Taylor Swift makes the paradigm shift into new-century relevances.
She’s redefined the rules. It’s no longer necessary to stake out militant
Feminist credentials, because they’ve already been fought for and won.
Her life, control and creativity not only make the statement but are the statement.
She’s liberated to the extent that liberation is no longer an issue, it’s a given.
First time I saw her on TV her legs were impossibly long, her dress impossibly short, she played a guitar that seemed bigger than she was, and she was so gushingly polite it was almost painful. It was a Friday evening, 8 May 2009 on the Channel Four Paul O’Grady tea-time chat-show. I was already familiar with her narrative hit single “Love Story”. A song so good that Shakespeare wrote a play about its ‘Romeo And Juliet’ theme, ah, the pain of adolescent passion. It was a Hollywood chick-flick reduced down to just four minutes. She was… beautiful, in a way, but what was most arresting was the sharp intelligence behind her eyes. She knew exactly what she was doing. Always. Everything she’s done since simply reinforces that impression.
She told the former ‘Lily Savage’ drag-queen host how she’d seen a TV show about Faith Hill when she was just ten years old. An artist whose career was to be an unwitting template for Taylor’s own. When she was twelve years old a guy came around to fix her computer, he had a guitar. He said ‘you wanna learn the guitar?’ and showed her some finger-shapes. By that same evening she’d not only mastered three basic chords but used them to write her first song. Girls at school thought her strange when she had band-aids stuck on her fingers where she’d played until her fingers bled on the strings. And she knew she needed to go to Nashville. ‘I need to be in Nashville, a magical dream-world where dreams come true.’ By age fourteen she was signed to Sony with a songwriting deal. Other girls wrote in their yearbooks that they wanted to be famous. Taylor wanted to work writing songs.
Her breakthrough “Our Song” was written for a school talent show when was thirteen, and she tells a good tale. It’s grounded in country with banjo picking and fiddle sliding overhead as she sings about the sound of slamming screen-doors being the soundtrack to their romance, and closes with the unconsciously neat radio hook ‘play it again’. And they did. On that first self-titled album, issued 24 October 2006, was a namedropping song called “Tim McGraw” about a long summer spent with a boy in a Chevy truck, and that ‘when you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favourite song’ – by then she was signed to McGraw’s Big Machine label and opening shows for that same Country star.
She performs “Teardrops On My Guitar” when she does a return spot on the Paul O’Grady show too, with all of that classic Country plaintive tear-jerker yearning. The dishy boy she fancies is with some other girl, who doesn’t deserve him. When O’Grady asks which artists she’d first admired she promptly names Dolly Parton and Shania Twain, which proves indicative. Dolly started in Country, but crossed over to become massive with mainstream hits. Although Nashville welcomed her back with a later ‘Blue Grass’ return to roots. While ‘Queen Of Country-Pop’ Shania, although she was a writer, was also something of a vehicle for producer-partner ‘Mutt’ Lange, and she uses those little vocal interjections – ‘OK, so whaddya think, you’re Elvis or something?, whatever’ on 1998’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” which will find their echo in Taylor’s own ‘I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream’ slipped into “Blank Space”.
We happened to be spending time in Nashville around that same period, where big Stetsons and cowboy boots seem perfectly in place, and they were inordinately proud of Taylor Swift, their latest huge success, although she was already outgrowing and rapidly moving away from Music City. Country has had its child-stars before. Brenda Lee recorded “Dynamite” when she was twelve years old, but she did not write her hits. And early fame has never been easy. The remarkable Janis Ian wrote and scored a massively precocious hit with “Society’s Child” when she was just fourteen, an impressively mature take on forbidden interracial romance, but she suffered years of psychological trauma adjusting to the profile it gave her. Britney Spears was the best-selling teenage star of the decade with “Oops… I Did It Again”, but note that quick nervous smile at the end of the video, it’s not pleasure, it’s relief that she’s got through performing the elaborate choreography without a mistake, presaging her well-publicised media breakdown. By contrast, Taylor Swift has not put a foot wrong. She’s in full control of what she’s doing.
