Just before Christmas I was at the local corner store laying a copy of Time Magazine’s latest “Person of the Year” issue on the counter in front of the thirty something year old cashier. He pawed at it and, looking at the cover, clenched his teeth in a sneer. The cover, featuring Taylor Swift with her cat Benjamin Buttons, had already become an instantly famous image weeks prior to the magazine even hitting the stands. “I can’t believe how many of these things we’re selling” the young man hissed through gritted teeth. Something in his cynicism really irritated me and if he was going to bring it on, I was going to lay it out.
“Seriously? This is literally the hottest magazine in the world right now” I said to him. “It’s the perfect stocking stuffer. In fact, this is the third store I went to today looking for it.”
The cashier looked back at me in contempt. He obviously didn’t expect me to respond.
“And tell me, how many issues of Time Magazine do you normally sell in a month? Isn’t increased sales good for your business? How many times has someone from Taylor Swift’s fan base even looked at an issue of Time? I think you’d be glad to be selling them.”
Again, he didn’t respond. He gave me my receipt and I took my magazine. “Fucking idiot.” I said under my breath as I left the store.
Moments later I took a selfie of myself holding the magazine and posted it to social media. Immediately the photo started getting “likes,” but one close friend posted a one-word comment – “Why?” Okay. That’s a legit question. Well, the simple answer is because, I’m obviously a Swiftie. Yes. You heard that right. I don’t know why it surprises people so much, but I’ve been a fan for quite a number of years now and fly my Swiftie flag quite proudly. I own more Taylor Swift albums on vinyl than most poeple would ever expect.
Now I can completely understand not liking popular performers. God knows I don’t like my share of them. But there seems to be something that just attracts trolls to Taylor Swift. I’m sure that this happens to every celebrity that receives a certain amount of attention, but when it comes to Taylor its like an epidemic.
I didn’t answer my friend’s question at the time. I was too busy doing Christmas. But, it got me to thinking just what is special about Taylor Swift, and why do I find her deserving of the accolades, and what differs her from the brand of pop stars I normally dismiss and dislike? Just as my friend asked, why?
Well, let me tell you.
Can I write anything original or thought provoking about Taylor Swift that hasn’t been said yet? I don’t know if I can. Honestly, so much has been written about her I doubt there is anything new to say. If you go to any magazine stand, you’ll see that Time isn’t the only magazine today with Tay on the cover. You’ll find about a dozen magazines, most of them unauthorized, dedicated to her. It’s actually pretty ridiculous. I mean, is there really that much to say about Taylor Swift to fit all of these magazines? I highly doubt it.
But through the years, both as a writer and on social media, I have been extremely dismissive of modern top 40 music in general, and especially pop acts. Sure, some artists have found their way into my personal soundscape, but primarily I am a product of my generation snubbing my nose at the music embraced by the current youth market. This is the natural cycle of life. However, in regard to the acts I’ve dismissed, what makes Taylor Swift different is that she has managed to become the biggest music star of today by breaking all of the conventions that I hate. Does that mean she is the best musician currently making music? Goodness, no. She’s just the most popular. Is she the most interesting? Not necessarily. In fact, while I find some of her albums to be very good, I find others to be rather boring. Is she the best songwriter? Definitely not. I don’t find any of her songs to be particularly cerebral or socially provocative, and I question cultural commentators that have elevated her to the same status as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell.
Then what is it that is just so good about Taylor Swift? Well, she has found mass worldwide popularity by writing and performing music which is relatable to a wide demographic of people. Whether she’s singing a love song, a breakup song, a song about hopes and dreams or a song about growing up, Tay taps into something within the human experience that people of multiple generations and cultures can relate to within their own individual experience, making a strong connection with the listener. This is an incredible feat for a young performer, and something that very few musicians are ever able to do.
Now I’ll be honest. I don’t know much about Taylor Swift outside of listening to her music. I’ve never done a deep dive into her life or career, but I can tell you about the first time she caught my critical attention.
I first heard about her around 2005 and I can’t say I was very interested. A pretty girl with a guitar? It just sounded like more Jewel or Leanne Rimes stuff to me. Not my thing, not my music. But that changed one morning in 2012 when I accidentally found myself accidentally doing a deep listen to one of her songs.
I remember lying in bed early one morning. The radio alarm had gone off and I just wasn’t ready to get up, so I threw a pillow over my head to try to muffle out the pop radio I loathed so much. In my vain attempts to get a few extra minutes of sleep, Taylor’s latest hit, “Mine” came on the radio and, randomly, one line tweaked my ears:
“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.”
I let that line roll around in my brain for a moment and thought to myself, “Wow, that’s actually some pretty good word play there.” I mean, it wasn’t brilliant but compared to a lot of the insipid lyrics we’ve been bombarded with via pop radio for years, that line was playfully different. Next time “Mine” came on, which was pretty soon because, lets face it, hit radio plays the same songs every hour or so, I took a much closer listen to it. The song, about a young couple trying to make it on their own with all their ups and downs and break ups and make ups painted a picture of young love that was much like I remembered it being, while capturing the flavor of modern relationships. It was a modern spin on “Jack and Diane” or “Don’t Stop Believing,” just in a young modern woman’s voice. As songwriting went, “Mine” was actually pretty good! Huh. Maybe it was time to rethink Taylor Swift.
