even if it’s mostly coming from women, and the suggestion that she learn to “take a joke” seems awfully dismissive of the feelings of a young woman who was effectively insulted on national television to a round of applause. I would also argue that “take a joke” is difficult advice when it’s not even clear what the joke was, or if it was in fact a joke.

Fey and Poehler’s Golden Globes performance has been mentioned recently in the news for another reason: as a foil for Seth MacFarlane’s critically panned Oscar gig.  The best analysis of MacFarlane’s performance I’ve read comes from Dan Brooks, a Missoula-based freelance writer who generally makes fun of Republican politicians, but now and then widens his scope to encompass pop culture.  In that post, he argues that one of MacFarlane’s major sins is that he’s a hack comedian, most easily seen in his (accidental) perversion of the standard comic formula of A) set scene, B) create expectation and C) subvert expectation. To understand this model, think of the classic example of “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” The response answers the question, just not the question we thought we were asked.

"Stop me if you've heard this one, Jews run Hollywo--"

In the Family Guy creator’s comedy, step B is frequently skipped altogether, according to Brooks, so he must execute step C by subverting a pre-existing expectation: e.g., by employing “I-can’t-believe-he-said-that” tactics like “Jews run Hollywood.”  It appears that an expectation has been subverted because such a statement is at least mildly anti-Semitic, even though mild anti-Semitism is essentially openly tolerated in this country. However MacFarlane himself did nothing to create this expectation and, frankly, these jokes have been done to death, as Brooks points out.  You can’t claim to be subverting expectations if everyone sees it coming a mile away. So not only is MacFarlane unfunny, he’s arguably not even really telling a joke.

We can apply this A-B-C framework to Fey and Poehler’s Golden Globes outing as well. In fact, the comediennes’ use of this model helps explain to a large degree why the performance was so successful. Let’s review some of the jokes they told and, to make it fun, let’s focus on moments when female members of the audience were called out.

James Cameron! It's funny because I married that guy!

I haven’t been following the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty… But when it comes to torture, I trust the woman who spent three years married to James Cameron.

-Amy Poehler on Kathryn Bigelow

This is a fairly straightforward example of the A-B-C structure done well. Poehler sets the scene by recalling the then-prevailing controversy regarding ZDT’s torture scenes. She creates the expectation that she’s going to say something about the controversy, and perhaps about Bigelow, only to pivot away from this by making fun of Bigelow’s ex-husband,  James Cameron. The humor here may rely on our perception of Cameron as being a difficult man to work for, or it may be because he appears to be something of a blowhard. Either way, as Cameron is Hollywood royalty, this represents an aggressive shot across the bow; just not Bigelow’s bow.

Which one of us actually wants to be here? I don't knoooooow...

You gave a stunning performance in Les Miserables… I haven’t seen someone so alone and abandoned like that since you were on stage with James Franco at the Oscars.

-Tina Fey to Anne Hathaway

This is funny not only because it’s true, but the reminder of Franco’s lousy turn as Oscar host comes out of nowhere.  Here, the expectation is that Hathaway’s performance as Fantine will be compared to some other film performance, but we don’t see a reference to her infamous 2011 Oscars co-hosting gig coming. Importantly, for our purposes, though: Fey isn’t making fun of Hathaway. She’s making fun of Franco for his lethargy and nonchalance that night, which was roundly criticized in the press.  And not only does this not make fun of Hathaway, it in fact aggrandizes her, highlighting how hard she worked to try to salvage the proceedings that night. People laughed in large part because they were sympathetic to Hathaway’s Oscar plight. Keep this in mind, because it won’t last long.

Sam Fox, who might still have a song written about him

You know what, Taylor Swift? You stay away from Michael J Fox’s son.

-Tina Fey to Taylor Swift

I suppose I can be accused of cherry picking, but one of these is clearly not like the others.  Not only does this barb not resemble the jokes above in terms of the A-B-C structure, it’s also the only example of the three where the humor seems to depend entirely on insulting the addressee.

In the interest of scientific inquiry, and helping me pass the time during a slow work day, let’s see if we can unpack the Swift “joke” in order to better understand what it means, why it was laughed at, and why Tay is pissed enough to suggest (in all earnestness, I assume) that Tina Fey is going to hell. One way to do this is to figure out if an expectation has been subverted, since we’ve agreed that is our basic requirement for a joke. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like any sort of expectation has been set up or subverted: in fact, strangers telling Swift to stay away from a guy in particular or guys in general is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the media recently.

Similarly, I can’t tell if there’s anything particular about the young Mr. Fox that would render his inclusion here a subversion of expectations, except insofar as the reference itself is so random it can be acknowledged as a non sequitur, which we can think of as a logical subversion of expectations. But this is unsatisfactory – after all, Fox is Swift’s age, is good looking, comes from good stock (maybe not Kennedy-good, but still)…  if it turns out the kid plays guitar, then wouldn’t he be exactly the type of person Swift would date?

So expectations haven’t exactly been subverted – the punchline, if we can call it that, isn’t surprising and it doesn’t shed any new light on a subject – but people still laughed. Why? I submit that it was because of an inherent dislike for Swift. The more we look at Fey’s line, the less it seems like it was a “joke,” in the sense that comedians tell jokes, and the more it seems like a playground insult overheard by a teacher, referred to ex post facto as a joke, in order to get out of trouble. I’m not suggesting that Tina Fey is a playground bully, but I am suggesting that Fey doesn’t like Taylor Swift and was banking on the audience thinking the same thing.

Let’s go back to the allegations of misogyny. This is a loaded word and I am probably not qualified to address it head on. But it seems clear to me that Swift was treated differently by the Golden Globes hosts than Bigelow and Hathaway, for example, and that this can most appropriately be addressed to Ms. Swift’s romantic life. Detractors state that Swift has brought it on herself, dating around all the time and then writing songs about her former beaux when things don’t work out, but this doesn’t seem to be a fair basis for criticism (or, for that matter, outright vitriol). After all, she’s hardly the first young female singer to mine her broken heart for material: Adele’s first album was basically about nothing else. You may recall that she beat Swift that night for a Golden Globe, en route to an Oscar for the theme to Skyfall.

"Oi'd loike to fank the Academy, yeah?"

Adele and Swift are both similarly aged singer-songwriters who can boast the major distinction of having written the majority of their own material (unlike, say, a Katy Perry or a Britney Spears). As mentioned above, they have also each leveraged tales of failed relationships, albeit to diverse ends, in pursuit of critically acclaimed singles. Yet Adele enjoys almost universal critical and popular appeal, whereas Ms. Swift’s record in the court of public opinion, even before firing at Fey, has been much more mixed. Could this be because Adele’s soulful riffs on heartbreak and abuses represent a respectable maturity, whereas Swift’s catchy tunes about John Mayer being “trouble” are immature? And if they are, why do we care?

Let’s go back to Anne Hathaway for a second. In the wake of her Oscar win for her role as Fantine, she endured criticism from the internet’s bottomless commentariat, both because her acceptance speech (particularly that “It came true” line) was somewhat cloying, but also because a lot of people, apparently, just can’t stand her. For the New Yorker, Sasha Weiss writes that this may be because Hathaway “represents the archetype of the happy girl, which is one that many people resist.” I submit that a similar conclusion can be drawn for Ms. Swift, whose “oh gosh” persona, lyrical attacks on Jake Gyllenhal’s music snobbery and mock British accents don’t fit the preferred model for how a young woman should behave. But Swift isn’t running around lobbying these attacks at random: they’re directed at people who have, at least the way she tells it, been shitty to her.

You know what, Taylor Swift? You stay away from Michael J Fox’s son.

-Tina Fey to Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift wasn’t romantically pursuing Sam Fox, so it’s easy to argue that this was a “joke” in that it was a mock admonition. But what Fey did here was effectively reinforce the idea that Taylor Swift, whose apparent preferred method of dealing with romantic rejection is to write cheesy pop songs, is dangerous and, moreover, worthy of scorn. For while I’m sure Fey wouldn’t want to “go to there,” that’s how I see the joke. Swift has dealt with detractors throughout her career, but since Fey, too, lives in a big ‘ol city, Swift had no choice but to stand up for herself in that VF article. Writing a song about it might have come off as juvenile.

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