Country, Disney Style
At the time of writing, Taylor Swift has 672 entries in her online guestbook, and more than 34,000 MySpace friends. Almost all of them have names like McKenzie, Brittany, and Emily, and you just know they all dot their “i"s with little hearts or flowers. Sixteen years old, blonde, willowy, and undeniably gorgeous, Swift is every marketing man’s wet dream girl, and she speaks to a constituency country music has pretty much ignored since LeAnn Rimes.
Swift’s first single, “Tim McGraw”, has seen action in four different Billboard charts, including both the Pop 100 and the Hot 100, and it’s been riding high on both GAC and CMT. Yeehaw. A suitably twangy and atmospheric, mid-paced ballad, “Tim McGraw” is good enough to recall some of the best country singles of recent years, including both “Me And Emily” and “Break Down Here”. However, it’s still called “Tim McGraw”, and so obviously it causes me to break out in hives from time to time. Fortunately for Taylor Swift, McKenzie, Brittany, and all their thousands of friends don’t seem to suffer the same problem.
While Swift sings “Tim McGraw” quite perfectly, elsewhere on her debut album her phrasing is occasionally challenged and her voice proves unable to deliver when a more mature range is required. It’s a weakness that’s particularly painful on a slow, emotional number like “Tied Together With a Smile”. Thankfully, Swift is more given to higher tempos.
With all the inevitability the music business can summon, Taylor Swift opens with “Tim McGraw”. The second track, however, is more indicative of the album as a whole. “Picture to Burn” is two parts Ashlee Simpson to one part Amy Dalley, with an overly familiar guitar melody that could have been lifted directly from the latter.
To state the obvious, I didn’t get my perfect fantasy
I realize you love yourself much more than you could ever love me
So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy
That’s fine. I’ll tell mine you’re gay
—“Picture To Burn”
Taylor Swift has had a full song-writer’s publishing deal since she was fourteen and, most often in collaboration with established songstress Liz Rose, she’s written all the material on her debut album. So it’s no big surprise to discover that her best songs address the issues that confront teenage girls everywhere. Growing boobs, feeling unpretty, fellatio parties, bulimia, loneliness, lurve, and just how very, very much most boys suck.
OK, I lied about the fellatio.
And the bulimia.
And the boobs.
Anyway, while she occasionally struggles to get them out, Swift’s lyrics ring with an authenticity that’s bound to appeal to the self same girls who queue up for the Duff sisters and those lovely Michalka girls. And that’s surely no accident. Lyrically, musically, and in terms of the overall presentation, right down to the “hidden” messages in the lyric sheets, this is country music, Disney style. Indeed, there’s often almost no country at all to be found in songs like “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “A Place in This World”.
I don’t know what I want, so don’t ask me
‘Cause I’m still trying to figure it out
—“A Place in This World”
As her song says, Taylor Swift is just a girl trying to find a place in this world. And there’s no reason she should limit herself to country music. Or why she should be country at all. Yet this is the channel to market she has chosen, and so she has to be prepared to hear complaints about the way that trademarked Mutt Lange guitar whine has been married to her bright shiny pop songs in order to get them onto CMT, GAC, and country radio. “A Place in This World”, for example, is pure Hilary Duff pop, and quite wonderful. But it’s not country music. It owes more to David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” than it does to Nashville. Similarly, “The Outside”, written when Swift was just twelve, is a slice of classic complaint pop à la Lavigne with a Twain Twang thrown in to fill up a gap or two, and “Should Have Said No” is a truly splendid pop-rock song wrapped up in an almost entirely spurious country arrangement. Presumably, it’s easier to market a talented blonde teenager in Nashville than it is in LA or New York?
LeAnn Rimes stuggled, but did manage to traverse the gap between child star and full grown adult success. Today, we seem to draw less of a distinction between the two, and at 16, Taylor Swift already seems too mature to be considered a child. It’s to be hoped that when she finds both her place and her full grown voice, she’s able to find an accomodation between the country tradition and her very obvious pop sensibilities, because Taylor Swift suggests she has much to offer.