by ALICE BOLIN
“Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast recently asked country-pop girl wonder Taylor Swift, a simple question that Swift predictably dodged. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she responded. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Sigh. I read things like that and I wish more than anything that homegirl had been allowed to go to college.
There are obviously troubling things about Swift’s prim, old-fashioned, virginal persona—she defines herself by her relationships with men, and she’s in danger of arrested development, a permanent girlhood. There is also the fact that her public persona is so resolutely composed that her only recourse to address pain is passive aggression, so that anger leaks out at every corner. This is why the popular image of Swift is a fascinating contradiction: a perfect princess who is also a total mess.
But I think I’ve gone beyond the point of finding Swift merely fascinating, an interesting public figure. If my iTunes is to be believed, I have listened to the songs on her last album, Speak Now, an average of fifty times. I karaoked the teenage revenge anthem “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album two weeks ago. I play her songs on my ukulele, just like hundreds of thirteen-year-olds on YouTube. I am not an interested observer of her constructed celebrity — I am an enthusiastic fan of her music.
Swift’s albums have the quality that I love about all pop music: that it is fake, commercial, even cynical, and somehow it still speaks in real ways about what it’s like to be human. This is as true about mass-produced music from the days of Phil Spector and Motown, the cubicles of the Brill Building that made it like a literal hit factory, as it is about today’s mega-producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin—a song’s sound is engineered to be perniciously memorable, and a song’s sentiment is engineered to be universally relatable. Pop music is manipulative in so many ways.
Swift is clearly shrewd about how to construct a perfect pop song. When she was a teenager in Nashville, she was not only scouted as an artist, but Sony/ATV publishing house also hired her as a songwriter. She has always written the bulk of her own music, and with Speak Now she had sole writing credit for the entire album. On her new album, Red, she is working with co-writers again, including Shellback, who wrote some of Britney Spears’ best hits, and pop songwriting legend Martin, the man responsible for a baffling amount of top ten singles including Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”
Her collaboration with these pop giants initially appeared as an alarming departure for an artist with country singer-songwriter roots, especially because Martin has such a reputation for writing surefire hits that working with him is often seen as an act of career desperation. But the songs on Red that Swift wrote with Martin and Shellback are brilliant to a one: the album’s lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a pop-punk revenge tune that’s as snotty as it is catchy, and the party anthem “22” features a gleeful and glorious chorus, not to mention Swift doing her best Ke$ha impression. The most surprising song on the album, “Trouble,” is heavy and synthed-out with a dub-step (!) chorus.
These songs are distinct from Swift’s typical output, but the partnership was fruitful because Swift, Martin, and Shellback understand pop’s most important quality: it is addictive. In a New Yorker article about Ester Deen and Stargate, the songwriter and producers who are responsible for most of Rihanna’s hits, Deen’s manager is quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” It’s not only the overtly pop songs on Red that follow this prescription — “Treacherous,” a sexy acoustic ballad Swift co-wrote with Dan Wilson of nineties music footnote Semisonic, is tightly composed from a soft verse to an almost chant-like chorus, swelling to the bridge where Swift sings intently, “I will get you/Get you alone.”
Swift’s savvy about how to write a hit feels almost at odds with her reputation for writing autobiographical lyrics — people speak as if her songs are emotional and filter-less, when in reality her songwriting is anything but “raw.” With each new album, theories emerge about which of Swift’s celebrity ex-boyfriends each song is about. Swift claims to be bemused by this guessing game. “There are a lot of songs that people think is about this dude, but it’s really not, it’s actually about this guy you have no idea I even dated. Or you’ll sit there and go ‘that song was inspired by three different situations with three different people,’” she told VH1 recently. “I never really talk about who my songs are about,” she insisted.
But Swift plays into this speculation. She has a practice of encoding secret messages in the lyrics portion of her albums’ liner notes, which fans use to conjecture about the songs’ subjects. Songs on Red bear messages like HIYANNIS PORT, clearly referring to her summer beau Connor Kennedy; FOR ETHEL, a slightly embarrassing ode to Kennedy matriarch Ethel Kennedy; and MAPLE LATTES, a nod to a famous photo op she had with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
This is the confusing thing — by all appearances Swift’s brief relationship with Gyllenhaal was a blatant publicity stunt. Their maple latte outing was documented by the paparazzi and written up in People magazine; as Vulture notes, “‘Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal Share Thanksgiving Maple Lattes’ is the third result when you Google ‘maple lattes.’” If their relationship was real, why did she use the most famous detail about their time together as a clue, rather than a less public one? Swift has never publicly discussed any of her relationships, other than her teenage romance with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, but she purposefully capitalizes on the publicity they generate in subtler ways.
“All Too Well,” the song with the MAPLE LATTES clue, exploits a media-driven celebrity relationship for the sake of sensation, and it is also probably Red’s greatest triumph. It is the only track on Red that Swift wrote with her original songwriting partner Liz Rose, with whom she wrote hits like “Teardrops on my Guitar” and “You Belong with Me,” and it is filled with classic Swift details in lyrics like “We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” “All Too Well” also contains the line “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” which, scaling for what could conceivably heard on Top 40 radio, is the best lyric I’ve ever heard.
