Shh…is anyone reading this?…I hope not, because I’m about to confess something extremely embarrassing. Quick, go into your iTunes library…I’ll wait…no, install the updates later…OK, so go into your Music, click on “Plays” to sort your music by how often you listen to it…now, what do you get?
Well, I’ll tell you what I get — a whole lot of Taylor Swift. Like, you would clearly think this was the iTunes Library of a 12-year-old girl, based on the fact that the entire screen is filled with TSwift (is anybody calling her that? besides me?). Especially high on the list are the songs from her new album, Red, which is posting Y2K-style sales figures and making guys like me tweet “like, ever” HILARIOUSLY.
It is entirely possible that I am the only indie fan who has found my pop cravings filled with the likes of “Love Story” and “You Belong with Me”…but I doubt it. Even Lena Dunham, of HBO’s Girls, has struck up a Twitter-friendship with Swift, tweeting “@taylorswift13’s album is triumphant. If she’d been here when I was in college I would have written papers on her, not Sylvia Plath.” Swift replied, “@lenadunham, you made my day with that. I’m now going to sit in my dressing room reciting my fav @girlsHBO quotes. Which is all of them.” The Twitter-lovefest continued when Dunham, asked by a fan to name her favorite Swift song, replied “Oh, besides ALL of them? Treacherous.”
The indie community has long embraced the poppiest of popstars, particularly when those popstars are female. If we look specifically at Pitchfork, for example, we find multiple album reviews of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. Listening to and raving about Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” in 2004-05 was, like, the most indie thing that you could possibly do. And whether we were all listening to it ironically or not, well, we were certainly listening to it.
The fact is that Tay-Tay (I’ll stop) has been churning out incredibly thoughtful, engaging, popular pop music since 2006, and it’s hard to figure out why it has taken so long for the indie community to embrace her in the way that it has embraced other female pop singers. If we look at Red within the context of Swift’s previous three albums, it both continues a trajectory toward the heart of pop music while maintaining, at its core, the quality songcraft and attention to lyrical detail that attracted fans of pop music to her in the first place. Now, is that enough to make you forget the giant posters and promo material vomited all around your local Target — did they pay her for titling the album Red? Maybe so, maybe not. But, for me at least, coupled with the odd frequency with which I would rather listen to the album than anything else in my iTunes, it is enough to make me seriously consider whether this is my favorite album of 2012.
Eyeroll? Perhaps. But if I look at the other contenders on my year-end list, I have to admit that they are not very much fun. Let’s take a look…
While Fiona Apple’s excellent Idler Wheel has its light moments, such as the sexy “Anything We Want” and jazzy “Knife,” it is a relatively dark listening experience. A sample lyric: “I ran out of white dove feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth / Every time you address me.” This, by the way, is the chorus.
We also have Swans’ The Seer, a largely wordless, two-hour odyssey into the dark heart of its creators and its listeners. I literally cannot find a review of this album that doesn’t contain the word “punishing.” While the Venn diagram of Swans fans and Taylor Swift fans is likely very small, I am at least left wondering to what extent listenability should factor into picking an album of the year.
Finally, I’m looking at only three and four listens to most of the songs on Grizzly Bear’s highly regarded Shields. You know, I really tried, that’s all I can say.
Like anyone who appreciates great art, I include these albums on my year-end list because I understand that they are important, bold, and ambitious, qualities that I generally prize greatly in all categories of artistic achievement. At various times and on various days, all of these albums (in addition to equally challenging albums by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Kendrick Lamar, and Dirty Projectors) have deeply impressed, despite the attention that they demand.
