Don’t tell me ‘ambition’ was all Taylor Swift needed – I’d rather see the return of the heroic slacker

 (Alamy/Shutterstock/Getty/Orion Classics)
(Alamy/Shutterstock/Getty/Orion Classics)

It’s a sign of just how sainted and bulletproof Taylor Swift is at the moment that one of her besties miraculously didn’t draw any flak her way last week. Lana Del Rey was asked what accounts for the success of her pal. “She wants it,” the singer told BBC News. “She’s told me so many times that she wants it more than anyone. And how amazing – she’s getting exactly what she wants. She’s driven, and I think it’s really paid off.”

Compare this to a comment two years ago from former Love Islander and social media influencer Molly-Mae Hague, who was roundly roasted for stating that: “Beyoncé has the same 24 hours in the day that we do… you’re given one life and it’s up to you what you do with it, you can literally go in any direction.”

As rebuttals at the time pointed out, it’s a fallacy to peddle the myth that we can all achieve as much as Beyoncé when most of us work all hours simply to survive. Ambition is lovely, but without mentoring, connections, a steady income and buckets of free time, the idea that you can “want it” enough to achieve stardom or wealth is almost insultingly naive.

It also helps if you grew up with a template for success, in a family that either made it or had it to start with. It might seem natural for Del Rey, the daughter of a self-made entrepreneur, to congratulate Swift, the daughter of an asset fund manager and banking royalty, on realising her ambition – but most of us should surely smell a rat here?

It all raises the question: why are we so in thrall to other people’s guff about ambition? Wasn’t the pandemic and the era of quiet-quitting – merely working the basic requirements of your job without zeal for anything more – meant to kill this off? Beyoncé herself might have sung that she just “quit her job” on 2022’s “Break My Soul”, yet that was evidently just a zeitgeisty fib nobody’s dared call her out on.

Genius, but cliché: Oscar Wilde and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Getty)
Genius, but cliché: Oscar Wilde and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Getty)

There are some powerful latent reasons why we seldom question the exalted status of ambition. Capitalism needs the fuel of hard work to perpetuate itself, and so always promotes those seen as toiling harder than most. Religion too plays its part; take the Puritan work ethic that promised salvation to those who never stayed idle. Even the fact that we are a species that resulted from evolution – it’s survival of the fittest out there, people – I think supports the notion of valiant aspiration, as though the first fish that evolved into a tetrapod somehow “wanted it” more than the other fish.

But in a cultural sense, I think a more basic thing happened in the last 10 years: all of us simply got bored of staggering talent. The pervading narrative at the peak of any art form has forever been around geniuses. These are the people who didn’t strive, they simply stunned: Mozart was composing from the age of five, Jimi Hendrix melted minds from his first London gig, Oscar Wilde challenged society with his wit alone, Orson Welles invented modern cinema with his first film Citizen Kane.

Yet geniuses today are not only cliché, they’re also unrelatable by modern standards. There’s no story arc there. Today – in a social media age – what we crave more is a narrative linked to a journey, one that’s powered by ambition and drive. It helps if we can extrapolate from their success and make a buck or two also. We might never decode genius, but we can listen to a seminar by self-help guru Tony Robbins that tells us: “No CEO under 30 since Mark Zuckerberg has successfully launched and maintained a consistent aura of excitement, engagement and growth more effectively than Taylor Swift.”

If like me, you find the idea of a popstar being interchangeable with a CEO terrifying, culture offers a balm to the tyranny of ambition if we turn the clock back a bit. A while ago, in the Nineties, we had a soft spot for people who were neither geniuses nor try-hards. They were the slackers: a normally ignored group in any society who somehow found a voice and a cachet in an era when oddballs, rejects and outcasts could actually find themselves idols to a generation of teenagers.

Without mentoring, connections, a steady income and buckets of free time, the idea that you can ‘want it’ enough to achieve stardom or wealth is almost insultingly naive

Whereas today we value “the journey”, slackers were alluringly cool despite going nowhere, achieving nothing and doing mostly sod all. It’s starkly laid out in a founding document of the era – Richard Linklater’s film, Slacker, from 1990. The movie simply and hilariously follows a gaggle of young misfits in a linear fashion, doing nothing more than chatting and being engrossingly eccentric over an average day in Austin, Texas. The same underachieving nonchalance permeated the decade in various guises: the junkies of Trainspotting; the cute idiocy of Bill & Ted; the “McJob” working narrator of Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X; the marginalised schoolkids of Freaks and Geeks; the desk-bound rebels of Office Space; right up to the crown prince of slackerdom, his dudeness Jeffrey Lebowski.

The credo of being anti-materialistic and never once a “sellout” bled through the music of the time, across bands as diverse as Nirvana, Beastie Boys and Pearl Jam. The song most synonymous with the slacker age – Beck’s Loser from 1993 – would be construed as an earnest cry for help today. Back then, it was just a man having fun with the fact he wasn’t a rapper, nor Dylan, nor Prince, but still trying to be all three at once in a charmingly half-arsed, lo-fi way.

Today we see a lack of ambition in a person as being almost a malfunction, a bit like the way people negatively view being asexual. There’s not even an antonym for the word “ambitious” that isn’t inherently mean – lazy, indolent, passive or diffident make it seem almost shameful. We evangelise ambition but shirk the cruel truth: that many ambitious people will never come close to realising their dream due to factors far beyond their control. If we are really quiet-quitting, perhaps reappraising the carefree dropouts of the slacker era makes a lot more sense than pretending that a billionaire like Taylor Swift can be relatable.