Basically everyone I know thinks I am trolling — or at the very least, deluded — when it comes to Taylor Swift.
Blogs I like reading (Vulture), people I like talking about music with (Linus), and many rock critics whose opinions I respect (the Sound Opinions guys) all consider her somewhere between dime-a-dozen pop demi-star and airbrushed garbage.
Thus, I feel I should lay out my defense of Swift, as well as explain some theories behind her mainstream appeal.
Swift’s music grows out of the ’90s suburban country music era — Shania Twain, Leann Rimes, et al. — in which country music, like so many “rural” trappings (stock car racing, SUVs, and cowboy boots), became mainstream. That’s not to say that country was without crossover before; certainly, Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline achieved success on the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, the suburban country-pop of the ’90s was epitomized by Twain’s particular brand of feminism, emotionally charged lyrics, and overall smoothness that appealed to a suburban crowd — fitting for the gal from Windsor, Ontario. It’s no surprise that Swift cites Twain as her “biggest influence.”
As rougher Southern artists, who might have been country artists in another era, gravitated towards rock (My Morning Jacket, Drive-by Truckers, Black Crowes, Band of Horses, etc.), country became dominated by the slicker sound of the suburban country star.
Enter Swift, 12 or 13, recording demos and trying to write songs. At age 14, sitting in math class, she starts writing her first hit single, “Tim McGraw,” the kind of bittersweet love song that teenagers love to write and listen to. The difference is that Swift’s songs are both honest and evocative, showing an in-depth knowledge of the construct of the country pop song. This aspect is important when viewing Swift’s pop-star rise; her gift is primarily as a song-writer, not a singer. RCA’s original deal with her kept her from recording on her own, and Nashville establishment first recognized her for her song-writing. She brings to mind the young song-writers of the Brill Building — Neil Diamond, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach — churning out pop songs.
Lyrical analysis after the break!
Let’s look, for instance, at some early pop songs from Brill Building songwriters. Here’s Simon and Garfunkel’s first hit (as Tom and Jerry… not a big record-buying audience for a group called Simon and Garfunkel in 1956) “Hey, Schoolgirl,” written when the lads were 15. It would be 8 years until “The Sound of Silence.”
Hey schoolgirl in the second row
The teacher’s lookin’ over
So I got to whisper way down low
To say who-bop-a-loo-chi-bop
Let’s meet after school at three
She said, “Hey babe
But there is one thing more
My school is over at half past four
Maybe when we’re older, then we can date
O-oh, let’s wait”
Compare with Taylor Swift’s “Our Song” written around the same age:
I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car
He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel
The other on my heart
I look around, turn the radio down
He says “Baby, is something wrong?”
I say, “Nothing, I was just thinking how we don’t have a song”
And he says…
Our song is the slamming screen doors,
Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window
When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow
’cause it’s late and your mama don’t know
Our song is the way you laugh
The first date “man, I didn’t kiss her, and I should have”
And when I got home … before I said amen
Asking God if he could play it again
Read one, then the other. Ask yourself, “Which of these songs is more sophisticated? Which of these artists is destined to be enshrined as an all-time great?”
The wordplay and lead-on of “one hand feel on the steering wheel, the other on my… [beat] heart” gives the audience a knowing wink. The half-talking, half-singing “cuz it’s late and your mama don’t know” giving the illusion of spontaneity in a meticulously constructed song again shows respect for the craft of songwriting, and a recognition of existing structures of pop country. On top of this, the use of the song itself as a metaphor for, well, itself, is quite a feat, and the little moments crafted into the chorus feel both authentic and worldly, a strange combination fitting for the suburban girl gone country. Country music is, more than other pop forms, dependent on the production of verisimilitude, which Swift’s diary-as-song accomplishes with aplomb.
That’s not to say that “Hey Schoolgirl” doesn’t show the signs of what Simon and Garfunkel, and later Paul Simon solo, would become. The wordplay is there, the overearnestness followed by letdown, the general trend towards yearning. Nor does it imply that Taylor Swift will be a better songwriter than Paul Simon. But the presence of pop songwriting on “Our Song” is already fully-defined, whereas a similarly-aged Tom and Jerry are still in developmental stages.
I think a better analogue for Swift is Simon’s Brill Building colleague Carole King, another song-writing prodigy. At 18, she had a number one single, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” which has many of the hallmarks that are visible on Swift’s music today — teen love, winking cleverness, and perfect synergy between chord structure and lyrics:
Tonight you’re mine completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?
Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure?
Can I believe the magic of your sighs?
Will you still love me tomorrow?
One wonders if the haters rained hate upon the Shirelles for a poppy single. The key to any great pop song is the delicate balance between chord progression and lyrics. The shift into III on “Tonight… the light…” creates just the right amount of tension to be heightened through the minor chords until the V-I resolution at the end of the verse, doubled by the concern of the lyrics — the kind of doubtful heart flutter familiar to anyone who has been a teenager. “Our Song” may not have quite the level of music theory sophistication, but its clever reversal of the chord structure for the second half of the chorus shows the same instinctual grasp of pop structure.
The primary difference here, however, is that Swift is not being holed up in the Brill Building with Gerry Goffin and Neil Sadakha, only releasing her own album 10 years after her career began. Instead, she has been crafted into pop stardom, selling out venues and winning Grammys at 20. This concerns me quite a bit, because the level of honesty and authenticity in her lyrics may wash out as stardom’s appeal grows too strong. King had enough time to develop, grow, and mature. Swift, like many prodigies, may not get the chance.
That first RCA deal, which would have prevented her from recording her own music for 2-3 years may very well have been better for her in the long run. Pop culture today chews through idols and spits them out faster than you can say “Ricky Nelson.” In five years, she may well be an afterthought or a curiosity that burned too brightly too quickly — Norah Jones or Frankie Avalon, rather than Brenda Lee or Alanis Morissette.
In the meantime, Swift has her moment in the spotlight and her stack of Grammys. I can only hope that she has the maturity to focus her songwriting and leave the side projects alone.
I leave you with the highlight from Swift’s concept album. Formulaic, sure. Effective, without a doubt.