Something keeps me holding onto nothing…
If you’ve taken a base-level economics course, you know the term “menu cost.” A menu cost is the cost that a business incurs upon encountering a new economic environment, a new status quo. The term has an explicitly literal derivation: When the price of fish changes, restaurants are forced to print new menus to reflect the new cost of salmon and tuna. Ever seen “market price?” That exists because some prices fluctuate so much that it’s not even worth communicating them to customers in any way that isn’t verbal. Any time the economy experiences inflation, a restaurant—like any other business—has to change all of its prices. That takes time and money. And effort. Inasmuch, companies don’t always respond immediately to supply and demand shifts with price changes. But in the long run, they always will.
Let’s talk about Taylor Swift.
A few nights ago, I was sitting in a hostel bed in the middle of a wall-shaking Kunming thunderstorm. Below me, a 20-something dude was snoring. I’d like to point out here that people who snore in hostels should be incarcerated for a minimum of 5 years. At the very least, they ought to be charged triple for a bed. I couldn’t sleep. The thunderstorm was a non-issue. It was the snorer that stood between me and my slumber, and he was absolutely relentless. I watched the hours tick away: 12, 1, 1:30. After a while I gave up and decided to overpower him with the eardrum-tickling stylings of Taylor Swift. I received her full anthology from my 31-year-old ex-accountant Chinese roommate at Summer Institute last year. He was her self-proclaimed “biggest fan,” a phrase that he imparted in such a way that implied he learned it in a book called Contemporary English. Since my library contains little outside the realm of edgy rap, I figured Taylor was my only shot at sleep. I slid to her page and hit shuffle.
I’d never ventured beyond the classics: Love Story, 22, You Belong with Me etc., so most of the library was brand-new. I realized a few things very quickly. Every single Taylor Swift song sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s a mind-bogglingly awesome sound, but each track is a regurgitation of the one before it. I would be remiss if I said that this wasn’t the way most artists, especially the ones on the radio, operate. Have you ever heard, “Hey, you gotta check out Keisha’s new stuff. She totally reinvented her sound.”
Most importantly, though, the deeper I got into albums like Red, Speak Now, and Fearless, I realized that the message was always a variation on a few themes: They mostly centered on the boy-girl thing. Shy girl wants popular boy (You Belong with Me, Speak Now), sleazy boy does girl wrong (Dear John, Mean, Girl at Home), girl is attracted to bad boy (Treacherous, Red, The Way I Loved You, Trouble), boy and girl classically fall in love (Stay, Stay, Stay, Love Story, Everything has Changed). Yeah, the snorer was relentless. Each song is subtly framed in the context of an idyllic small town (Taylor is constantly stung by the loneliness of big cities), a fairytale experience (princes on princes) and the generally generic, “timeless” concepts of love and marriage. Whiteness is also assumed, if you watch her videos. But, that’s not exactly where I’m going.
As I began to lose myself in the wonderworld that is the Taylor Swift anthological experience, something else came to me. These concepts are dated. The concepts of expected chivalry, happily ever after marriage, happily ever after marriage between guy and girl, monogamous romances starting in high school, and white knights feel more than a bit bygone. Yet, Taylor sings about them without the slightest hint of nostalgia. Could it be that the country’s biggest pop star is out of touch?
With Taylor Swift as my jungle guide, I started to understand why some people resist change. No, that’s not it. People don’t resist change, they cling to tradition. Change and tradition both have favorable associations. Naturally, conservatives decry liberals for destroying tradition while the left condemns the right for defying change. Here’s the thing, though: tradition is easy. We know it. The longer we’ve lived with it, we actually begin to believe it, unequivocally. It’s cozy. It’s very easy to make and absorb a record about boy meets girl and such and such. There are millennia of precedent. After all, Taylor Swift’s most famous track is a Shakespearian drama adapted for ball gowns and pebble throwers. Love Story doesn’t force us to think or remove us from our comfort zone. It’s just really nice. Throw the same song on the radio and mix up the pronouns a little bit, and lots of people simply won’t be able to handle it. The phrase, “I just want to enjoy the music” comes to mind.
The idea stems from detachment. People who live in the shrinking world that unfolds in Taylor Swift’s music are perfectly content. Tinkering with it would be unthinkable. There’s a good thing going on, why should it be broken? In this way, people aren’t always too hateful for change, but rather they are too lazy to rewire tradition. They fail to recognize its marginal utility. The idea is that breaking with tradition will mess everything up, in no small part because there is (by definition) no precedent for change. This, I can assure you, is a conversation that has directly preceded each and every forward progression in human history.
The thing is, we know what Taylor Swift’s idyllic small town looks like. We don’t know what that town looks like with fluid gender roles, less monogamy, and fewer churches. I’m aware that those three are unrelated, but they are the future. As such, they haven’t entirely moved in yet. They are unknown. We are afraid to face that unknown but are also too lazy to create it.
This isn’t a knock on Taylor Swift. She’s singing about her own experience. It’s a knock on a society that takes that experience as the experience. It’s a knock on a society that believes there is a connection between that experience and real-life human values. The most elementary, yet apparently enigmatic phrase in the American Constitution is: “…that from that equality they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” I view that as a hierarchy: The latter two are contingent on life (I’m not looking to get into a metaphysical discussion). Next comes liberty. Once those two are settled, the right to pursue happiness is next in line. These are our inalienable values. I see three. To me, that means, after life and liberty, happiness comes before all else.
I’m not saying take TSwift off the radio. I don’t want to hear Pharrell’s “Happy” all day long either and I also don’t believe her subject matter is obsolete. I’m just saying that it’s about time we adjust the menu costs in our society: those small changes we continuously choose to resist. It doesn’t matter if you are “weirded out” by the way people choose to live their lives. Can you imagine the things that bothered people 200 years ago? It doesn’t matter that you “like the way it is.” It doesn’t matter if you want to hear the music without thinking about the words. Because, even the stuff that Taylor Swift talks about, vanilla as it is, would have shocked listeners were it being blasted through a phonograph.
There is a reason restaurants don’t engrave their menus in gold. There’s a reason convenience stores don’t buy elaborate neon signs to advertise the price of a pack of Trident. If they did that, they’d have to overhaul their entire business model every time Janet Yellen opened her mouth. Prices change. A lot. It’s not easy to change your prices. You’ve got to research, you’ve got to implement, and you’ve got to print new menus. But, if you’re too set in your ways or too unmotivated to change them, you’re in trouble. And not Taylor Swift’s kind of trouble.
Menus and price tags are visible everyday representations of the wellbeing and status of an economy. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. TV dramas, radio singles, every day discussions, and simply thoughts do that for the wellbeing and status of society. They inform our reality and as such our behavior. Some questions: Why do we have absolutely no problem adjusting for changes in the cost of things in the name of economic growth, yet when the concern is human progress, it takes so long? Why is supply and demand a greater impetus for change than real feelings and ideas, real impediments to happiness experienced by real people? What if McDonalds still charged a dime for a Big Mac? How long could it deny the reality that a patty now costs X, a bun now costs Y, the price of lettuce has jumped all the way to Z, and X+Y+Z equals a lot more than ten cents? How long could McDonalds honestly do that, to avoid inconvenience, until it either changed its price or disappeared? It’s pretty simple math, right? They’d do it immediately. I mentioned above that life + liberty + happiness = 3. If we’re operating at < 3, we need an adjustment. If you have to let some of your traditions, your thoughts, and your assumed convictions go so that other people can gain the third, or even the second part of that equation, you do it. You keep doing it.