Thursday, May 09, 2024

A Few Thoughts on Taylor Swift (Steve's Version)

Okay, I may regret this -- no death threats, please -- but as a responsible journalist I feel I can't put it off any longer.

So here's the thing: I liked everything about Taylor Swift -- her attitude, her politics, her work ethic --EXCEPT her recorded output, i.e. her songs and albums.

And I didn't know why that is.

Weird, right? And, adding insult to confusion, lately that inability to get behind La Swift has really been bugging me.

Until, however, last week, when a couple of things popped up on the intertubes (or went viral, or became memes, or however the youngsters categorize the phenomenon) and I finally figured out what it was about Taylor that I didn't dig.

Here's exhibit A -- a knife-turning (yet clearly affectionate) parody of the 21st century's biggest pop phenomenon by somebody who's actually a huge fan.

Pretty hilarious, for sure, but it started me to thinking. At which point the following piece in the New Yorker by SinĂ©ad O’Sullivan appeared to my wondering eyes. (Sorry, I can't give you a link to the entire thing, but it's behind a paywall and you'll get the idea from this excerpt anyway).

Ask music critics what they think of Taylor Swift’s eleventh studio album, The Tortured Poets Department, and those who aren’t afraid of getting doxed might say something about the interminable length, the repetitive synth overlays, or the uninspired lyrics. Take “imgonnagetyouback,” a track that’s notably similar to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back!”. In the chorus, Swift sings that she hasn’t yet decided “whether I’m gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your bike.” Perhaps the lyric is meant to be somewhat infantile, but even the most novice editor should have pushed Swift toward the more obvious rhyme: “whether I’m gonna be your wife or gonna smash up your life.”

Ask a Swiftie what they think of the album, though, and they may very well say that it’s her best work yet. Yes, it would have made more sense for her to rhyme “wife” with “life” in “imgonnagetyouback.” But Swift obsessives know to connect “imgonnagetyouback” with “Fallingforyou,” a song by The 1975 that was written by Swift’s ex-boyfriend Matty Healy. In it, Healy sings, “I’m so excited for the night/ All we need’s my bike and your enormous house.” Swift’s mention of a bike, in “imgonnagetyouback,” is therefore an intentional creative decision, like the lack of spaces in the song’s title. Some fans have gone even further, claiming that the lack of spaces not only invites a comparison to “Fallingforyou” but to Swift’s own “Blank Space,” a song on her 1989 album. (1975, 1989—there are a lot of years to keep track of here.)

“In Blank Space music video, Taylor Swift is smashing things and sings ‘Cause you know I love the players And you love the game’” a YouTube user called Miranda-ry9tf writes in a comment. “In 'imgonnagetyouback' she says ‘We broke all the pieces, but you still wanna play the game.’ Perhaps “Blank Space,” released in 2014, was about Healy, too? Those Swifties who have gone far down the rabbit hole might argue that Swift, by leaving out the spaces in her new song’s title, has created a kind of ouroboros — - a running theme in the artist’s work since 2016, when Kim Kardashian referred to her as a “snake.” If you write the words “imgonnagetyouback” in a circle, you’ll notice that the “k” and “im” are right next to each other. This might seem like a reach, but -- six tracks later -- Swift mentions a mysterious rival named Aimee, on a song titled “thanK you aIMee.” It doesn’t take a Swiftie to figure out whose name the capital letters spell.

Alrighty, then. So how is all this stuff relevant to my lack of enthusiasm for the music?

Well, for starters, as should be obvious from the video above, it's way too easy to parody Swift, which is a bad sign from jump.

I mean, I love the line in the take-off about how singing fast is the closest Taylor ever gets to rapping. But the larger point being made there is that her songwriting and record-making can be reduced to their basic level -- which is to say a shtick -- in an instant.

C'mon, really; can you even imagine the work of any previous comparably important pop auteur -- The Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell -- being distilled to a few cliche predictable gestures like that?

Okay, Joni Mitchell maybe. But otherwise, I think not.

As for the rest of it, and this is my real problem with Swiftiana -- we're obviously talking about somebody whose major talents come down to mad marketing skills. Period, end of story, and sorry.

Forget the depressingly anonymous cookie-cutter-unimaginative instrumental backings that decorate the whole of her oeuvre, or the albums' numbingly endless cavalcade of relationship songs (does she write anything else?) that seem -- deliberately -- addressed after all this time solely to the concerns of 15-year-olds.

Forget all that and it's still clear that Swift's medium -- her aesthetic, if you will -- is essentially the equivalent of nothing more or less artistically valid than a Marvel Universe Superhero franchise.

Or, not to put to fine a point on it, something totally self-referential and uninteresting to anybody but rabid enthusiasts with unhealthily expansive attention spans. And let's just add that such a thing is NOT what I, at least, go to the movies/listen to pop music for. Or ever have.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and Swifties will doubtless disagree. Hey -- that's life in a corporate-dominated cultural environment.

But thank you for your attention in this regard in any case. And now excuse me -- I have to go find some out of the way hidey-hole to disappear into untill all this blows over.


Sal Nunziato said...

This is great Steve, and certainly much better than my feeble attempts at saying the same thing. Most of my anti-Swift commentary has been short and snark-filled. That rarely goes over these days, but I can't help it. It's in my DNA! I just didn't feel like working, or giving it the time you did. But ultimately, you nailed it and so did Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys:

“I have listened to Taylor Swift’s album. Taylor Swift sort of fascinates me as a phenomenon because she’s so popular and I sort of quite like the whole thing. But then when I listen to the records, and we both have the same feeling actually, that for a phenomenon as big [as she is] … where are the famous songs? What is Taylor Swift’s ‘Billie Jean’?”

When someone suggested “Shake It Off” as an equivalent to the popularity of Michael Jackson’s enduring hit, Tennant responded, “Is it though? No, ’cause I actually even know that that’s the answer, but I listened to that the other day, and it’s not ‘Billie Jean.’ It’s not… Melodically — she’s got a great voice, by the way, and the production’s beautiful — but melodically … it’s all sung one or two notes going up and down… But, anyway, it’s a fascinating thing.”

steve simels said...

That Tenant stuff is wonderful.

And may I just say and for the record that if anybody says I'm not qualified to comment on Swift because I'm not her demographic, I swear to god I'm gonna take a hostage.

edward said...


MJConroy said...

Hey Steve, if you take a hostage, may I suggest a certain defendant in an NYC courtroom?
That parody is spot on!

Anonymous said...

You're entitled to your opinion.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

yes, all this puts into words my cloudy notion as to why the music of taylor swift is not interesting to me

the closest i've come to attending a taylor swift show is a/watching part of a concert of hers on netflix - and - this i actually enjoyed -

b/seeing the 2007 movie music and lyrics, in which haley bennett portrays a taylor-like pop star

fortunately, there is a LOT of music that IS interesting to me - in these days of modern times, in this world in which we live in, finding something nice to listen to is a real relief

everybody needs someone or something to love, something to do, and something to look forward to

Anonymous said...

If Taylor spent as much time on her music as she does on her dance moves, costumes and image maybe I'd take her more seriously and give her a listen. She's obviously not alone in this. Even much older performers like The Stones are guilty of this.

JB said...

Thank you Steve for putting into words what I've been thinking for a long time.

Alzo said...

Ms. Kaye has proved that Ms. Swift is really a hologram projected by an algorithm.
Wow- the Empress has got no tunes. Whodathunkit.
More of an entertainer than an artist, she's basically a big star cuz she's purty.

danny1959 said...

Cheap shots at Joni Mitchell aside, I prefer to just think that her music isn't meant for me and leave it at that.

getawaygoober said...

I can safely say that I have never (knowingly) heard any Swift song.
But the parody is how I imagined her stuff would sound.
Seems this is what you get when you're in the weeds of "Power Pop" rather than "Power Rock".
I was trying to find John Lennon's quote about not having to write love songs anymore after talking to Bob Dylan.
I did find this observation: "Bob Dylan influenced The Beatles decisively. Up until they got a hold of his first record, they mainly wrote pretty elementary love songs. After they met him, their lyrics quickly became deeper and more complex. Their imagination was fueled by marijuana, also presented to them by Bob Dylan at their first meeting."

Maybe yes, maybe no, but the question is whether Swift will meet her "Dylan" peer.

Anonymous said...

Jeez. I come back from six months off the grid and this is what I find?

Why waste the ink? She's rinky dink claptrap.


Anonymous said...

welcome back, Vicky! I've been worried about you.

Anonymous said...

You 'waste the ink' because it's a legitimate topic for music-loving folks examining a cultural phenomenon; if this site or Burning Wood isn't a legit place to discuss it, what is?
I don't know TS's music since I've heard enough bits of contemporary pop to know it's not my thing. I, like Simels, am glad that she seems to have a social conscious that bends the way mine does, because anything that can be done to refute trumpy America is a good thing in my book. The tune the lady made up as a parody of TS was pretty catchy, but didn't spur an interest to investigate the real thing, especially if there are 12 albums of it.
I do have a couple differences with expressed opinions here, tho. The version of pop TS apparently proffers is about love songs, costume changes, dance routines and spectacle; I've seen enough bits of other pop acts to know that's a thing in its own right, so I won't expect a different version of that form. It's not for me, but I wouldn't compare it to other pop acts that don't go that route, or rock acts (many of which go for spectacle, too). It's a package.
Also, relationships are the bread and butter of pop music, so it wouldn't occur to me to complain that all of TS' albums are full of relationship songs. It is a legit thing to criticize that the songs are aimed at feelings TS should've presumably gotten past 15 years ago, but then maybe it's clever on her part to continue to engage new generations of pop fans by writing songs aimed at the new (to them) feelings they're dealing with. That fans that grew up with her can still relate says either they're stuck in a mindset, too, or that TS has figured out a way to keep her lyrics both in teenville and adulthood somehow. I wouldn't know, as I've indicated, because I don't listen to her. Anyway, Gawd knows much of metal is aimed at the perpetual 16-year-old, and the guys still touring on their glory years keep the nostalgia gig going.
C in California