In Defense of Taylor Swift and Gen-Y Pop Music
In which Taylor Swift ups the ante on consistency and sincerity in Top 40 music (and product). Cut to shot of the critical community balking on their next move.
People are having a hard time dealing with Taylor Swift. You'll generally have to twist some arms to get them to acknowledge that the young lady is, at the very least, an impressively talented and developed songwriter for her age (22). Or that she's already showed a greater willingness to experiment with all sorts of different genres than about 90 percent of her colleagues. Or that her singing seems genuinely open-hearted and empathetic. Or that her lyrics seem genuinely open-hearted and empathetic.
They'll admit those things, albeit reluctantly. But they still just can't bring themselves to accept her. Not fully. She's cutesy instead of stony, girly instead of womanly, queen instead of country — or at least, that's what we keep being told (and told to hate). Truth is, Swift has been unintentionally doing the world an incredible service by gradually easing the increasingly esoteric-minded critical community toward the realization that some of the best music might be, in fact, very popular. And not just very popular, but very popular with demographics that we're not used to taking seriously... like, say, teenage girls. Good lord, the horror! The idea! We all know from history that teenage girls have never been savvy about the quality of up-and-coming artists! Not ever!
Seriously. We won't be able to ignore Swift's artistry (yes, artistry) any longer, in spite of the fact — and this is what frustrates a lot of people — that she's still writing songs within the range of her own specific worldview. God only knows, Swift's worldview of happy endings and hopeful tomorrows makes a lot of ironics and depressives feel uncomfortable if not queasy. And look, her music can make me feel queasy, too — I mean, from the get-go there's a lot of us who simply won't be able to relate to, for instance, yearnings for knights in shining armor, or the awkward social routines of a 15-year-old girl. But there's no escaping what's there, and Red, Swift's fourth full-length after a humble debut, eager sophomore, and grand if overrefined third, not only tightens the emotional reins and stretches her songwriting dexterity beyond what anyone could've predicted six years ago — it does nothing less than raise the stakes on the consistency and the sincerity of Top 40 product. At this point in history, Swift and her interrupter are the two finest record-makers in the world, and if you can show me an album from 2012 that'll hold up in 30 years as well as this one, I'll show you a unicorn.
And yet Red currently sits at a comfortable-but-by-no-means-canonizing 77 at Metacritic.com (which tabulates ratings from major media publications and websites to arrive at an average critical score), typifying discourse that respects Swift's aesthetic skill while rather lazily brushing off the end result just as easily as it seemed to come. Not even Rolling Stone has bothered to pay much attention. (Yet.) And to be fair, the popularity of novelty trash like "Gangnam Style" or "Sexy and I Know It" continues to prove that you never know what kind of dumbass memery can start to dominate, so as a general rule it's still wise to be skeptical of whatever's coming out of your daughter's iPhone. Where people have misstepped, however, is in the decision to outright overlook the craftsmanship of the music itself. And that, my friends, is trouble.
So let's get to specifics. Using Jim Farber's New York Daily News review as a take-off point, it seems necessary to immediately address the quality of the arrangements themselves. "As teen-pop goes," Farber writes, "there's nothing to rival the elegance of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' or the urgency of Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Call Me Maybe.'" False. For one thing, you won't hear a more urgent and visceral piece of radio pop all year than a distorted Swift singing "Trouble! Trouble! Trouble!" as a dubstep beat pile-drives the worry into your dancing shoes. (If only all dubstep could be so potent.) Nor will you hear a more elegant one than the fleeting punk-rock guitar surge in the middle of "Red"'s choruses, or the progressively lyrical guitar crescendo of "All Too Well". But the larger blunder — made by a lot of people, not just Farber — is the impatience at which we still want to pigeonhole Swift to a specific camp.
Fact is, she's a young artist informed by both country music and teen-pop who's simply unwilling to let herself be defined by either, and the proof's in the pudding. The one-two punch of "State of Grace" and "Red" is a "hit the lonely highway in a convertible" pairing with more sonic expansiveness than most artists these days would bother with. The former works its echoed guitar pings over a melody that recalls Rihanna's "We Found Love" to feel like new sights flashing onto the horizon, and in the process one-ups anything U2 have done in the last decade; the latter ingeniously foreshadows its extended grand thrash of a climax with chopped-and-skipped vocals and understated banjo/string texturing.
The gentler acoustic songs, meanwhile, have a compositional grace that accentuates Swift's lyrical specifics more confidently than ever. "Sad Beautiful Tragic", backed with upright bass and a spare acoustic line that suggests the artiste has kept up on her mid-'60s Dylan lately, laments a distant love affair with soft vocal ripples that suggest something drifting into the ether; the swelling shuffle of "Everything Has Changed", a duet with young English folk-popper Ed Sheeran, surrounds one of Swift's clearest and truest melodies with precise guitar arpeggios, a "Strawberry Fields Forever" mellotron, and one of the most understatedly perfect drum performances since the last time anybody wrote those words. These sonics are excellent, people — let's call a spade a spade.
