James Taylor JT

James Taylor’s Cult of Sadness on ‘JT’ at 45

The autobiographical songwriting that carried James Taylor to international pop stardom laid a blueprint for songwriters today to blend their romantic and public endeavors through confessional writing.

James Taylor
Columbia Records
22 June 2022

James Taylor was not always comfortable with his success. “Success carries with it an almost impending sense of retribution,” he said to Rolling Stone in 1972. This equal and opposite reaction can be attributed to various successes and failures in his personal and professional life. In 1972, Taylor married singer-songwriter Carly Simon, and the two were an object of public affection as a couple. “They appear like royalty,” said a reporter in 1972. However, the two split in 1983, which caused as much tabloid obsession as their relationship itself did. The press also covered Taylor’s previous relationships, such as his romance with Joni Mitchell, which created an opportunity for both to memorialize their relationship by writing songs, ultimately profiting from the consumption of those tokens. However, this mix of personal turmoil and professional success speaks to Taylor’s observations about the negative consequences of fame. For a singer-songwriter known for sad songs and ballads, it pays to be heartbroken. 

On his 1977 album JT, the most commercially successful since his 1970 breakout Sweet Baby James, Taylor embraced the commercial potential of his folksy origins. The album’s upbeat pop numbers feature his signature storytelling techniques, including verse-chorus-bridge structure, slightly truncated to emphasize melody and instrumentation over narrative. “Your Smiling Face”, which peaked at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, relies on a cliche in its second verse (“I thought I was in love a couple of times / Before with the girl next door”). Still, as it sails into the chorus, the line “Isn’t it amazing a man like me can feel this way?” re-centers the listener in the universe of James Taylor. In its iteration on this album, the universe of James Taylor relies on the listener’s pre-existing knowledge of him, which allows the phrase “a man like me” to mean multiple things: former drug abuser or sad balladeer who has found happiness. 

JT’s musical qualities also become more compelling when taken within the context of his past work. While the length and upbeat tempo of “Your Smiling Face” make it a strong single, the heavy electric guitar and piano riffs signal a departure from the acoustic sound of his previous albums. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Taylor emerged as a key figure in the singer-songwriter movement, which relied on the resurgence of folk music. The dominant sound of pop shifted away from the rock bands of the 1960s. However, on JT, Taylor mirrors the artists he emerged as a polar response to, showing his acuteness in predicting new trends, as well as repurposing old trends for his benefit when he controlled the cultural conversation. In the 1970s, Taylor eclipsed the rock sound of the 1960s, but once he became successful enough, he could bring that sound back on his terms. Artists who emerge slightly to the right or left center of pop eventually repurpose their signature sound so that it can reach the biggest audience, controlling the sound of pop music that once marginalized them. 

The tracks that stand out on JT succeeded commercially, signaling his goal to capture a larger audience with this record, his first for Columbia. Although Taylor enjoyed commercial success prior to JT, he did so by creating songs that, at first glance, didn’t seem widely accessible. “Fire and Rain”, his first hit, talks about the death of a friend by suicide: “Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone / Suzzanne the plans they made put an end to you.” However, Taylor’s heavy material succeeded because of his straightforward song construction (“There’s a song with three verses with the same form and three choruses following them. There’s no bridge,” he said of “Fire and Rain.”) and because of Taylor’s captivating presence. 

“It’s hard to imagine a more mild-mannered performer, yet it is impossible to take your eyes off him,” wrote Charles Young for Rolling Stone in 1978. Taylor’s alluring sadness earned him a massive pop culture presence by creating a canvas onto which listeners could project their own sadness. Additionally, the technological advancements of the 20th century allowed Taylor’s intimate ballads to be consumed on a massive scale. His persona, which diverges from the classic boyband heartthrob archetype, still inspired tremendous hype. Quoted in the New York Times, a fan said, “‘Isn’t it just amazing to find a real person behind those beautiful sad words?'” 

As proof of Taylor’s gift as a performer, many of his covers became hits. Most memorably, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” mellowed out the Marvin Gaye hit, reminding listers that even on upbeat numbers, Taylor maintains an essential calmness. In 1971, his cover of Carole King‘s “You’ve Got a Friend”, which she allegedly wrote in response to “Fire and Rain”, became his only number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The real friendship behind the song added dimension to the performance, reinforcing the idea that despite his withdrawn persona, Taylor sells the fantasy of his own life alongside his music. In fact, he might be a more skilled marketer than celebrities who sell a happier fantasy. 

