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Entries in taylor swift (5)


In Which Taylor Swift Becomes A Stranger



Taylor Swift
producers Max Martin and Karl Schuster
November 10th on Big Machine

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on the clothes an ambassador would wear. Decently dressed, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savour. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death.

- Niccolò Machiavelli

If Taylor Swift is anything like the person depicted on her new album Reputation, she is the most devious, complicated, multifaceted person ever to exist. Let us take our time with a line from "I Did Something Bad", which I believe in the end represents everything this woman is concerned with: "I never trust a narcissist, but they love me." Such a statement implies that every single association Swift has with other people is deceitful in some way. This admission is startling on another level, since it prizes the latter section of the clause over the former. The beginning of the lyric is a preference, the ensuing clause is a state of being.

Of course there is the possibility that this, like so much else on Reputation, is tongue in cheek, or simply written by one of the many co-writers Swift has worked with over the years. On Reputation, Jack Antonoff and the producing-songwriting team of Karl Schuster and Max Martin are present to work in the confines of Swift's familiar sound. But the lyrical voice is distinctly Swift's own, and the message is completely fucked up:

I stay when it's hard, or it's wrong
Or we're making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I'll be cleaning up bottles with you

Again, if this is true, it's desperately sad and twisted. If it's only a conceit, the expression of it is somehow worse. I know that massive amounts of money and adulation are capable of changing a person, but altering them to this extent is potentially what happened to Lady Macbeth. Of course, no one ever said Lady Macbeth is boring, and Swift is intent on focusing this aspect of her personality. On "Dancing With My Hands Tied" she explains, "I'm the mess that you wanted." Uh-huh.

But no one could ever think Swift was, or has ever been a mess. So that part is a lie, and probably a lot else on this album. Swift's last album, the more enjoyably pop 1989, sold ten million copies, and Reputation attempts to put it in the dust. The more considered, low-key elements of that album are completely submerged here, with Swift more often sounding like mid-career Madonna than any iteration of herself.

There is something dated about Reputation, which suggests that the 27-year old is becoming very old, very quick. The orchestrations are generally limited, leaving the focus on Swift's sharp, bouncy voice, which is at its best when breathily intoning in something like speech. "Dress" is her most complete and exciting track in this vein, explaining, "I don't want you like a best friend," hinting at a story she refuses to tell. Instead, we receive the following blandishments:

Even in my worst times, you could see the best of me
Flashback to my mistakes
My rebounds, my earthquakes
Even in my worst light, you saw the truth in me
And I woke up just in time
Now I wake up by your side

It would be compelling to watch Swift take on various new themes in her work, including authentic estimations of loss and love. Instead Reputation is an extended revenge fantasy on no one in particular. "I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams," she blurts out on "Look What You Made Me Do."

When Niccolo Machiavelli retired from private life, he wrote his signature work, The Prince. The entire time he was longing to return back to politics, since it was what brought joy to his life. In The Prince, he explains that such a person must be able to change his views at a moment's notice. He isn't able to be honest, because it would mean losing his ability to defeat his rivals, and kill them when he can. This was what Machiavelli called virtu. I feel like Taylor Swift is articulating a new philosophy along these lines, which is essentially a return to the old.

Janice Levens is the music editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles.


In Which We Get Taylor Swift Alone

See Red


“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)


In Which Your Ballroom Days Are Over Baby They Got The Guns But We Got The Numbers Gonna Win Yeah We're Taking Over Come On!

Speak Now


We want for Taylor Swift what we want for Betty Draper, which is for her to realize that the thing she has based her life around thus far is a fucked up lie. And that when she figures out it is a lie, her life will not end, she will just get to live in Sanctuary with the rest of us. Taylor Swift believes that heterosexual men bestow all value on people, and that for women this value is based only around marriageability, but she clearly also knows how good it feels to have a number one hit (a number one heeeeeeet). Swift won't claim her own aggression because it doesn't fit with her idea of what girls are like or should be like (pretty, docile, quiet) but she is already neither docile nor quiet. 

Swift's friend breakup with Miley Cyrus reminded me of nothing so much as Sharon Cherski and Angela Chase in its snotty prudishness. Taylor also slut-shamed Camilla Belle (who "stole" her boyfriend Joe Jonas) in a song, hilariously. "She's not a saint and she's not what you think, she's an actress. But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress." In her own mind, there is no way that Swift could or ever will be be called a slut. But the longer she is single and the more guys she dates (especially in Hollywood) Well, girl. Why does she think being a slut is so horrible? Because slut-shaming was invented and is propagated in order to stop women from claiming their sexual power. To make them think that it is men who do all the choosing, all the hunting, and that if girls have any interest in sex it is only as deer.

But Taylor is obsessive bordering on scary. She writes vengeful anthems about romantic scorn and infatuated love songs about guys she emailed and met once in real life. What is she if not a hunter? She hunts exactly as hard as John Mayer. It is just that the system is set up for him and not her, to praise his success and laugh at her failure. The system doesn't work, so fuck it. You can't win by doing it correctly. You win by breaking the system, by transforming it, by building a better one in its place. 


Gwyneth Paltrow reminds me of Taylor in her prissiness and privilege and certainty that her privilege will never run out, although it obviously always does as you get older, particularly for women. I enjoy GOOP's midlife crisis because it humanizes her. Because Paltrow is realizing that being a wife and mother is something, but it is not enough to make you happy if you don't also have some things for just yourself.