“Love Story” from second album ‘Fearless’ (November 2008), took her into the Billboard Top Five, and to no.2 in the UK. The transitional album ‘Speak Now’ (October 2010) leans back into country with “Last Kiss”, while “Innocent” reprimands Kanye West’s behaviour at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the cat-scratch “Better Than Revenge” has a power-Pop Indie charge to its taunts at a love-rival, ‘she’s an actress, Whoa, she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.’ But “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – from fourth album, ‘Red’ (August 2012) completes the rebranding, by blocking the no.1 spot and hitting no.4 in the UK. The creepy ex wants to get back with her, but Taylor’s having none of it, like… ever! There are still Americana elements to be usefully drawn upon, the single opens with simple guitar chords, but she’s now astutely targeting and selling across the mainstream Pop market, with seemingly effortless ease, before detonating into its drama. Taking and articulating Valley Girl phrases – ‘like, ever’ with its calculated pause, in text-speak dialogue plucked from now, attuned in its every turn to Mall-life. ‘You needed ‘space’ – what?’ The gossip-chant chorus, ‘you go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me.’ The middle-eight phone conversation. She even makes a sly dig at the guy for liking ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.’
Fifth album ‘1989’ (October 2014) – titled after her birth year, spins off two straight chart-toppers. Nashville no longer figures in the equation. Instead, perfect Pop seldom came as perfectly crafted. “Shake It Off” deliberately and deliciously plays with her off-trend status, kicking back at her detractors – ‘the haters gonna hate, hate, hate… the fakers gonna fake, fake fake,’ by acting out a goofy comic persona over an irresistible chorus. The mid-point break drops into what resembles the 1965 Shirley Ellis “The Clapping Song” proto-Rap, ‘my ex-man brought his new girlfriend, she’s like ‘oh, my god!’, but I’m just gonna shake’ set to the ‘three six nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the street-car line’ rhythmic rhyme-pattern. Conscious, or unconscious, it works in that schoolyard skipping-game earworm way, with the sharp riposte ‘ hey hey hey, just think, while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty-dirty cheats of the world, you could’ve been getting down to this sick beat!’ The story that she takes out copyright trademark rights over the already street usage ‘sick beat’ shows both an astuteness and an acquisitive awareness previously only exercised by unscrupulous music industry apparatchiks. No-one exploits Taylor Swift but Taylor Swift.
Playing in with ticking drum-machine, “Blank Space” – her third US no.1, conjectures the start of a new relationship, ‘you look like my next mistake’, then acts out its flirtatious possibilities in anticipation, a jittery threshold that can go either way – ‘magic, madness, heaven, sin, cherry lips, crystal skies, stolen kisses, pretty lies,’ with the uncertain frisson of ‘so it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames,’ with the vengeance-bitch ready waiting in the wings should it go wrong. Can he be trusted?, ‘I love the player, you love the game,’ dropping in the ‘oh my god’ as natural as a TV Teen-Soap script. At a time when female singers were all over the chart, from Rihanna and Katy Perry, from Pink to Beyoncé, to Adele’s big dramatic power-ballads, none could equal her reach.
Never overtly sexual, in the way that poor manipulated Britney was, yet articulating the nuances of mature relationships, Taylor Swift concerts become affirmations of strength and solidarity more real than ‘Girl Power’ ever was, conquering stadiums that were once terrain staked out by yester-decade’s bludgeoning Heavy Metal bands. It’s the ultimate revenge of the nerdy misfit girl with band-aid fingers who was excluded from the smart clique or the right school crowd. She’s now focal-point of her own crowd, it’s a million-strong, and it’s coast-to-coast. She has a jackdaw songwriter knack of picking over glittery phrases and baubles from the vinyl antiques and curios emporium, plucking devices from golden ages past to blend seamlessly into her immaculate melodic gifts. She uses street idioms – not ghetto street street, that would be preposterous, she can’t even twerk – she doesn’t have the butt for it, but the nuanced inflections and emphasis of the Mall, the burger-bar, the low-cost fashion outlet, Walmart. And by now her blonde tresses are more styled, more teased out than the naturalistic cascade of the Nashville country girl.
The Twitter-sphere alleges she writes her way through her relationship issues, ‘got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.’ Which is surely what all songwriters do anyway. There are Dylanologists who chart the songs he wrote about Suze Rotolo, and which are about Sara. Just as Mick Jagger lyrics can be traced through Marianne Faithfull, or Paul Simon’s songs about ‘Cathy’. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ (1977) is built around relationship fragmentation. There are always codes that fan-obsessives pick up on as special insider knowledges. But it’s not the strip-mining of the raw material of life that matters, so much as the art that emerges as a result. And Taylor Swift makes superlative Pop, regardless of its emotional provenance. Across a spread of albums she works with different co-writers, but it’s always Taylor Swift, with production and control extending even down to sleeve-design.