Although I am critical of the modern music industry for a plethora of reasons, my main criticism of the pop music industry is that the era of the singer/songwriter seemed to be long dead. I have a respect for song writers as much as I do singers, which is probably why I love the 1970’s so much, when artists such as Neil Diamond, Carol King, Laura Nyro, Freddie Mercury, James Taylor, Billy Joel and Elton John reigned so extreme. The value of interesting song writing performed by the people who wrote them seemed to be something that was lost on the modern pop industry. The kids whose images were decided by corporate entities via songs that were created by a team of staff writers generating nothing, but insipid repetitive hooks that said nothing were the ones getting famous, while legitimate singer/songwriters who actually worked at their craft seemed doomed to play empty bars and small clubs while painstakingly shelling out their independently pressed albums at merch tables. But Taylor was proving that a singer/songwriter could still become successful and gain airplay by writing her own material. I know that she might not have been the only one dong it, but something she was doing was capturing the attention of the world like few other performers were, and her songs were hitting the top of the charts again and again and again.
Suddenly I’m taking another listen to Taylor’s material and finding songs even better than “Mine.” I was struck with the playfulness of “Our Song” from her debut album. Written when she was still a kid, again it captured something immediately relatable to a cross generation audience while maintaining the feeling of youth and celebrating young love while maintaining its lyrical cleverness:
“Cause our song is the slamming screen door
Sneakin’ out late, tapping on his window
When we’re on the phone, and he talks real slow
‘Cause it’s late, and his mama don’t know
Our song is the way he laughs
The first date, “Man, I didn’t kiss him, and I should have”
And when I got home, ‘fore I said, “Amen”
Askin’ God if he could play it again,”
Furthermore, it was refreshing to hear a modern country song that didn’t feature alcohol, trucks, America or “being country.”
The relatable themes and clever lyrical structure continued with “Love Story” which tackled the trope of the “star crossed lovers” with a likeable modern sensibility:
“Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone
I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run
You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess
It’s a love story, baby, just say, “Yes”
Romeo, save me, they’re tryna tell me how to feel
This love is difficult, but it’s real
Don’t be afraid, we’ll make it out of this mess
It’s a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes‘”
It might not be the most original theme, but its so timeless. Beyond the obvious Shakespearian analogy, its “Leader of the Pack,” “My Girl Sloopy,” “Run, Joey, Run” and “Papa Don’t Preach” for the modern generation. Its a dramatic theme passed down through the ages,
But what was more impressive to me is that these songs were not written by a team of corporate adult songwriters sitting around a desk at some New York office building, but they were written by Tay at seventeen years old and they were better than pretty much everything getting airplay by commercial radio at the moment. Was it the best that had ever been written by a teenager? I don’t think so. Janis Ian wrote far more socially potent songs at age 15. But not every song written has to be socially potent. Tay’s music is consistently well written and structurally strong, and the world was listening, Besides, it was a lot better than anything the industry had heard in years.
But beyond the songwriting, I find it interesting and commendable that Taylor has created her success organically via hard work, talent and time. In a generation obsessed with social media kids seemed to believe that becoming a pop star was as easy as getting noticed on You Tube, Tik Tok or shows like “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent.” That, or you had to get signed by Disney or Nickelodeon who would quickly rush you into the studio. With the right look, you didn’t need to write songs or be able to actually sing. They just had to croak into a microphone and superstar producers could overproduce them with autotune and studio magic and pump out the next pop star. This is how the world got infected with Justin Bieber, One Direction and Rebecca Black (although, to be fair, its also how we got to know talents like Miley Cyrus, Grace Vanderwaal, Ariana Grande and Harry Styles proving that there are always gems amongst the sludge). I don’t want to get into a whole thing about what sort of musician is “legitimate” and which is not. We got into that with the Monkees, and I believe any entertainer that steps in front of a mass audience takes their knocks. But Taylor Swift didn’t gain fame in this way. She grew her fan base from the ground up in a more traditional way harking back to a time when talent and star power proved more important than corporate backing and reality shows. To see her continue to do this to the point that she is the biggest musical star in the world is amazing. If anything, I hope that Taylor has inspired the next generation of kids to actually pick up a pen and write songs, grab a guitar and learn to perform in their own efforts to emulate her rise to success. We need more kids playing guitars in their room, forming garage bands and busking in the streets and a lot less reality shows and corporate control,
But let’s look at marketing for a moment. I’m not naïve enough to think that Tylor Swift doesn’t have a brilliant team of people plotting each and ever appearance and move. But have you noticed the lack of products or merchandise with Taylor’s image on them? I mean, in the past the moment that a pop singer hits number one their face is all over the place. From Spice Girls bubble gum to Britney Spears stickers to Hannah Montana post it notes and New Kids on the Block lunch bags, if you can market it, the pop star was on it. I mean, even Elvis got branded on combs, and the Beatles officially licensed wigs. But where is the Taylor Swift fashion doll or Funko Pop figure? You don’t see Taylor Swift t-shirts at the local Wal-Mart, or the Taylor Swift shoelaces at the Dollarama. Taylor and her people have been extraordinarily careful with her licensing in a way that no artist has ever been before. The lack of Taylor Swift products has prevented her from becoming truly oversaturated on our culture, giving her a strange type of exclusiveness. Does this mean she shouldn’t do more marketing? I’m not sure. I mean, I’d buy a Taylor Swift doll, but at this point it seems so refreshing that she seems to be a lot more about the music, and less about the branding.
