Review Summary: If pop culture is the Wicked Witch of the East, then Taylor Swift would be the house that falls out of the whirlwind to crush it.
For those who haven't been reading Todd VanDerWerff's weekly A.V. Club
reviews of Glee
, his analysis of the show essentially boils down to this: Glee
is an incredibly messy show overall, but it is saved by the fact that it is able to deliver moment-to-moment with certain scenes that make us forget its flaws. VanDerWerff is as ready as anyone else to criticize the show, but he also recognizes that Glee
hits it out of the park on a consistent basis despite its flaws in storytelling and pacing, which, on any other show, would be insurmountable problems, but Glee
does it somehow. I basically agree with him on all points. I am able to recognize that the show can be incredibly stupid, unbelievable, schmaltzy, thematically obvious, and frustrating - sometimes all at once - but I love it just as much as I love a show like Dexter
, which is almost irrefutably a much better show. I am not going to beat you over the head and say that what makes Glee
good is the fact that it has heart, because that's not really true. I think the show is good because it makes me happy, and I am willing to forgive the occasional flaw in something that makes me smile.
The point here is that Taylor Swift's Speak Now
is similarly flawed and similarly redeemed. On some level, thinking about Taylor Swift's career makes me want to wax philosophical about the child stars of the 2000s, who seem very different from the child stars of the latter half of the previous millennium. However, child star rules don't seem to apply to Taylor Swift. If Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake showed what you can do when your mom makes you audition for The Mickey Mouse Club
, and Justin Bieber is the poster child for Youtube's musical revolution, and Ke$ha is the embodiment of this generation's boozed-up, superficial teenage zeitgeist, then what is Taylor Swift? She was not created by anybody. There is nobody pulling her strings. She started playing the guitar when she was ten years old and started writing her own songs soon after that. She sent demos to a huge number of record labels when she was eleven and every one of them rejected her. Then, when she was fifteen, she turned down a record deal from RCA because they wanted to micromanage her career and keep her publishing rights. Swift was clearly hungry for a record deal, but not so hungry that she would take the first deal that was offered to her. In her situation, would anyone else have done that? In this day and age, it's hard to think so.
That's all well and good, but now she's got her record deal and she's got two albums under her belt that have collectively sold over 13 million copies. She's won four Grammy awards and she's the top-selling artist of all time in terms of digital sales. So it stands to reason that there must be some
disconnect between the Taylor Swift who turned down that record deal and the Taylor Swift of today. The thing is, there really isn't. This is a girl who stood demurely off to the side while Kanye West interrupted her VMA acceptance speech and said she shouldn't have won. She's invested over one million dollars in philanthropic endeavors. She dated John Mayer (one of 2010's most public media figures because of his low comments about the women he's dated, including a Mel Gibson-like use of the n-word) and subsequently found out what an as
shole he is. Her response to that? She wrote a poignantly understated song about it. In a world that contains Jersey Shore
, a show that is only popular because it regularly features people acting like animals in that all of their actions are immediate and incendiary reactions, it is close to mind-blowing to witness someone like Taylor Swift, who for all her money and success, seems to be an incredibly grounded young lady.
Even so, this same popularity is what makes her a major target for the people who hate the mainstream for reasons that they never seem to be entirely sure of. Does the artist sing songs that were written by someone else, like Rihanna's "Umbrella" was? Then they are talentless. Is theatricality as crucial to their success as their music, as is the case with Lady Gaga? Then they are talentless. These arguments can, on some level, be warranted if they are presented right. There's no denying that, but then why is Taylor Swift lumped in with them? It seems to be for no other reason than her immense popularity, as if someone who is loved by young girls cannot possibly be talented. The main criticism lobbed in her direction seems to be that she doesn't sing all that well live, which her detractors seem to think negates anything she does on record. What they don't seem to realize is that on record, her voice is merely passable to begin with. But she can craft a tune incredibly well, and she is honest, and she really does have that girl-next-door quality (and will probably have it until she's forty). And as for those who like to point out the fact that the subject matter of her songs can be perceived as juvenile, well, those people clearly need to turn inward for a few minutes, because what Taylor Swift sings about are things that everyone has felt and will always feel, whether they are twenty like her (so often people forget that she is still, in many ways, growing up), or fifty, like a recently divorced man who is nervous about dating again. Of course, people are allowed to hate music for whatever reasons they choose, but it seems particularly unjust that Taylor Swift, one of the few genuine people in the industry, is so often maligned.