Taylor’s cover of Jimmy Jones’ “Handyman”, JT’s biggest hit peaking at number four on the Hot 100, emphasizes his performance gifts. By dressing down a doo-wop pop song, he repackages his status as a troubadour. On previous albums, Taylor told his own stories. However, on JT, a record with pop ambitions, he dispatches his interpretive gifts for preexisting pop numbers, which he deconstructs and rebuilds in his signature acoustic style. “Handyman” projects vulnerability and sadness alongside playboy confidence as Taylor says, “I’m handy with love, and I’m no fool / I fix broken hearts I know that I truly can.” He implies that his laborious fixing of hearts doesn’t just mend other people but mends his own broken heart. As he sings the hook, a slow but infectious “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come on”, he signals both his ease as a performer and lover and his own need for affection. 

Throughout his 1970s albums, Taylor sang about domesticity, his marriage to Simon, and his relationship with his children. On “Daddy’s All Gone”, he laments the separation from his children on tour: “He’s holding onto the telephone / Saying, please don’t let the show go on.” On “Family Man”, he talks about the unexpected calmness of settling down: “The life I used to lead was a little too frantic / I guess I just got eyes to look old and grey.” However, while these songs portray contentment and affection for his newfound family life, on JT, five years into his nine-year marriage, Taylor laments the trappings of domesticity and frames these feelings within the context of philosophical contemplation. 

In “Secret O’ Life”, he implies that accepting mortality is the secret to enjoying life. “Isn’t it a lovely ride?” he asks gleefully, as the song moves into upbeat territory over a steady baseline and electronic keyboard chord progressions. Whereas on previous albums, Taylor sang about sad material with a magnetism that made it appealing, on JT, he disguises similar content with catchy hooks and subversive lyrics. “The thing about time is that time isn’t really real / Einstein said he could never understand it all,” he sings on “Secret O’ Life”. The ambiguity helps listeners comprehend that accepting factors outside of human control doesn’t just help Taylor grapple with philosophical questions, but with relationship issues as well. 

In “There We Are”, Taylor continues to combine philosophy with personal confession, singing, “And though we are as nothing to the stars that shine above / You are my universe.” A declaration of his love to Simon, the song’s emotional argument gains its strength by comparing the vastness of the universe (“a million stars shining out for no one”) to Taylor’s affection. The song contrasts the darkness of the cosmos with Taylor’s feelings to show their strength in spite of uncertainty. In the security afforded by love, Taylor can contemplate the vast nothingness of the universe. 

“Bartender Blues” harkens back to Taylor’s signature style by incorporating blues and folk elements. However, including “blues” in the name shows it belongs on JT because it incorporates this reference pointedly instead of organically. JT is a departure from Taylor’s roots that includes token parodies of his original inspirations. The melancholy narrator of “Bartender Blues” says, “But I need four walls around me to hold my life / To keep me from going astray/and a honky tonk angel to hold me tight.” This song serves as a parable for the lamentations of the pop star James Taylor, told through the voice of a figure of his youth in North Carolina. A brief break from the album’s heavily autobiographical material, “Bartender Blues” reminds the audience that Taylor’s true strength is as a folk storyteller, whether or not the stories are real. 

Taylor plucks details from his life with Carly Simon on “Another Grey Morning”, where he confronts the trappings of domesticity. Taylor quotes the song’s subject saying, “‘What am I to do with so much time and so much sorrow?'” Here, Taylor diverges from the fantasy he sells both on JT and in public. By rendering the disappointments of married life with excruciating detail (“foghorn calling out across the sound” references his and Simon’s home on Martha’s Vineyard), he breaks the fourth wall of his persona. Although his persona had always hinged on honesty, tainting the image of a publicly adored relationship offers his audience a pallet cleanser from the fantasy the media portrayed. No one needs to accept the fairytale if they don’t want to. 

“Another Grey Morning” eschews Taylor’s signature version of romanticized sadness and allows listeners to reconstruct his persona on their own terms. This distance avoids oversaturation and retrofits Taylor’s original persona to accommodate his high profile. A James Taylor album with commercial ambitions necessitated realism to ensure the listener wouldn’t feel pandered to. On JT, Taylor accommodates this potential skepticism by admitting the cult of sadness surrounding him is fiction, which might be the greatest tragedy of all. 

In 2021, Taylor commented on the inspiration of work written about him for the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell‘s Blue. He said, “And for some reason, maybe just that her instincts were extremely good, she split.” This comment referred to “This Flight Tonight”, a song from Blue that Mitchell allegedly wrote after booking a flight back to LA instead of returning to Martha’s Vineyard with Taylor. Taylor also admitted that he finds it difficult to listen to Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”, a song written after they split, in which she describes someone “bashing in veins for peace”. 

