Friday, May 11, 2012

Swiftly rocking

The following post is an excerpt from a work in progress, Stages, Pages, and Screens: A Short History of the Modern Media, under contract with Wiley-Blackwell. This piece, on Taylor Swift, is one of a number of sidebar articles slated to appear in that book. --JC

 “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” pop singer Leslie Gore asserted in her 1963 hit single “It’s My Party” (followed later that year with its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry”). Ever since, generations of young women – Janis Ian, Debbie Gibson, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavgine, among others – have given voice to the hopes and fears of adolescent females in pop music. As such, Taylor Swift is part of a long tradition. But in the space of a few years, she has staked a claim to cultural history that may well prove to be broader and deeper than most.
Some careers in pop music are the product of private turmoil and professional struggle. Youthful adversity has shaped the legends ranging from Elvis Presley to Shania Twain. Swift’s background, by contrast, is one of comfort and security. She was born on December 13, 1989 in eastern Pennsylvania, the eldest of two children. Both her parents were in the financial services industry before at the time of her birth – her mother left the profession to become a full-time mom – and the family had a Christmas tree business on the side. Music figures strongly in her heritage; Swift’s maternal grandmother was a professional opera singer, and both her paternal grandparents were musicians. She herself was named after singer/songwriter James Taylor (an important fact considering the trajectory of her evolution in the music business). Swift demonstrated a penchant for performing very early in life, appearing frequently in school and local stage productions and entering karaoke contests. She was inspired by the career of child-sensation Leann Rimes, who influenced Swift’s orientation toward country music. She was a child herself when her mother began taking her down to Nashville in a quest to get the attention of record company executives. While lightning didn’t strike immediately, Swift got sufficient encouragement in the form of development deals (which paid some recording costs in exchange for a future option to sign) and the family decided to relocate to Hendersonville, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, when she was fourteen years old. Between 2004 and 2006 she began collaborating with professional songwriters, as well as forming a professional relationship with producer Nathan Chapman and executive Scott Borchetta, who was in the process of founding his own label, Big Machine Records. In 2006 Swift released her first single, “Tim McGraw,” named after the country star she later befriended. The song, in which she expresses the hope that a former boyfriend will think of her whenever she hears a particular McGraw song, combines an aching sense of loss with a subtle sense of retribution, two qualities that would characterize Swift’s work in years to come. A string of subsequent hits from her 2006 self-titled debut album followed, including “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song.”
For a mere adolescent, Swift showed an unusually adult degree of discipline as a songwriter and recording artist, and extended it to other aspects of her career: relentless touring (generally expected of a country music star) and assiduous attention to detail in terms of managing her career in arenas like social media (which was not). She was really the first country music star of the digital age, selling millions of downloads in an industry only gradually making the transition from compact disc, and one who demonstrated a desire to connect with her fans reminiscent of the young Bruce Springsteen, an artist Swift is said to admire. (She is also a fan of a favorite of her mothers, the rock band Def Leppard, with whom she has performed.) These qualities, combined with skillful promotion, made her second album Fearless (2008) one of the most successful of the decade, spawning a whole new series of hit singles, among them “Love Story,” “You Belong with Me,” and the title track, which describes the hope and anxiety of a high school freshman on the first day of school with disarming directness.
Swift was richly rewarded for her talents, not only in terms of phenomenal sales, but also in the bevy of awards she won for her work, among them a series of prestigious Country Music Awards (CMAs). But her career took an unusual turn in September of 2009 when she won a Video Music Award (VMA) from MTV for Best Female Video. Swift had just begun her speech acknowledging the honor when she was interrupted by rapper Kanye West, who grabbed the microphone she was using and congratulated her but opined that his friend Beyoncé really deserved the honor for her song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Swift was stunned into silence and left the stage. When “Single Ladies” ultimately took the award for Video of the Year, a gracious Beyoncé coaxed Swift back to finish her remarks. Amid the widespread condemnation of West – President Barack Obama called him a “jackass” – Swift received sympathy and a new wave of attention.