In contrast to them, Swift’s album is perfect for activities like washing dishes…or driving to work…or running through a storm in your best dress…
Interestingly, most reviews present Red as an overstuffed collection of potential singles, a hodgepodge of styles and bids to court various audiences. It is definitely that, though I am struck by how carefully constructed it is as a listening experience. The key to the album lies in its four deeply catchy and fascinating up-tempo pop songs: the eponymous “Red”, the Clarkson-esque “I Knew You Were Trouble”, the Ke$ha-biting “22”, and the “controversial” (air quotes because it’s only controversial to old people, little kids, and your non-ironic high-school Facebook friends) “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. All of these songs, except “Red”, are co-written and produced by über-Swede Max Martin, of Britney/Katy Perry/everybody else fame. Sequenced at 2, 4, 6, and 8, these four tracks bolster the momentum of the album’s first half (wait, it has 16 songs!), and they make it impossible for listeners to avoid them. Those old people and little kids would literally have to skip every other song as they listen on CDs or however really little kids ingest music.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is the easy talking point. Chronicling an on-again/off-again relationship (Swiftenhaal?, just checked, and that does exist) with someone who responds to their fights by putting on “an indie record that’s much cooler than mine” (#metaswift, that does not exist!), its spoken-word moments are, I think, genuinely funny, and the whole endeavor is just interesting. It is perhaps most interesting because it was released as the lead single, but it’s great because it’s a big, anthemic, delightful song. While Swift has never, on her past records, shied away from trying to be funny, this is certainly the most sophisticated humor put forth in any of her songs to date. In terms of appealing to an indie audience, it could perhaps be labeled post-ironic, if that helps.
Swift herself was recently asked in the New York Times about the single’s determinedly bizarre video: “You know when you watch an indie video and you’re like: ‘Why are they underwater in upside- down chairs with a random projection of a butterfly interspersed? Why is this happening?’ We were trying to think of ways that we could tip our hat to the randomness of some indie music videos. Why are there woodland creatures? Nobody knows. Why am I wearing floral-print pajamas? Nobody knows. Why am I randomly wearing glasses? Nobody knows.”
Setting aside the “I don’t want to talk about real-life people”-affectation, Swift appears genuine, confident, and funny, both in interviews and in her music, which is refreshing, particularly in a time when I’m dealing with the fact that Rihanna’s best new song is not only ABOUT how great Chris Brown is, but also features him singing on it.
The other songs in this cluster are equally interesting, with “Red” as the most radio-friendly and “22” as the most immediately unnerving. The opening moments of “22” certainly and deliberately call to mind Ke$ha (MS Word HATES Ke$ha), as Swift taunts “It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters / And make fun of our exes,” before the song moves to more familiar territory. Her description of being “22” as “we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” is about as well as I can imagine an age being summed up in a tossed off, pre-chorus line.
The point here is that Swift is not only courting a mainstream pop audience, but also seems genuinely interested in at least making an indie audience aware of her existence. In the same New York Times interview, Swift discussed the effect that her indie-loving boyfriend had on the album: “This guy was just, so, so cool. It kind of gave me a bit of a complex for this album, because he was always going on and on about this new band that was so cool because they were so underground. I have so many indie bands on my iPod. What I don’t really understand is the attitude that if a band is unknown, they’re good, and if they get fans, then you move on to the next band.”
In an early single from her first album, Swift pleaded, “when you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think our favorite song. On Red, she is so far from that place. She has even taken a big step away from her go-to topics, like making out in the rain, running around in dresses, and how down-to-earth she is (JK, there’s still a couple songs about that). Instead, “Red” begins with the wailer “State of Grace”, which has both a title and Edge-style guitar licks that sound like vintage U2. On “Red”’s surprisingly excellent second half, she cozies up to indie(ish) Gary Lightbody (of Snow Patrol), and Ed Sheeran (who has an album that’s huge in the UK). And she channels Mazzy Starr in the lovely, lovely, lovely “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, which you could throw on any indie mix without pissing off of your friends. Typical ballads “All Too Well”, “I Almost Do”, “Treacherous”, and second single “Begin Again” fill in the blanks on a 16-song, 68-minute marathon that is surprisingly packed with strong songs.
Is Taylor Swift bound for indie domination? Unlikely. But she takes interesting steps toward the indie community with this album, which manages to make those overtures without alienating her core groups of fans. Will Swift’s teen fans figure out how to remove the parental lock on HBO so they can watch Season 2 of Girls? Who knows with the kids these days. Will Swift’s next album including a 23-minute, wordless “Dress [Feat. Swans]”? I pretty much guarantee that it won’t. But we can hope.