One of the other things exciting about Taylor’s music is her constant ability to evolve and cross genres as a performer. The most obvious instance of this was when she made the jump from the country industry to full out pop music with 2014’s “1989.” It seemed like a sudden departure for her, but honestly, the cross over was already beginning in her second album, “Fearless,” and “Speak Now” had songs that were closer to being traditional rock songs than pop or country. But pop did seem like a real jarring departure at the time. I do recall the first time I heard “Shake it Off,” I turned my nose up at it and dismissed it. However, weeks later I caught myself dancing to it in the kitchen and loudly singing it to the cat. At first I felt ridiculous when I realized what I was doing, but I also realized I was having fun. The emotional high and joy of singing and being ridiculous felt great! At that moment I realized that it might not be her best song, but “Shake it Off” had a powerful hook and it could seduce even this jaded middle aged music hipster.
In all honesty, I consider “1989” to be my favorite Taylor Swift album and it contains my all time favorite songs by her, which still remains to be “Style”:
“Cause you got that James Dean daydream look in your eye
And I got that red lip classic thing that you like
And when we go crashing down, we come back every time
‘Cause we never go out of style
We never go out of style
You got that long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt
And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt (tight little skirt)
And when we go crashing down, we come back every time
‘Cause we never go out of style
We never go out of style”
This time its not the lyrical relevance I am attracted to, although the lyrics, again, has what has become Tay’s playful signature. I feel that Tay really branched out with “Style” to write something that sounded more provocative. It has a sort of Giorgio Moroder feel to it. It’s a bit moodier, a bit sexier and, dare I say it, a bit dangerous. Not Lou Reed level dangerous, but its just a solid change of pace as she continues to evolve.
And that evolution continues to happen as Taylor grows older and continues to mature as a songwriter. In her latest album, “Midnights,” Taylor seems to have written her first “adult” album. The songs are more mature and introspective and seem to have gone another step beyond the pure pop of “1989.” While there were a pair of questionably dull albums that bridged the gap between “1989” and “Midnights,” “Midnights” only further proved Tay’s ability as a decent songwriter by having success with material far less radio friendly or hook filled and veering towards more emotionally mature and cerebral territory. Meanwhile, she continues to reinvent herself with class and style and not via shocking stunts or provocative spectacles. You never seeing her twerking up against a mediocre pop star during an awards show performance or wearing a provocative outfit on the red carpet. Its always about the music and not about the spectacle. Instead, when you play her albums in order back-to-back, you can actually hear the evolution of her career through the songs. You can’t do that with very many artists. Off the top of my head, you can do it with Michael Jackson. David Bowie, Cher and, dare I say it, The Beatles. Recently a friend of mine stated that Taylor Swift is this generations Beatles. I’m not sure if I’m so bold to go that far, but there is some evidence to validate that argument.
Beyond all of this, I feel that Taylor Swift is intelligent, seems in control of her own career and is very calculated at the steps she is making in the industry. Its hard to predict what will come next for her as her story is still unfolding and we seem to be just in the middle. Honestly, we’ve seen artists rise and fall, and history may prove in time that there is something nefarious behind the scenes that may taint or disprove all of this. But as the story sits right now, I predict that Taylor Swift will become that sort of entertainment icon who stays on our cultural radar and in the hearts of the masses for a long time. She has gone far beyond that of the average pop princess. She is the world of music’s newest entertainment icon.
But we still haven’t answered my original question about why people are so fast to hate on Taylor Swift. Look. I’m not saying that you should enjoy her music, and I won’t fight you for not liking her if you don’t shame me for being a Swiftie. But I can’t help wonder if the blow back stems from good old toxic fandom and cultural gatekeeping, mixed in with a spattering of misogyny, which wants to instantly dismiss anything that reaches mass popularity by people who don’t want to accept that a young woman like Taylor Swift can make her way to the top of the industry. Maybe that’s it. I don’t know. Perhaps its just like Taylor says. The players are going to play, and the haters are going to hate. But I feel if more young artists follow in Taylor Swift’s footsteps, we’ll have a future of great music driven by truly talented performers and not corporate autotuned clones to look forward to listening to.