When it comes to music criticism, it seems as though pop and country are often deemed the easiest targets. Ask a random passerby what sort of music they listen to, and there's a nine out of ten chance that they'll reply with something along the lines of, "anything but country". Similarly, so much music journalism recently has been devoted to the analysis or criticism of the so-called "poptimism" movement, that it might seem as though the idea of taking pop music seriously in a critical context was crafted solely for the purpose of erasure: a special little artistic straw-man for the vanguard dedicated to protecting some sort of ephemeral, unnameable sense of legitimacy for popular music.
I don't say any of this to imply that either genre is somehow a victim, and that criticism of these genres is, thus, irrelevant or unworthy of attention. I don't say this in order to barricade myself against opinions opposing what I'm about to say. I say these things to get them out of the way as factors I've noticed in discussion, and to provide a little bit of context. Really, all I'm here to say is that I love Taylor Swift. I don't love her as a guilty pleasure, and I'm tired of the positivity towards her being remanded to that little back alley of taste where enjoyment has to be escorted into the sun by some sense of obligatory shame designed to stifle discussion. I love Taylor Swift: honestly, genuinely, sincerely. I'm happy to tell you why.
Firstly on a very basic and superficial level, the girl's got pipes. I mean, she has a wonderful voice that can oscillate almost seamlessly from smooth and tender, to razored and barbed and husky. I think it's far too easy to go after an artist for not having a pretty voice (or, not sounding good live), and while I think this is a somewhat flawed argument in and of itself, Swift's vocal prowess renders it even more irrelevant. Of course, this is an incredibly subjective argument to make, and so I simply put it forward as an admission that I go into Swift's music with a certain baseline fulfillment. Do with it what you will.
The more important notion, however, is her music itself, which stretches from the more outwardly 'country' style orchestrations that define her self-titled debut, to the aggressively 'poppy' songwriting on her second album, 'Fearless.' In her two most recent albums, she plays around gracefully between these bookends, sometimes going too far stylistically (even as a lover of 'I Knew You Were Trouble', I won't pretend the dubstep was a great idea), but often finding a comfortable little niche that allows her both grounding and wiggle-room.
As a songwriter, Swift can appear almost aggressively inoffensive, yet, in my experience, is still the target of a healthy amount of critical vitriol -- if not from technical critics, then from those who seem so outraged by her music that simply not listening to her doesn't quite do it. Of course, all artists will have detractors, and given the internet as the preeminent forum for music discussion, these detractors will usually be pretty outspoken. But, boy, do people seem to have a problem with this girl's breakup songs. I've seen and heard Swift called catty, shallow, dumb, bitchy, rude, and a whole host of other things that are really just extreme versions of the aforementioned jabs. To so many, it seems as though Taylor Swift is the first artist to write angry songs about failed romances and specific exes. Many who praise Adele (whose lyrics deal with very little that Swift's do not -- albeit with a little more bombast and self-importance), are quick to dismiss Swift as talentless, some going so far as to say there's an actual moral issue with her profiting off of failed romances (I will put good money down that Taylor Swift does not break up with boyfriends just to write new albums). It's all a little ridiculous.
As a lyricist, Swift can be alternatingly funny, and blistering. Songs like 'Mean' play around gleefully with how small the wrongs that prompted them are, while ballads like 'Forever and Always' turn seemingly generic circumstances of heartbreak into poignant powerful totems of vulnerable anger (check out the piano version of this one. It's breathtaking, and when she whimpers, "Back up/Baby, back up/ Please, back up/Oh, back up" it feels more intimate and revelatory than anything else in pop music). Certainly, Swift can be generic. Even the best artists can. 'Fearless' is largely simple and fluffy, but even then there's a sense of immediacy. Alternatively, 'Red' is an astounding pop album, moving effortlessly through intensely felt and varied emotions in a way that feels both organic, and deeply smart. Take, for instance, 'All Too Well' -- a song that builds with such wonderfully felt momentum. On the one hand, Swift offers up plain, yet charged details of her time with her lover (who is probably Donnie Darko) that feel both specific and universal. As the song progresses, these little concrete tokens inflate and overpower, building to the track's incredible: "You call me up again, just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest."
Is Swift the most poetic songwriter on the planet? No. Does she have the best metaphors going for her? No. But in the end, that's not what her music's about. The best TSwift songs are about those moments when you honestly can't be poetic, or charming, or fair. They're about capturing that terrible and human point after a relationship when your anger seems like a viable way to turn the tide, as if your version of the moral high ground is equipped with its very own wedding chapel. The songs that hit me in the gut are the ones about needing to hate someone, whether or not they deserve it, because, in that moment, to admit to yourself that you still care is only going to break you down. That's an ugly place to be, but it's also one that most people can relate to keenly, whether or not they want to distance themselves from it.
So, you say catty, I say primal. And I say it unironically, knowing how ridiculous it sounds to those who see TSwift as just another pop artist. There are few singers who are willing to simultaneously engage with the illogical rage, and the almost goofy hope that can come down in tandem after losing someone about whom you care deeply. She isn't afraid to say she feels abandoned and wronged, and she's certainly not the only singer to do so. I hesitate to write off criticism as biased based on genre, but with Swift, that often seems to be the case. There are artists who are far crueler than her, who manage to attain greater credibility seemingly by virtue of not having a fan base of primarily young women. And demographics aside, Swift has proven herself to be self-aware, canny, and unafraid of the pieces of herself that seem cheap from without. She is true to herself, and unpretentious in that truth. If 'Red' is anything, it's the sweetest, sorest exorcism ever to take the stage at the Grammys. It's a reminder that bitterness is not always shameful or inescapable, that hurt is something whose frustrating immaturities and chafings are worthy of tenderness and consideration, that "irrationality" is not unsympathetic. And, if that performance of 'All Too Well' didn't seem genuine to you, I really suggest watching it again.
All that said, I do not think Taylor Swift is perfect. I think it's absolutely reasonable to suggest that her music conforms to certain ideas of romance and commitment that can at times be oppressive to those over whom they hold sway. I think, however, we can't attack Taylor personally and say that her songs are all individual experiences that should not be displayed or marketed, and then turn around and argue that she's selling an idea, as opposed to documenting her own emotions. That's not to say that her music has no effect on how her listeners view sex and relationships. It's simply to say that she's not the only artist to attach universal truths to personal approaches, and she can't be discussed in a vacuum (positively or negatively).
On a purely musical level, though, Swift manages to be both fun, and deeply connective. She's honest and self-deprecating (those who think that 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' is wholly without irony are missing the joy of it), and has proven immensely meaningful to many of her fans. You don't have to like country, and you don't have to like pop. You don't even have to like Taylor Swift. But give her the courtesy of more than a guilty pleasure. She doesn't need your guilt. After all, I'm pretty sure none of you dumped her.
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