Taylor contributed instrumentation to several tracks on Mitchell’s Blue, and Mitchell contributed backing vocals to several tracks on Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, similar to Simon’s vocal contributions on JT. The blending of personal and professional relationships in the work of Taylor and his peers is indicative of the musical community that existed in the 1970s, which became a launchpad for celebrity mythology that increased the consumption of music as a product. In 1970, Taylor and Mitchell performed Taylor’s song “You Can Close Your Eyes”, at the Paris Theatre in London, which he allegedly wrote for her. Years later, he performed the same song with Simon, showing that singing romantic ballads with celebrity partners might be a business transaction that transcends relationships. 

Taylor addresses Simon by name in “There We Are”: “Carly, I do love you.” He uses his fame to enhance the cultural capital of the album, an opportunity that compounds upon itself the longer a career in the public eye lasts. As time goes on, and the public becomes more familiar with a given figure, that individual builds a repertoire of relevant moments to reference, creating an echo chamber of fame. Taylor’s ability to self-reference on JT allows him to cash in on shared cultural moments with his audience. “I ought to be on my way by now,” Taylor intones cheerfully on “Terra Nova”, a song about returning home. (The song references Lambert’s Cove, a region of Martha’s Vineyard.) But what the song really implies is that Taylor is headed for the stratosphere of pop. 

James Taylor helped to invent the persona of the sensitive singer-songwriter, which would be imitated by many of his contemporaries (Jackson Browne, Graham Nash). Many 21st-century musicians also attempt to don this persona, but they don’t have the songwriting skills to sustain it: they are simply wearing the skin Taylor created as part of their celebrity. However, the autobiographical songwriting that carried Taylor to international pop stardom laid a blueprint for songwriters today to blend their romantic and public endeavors through confessional writing.

Taylor Swift, the clearest successor in modern pop to the Laurel Canyon songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s, emerged in a similar fashion to James Taylor and his contemporaries. Although the singer-songwriters of the 1970s acted as foils to the rock bands of the 1960s, the 1970s stars still succeeded in the same capitalist economy in which rock bands flourished. Singer-songwriters don’t project an ethos that would appear to lend itself to capitalism, but the commodification of their personal lives allowed them to benefit from capitalism despite their minimalist personas. The singer-songwriters of the 1970s were ultimately a capitalist creation, as they emerged to meet the market’s desire for a calmer sound. They exist for consumers who are content with a protest of capitalism and other Western traditions that still exist within capitalism’s confines. 

Similarly, Taylor Swift emerged in the late 2000s as a response to the maximalist personas of pop stars such as Beyonce, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. Hailing from Nashville, Swift relied on the everyday image of country music to portray herself as an honest and authentic alternative to pop stars who often sell cartoonish personas. Conversely, Swift’s persona is that she is just herself. But that is still a marketable persona. folklore acted as the capstone for Swift’s decade of pop culture autobiography, in which her personal life defined celebrity mythology. 

folklore, written during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowed Swift to show her genuine devotion to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, without radio programming or stadium show expectations to dilute her imitations of them. Additionally, folklore actualized the organizing principle of Swift’s career by blurring fact and fiction as she arguably did throughout her entire career. In 2012’s Red, Swift allegedly wrote a song about Joni Mitchell entitled “The Lucky One”, in which she told the story of a celebrity who retreated from the spotlight. Similar to her Laurel Canyon predecessors, Swift marketed her autobiographical songwriting, self-evident persona, and skepticism of stardom as part of her appeal. Although Swift emerged as a foil to the maximalist pop stars of the 2000s and 2010s, her chart success designates her as the maximalist, 21st-century version of her 1970s inspirations.

In “Begin Again”, the closer to her fourth studio album Red, Swift said, “You said you never met one girl who had as many James Taylor records as you / But I do.” References abound in this song. Due to a clue left in the liner notes of the album booklet, fans concluded that the song’s subject is Swift’s former beau Connor Kennedy. Swift followed the tradition of the star she named checked in this song by marketing her personal life as a read-along companion to her music companion. (She also invited Taylor as a guest on her Speak Now tour, and was named after him.) Swift directly incorporated the media strategy pioneered by James Taylor and Joni Mitchell into her music by publicly blending her personal and professional lives. A GQ profile of Swift said, “[She] can manufacture the kind of mythology that used to happen to Carly Simon by accident.” It’s safe to say the cycle of fame James Taylor kickstarted will always begin again.