The first time I heard the shuddering strings and pulse-throbbing sequenced-drum play-in to “Look What You Made Me Do”, the launch-single from sixth studio album – ‘Reputation’ (2017), there was a definite sense of event-music, in the way that each new Beatles single was an event that advanced the collective story. Cleverly refashioning contours from the Right Said Fred “I’m Too Sexy” single, to the extent of a writer-credit, it seems a darker noir step – ‘I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time… I trust nobody and nobody trusts me,’ spelled out deliberately by the car-crash mid-point break ‘I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now – why? Oh, ‘cause she’s dead!’ In a zombie gravedigger image the tombstone is engraved ‘Here Lies Taylor Swift’s Reputation.’ It’s a sloughing-off of old identities, represented by different feuding incarnations of previous Taylor Swift personas at the tail-end of the video, ‘What’s with that bitch?’, ‘You’re so fake!’, ‘There she goes playing the victim again.’ Including the naïve early Taylor with legs impossibly long, dress impossibly short, and playing a guitar that seems bigger than she is. On the album, “Delicate” uses a slight vocoder distortion on her vocals, as she admits a vulnerability, ‘this ain’t for the best, my reputation has never been worse, so, you must like me for me.’
If the album was interpreted as a misstep into deeper content, ‘Lover’ (August 2019), her first for the Republic label, represents a calculated retreat to a brighter more gaudy spectrums of colour, showing that all her Pop sensibilities are still very much intact. She rarely conforms to the easy fallback position of generic EDM-Dance, such as Lady GaGa tactically adopts to sales advantage, and lead single “Me!” is driven on percussive martial drums. A duet collaboration alternating verses with Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco, it avoids the obvious me-me-me centrality its title suggests by employing a velcro-spiky array of hooks, from the ‘Hey kids, spelling is fun’ break to the ‘you can’t spell ‘awesome’ without ‘me’,’ her facility in young-adult speak given shiny new twists.
Rock has been programmed to equate ‘serious’ artistic endeavour with austere socio-political stance-taking. Taylor Swift makes the paradigm shift into new-century relevances. She’s redefined the rules. It’s no longer necessary to stake out militant Feminist credentials, because that’s all already been fought for and won by Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Patti Smith. Her life, control and creativity not only make the statement but are the statement. She’s liberated to the extent that liberation is no longer an issue, it’s a given. If you want the flouncy pink princess look, wear it. Dressing down in dungarees is no longer the only way to denote serious attitude.
When she does take a stand on issues, as with “You Need To Calm Down”, it’s on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, and comes flamboyantly decked out in glitter and glam. Carried on the electro-throb of Ultravox’s “Vienna” the punch-line of ‘cos shade never made anybody less Gay’, is made in a saccharine-pink unicorn-rainbow confection of glorious self-indulgence with cavorting guest walk-ons – Ellen Degeneres, Katy Perry, Rupaul and Adam Lambert. There’s no apology, and no need for one, it’s a celebration. In what she styles its ‘metaphoric symbolism’ the moronic haters are un-evolved retards ‘in the dark age’ with illiterate ‘Homasekualty Is SIN’ and ‘Adam+Eve Not Adam+Steve’ placards, and there’s a social media slap-down that ‘say it in a Tweet that’s a cop-out.’
The shooting schedule for the video, as she reveals in a ‘making of’ sequence, stretches over three days. During tinsel-town’s heyday they used to film entire feature movies in three days, never mind a promotion for a 3:31-minute Pop song! Such gargantuan ambition can be dangerous. Of course the video overturns all manner of previous streaming records, but as a ‘Taylor Swift’ industry it teeters hazardously on the brink of Michael Jackson syndrome. That she’s now competing with her own back-catalogue. That even logging sales figures that make lesser acts drool, if it’s down on the previous album or the one before, it’s on a downward slope.
Where to next is bound to be unexpected. She’s already taken her evolutions through several stages. She’s already multiply exceeded what was achieved by her early role models. She enjoys her celebrity. There will be more. Whether she can, or even needs to take the mass audience with her is another equation. She needs to use her sure sense of self to ignore that, and concentrate on what she started out doing. Writing good songs. Making creatively satisfying albums in the way that Joni Mitchell or Carole King did. To exercise the courage to say ‘you must like me for me.’ Maybe even a return to the Nashville narrative structure? Whatever. She is in control. She will do whatever she wants to do.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON