Monday, November 8, 2010


Swift steps up with Speak Now

My principal point of access to the inner life of adolescent females has long been pop music. Not an ideal one, perhaps. But as a demographically challenged high school teacher who nevertheless hopes not to be entirely clueless -- or rely entirely on the now-dated Clueless -- for information about people with whom I work every day, I have to take my intelligence where I can get it.

Fifteen years ago, Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill showed me that hell hath no fury like a teenager scorned. "You told me you'd hold me  'til you died/But you're still alive,"  she raged at a former lover with an angry amazement that I still find amazing (and very funny). Yet Morrisette also gave us the jaunty confidence of "Hand in My Pocket," and the wry wisdom of "You Learn." In 2002, Avril Levigne brought peer relationships to life in the vivid exasperation of "So Complicated." The omnipresence of these songs at the time of their release, and the joy with which they were greeted when I heard them in the company of teens, told me that they connected with kids on a deep level. As they still do for big kids like me.

Last year I belatedly discovered the charms of Taylor Swift. Swift lacks the bracing edginess of the young Morrisette and Levigne but the saccharine way her music is packaged cannot dim the emotional clarity of her songs. Sometimes this clarity takes the form of full-throated joy, as it does in her hit "Love Story," its yearning most potent in the the way she conveys aching in unarticulated sounds, or the way her voice catches on the word "real" (as in "this love is difficult/but it's re-eal"). But Swift does anger well, too, as attested by "Should've Said No" or the frustration of "You Belong to Me," all the more compelling because such expressions of pain come from Nice girls who finally decline to shut up.

This struggle to overcome diffidence is the motif that runs through Swift's new album Speak Now. I picked it up recently at my local Starbucks, a fact which suggests that Swift's tide extends all the way to CD-buying dinosaurs. My expectations for this record were relatively low. By definition, ingenues don't age particularly well, and if emotional complexity is the goal, Emmylou Harris is my go-to singer-songwriter (and Liz Phair my favorite peer). But I enjoyed Swift's last album, Fearless, so much that even a few good songs would make an impulse purchase worthwhile.

I was right. There's plenty of forgettable music on this album, whether in the cloying "Never Grow Up," or a string of familiar sentiments that run through songs whose very titles ("Haunted," "Last Kiss") are redolent of cliche. Not coincidentally, perhaps, they dominate the second half of the album and suggest that it perhaps should have been shorter. But there's some really terrific music here too, music that suggests we may be at the start, rather than the end, of a pop music career.

The best songs on Speak Now are those that manage to fuse some of the emotions Swift expressed so vividly in her earlier music and in so doing give her music a new sense of texture. The opening track on the album, "Mine," begins with melismatic expressions of pleasure and chiming guitars, but the mood of glee that suffuses the song -- "you made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter" -- is anchored by an almost grim satisfaction in the knowledge this character's life could have turned out very differently.  Conversely, the anguish of looming breakup in "The Story of Us" is all the more potent because the woman who is desperately trying to reach an emotionally barricaded partner is incredulous that the narrative she's written in her head has gone so far awry. "The end," she says in disgust as the song severs.

But the best song by far on Speak Now is the title track. Like "Love Story," there's a cinematic quality to the piece, in which a young woman crashes a wedding in an effort to convince a groom to abandon the altar. What's striking, even potentially worrisome, is just how bitchy this character is, snarkily taking note of the pastels in the wedding party and observing that the bride looks like a pastry. (So this is how girls talk.) But this particular girl -- this woman? -- is utterly irresistible and she knows it, like a gender-inverted version of Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate.

But let's be clear: the principal asset of "Speak Now" is the music, which shimmers like an early Beatles song (and which, if I'm not mistaken, has a track of hand-clapping, just like so many great early Beatles songs, like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," do). And here we have to give Swift credit for a decidedly adult dedication to craft, because she and co-producer Nathan Chapman have cultivated a genuine gift for catchy songs.  Whatever reservations one may have about autobiographical acts of reprisal, like "Mean" or "Dear John," their hooks are impossible to shake. (If there was any doubt that the latter is addressed to former paramour John Mayer, the bluesy guitar part serves as a pointed finger.) Swift entered the mainstream through a Nashville channel, but there's a surprising rock muscularity running through much of the album.

To say that Taylor Swift has room to grow is partially to make a complaint: her artistic range remains fairly narrow. Moreover, her cattiness may yet grow stale. But Swift's talent and ambition remain abundant. She's moved quickly, yet she's built for the long haul. Long may she run.