I also bring this up for dudes who have the now extremely common househusband fantasy. I usually tell them to read The Feminine Mystique. The problem that has no name is not just a women's problem. It is a problem for anyone who defines their identity primarily through their relationships, which is also an issue for a lot of men. 

That to define yourself primarily through taking care of others is to lose track of yourself. That the desire to take care of others can sometimes get in the way of taking appropriate care of yourself. That when you diss Dre, you really do diss yourself. 

Anyone can be a sponge (BRAD PITT). That borderline is considered female and narcissism is considered male just reflects societal expectations based around gendered stereotypes. Anyone who's seen an episode of any Real Housewives can vouch for the existence of female narcissists, and everyone has had a dude friend or ten that disappears into relationships. People aren't their gender. They're individuals.

Watching Valentine's Day (shut up/it was horrible) I was struck by two things about Taylor Swift's performance: that she delivers lines exactly like Jonah Hill, and that her physicality is just like Nomi Malone's. She is tall and gawky and she flings her long blonde limbs around with all the aggression of Nomi on the floor of the Crave Club.

Taylor Swift doesn't understand yet that her constant intense desire to fall in love is mostly just the desire to fuck everything, and that she can fuck everything without automatically falling in love. And that she can fuck everything AND fall in love. 

Why do some people cling so rigidly to gender roles? Ernest Hemingway grew up wearing a pink gingham dress and a bonnet until he was six. Charles Bronson likewise had to wear his sister's hand me down dress as a child, because he was so poor. Those are two of the all time totems of classical outlaw masculinity. I'm not trying to play classical outlaw psychiatrist but there's not NOT a connection there. Ernest Hemingway's mother was the breadwinner in his family, a talented opera singer who then gave up her career to raise children. His father committed suicide. Hmmm...

So many liberal dudes consider themselves political revolutionaries but then ignore or devalue gender politics as less important than other causes. Or they talk a good game about gender politics but then do the complete opposite in their personal lives. There was a great Mad Men episode touching on this. You think subcultures are going to have better more equal power dynamics, but then they usually reproduce the same fucked up power dynamics of mainstream institutions. It happened in the civil rights movement. It happened with hippies. It happens in indie and punk. It happens in everything when men are the only ones in recognized leadership positions. I wish that it never happened, but it does. Rather than bury our heads in the sand we must choose to engage with it, to figure out why it happens and how we can work on it.

That's why it was so cool when Kurt Cobain wore a dress on Headbanger's Ball. It was genuinely radical and revolutionary. He challenged the world to call him a fag, to ask themselves why they would be threatened by a beautiful man in a dress and why he was supposed to care. A hirsute or ugly man in a dress can be dismissed as comedic, but feminine male beauty is especially threatening to traditional masculinity because it offers the question of what exactly "maleness" is, if there is really anything particular to having a dick besides just having a dick. He forced questions on an audience that didn't want to touch those questions with a ten foot pole lest it end up in their ass. 

Likewise Courtney Love took femininity to its farthest possible outcrop and exposed how horrifying all the most desirable/accepted tropes of girlhood are. How fake and impossible it is to be pretty or quiet and how much the world requires and demands it of women. That's why Kurt was so horrified when Nirvana's audiences started to be full of the same kinds of bros he hated so much when they were still Guns 'n Roses fans. And why people who grew up Hole fans inspired by these ideas were all so horrified when Courtney started fucking with her face and body. No one here gets out alive

Women aren't afraid of becoming men, but the undertone of misogyny is that men are afraid they'll become like women. It assumes that to feel like a woman is to feel weak, powerless, degraded. But that's not what women feel like! That's just how society treats us. Men feel weak, powerless, and/or degraded every goddamn day. Misogyny allows men to separate themselves from negative emotions and ideas by attaching them to women, to a thing that they get to think they are not and could never be. 

You have to speak up. You have to call people out. It doesn't make you are a horrible shrill fun-averse harpy bitch. It doesn't mean you hate men. You LOVE men. You just also want to be taken as seriously as they automatically are. Not taken seriously for a woman. Taken seriously as a person. A person. Not as a woman. As a human being.  

There is a belief that some people have, historically men but occasionally also Ayn Rand and Angelina Jolie, that they have a divine right to power. A lifelong pass to fuck anyone they want and fuck over anyone they feel like and never have to face real consequences. It is the thing that is scariest and most fascist about the bulk of politicians and politics in general, and why Obama is genuinely revolutionary in his feminism and aversion to macho bullshit, but also why he gets called a pussy (sigh). 

It is to pretend like you are on the board of the imaginary but universal organization that tacitly endorses male dominance and ran ENRON. To side with them because it is to side with history's winners, because it is easy and requires no inquisition of the self, no possibility that you might have to change anything or give up any perks. It is to agree with Hitler because everyone else is. If you really want to renounce fascism and oppressive institutions then you have to renounce patriarchy. There is no other way.

You are never really a liberal if you treat women differently. If you hold them to different more difficult standards than you hold men to, than you hold yourself to. You are something else. You are an emosogynist. It is nothing to be proud of. This is what is so horrible and insidious about Bill Clinton and John Edwards. It's why I hate Bill Maher so much. If you deny women the same personhood you give yourself, you are not a liberal. You are not a revolutionary. You are not an outlaw or a gangster or anything cool. You are just a misogynist in a sweater and fuck you, seriously, for real. 

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks, and YouTube.

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