Not that there aren't reasons to criticize her: Speak Now
suffers from the same flaw that Swift's other two albums did. Namely, filler. It is difficult to truly dislike the album based on that fact, because every song on the record features some sort of progression or interesting idea, but Speak Now
clocks in at over an hour in length, which feels at times like too much. At least, in principle it does. The playing time slides by remarkably quickly, and the five (!) songs that are over five minutes in length seem to go by the fastest. Still, it's an uneven album. The reason I say it is difficult to judge it based on that fact is because this is the first album where the songwriting credit goes directly to Swift, and she has proven herself admirable in that regard. If anything, she's got too
many ideas. While there aren't any songs that are outright bad, two or three of them could have been cut without making much of a difference. And even if they exist in the name of artistic progression, there are some genuine head-scratch moments, like in the beginning of "Enchanted," where Taylor sounds eerily similar to Justin Bieber, and the out-of-character synth backing of "The Story Of Us," and the entirety of "Haunted," a heavy-handed, strings-drenched track that is simultaneously confusing and amazing in every way. "Haunted" is the sort of song that explains Taylor Swift's appeal: it's a very obvious, heart-on-the-sleeve bit of writing, but her vocal delivery is unprecedented in terms of her back catalog, and the song's curiously loud volume does a good job of making us believe that this is indeed Taylor Swift and not what would happen if a surgeon implanted talent into Amy Lee.
I've never looked at Taylor Swift as someone with potential, because her potential was realized from the start. She never made a bad album that could have been good; she made one good album that could have been great and one great album that could have been amazing. Both of them just needed some refinement. Speak Now
is Swift's attempt at refinement while also attempting to branch out and do some different things. It is always hard to find a balance between those two things, and she struggles with it. However, the simple fact that she was willing to try it makes me willing now to see her as someone with potential. Not potential to make better music, necessarily, but potential to be a generation-defining pop artist. Think about it. Who else do we have in the 2000s? The 80s belonged to Madonna, and the 90s were owned by a number of artists (Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, et al.), but do we truly want someone like them to speak for us? I love Lady Gaga, but I don't necessarily want her as the spokesperson for people my age. I see Lady Gaga as someone who is trying to push music in general farther and farther. Taylor Swift is trying to push her own
music farther, and in doing so, she has received the unprecedented attention of countless young people. Everyone has an agenda these days. Taylor Swift truly does not seem to have one beyond doing something that she loves and learning who she is in the process.
Identity has never been as important as it is right now. This is an age where we can be anyone we want to be, but each and every identity has some sort of downside to it, and these downsides are played up by television and the Internet and every other form of media to the point that they can look like the worst things in life. Furthermore, people seem to misinterpret the importance of being yourself. "Be true to yourself and you will be successful in life," they say, thinking that it is an acceptable creed because of the first half when all anybody really focuses on is the second half. Sure, Taylor Swift stayed true to herself and received millions of dollars for it. The important thing is that it has not changed her or jaded her or turned her into Heidi Montag, at least so far. The focus shouldn't be on the fact that she is rich and popular. The focus should be that after everything that's happened with her career, I can still listen to a record as uneven as Speak Now
and feel like Taylor Swift is somebody I could fall in love with given the chance. I can still set aside an hour of my time to truly listen to this girl who came out of nowhere to become a household name and forget about all of that because of how amazed I am at her talent. I can still listen to a song like "Last Kiss" and be incredibly happy, and incredibly sad.