Saturday, September 23, 2017

Red (2012)

Taylor Swift is a supremely poised figure of popular culture. We've seen that the least shred of temper or celebrity self-involvement on her part, as in her new single "Look What You Made Me Do," yields barrels of anguish and bickering from fans and celebrity journalists. My first, admittedly snap judgment of her—that is, loathing—was based on a few impressions in the late 2000s, when I couldn't turn away fast enough from her songs on the radio in the car, driving back and forth to work and for groceries and such. In fairness, I couldn't turn away fast enough from most of the songs on the radio. Just on the surface, in the five to 20 seconds it took me to recognize things, there was something putting me off almost reflexively.

It was Swift's smug 2009 #2 hit "You Belong With Me" that was the main culprit for me in terms of her songs, but "Our Song," "Fifteen," and others also accounted for many quick exits from the premises. At a certain point it became her voice itself that provided the cue, but she was hardly the only one. The voice of one of her boyfriends, John Mayer, was often responsible for my changing the station too, along with many others. Indeed, at the time I was certain there was an unusually higher percentage of dreck than usual on pop music radio. Yes, certainly part of that was my own aging, as I was entering my 50s. But it was also exhaustion with a chapter of popular culture thoroughly saturated by then with the rapacious lottery values of the Bush/Cheney era. Hip hop generally remained a bright light, with steadily growing influence, but beyond that was beyond sad. Country music with its patriotic airs and politically correct requirements (respecting all public displays of the Confederate flag) was unlistenable even by 2003. That includes the Dixie Chicks. By 2007, certain strains of pop music were ailing badly as well—the Bush/Cheney values were now filtered through the athletic faux operatics of American Idol, the single worst thing I've seen happen to pop music.

Taylor Swift, who started in country music with a wheedling self-absorbed whimper, neatly straddled a lot of this—as a country singer she already sounded like a pop star, and as a pop singer she sounded country—and she embodied everything that was wrong. These judgments seemed to me verifiable and continually verified from the brief and random car surveys I conducted. I was sure I was living through one of the worst times ever for pop music on the radio. I still consider it a very bad period, but as it hasn't become much better in the years since I have to conclude that my judgments are now well out of step. Where I'm coming from.

So that brings me to Red, which seems to be regarded as Taylor Swift's best or near it by the usual quick and dirty internet survey ("best Taylor Swift album"). It's highly regarded by Poptimist rock critics. It was nominated for Grammys, spawned many big hits, changed lives. Robert Christgau compared her to Stephen Merritt. Actually sitting down to listen to something has the usual effect of bringing out the best, more or less. My views on Swift have moderated on listening closely to Red these past few weeks. To start with the biography, you can't deny she's a prodigy, breaking in to the business before she could legally drink, vote, consent, or even go on field trips without a note from her parents. Red is her fourth album and she was only 22. That's faster to the prize than Prince or the Beatles, to name two. Her songs—as always, she's the chief songwriter—are crafted from finest elements of candor verging on TMI, with a lot of brash musical cunning and a sincere desire to entertain. Maybe "spunk" is the word I'm looking for. "She's Mary Tyler Moore," a friend and Swift partisan told me by way of explaining her appeal and ginormous fan base, and that helped one feeble light go on for me. Certainly I can see that in her vulnerable brave persona, and of course in the resonant girl / woman empowerment themes, which speaks for itself. That's the one reason I know Taylor Swift deserves her adulation. In the same vein, her recent testimony in her countersuit to a groping civil case (details here) struck expedient blows for women's rights with just the right tone of derision. She's not just a role model but she's a role model everyone can get behind. It explains the concern about the bizarre laugh line in the voicemail message in the new single.

Still, I feel like I'm the wrong audience for Taylor Swift, I have nothing useful to say about her, and that these are good things. I know among other points it puts me on the wrong side of Poptimist rock critics, who I believe love her to a single person. This I can live with, as I keep running into basic obstacles in Swift's music and/or within myself (not to mention in Poptimism). "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" (#1 for multiple weeks in 2012) is an obvious place to start. It sounds to me like intoxicating liberation, yes, but equal parts Mean Girl putdown. It feels a little personal on one level—and I agree that sounds more like my problem, but it still feels personal. My problem is I can feel for the guy. But why do I want to take his part over hers? Or do I? All these vexing questions. Or let's look at the hipster-punching in "22" (#20 in 2013), which if it's possible feels even more acutely personal. I see both sides at once—the necessity for hipster-punching and the pain of a punch to the face from a Mean Girl. This is what I'm talking about: I keep reading Taylor Swift as a Mean Girl. Let's go to another point on this spectrum, "Stay Stay Stay," where she is not only not any sort of Mean Girl but an almost saccharine version of the adoring girlfriend. Even as the details reveal a perfectly emotionally healthy relationship—they sort their problems out, they're good to one another, each values the other—it feels sickeningly goody-goody. "You carry my groceries and now I'm always laughing." Phony—I'm suspicious it's the Mean Girl playing a prank, like Lucy and the football. And this happens to be one of the songs I like best on the album (I know, possibly for the wrong reasons, as see also my other favorite, which is the duet with a guy).

So it goes. I gather from glancing paragraphs I catch on the internet that Taylor Swift is a pop savant of unprecedented powers, a chameleon songwriter who draws from uncanny sources, but I don't hear that so much myself, and if I don't hear it in Red I'm probably immune to it. I connect with a few of these songs intermittently, and often admire little things about them. But the more I pay attention the more the glare of the celebrity persona starts to interfere. More power to her and her followers. I'm glad she's around. The next stop is mine.

1 comment:

  1. Red is her Stevie Nicks album. Maybe you'd prefer 1989, her Billy Joel's Glass Houses? The rest marinate in more country cornpone for sure. Her debut was country music as Disney teen pop dream. Fearless a twangy showbiz glam version of Lisa Loeb. Speak Now her fully formed Dixie Chicks sound, and really about as close to Nashville as she got (which is to say not so close). So Red and 1989 are her New Wave albums. I do wonder how she might have done on Idol? Her songs have that pro forma songbook feel but her voice is very limited by Idol standards (if also more emotive, b/c of those limits). Or by my limited Idol knowledge, anyway; Clarkson, Underwood, etc. Like MTM, TS is a plucky striver. She's a romantic and fierce ab calling out men who wrong her. And, big plus, she's pretty good w/ the pop hook. Not that she's above clunkers (her last to album leadoff singles, for instances, if you ask me), and for it appears two albums now she's been dancing on the edge of stale schtick, but In her weight class she's been a top-of-the-pops contender for nearly a decade and so she is hard to dismiss. But beyond a novelty single or three I never got Eminem (and I still even think of hiphop as being somewhere in my wheelhouse), so I wouldn't sweat not being able to fathom the popular charms of Taylor Swift.