I don’t know how to rectify this — that the song on Red that feels the most authentic is the one that cashes in the most cravenly on media narratives that Swift herself controls. Clearly, Swift’s reputation as a crazy ex-girlfriend skewering her former loves in her lyrics is something that she cultivates — she, Adele, and Alanis Morissette are only a few of the female artists who have learned that this is a gimmick that can take your albums multi-platinum. It also seems that her code of propriety, her desire to be a “classy” celebrity, is what dictates her reticence about her relationships — writing songs that allude to them and then baiting fans to guess who is a way that Swift acts out.
With Swift’s constricting good-girl image, she performs the transgressive acts available to her, and she releases her considerable aggression in controlled ways. “Tell all your friends I’m obsessive and crazy./That’s fine,” Swift sings to an ex on “Picture to Burn.” “I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” The height of her vindictiveness might be “Dear John,” the nearly seven-minute diss track to her ex-boyfriend John Mayer off Speak Now. The John Mayer-signature blues guitar solo on the song is both witty and stone cold. She talks about her temper in many of her songs, as in “Stay Stay Stay” off Red, where she sings, “I’m pretty sure we almost broke up last night./I threw my phone across the wall/At you.” In “Stay Stay Stay” as in her hit “Mine” from Speak Now, she daydreams about a man who will stick by her after the fights, in spite of her anger.
Her aggression isn’t only limited to her songs — after Jonas allegedly dumped with eighteen-year-old Swift with a twenty-seven-second phone call, Swift took to YouTube. In the video she posted, she is holding collectible dolls of both her and Jonas. “Oh look,” she says, examining the Joe Jonas doll’s packaging. “This one even comes with a phone. So it can break up with other dolls.” As demure as she may be, this girl is also intense and out for blood — of Red’s title, Swift said, “All those emotions — spanning from intense love, intense frustration, jealousy, confusion, all of that — in my mind, all those emotions are red.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in this she echoes another passionate artist constrained by traditional expectations of femininity: Sylvia Plath. Red was Plath’s favorite color, and in her work it often has the same meaning that Swift assigns it on Red. “Their redness talks to my wounds, it corresponds,” Plath writes in “Tulips.” In “Lady Lazarus” she transfigures herself as a wrathful Fury — “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair,” the poem famously ends, “And I eat men like air.” It seems like Swift could relate. (The song “Higher Ground” off of Red contains the lyric “Back when you fit my poems like a perfect rhyme,” and I think we as a public must demand to know more about these poems.) There are numerous reasons why Swift will probably be better able to achieve her goals as an artist and a healthy human being than Plath was — but like Plath, Swift’s life seems to be about oscillating between acting out and falling in line with what’s expected of her. I can’t help but think, “Taylor, maybe if you were a feminist, all this would be easier for you.”
I cling to evidence that Swift is moving slowly toward more comfort with herself, more freedom. Granting that her schtick is that she is not a girl, not yet a woman, as they say, Red is distinctly more womanly than any of her other releases. She has let go of some of the narratives that she subscribed to in the past, particularly her obsession with fairytale love — tracks from previous albums bear names like “Today Was a Fairytale” and “White Horse,” and her hit single “Love Story” describes a Romeo-and-Juliet style pairing, except everything turns out fine in the end.
More than ever before in her work, Swift is acknowledging that love is not a fantasy—on “Treacherous” she makes the stunning acknowledgment that sex and sexual desire can complicate things. “I’ll do anything you say,” she sings, “if you say it with your hands.” She has also turned away from some of the persistent nostalgia for childhood that marks her previous albums. “Fifteen,” from Fearless, remembers in sentimental detail what it was like to be a freshman in high school. On the schmaltzy ballad “Never Grow Up” from Speak Now, our female Peter Pan advises a child, “Oh darling, don’t you ever grow up/Just stay this little.”
In contrast to “Fifteen,” “22” refers to the age Swift is now, not an age she longs to be again. The story “22” describes is as far from her fairytale songs as possible, as Swift sings about going out to a club with her friends and trying to pick someone up — “You look like bad news./I’ve got to have you,” she sings. This is such a welcome departure: on Red, Swift is acting her age, and even, for the first time, acknowledging her celebrity. In “The Lucky One,” she sings enviously of a young woman who gains success in Hollywood, only to abandon it all for a return to comfortable anonymity. I am relieved by these developments. If Swift were still making high school records at twenty-two, this would be a sadder story than it is.
A number of songs on Red display a chip on Swift’s shoulder about her goody-two-shoes image — on “22” she talks about dressing up like a hipster and complains that the club has “too many cool kids.” She tells an ex-boyfriend on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” The fact that Swift is not a cool kid is one thing I like about her — she is, after all, a gawky dork who grew up on a Christmas tree farm. I hope she realizes, though, that just because she isn’t “alternative,” that doesn’t mean that she has to be a Disney princess. She should take a lesson from her former nemesis Kanye West, whose persona seamlessly encompasses varying types including “sensitive genius” and “annoying egomaniac.”
The Swift-versus-Kanye West meme is a chance binary that is incidentally instructive — they have a lot in common as rigorous artists with volatile personalities. West is able to perform a public self that is stylish, nerdy, vulnerable, powerful, smart, sympathetic, and irritating. I wish Swift could do the same and be viewed as complex, not schizophrenic. For anyone who was wondering, that’s what feminism is.
Alice Bolin is a senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Isaac Mizrahi. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.
"Back to December (acoustic)" - Taylor Swift (mp3)
"If This Was A Movie" - Taylor Swift (mp3)