When Adam Yauch died before his time early in May, I wasn’t sure how to react, because I am not and have never been a Beastie Boys fan. My “tortured” adolescent years were spent with Harry Chapin and classic CTI Records and John Coltrane that nobody I knew listened to. I was out of it. And I still am in many ways.
Readers of this periodical need to know upfront: the tally marks of my contemporary cultural failings would cover the entire John Hancock Center. I have almost zero exposure to the Lethem-Wallace literary generation. I enjoy a well-made chick flick, Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and cartoons made for children. And I am not caught up with a single show airing on TV right now…I have not even SEEN a single episode of Louie, Justified, Community, or Breaking Bad.
But there is one attribute of my current tastes which unanimously draws derisive or aghast reactions from all of my friends, so I am going to launch my pieces by bravely facing this six-ton elephant in the room.
I think very highly of Taylor Swift.
And I am saying this in Chicago, a cradle of blues, jazz, and experimental music–the antithesis of lily-white feel-good country-pop something-else-that’s-hyphenated.
I understand why Swift has her detractors, but her virtues far outweigh her weaknesses and keep getting stronger. For one thing, she has one of the most impeccable gifts for pop music composition anyone could ask for in an artist so young. I would seriously compare her to John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the same age: though worlds apart genre-wise, A Hard Day’s Night and Fearless are two albums filled with hooks, albums on which the vast majority of songs, be they driving uptempo rockers or torchy ballads, have incessant melodies. I still remember cruising along my street in Los Angeles and hearing “You Belong With Me” for the first time…that song stayed in my head for months and I knew from then on Swift would be a superstar.
To be perfectly clear, saying that Swift and the young Lennon & McCartney have comparable musical talent is definitely not saying she’s in the same league as the Beatles. Far from it. Because even in their early 20s, John and Paul had mastered a secret of great pop music: being able to write lyrics which anyone can relate to. Even though the Beatles were clearly four young men singing, and their lyrics were written from a male point of view, the thematics they dealt with were universal. You can be any gender, any race, any age, and you can relate to the heartbreak and anger and goofiness and love the Beatles sang about. “In My Life” and “Let it Be” are not tied to a specific young man’s feelings but deal with emotions and desires we’ve all experienced, couched in precise language which doesn’t date or overly ground the song. Leonard Cohen, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell write much the same way, and no one is greater at it than Bob Dylan.
Swift is not at their level yet, and that she can reach that level and stay consistent is far from certain. For all the musical joys of her albums, the majority of her lyrics are written from the unmistakable point of view of a teenage or just-past-high-school girl. Her vocabulary, psychology, and imagery all are tied to a slightly immature and almost always feminine point of view: the storybook fantasies of “Love Story” and “Mine,” the oh-I’m-growing-up “White Horse” and “Picture to Burn.” and the blatantly obvious “Fifteen” and “Today Was a Fairytale” (the latter a horrid piece of dreck). Indeed, my second thought after judging “You Belong With Me,” a minor pop masterpiece was that the lyrics were some of the worst I’ve ever heard…but that’s partly because I am not a teenage girl. Swift knows her audience well and writes for them. This isn’t necessarily bad, but as a pop-rock devotee I couldn’t help but wonder if she would remain mired in this state for the rest of a short or prolonged and ultimately embarrassing career.
Two songs changed my opinion and now put the cap on my argument. When I heard “Back to December” for the first time, I was shocked…then delighted. Swift had finally written a song which never made me feel it was coming from a teenage girl’s point of view. “Back to December” was a near-perfect ballad about the confusion and pain anyone can feel when encountering an ex-lover whom they still have regrets over. Her tone was fragile yet strong and above all mature. The art involved went beyond the music and lyrics; Swift broke from her usual kind of twangy guitar and keyboard arrangement to frame her voice in the great Paul Buckmaster’s strings.*
And just this year, Swift co-wrote and recorded a song miles away from pop: her collaboration with the Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound.” Hearing this number made me think she had found a lost Fairport Convention or Pentangle single and copied it note for note, a traditional folk melody with dark lyrics containing only a glimmer of hope. What stood out for me the most was Swift’s vocal, sung in a resonant tone which harmonized not only with the Civil Wars’ voices but also with the acoustic guitar lines to the point where voice and instrument sounded like extensions of each other.
I think Swift could record a terrific old-school acoustic country-folk album or, if she keeps working on her lyrics, produce a pop classic full of songs as strong as “Back to December.” I think as she ages, her voice will get even better, will deepen just enough to where she’ll sound like an American Sandy Denny. I also think she could get stalled in the hit machine process of Nashville and never make any more progress. But those two records, and the strength she already displays, are indications that she will push herself, and we who enjoy pop music will be rewarded.
*For those of you not familiar, Paul Buckmaster is one of the finest arrangers and orchestrators in pop and rock history. He supervised the strings and horns for songs as diverse as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” The Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station,” and Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” He contributed to chart-topping records by The Rolling Stones, Carly Simon, and Harry Nilsson. His masterpieces, however, are his work from 1969 to 1971 with Elton John…when I first heard “Back to December,” the strings immediately reminded me of the Madman Across the Water album. That Swift collaborated with Buckmaster is a further sign of her growing maturity, that she is finding a place in the pop tradition.
Photo credit: http://userserve-ak.last.fm/serve/500/39596675/Taylor+Swift+TAYLOR.png