There will be a time when Taylor Swift isn’t considered a country musician. There will also be a time when the fact that her songs tackle youthful concerns can’t be used as a criticism or reason for dismissal. Speak Now might represent both of those times or it might not. Either way, we’re getting closer.
Artistically, there was a huge leap from Swift’s self-titled debut album in 2006, to Fearless, her mega-successful 2008 album. The leap to this, her third album, feels less huge, but still significant. If Fearless felt like a big crossover LP and sounded like one, Speak Now sounds even more like one. Musically, it pulls strains of teen-pop and alt-rock into her dense country-pop sound. There are moments that will recall many successful female radio artists of the last decade or even two. The musical personality of Fearless is here, but it’s been deepened. Some songs do seem likely to be country radio hits still, as well as pop radio hits. In fact, sometimes, like on the parent-to-child ballad “Never Grow Up”, Swift seems capable of taking common country-radio templates and perfecting them.
Fearless felt like a fantasy that was simultaneously commenting on the notion of fantasy-making, the way we need to set up our own stories of hero-dom and courage to get past the dark/complicated stuff of life. On Speak Now, there is something similar going on, with a richer array of narratives and even more songs about that process of turning your life into a narrative. Nearly everything is framed as story-making. On “Enchanted”, she meets someone in a Hollywood fairy-tale meet-cute and hopes it’s the “very first page” of the book, “not where the storyline ends”. Synthesizers are used for a fairytale feeling; the backing vocals are the thoughts in her head. “Back to December” and “Dear John” are both acts of re-working stories of the past, revisiting memories. The darkness in the latter is almost Gothic: “counting the footsteps/praying the floor won’t fall through…again”.
The title song is a fantasy involving conflicting viewpoints of what’s going on. Conflicting stories are being written. They collide within what is itself a story: the whole Hollywood idea that all over the country, weddings are being intruded upon by spurned lovers barging in to speak their peace. The song is all about types of characters, fitting their storyline or not. She sings the key line as both cute and snarky: “I’m not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on a white-veil occasion/but you are not the kind of boy/who should be marrying the wrong girl”.
That discrepancy between the story you write in your head and the way life turns out is the basis for much of the LP. She continually mines the emotional impact of this disconnect. “Story of Us” makes this explicit, by presenting the verses as “chapters”, within a song where the story isn’t being written the way she wants it to, turning into a “tragedy” she didn’t imagine. The sense that most stories turn into tragedies is rather present throughout Speak Now, actually. The somehow Vertigo-like “Haunted” has a particular darkness, making a breakup sound like death. There is a subtext of possible abuse in the dramatic kiss-off “Dear John”, but also in the seemingly bubblier “Mean”. The song seems to be a rejoinder to someone from her town who gave her grief. It also was oddly, and wrongly I think, categorized in early reviews as an attack on music critics, on the basis of one line where someone criticizes her singing. Yet the words she uses sure seem like those of an abuse victim — “I just want to feel OK again”; “you/picking on the weaker man”; “someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me”; “the cycle ends right now”.
The sweet “Never Grow Up” has darkness between the lines, too, or at least sadness about what happens when someone grows up. “No one’s ever burned you/nothing’s ever left you scarred”, she sings to a child. The song’s perspective is slippery; first it’s a parent to a child, then a grown-up singing to her younger self, remembering the time when she was more innocent. “Never Grow Up” seems like a formula at first, but that formula is flipped. Swift does the same throughout the album.
The first single, “Mine”, is a fairly complex narrative. It starts in the past, at the start of a relationship, and then lets us know it’s a flashback. They’re sitting on the couch reminiscing. It then jumps back to the beginning and steps us through the couple’s years together, but all the while shifting perspective, jumping between their separate memories. That perspective-shifting highlights the way we each live in our own heads, with our own stories, and the way lovers together tell one story. The shifting also ramps up the emotional impact of the song, going through down moments and struggles, leading to a general hopefulness about the future. It’s a song of rebirth, too — about not repeating your parents’ mistakes, or your own past mistakes. Speak Now is filled with rebirth, or the promise of it, from “Mine” to “Speak Now” to “Never Grow Up” to “Innocent”, where she promises someone who did her wrong that they’re still a baby, even at 32, and can still become someone else. Very American, these stories of reinvention.
Speak Now ends like Fearless did, with a big triumphant message of hope. “Long Live” is a look towards the future, to wonder what story will be told then about today. It’s a portrait of how we are writing the story of now as we live it. “I said ‘remember this moment’ in the back of my mind”, she sings, while describing people on stage who feel like they’ve conquered the world. They first seem like a Homecoming queen and king; then like a famous band of musicians; other times like revolutionaries, but it’s hard to tell what they’ve accomplished. Like “Change”, which ended Fearless, there’s something really generic about the song, but that quality becomes the cornerstone of an anthem. It’s an anthem of defiance where the defiant ones are gaining their energy from memories and story-making, as Speak Now does. “May these memories break our fall”, she sings, while wondering how the future storytellers will tell her story. Like much of Swift’s music, it’s, of course, not about her, yet completely about her. She’s not asking the direct, Magic 8 Ball question, will I still be famous in 10 years? Yet she is doing that. All of Speak Now engages in that act of making our story hers, and her story ours, which is what pop stars do well.