The biggest news, of course, is that Swift is now further than ever from the "true country" music that we once unwisely assumed was her ceiling. These accusations have always confused me — didn't "true country" die out 30 years ago? — but to be sure, anyone who starts working with chart pop maestro Max Martin will probably lose a few fans in Nashville even as they gain a bunch more in London. Yet the likelihood that Swift will be looked back on as "true country" will ultimately be about as relevant as debating whether the Beatles were "true Merseybeat".
Simply put, the anthemic dance-ier songs on Red are some of the most irresistible in years, and if Swift's performance of said songs is informed by country music in any way, well, cool. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" has scored Swift her first number-one hit, on the wings of a chorus that represents the very best in Millennial confidence — "wheee-eeeeee!" indeed — and the sure-to-be-a-hit "22" starts out as an amusing Ke$ha send-up (just listen to that exaggerated twang on the word "midnight") and then hits the sky by undercutting brattiness with self-deprecation and, crucially, complete exuberance with being alive and young in 2012. Put it this way: any song with a chord progression that tries to mix the rhythm of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the joyful release of "Baba O'Riley" is already doing something right, and to listen to "Fifteen" and "22" back-to-back is to be given hope for the future. I dunno about you, but there's a sweetness in those "ooooh"s that seems more wholehearted than any "ooooh" I've heard from a pop star in quite some time.
And those are just the Martin productions. Dig the toy piano and bouncy ukelele dance in "Stay Stay Stay", which is kind of like a lyrical inverse of 2010's "Mean" in the way it observes a couple we all know well: the kind who are too smart about each other to leave a fight unresolved, and will thus probably end up staying together for a good long while. (It's sure to be a popular song once the snow starts falling.) "Holy Ground" both stomps and chugs as if trying to regain past strength ("And darling, it was good...") while hinting at a grand climax that wisely never comes; like "State of Grace" and "Red", it uses specific shadings of backing vocals to echo the feeling of an anxious voice fading over a car radio, or a painful memory returning in a rush. And the guitar solo in "Starlight", a club anthem for the ages (I hope), sounds like "Don't Stop Believin'" and is almost as unifying. Frankly, I listen to pop music in the hopes of hearing songs like these.
Fortunately, as Swift the composer both spreads out and re-focuses, Swift the lyricist gets more specific and more universal at the same time. Knowing that most of the songs on Red were inspired by Swift's own romantic up-and-downs with celebrity boyfriends (or "self-indulgent takers," as she might put it), one might anticipate some truly insufferable TMZ-level snark on this album. I certainly did. And to be sure, there are some wince-worthy asides that can briefly muffle the anthemic solidarity of the choruses — the spoken-word bridge in "Back Together", for instance, or the "Who's Taylor Swift anyway?" mockery in "22".
But the comparisons to Joni Mitchell's early '70s soul-searching are actually quite appropriate, because even though Swift isn't in Mitchell's tier as far as representational poetry goes, she does have the same spark of being able to confess personal issues while still standing for a large part of her entire conflicted generation. In fact, unlike Mitchell most of the time, Swift actually has the self-doubt to slap herself upside the head every once in a while for falling for these "self-indulgent takers" in the first place. ("It's a shame on me now..."; "Every time you don't, I almost do...") Swift might even be better with the put-downs: is there really a more damning indictment of another human being than, "You never loved me / Or her / Or anyone / Or anything"? (Seems like a sentiment that could apply to a lot of things these days.)
The narratives, meanwhile, are sharply observed and often heartbreaking, as the phenomenal "All Too Well" exemplifies: "Here we are again on that little town street / You almost ran the red 'cause you were looking over at me / Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well" leads to a truly wonderful image of dancing in a refrigerator light. This is heartfelt stuff, goddammit! Do you know how hard it is to find pop songs these days that are sung as if the singer has had actual life experience with the sentiment? Well, trust me, it's pretty hard. Yet these are the kind of lyrics that make you think about your own past, your own romantic faults and glories, and consider how your own actions felt to other people and and how they might be remembered. Not even "Begin Again"'s reference to Swift's stockpile of James Taylor records — usually cause for alarm — can sabotage the song's tentative charm.
