Damon Albarn’s criticism of Taylor Swift is ‘hopelessly out of date’

Comment: He wrongly said she didn’t write her own songs – revealing a pop-vs-indie snobbery

Damon Albarn has just criticised one of the world's biggest pop stars and the internet is in flames. The year is 2015 and Albarn is talking about his abortive collaboration with Adele, at that time recording her 25 album.

“Adele asked me to work with her and I took the time out for her… Will she use any of the stuff? I don’t think so,” the Blur and Gorillaz frontman told the Sun.

“The thing is, she’s very insecure. And she doesn’t need to be, she’s still so young”. Albarn went on to describe her new music as “middle of the road”.

Seven years later, and the deja vu is overwhelming. Albarn once again dominates the news cycle after offering unflattering comments about a prominent young female performer. He was quoted by the LA Times as saying that, though Taylor Swift was "an excellent songwriter", she "doesn't write her own songs".


Swift wasted little time pushing back on social media. “I was such a big fan of yours until I saw this. I write all of my own songs. Your hot take is completely false and so damaging,” she wrote.

The bad old days when women in pop were seen as inherently lacking in credibility aren't entirely over

Albarn immediately apologised, saying he’d had “a conversation about songwriting” that was “sadly … reduced to clickbait”.

He did not, however, go so far as suggest he had been misquoted by the journalist he had just thrown under the bus. And so it’s hard not to see his remarks as a raging against the changing of the guard by a middle-aged musician who came up when indie rock was regarded as the last word in credibility. And when pop was perceived as the lowest form of musical expression.

In the 1990s, as Albarn was busy conjuring the jingoistic lark that was Britpop and manufacturing a feud against Oasis, pop was seen as plastic and disposable. The rehabilitation of Abba was still years away; the Pet Shop Boys were condescendingly referred to in the UK record press as “the Smiths you can dance to”.

But that has changed. Genre boundaries have crumbled, to the point that even describing Swift as “pop” is simplistic. Folklore and Evermore, her two folk-tinged LPs from 2020, where hushed and thoughtful – and provided a sharp contrast to the dreamily wistful Lover (2018) and 2017’s Reputation, her exasperated picking apart of the internet’s obsession with tearing down celebrities.

With Gorillaz and his Africa Express project, Albarn has deservedly drawn praise for working with artists of different cultural and musical backgrounds (in 2005 he clashed with Bob Geldof by criticising the absence of non-white performers on the bill for the Live 8 charity concert).

'The boundaries between genres have been melting a long time. Indie music or alternative music is kind of a myth now'

And yet his criticisms of Swift suggest he has one foot in the old days when pop stars knew their place and indie rockers hoovered up all the glory. And that's even factoring in his admiration of Billie Eilish, whom, in that LA Times interview, he compared and contrasted to Swift, praising her for writing her own songs.

Swift and Eilish actually have a lot more in common than Albarn appears to believe. Both bring a singular vision to their art. They have also forged close creative relationships with their producers. In the case of Eilish that is her brother, Finneas O’Connell. With Swift, her records have featured production from Joel Little (Lorde) Jack Antonoff (St Vincent, Lana Del Rey) and, more recently, The National’s Aaron Dessner.

Dessner, unlike Albarn, understands the world has moved on. Speaking to The Irish Times about his Big Red Machine collaboration with Swift, he appeared to imply that the idea of musicians having to pass an indie rock “purity test” to be considered credible was hopelessly out of date.

“The boundaries between genres have been melting a long time,” he told me. “Indie music or alternative music is kind of a myth now. It used to be that way. But working with Taylor – we didn’t have any outside influence at all. There was never a moment when … I mean her record company didn’t even know [about the collaboration] until a few days before [release date]. There was no compromise in terms of what we were making.”

Swift producer Jack Antonoff echoed those sentiments speaking to The Irish Times last summer. Asked what it was that set Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey (and, presumably, Billie Eilish) apart he likened them to Tom Waits. You may or may not appreciate Tom Waits' voice. The point is that nobody else in the world sounds like him. And it is that singular quality that makes them special.

With a backlash in full swing, perhaps we have finally reached at point where such views can be relegated to the musical dustbin

“There are brilliant, brilliant songwriters out there who know how to tell a story and how to work with melody and lyrics and make it happen,” he explained. “But when someone can do that but also has the ability, and also the desire, to tell a hyper-personal story in a hyper-personal way, then they create something which nobody else could do.”

The bad old days when women in pop were seen as inherently lacking in credibility aren't entirely over, it's worth pointing out. Consider the campaign to discredit Olivia Rodrigo because her music draws inspiration from other artists – including, as it happens, Taylor Swift.

As Elvis Costello pointed out, when comparisons were made between Rodrigo's Brutal and his 1978 single Pump It Up, all songwriters are magpies picking the pockets of the musicians on which they grew up. And yet Rodrigo is singled out for criticism where others (consider Oasis and their seamless rifling of T-Rex) get a free pass.

Swift and Eilish are clearly two of the singular musical voices of their generation. And the idea they should be judged by the degree to which they have or have not collaborated with producers and co-writers is absurd (did Albarn write the riff to Blur’s Song 2?).

With a backlash in full swing, perhaps we have finally reached at point where such views can be relegated to the musical dustbin.