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Rob Sheffield

Rob Sheffield is the author of Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World (Dey Street, 2017). His books include On Bowie, Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, Talking To Girls About Duran Duran and Love Is A Mix Tape. He writes for Rolling Stone and will probably ruin your karaoke evening with “Bad Liar.”

“What’s New Romantic About ‘New Romantics’: Taylor Swift and the Bizarrely Unkillable Legacy of New Wave”
The New Romantic pop trash of the early 1980s was not designed with any future in mind, least of all a future that would involve suburban American country starlets. It was a music of disguise and piracy, scandal and outrage, perpetrated by poseurs like Duran Duran and Adam Ant, Culture Club and Visage, Kajagoogoo and Haysi Fantayzee and the Human League, under the spell of Bowie and Roxy and Chic. It was a pageant of ritualized gender taboo violations, a nightclubbing fantasy that appealed primarily to bookish teens who didn’t venture outside after dark. It was a self-proclaimed “Futurism” for which zero future was presumed, a pop thrill whose ephemerality was a crucial part of the attraction for both friends and foes. (Rolling Stone’s review of the first Depeche Mode album, in May 1982: “Don’t look now, but you just missed the New Romantics.”)

Obviously, it is deeply weird that the New Romantic legacy continues to warp, mutate, and saturate pop fantasies. No song epitomizes this quite like Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics.” After her country-pop blockbuster Red, Swift’s brand was established; all she needed to do to pack stadiums for the rest of her career was to stand onstage with an acoustic guitar. This is not what she chose to do. Instead, she embraced Eighties-identified synth-pop, led by “New Romantics,” a manifesto so weird she initially left it off her album, only to reclaim it as the centerpiece of her 1989 tour and release it as a single. What is it about the New Romantic legacy that makes it a place for intersecting ways of hearing pop history—and ways of fantasizing a sexual identity within that history, a place where Taylor Swift and Steve Strange can inhabit the same dance floor? And what is it about the New Romantic legacy that continues to inform pop ideas of gender mutation?