Does Swift still fall into naïve trappings? Hell yes she does. Clichés are apparent in both lyrics ("sleepless nights"; people carrying pictures in lockets) and annoying vocal affectations (the simpering sneer that ends "Back Together"; the breathy over-sweetening of "Treacherous"), and it's worth noting that a few of these production gimmicks are played-out: seriously, would anyone object if we permanently retired the "reverbe-d cymbal sound leading up to the big chorus" tactic? How 'bout the "stop the beat to let the supposed profundity of a lyric sink in" tactic (as Swift does with the pause in "Red" after describing the autumn trees that "lose it all")? And Max, why echo the word "You" in the middle of "22" — isn't that nasal tone a little too Perry-esque to use on someone who can actually carry a tune organically?
Sometimes the songwriting itself ends up sounding more theoretical than practical. As mentioned, the choruses of "I Knew You Were Trouble" are powerful stuff, but don't think that doesn't make the pop-punk-ska sections any less obnoxious. (Couldn't anyone have even tried to make a transition between the two segments?) The duet with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, "The Last Time", is an orchestrated plod that would like to be a more cathartic version of "Somebody That I Used to Know" but basically just feels long. And though the title track is certainly a well-crafted composition in its own right, the lyrics simply aren't very poignant as imagery or as symbolic emotion — "Driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street" is neither revealing nor vivid, I'm afraid, and it's regrettably the bookending line of the song.
What's ultimately so satisfying, though, is that Swift has specified and broadened her comfort zone to such a degree that nobody can write her music off as child's play anymore (well, they probably will, but they'll gradually start to look really stupid), and the always-daft accusations that she's some sort of puritanical anti-role model for young women now seem especially silly. Sheerly as a singer, Swift has always had an outstanding talent for sounding as though she's seriously considering the consequences of everything she's saying as she's says it, and on Red that talent has been realized and emphasized. Take the way she drops the word "found" and climbs the word "me" in "I Knew You Were Trouble", or how she sings "It's time..." in "22" as a sighing acknowledgement, or how she follows the line "This slope is treacherous" (in "Treacherous") with "I-I-I... like it."
Or just take "The Lucky One", where Swift brings the glitzy details of a "hardships of stardom" song ("another name goes up in lights") and unexpectedly flips the perspective to someone who "chose the Rose Garden over Madison Square" to conclude: "It took some time, but I understand it now / 'Cause now my name is up in lights / But I think you got it right." This isn't Chris Brown venting about how nobody will leave him alone — this is a serious consideration by Swift of the path she's on and whether she can (or should) live up to the expectations thrust on her. I daresay this is a feeling that a lot of 22-year-olds can relate to. Challenging yourself to new heights — what could be more feminist, more humanist, than that? And after all, what's preferable? The "sex as frigid will" of Lady Gaga? The ironically-enjoyed promiscuity of Ke$ha? The even more ironically-enjoyed sexual self-hatred of LMFAO? Please. Some of us view Swift's steadfast resolve to behave as she and only she sees fit as a progression rather than a kowtow.
This past weekend, I was aimlessly flipping channels on TV and landed on The Social Network. Opting to give the Facebook story a second viewing, I started to realize that for all the film's craftsmanship it knows very little about the specifics of Generation Y's behavior. In screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's view, we Gen-Yers are all impersonal and disconnected from the larger problems of the world, we all treat sex casually and thoughtlessly, and almost every young woman is either a crazy bitch or a reckless slut. Does Generation Y possess all of these traits? Of course. But by framing our flaws as if they were more representative and more vital than our achievements, the film ends up with a hopeless sort of contempt that exemplifies the true gap between Generations X and Y: they think we're naïve, but really we're just excited and eager. Or to sum it up in Swift's words: "We end up dreaming instead of sleeping." Burn! Aaron Sorkin, you dunno about me!
I bring this up because Swift, through no fault or credit of her own, carries many of the best (and a few of the worst) traits of her generation, and is thus far trying very hard to bring them all to a happy ending. When she's at her best, Swift seems like something much more than a country-pop teen star who got lucky: there's a feeling of honest human connection in her songs that can only come from someone who feels that they need — truly need — to understand others and herself a whole lot better; a feeling of knowing how to look beyong the eyes glazed over at a computer screen, face buried in a phone, head spaced-out in headphones, to get an answer. In the autumn of 2012, such attitudes feel both warm and urgent.
Admittedly, this writer has something of a vested interest in the young woman's trajectory: I like my generation and want it, and her, and us, to succeed. I was born within two weeks of Swift, and "22" has slapped a goofy grin on my face every time I've played it — and I've played it about 50 times in the last two days — and left me with a feeling that I couldn't get rid of even if I wanted to. It will fade, eventually, to make room for others. But for now, in 2012, Taylor Swift is happyfreeconfusedandlonely at the same time, in the best way, and she looks forward to the happy ending. Witness!