In the fall of 2010, just as she was turning 21, Swift released her third album, Speak Now. In the liner notes, she described it as a concept album whose songs “are made up of words I didn’t say when the moment was right in front of me. These songs are open letters. Each is written with a specific person in mind, telling them what I meant to tell them in person.” Though her subjects are never identified explicitly, it’s not hard in some cases to see to whom they’re directed. So, for example, the song “Innocent” seems  directed at West, expressing sympathy for his well-known inner turbulence for forgiving him for his excess (“who you are is not what you did”). Another, less charitable song, “Dear John,” is addressed to former paramour John Mayer – the bluesy style of guitar playing alone is a dead giveaway. In one way or another, Swift’s well-chronicled romantic life had always been the source of most of her music, and this album is no exception.
That said, Speak Now represented an important developmental leap forward. For one thing, Swift wrote all the songs on the album herself (though she no doubt got input from Chapman, among others). For another, the record marked a bold foray into a new musical direction: Speak Now is at heart a rock record. To be sure, Swift’s country heritage continued to be evident, nowhere more so than on the hit single “Mean,” which was marked by bluegrass elements. (The song, a cheerfully acidic rant, was directed toward a critic who complained that she couldn’t sing.) But a bona fide heavy metal element was evident on a number of tracks, in particular the catty “Better than Revenge,” in which she excoriates a rival for stealing her boyfriend. But the best showcase for Swift’s command of a rock idiom is the shimmering title track, reminiscent of the early Beatles in its catchy hook and hand-clapping. The song, almost cinematic, is reminiscent of the 1967 movie The Graduate, except that this time it’s the girl, not the guy, who rescues her true love from marriage to someone else.
Perhaps the most important dimension of Swift’s growth in Speak Now is a new sophistication in her songwriting. The great appeal of her early records was their emotional simplicity (albeit a deceptive one in that such an effect was achieved through a strong sense of songcraft, something that often involves subtraction rather than addition). “You Belong with Me” is a schoolgirl’s lament that she can’t compete with a cheerleader for the heart of a boy; the cliché riddled “Love Story” works not so much because the imagery is original but rather because you believe that the adolescent who invokes Romeo and Juliet is living a romantic drama for the first time. In Speak Now, however, the conflicts are more recognizably adult ones. In the album’s opening track, “Mine,” the narrator tells her boyfriend, “you made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” a line that manages to encapsulate a lonely childhood and suggest how liberating having a partner can be. The very exultant intensity of “Mine” seems to derive from how close a call, how truly unexpected, such an outcome was – and is. “Do you believe it?” she asks toward the end of the song, her voice joy mingling with surprise.
In “The Story of Us,” the surprise is not that a love story ends happily ever after, but miserably. The narrator, who believed she was part of a blessed union, instead finds herself locked in a stubborn struggle with a man – “you held your pride like you should have held me,” she complains – that defies a script about the way a relationship should work. Another song marked by hard-driving guitars, “The Story of Us” derives much of its power from the exasperation in Swift’s voice – and the abrupt way the song severs at the end.
Speak Now was another triumph for Swift, selling over a million copies in the first week of its release in October of 2010, and four million copies by year’s end. In the five years following the release of her first album she has sold over 20 million records – this at a time when the record sales have dropped sharply amid a global recession and the upheaval caused by the digital music – and was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for scoring 11 consecutive singles on the Billboard pop charts. If one were to assume she never made another hit record, her place in the annals of pop music history would be secure.
There are those who wonder how much staying power Swift has. Certainly, the history of pop singers, female and otherwise, is littered with sensations whose youthful work remained memorable but whose later work has, rightly or wrongly, largely been forgotten. The range of Swift’s themes – she studiously avoids politics, for example – may also lead one to wonder how much room she has to grow. (Certainly Speak Now has more than its share of love songs that could just as easily have ended up on Fearless in their adolescent frame of reference.) But she has also shown herself to be an apt pupil in the ways of the pop music, and made the transition to adulthood with relative grace. Perhaps her fate will be closer to that of Joni Mitchell, the singer-songwriter she expressed an interest in portraying in a forthcoming movie, whose body of work has won her generations of admirers. At the moment, at least, there are plenty of people who are eager to grow old Swiftly.