There are a lot of reasons to be angry these days. Just look around. Unemployment, homophobia, foot-in-mouth politicians, the fact that Erin Burnett has a show -- valid targets for outrage are all around us, which makes it all the more perplexing why so many of today's pop-music icons seem bent on faking it.
I first pondered this topic last year when I was writing my book Tortured Artists. The book makes the case that great art comes from misery, from pain and suffering, from darkness. In my introduction, I had to explain why certain artists of note were left out. As a case in point, I needed to cite the most quintessential example of a non-tortured artist I could think of. Someone devoid of edge. Someone who assaults the senses with blandness and insults the intellect with insincerity. Someone whose art is so watered down that a school of guppies could survive within it for a month.
Someone like Taylor Swift.
Ms. Swift, the veritable pop-music phenomenon, is sometimes called a "country music artist," but only by instigators who don't seem to mind poking at the corpses of Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash with a stick. Mind you, my choosing Taylor as a criterion for aural sterility was not a personal attack. Rather I picked her for much the same reason that Morgan Spurlock, in need of an ominous target that epitomizes the fast-food industry, picked McDonald's. And just as that corporate giant poses a threat to the very foundations of nutritional soundness, Ms. Swift endangers all that is good for us in the sustentative world of music arts.
So Taylor earned a spot in my book's intro, and since then I've rarely had to defend my description of her music as lacking a certain depth. Apparently, there are more than 17 million Swifties on Twitter, but like leprechauns or gay Republicans, you never actually meet one in real life. However, when I'd heard earlier this month that Taylor's upcoming album, Red, is about the intensity and tragedy of dysfunctional relationships, I naturally perked up. Could she be a tortured artist, after all?
Here's how Swift herself describes her inspiration:
All the different emotions that are written about on this album are all pretty much about the kind of tumultuous, crazy, insane, intense, semi-toxic relationships that I've experienced in the last two years.
Sounds like a terrific ride. Admittedly, nothing produces great angsty music like semi-toxicity. True, if the album turns out to be great, it would threaten my theory that Swift, as a non-tortured artist, has nothing really interesting to say, but then maybe she's grown. Maybe we've reached a point where she and I can have lunch, or brunch, or linner. Either way, seeing how Swift is now 22, I could not rule out the possibility that she had undergone a kind of Timberlakian artistic awakening.
And then I listened to the album's first single: "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." The song was released earlier this month, and by released I mean set forth upon the world by evil masterminds at Universal Music Group whose plot to strip humankind of all creativity now seems entirely plausible.
"Never Ever" contains not a single shred of sincerity. Like some of Taylor's earlier efforts, it takes aim at an estranged ex-boyfriend, and yet, listening to the song, we never ever get the sense that there is real scorn behind her attacks. Granted, there is something that slightly resembles bitterness in such lyrics as "I'm really gonna miss you picking fights," but the whole thing is hollowed out with such glossy artifice. Not an authentic note, or genuine emotion, or lick of honesty comes through the pitch-corrected, reverb-soaked claptrap through which this young woman is purporting to channel her anger.
This is not to suggest that Taylor has not experienced pain. Everyone has. But where she fails -- and where most pop music fails -- is that she has not communicated that pain in an honest way. She is not leveling with us, and in music, that doesn't fly.
Few things are more off-putting than feigned angst. In music, it is a cardinal sin. That's because music works best when it bypasses the intellect and injects the jugular with concentrated emotion. It's a transcendent process, but one that requires truthfulness above all else. Most of us remember the first time we heard Good Charlotte and had to take a sick day to recover. What that band tries to pass off as punk rock is so blatantly disingenuous that it comes off as bad parody, and no amount of tattoos and liberty spikes will convince us otherwise.
Swift's latest effort suffers from a similar transgression: It's girlishness packaged as girl power. Of course, none of this will likely hurt the upward trajectory of her career. In its debut week, "Never Ever" was downloaded 623,000 times -- a record for a female artist, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's a lot of downloads, and as much as I would like to believe they're all coming from Taylor's parents, I have to accept that there are people out there in whom Swift's music does not cause migraines, or hardening of the arteries, or early death. Like it or not, those millions of Swifties really do exist.
Accepting this reality is a bitter blow, but it's not the worst part. What bothers me the most is the glowing critical reception Taylor's music receives. I'm talking real critics, here. Based on some of the early reviews for "Never Ever," all that "feigned angst" stuff is flying right over the heads of the very folks who are tasked with the job of protecting our ear drums. Rolling Stone called the song a "witty relationship postmortem." PopCrush christened it "the girl power, breakup anthem for millennials." And Billboard magazine beamed, "there's a sardonic sneer in Swift's singing voice." (I had to look up the word "sardonic" to make sure I wasn't in that Twilight Zone episode where all the words in the English language suddenly changed their meanings.)
Much as we like to label ourselves "trend agnostic," there is something odd about not being able to see in an artist what 18 million people can see. It is a lonely feeling, made all the more lonely by last month's announcement that Taylor Swift topped Forbes magazine's list of the highest-paid celebrities under 30. Talk about depressing. Of course, I would still go out to lunch with her, but only if she promises to try harder. And only if she pays, because that only makes sense.
Christopher Zara is the author of Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world's most creative minds, published by Adams Media.
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