Why Taylor Swift Is (Probably) About to Bring Back Indie Sleaze

We can't wait to see which musical direction Taylor Swift will be taking next. Our guess is indie sleaze.
We can't wait to see which musical direction Taylor Swift will be taking next. Our guess is indie sleaze. Mike Brooks
It’s often been said that cultural trends come in 20-year cycles. There’s a reason That 70’s Show was one of the biggest shows of the '90s, and another massive '90 sitcom, Friends, had a nostalgic renaissance of sorts in the 2010s.

Just like clockwork, Y2K is dominating pop culture, most notably in music, which saw the pop-punk revival become ubiquitous these past few years. Legacy acts that defined the movement in its heyday are reaching new commercial peaks (My Chemical Romance is playing arenas), and contemporary artists like Machine Gun Kelly have found success with their own interpretations of the genre.

But though emo has proven to be more than a phase, mainstream trends are fleeting. Now, many are looking forward to which nostalgic wave will take the world by storm next. The cover of Taylor Swift’s next album may hold the answer.

While accepting the award for Video of the Year at the VMAs on Sunday night, Swift announced that she would soon be releasing her 10th album, Midnights. Details on the record, set to be released on Oct. 21, are sparse, so fans immediately looked to the album art for clues.
The art is a photo of Swift in grunge-glam makeup, staring forlornly into the flame of a lighter. The title is printed in blue gradient Helvetica, and the whole thing is reminiscent of a 2000s American Apparel ad or a teenage girl’s Tumblr in 2012.

Taylor Swift, it would appear, is entering her indie sleaze era. And she’s taking all of us with her.

Indie sleaze is a term coined in 2021 among fashion bloggers and TikTok influencers to refer to a fashion aesthetic popular in the mid-aughts through the early 2010s. Daniel Rodgers of Dazed called it “grubby, maximalist and performatively vintage.” Or as the average internet user called it at the time, “hipster bullshit.”

The aesthetic is not the only indicator at play here. Swift’s last two records, Folklore and Evermore, were classified as "alternative" on Spotify, and regardless of what that word means to you, they were certainly an alternative to anything Swift had done up to that point. The grounded, subdued material paired with the atmospheric production from The National’s Aaron Dessner not only introduced the public to the idea of Taylor Swift, indie folk artist, but can also be regarded as priming the pump for the mainstream success of other artists in that space, such as Phoebe Bridgers.

Swift didn’t come up with the folk revival, just like Machine Gun Kelly didn’t save pop punk. They were just the mainstream artists who paved the way for these alternative genres to succeed in pop spaces.

If it is indeed Swift’s intention to no longer “make fun of hipsters” and finally make an indie record that’s cool enough for her hipster ex, 2000s indie nostalgia will be for 2023 what pop punk was for 2021.

What exactly does that sound like? Swift’s makeup would indicate that she’s been inspired by Karen O, and her proclivities for both alternative and country would almost definitely make her a Jenny Lewis fan.

We also know she’s been listening to The 1975, which may mean she’s insane enough to jump straight to early 2010s Tumblr pastiche.

As for what this means for the rest of pop music, there’s not as much need to speculate because in some ways it’s already begun. Some critics referred to Harry Styles’ latest record Harry’s House as an '80s throwback, comparing it to Depeche Mode and A-ha. Those critics are all showing their age. “As It Was” sounds like it could’ve been written by Vampire Weekend, which isn’t unreasonable considering that band was huge when Styles was a teenager.

So, yeah, a case could easily be made that this incipient indie sleaze wave will be struck by Swift during this album release cycle. If it’s not, the album art sure as hell is inviting that speculation.

Like many of her fellow icons, Swift has had her share of stylistic iterations, and if it's not indie sleaze, she may decide to completely blindside us by releasing more folk music or another synth-pop record or by making an entire concept album out of a comedy skit like “Three Sad Virgins.” That would all be fine. She would just need to commission a completely different album cover. Or at least a different font.
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