Subcultures Subverted



On artistic subcultures versus a catchy T-Swift single.

First come the bass tones, heavy and minimalistic, the not-quite-identifiable apex of a musical progression stretching back through to Bach and Gibbons and a whole host of other dead names. Then come the opening lyrics, a barrage of monotone words that rapidly morph into a steady portrait of crazy infatuation slipping deeper and deeper. The chorus then progresses forth, calling forth a mock-grandeur grounded by resounding bass chords and the rolling elegy of the vocals and lyrics. And then more lyrics, sung in the same tune but this time with a darker, almost cataclysmic edge, the fury of a woman scorned made into musical notes and rhythms. And the whole time the video plays inextricably forth, a seamless depiction of a man and all his toys laid waste by the wrath of a woman armed with a single incriminating text message.

In this manner the condensed mini-drama of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” plays out a concentrated and distilled self-parody made to run in a couple minutes’ length and broadcasted to an eagerly interested world. And certainly it and the accompanying album have been skillfully crafted, with throbbing dance floor layered auditory textures and all the other tricks of the modern pop-music trade in full-flourish. These features, however, are reduced somewhat in stature relative to a singular controversy around a single piece of set-dressing in the accompanying music video: an ostensibly priceless Shelby AC Cobra, which by virtue of its status as the leading man’s prized possession receives a uniquely undignified bashing with a golf club by a jilted Swift. For a time, the story filled many minor news outlets, giving rise to much rage and fury amongst committed gearheads and a strident defense by equally-fervent T-Swift fans.

The collected gearheads of the world certainly had a lot to cherish in the AC Cobra, which does hold a fairly high place in the grand pecking order of classic cars by virtue of a distinguished and unique parentage. A two-seater roadster, the AC Cobra at first glance seems to be yet another example of the fine 60’s/70’s British tradition of the underpowered convertible sports car. But entered into this equation is an American chili pepper by comparison: the great Carroll Shelby, who fitted this diminutive little chassis with a massive 7.0 L V8 engine–the same engine as the original production Ford Mustang. The result was a fiery pocket-rocket of a car, a two-seater convertible nevertheless capable of 186 mph (in 1964!) owing to its lightweight construction. As a result, it was indeed a brilliant racecar, easily outstripping its Maserati and Jaguar competitors in drag races and winning races well into the 1970s. But a brilliant racing history did not obscure the teething problems it had as a daily driver. With an unstable ride and nightmarish handling contributing to such low sales, Shelby eventually discontinued his partnership with AC Cars.

In this manner, the Cobra grew to possess a unique and highly desirable status in the classic car world, namely in its simultaneous rarity (by virtue of being an unpopular car) and great historical value. By the end of the 1970s, AC certainly did not have the remaining capacity to even repair its cars, having gone into bankruptcy during the troublesome Leyland-era ‘70s. As a result of this economic knockout blow, the remaining original Shelby AC Cobras have become highly prized collectibles, selling for millions of dollars at auctions and on eBay. And it is for this reason that so many gearheads grew incensed at the sight of a furious Taylor Swift ostensibly destroying such a precious classic. In this vein, news outlets started to question the status of that little Cobra, and the cost of the destruction T-Swift wreaked with her sharpened fingernails and a blunt golf club.

Of course, the short answer to such a question could only be an emphatic “no.” The car featured in the video was, in fact, a replica built in South Africa and lent to Swift specifically for the shoot. Swift and crew paid for a comprehensive repaint of the whole car to rectify the scratch marks. But the point still remains, namely in that car fans immediately and implicitly assumed that one of their most-prized cars had been irreparably damaged. Not only had it lost its mint condition varnish, but also an otherwise-pristine service history became stained for the sake of a pop singer. For fans of the motoring tradition, this sort of situation is certainly not without precedent, although the Cobra is certainly far and away the most valuable car that has been apparently trashed. And indeed for these motoring enthusiasts the enemy has been as much within as anything else: shows such as the 200-million-viewer-strong Top Gear have relentlessly trashed rare cars such as Morris Marinas and aged Alfas in the name of viewer figures and a quick laugh.

The fundamental idea of the persecuted subculture, however, is not in any way limited to those who call themselves fans of the great ideal of the British sports car or even of any motoring persuasion; rather, subcultures of all sorts and kinds use their exclusivity and sense of persecution as a means of strengthening devotion and justifying interest. From old-school Trekkies spurning the flash-bang populism of J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation of Star Trek to the legions of retro-worshipping hipsters who swarm through the cloistered streets of Williamsburg (and Cambridge too), the idea of an artistic subculture under siege has fascinated its various constituent members. Much of this appeal is due to the simple romanticism of a seemingly-lost cause: the gearhead fixing yet another spark plug on his Triumph Stag does indeed sit in the same boat as a Trekkie earnestly debating the specifications of the Miranda-class starship, or for that matter any member of any other subculture.

To that end, all the media hype about Taylor Swift desecrating an automotive icon was just that: hype. One designed to sell papers or garner clicks or whatever passes for media success in these troubled times. Ultimately, it was handled with aplomb by both sides. Swift posted a revealing tour of the video sets (and a cute disclaimer), while the automotive websites and their devoted followers disseminated the news. Then in typical fashion, the beating heart of the media-beast went on lurking for other targets. But in this little (and by now mostly forgotten) incident between two seemingly wholly unrelated people, there still lies a pleasant lesson to be learned. Subcultures need not be cast against each other to survive, like boats flung against the ramparts of popular opinion and media self-interest; instead, they may coexist, resolving disputes as needed and keeping to themselves as wanted. And in a community as diverse and broad in its pasts and futures as our own world (and indeed our little Harvard), such a policy of coexistence is perhaps the best way to embrace the diversity of humanity itself.

Though a committed lover of all things related to cars, Andrew Lin ’17 ([email protected]) loves him some T-Swift, too.