I have had various peripheral encounters with the Taylor Swift phenomenon. I put her in the category of rap music, Harry Potter books, Star Wars, and other cultural products that become extremely popular but have no real value to me. There is a point at which the sheer magnitude of their popularity can have a transfixing effect on critics and writers who should know better. Inevitably, someone will write a epic piece on “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter” that will allege that the seeming banality of these works conceals a plethora of significant and substantial meaning that we all now need to proclaim obeisance to.
No it doesn’t. “Star Wars” was intended as “B Movie” right from the start, a shallow, trivial pastiche of conventionality and cliché. Lucas himself would never have dreamed that anyone would regard it as “significant” or deep or meaningful until it took in more than $100 million in ticket sales. It’s just good fun with space ships and aliens. “Harry Potter”– have you actually read any of the books?– is actually pretty bad literature. I mean it is actually poorly written. The sentences, the paragraphs, the pages and pages of repackaged wizards and golems and sorcerers with very little that is fresh, captivating, or inspiring. And never poetic or allusive or provocative. Rap music? Streams of syllables over a packaged beat. What the hell did anyone ever think was really interesting about it? The fact that it emerged from black culture, that it supposedly defies authority and the establishment, that it expresses — what? The desire to rape or kill, or brag, or bully?
And now there is Taylor Swift. And here is a great mystery. There is no doubt that Swift is a rather banal, narcissistic, self-referential, sophomoric songwriter. If it could be said that she actually does write her own songs (I am very skeptical) her songs are almost completely about herself and how she feels about herself and how she feels about others feeling something about herself. She’s not a particularly good performer either. Let’s hear her without auto-tune, by herself, playing her own instrument of her choice. You won’t. At least, not for a while, until they decide — if they do– to package her that way. If there are other people in her songs, they are very important because they play a role in how she feels about herself.
But, to my astonishment– I mean, complete and utter astonishment– the New York Times Daily Podcast just presented an utterly slavish, adoring, idiotic tribute to her, citing her choice as Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, and her massive popularity (of course her tour broke records: inflation never goes backwards, so every new big artist is going to break records).
I thought, did I miss something? Do I have to go back and listen her to best songs again with a fresh approach to see if there is something in them that I did not notice the first time? Or…
I listened with great interest. As cars drove by me on my walk, I turned the volume up on the podcast: I didn’t want to miss this explanation. Why is Taylor Swift so great? The podcast was hosted by Michael Barbaro who interviewed Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Both admitted immediately that they were Taylor Swift fans. They unembarrassedly admitted they were “swifties”. Seriously? This is the New York Times!
Okay, so the Times is giving up the idea of objectivity right off the bat. But let’s hear the reasons– tell my why her songs are so great, and why she is important.
The answer: well, she wrote a song about how she wanted to go to the mall once and she called up her girlfriends and none of them wanted to go with her so she went by herself, with her mother, and there, at the mall, were all her girlfriends. They hadn’t included her. But her mother was very pleasant about it all and they laughed and she had a great time driving home with her mother in a car.
I am not making this up. This is an “important” Taylor Swift song. It is meaningful and substantive and unprecedented (Taffy Bordesser-Akner certainly thought so which immediately prompts the question: are you even familiar with the subject of popular music?). No one, according to Taffy, has ever expressed the feelings of betrayal and lost innocence like Taylor Swift!
Taffy went on to talk about how Kanye West interrupted her at some awards show and then she befriended him and forgave him and then the cad criticized her in a song. Egad! Outrageous! He used to be her friend and then he wasn’t. She wrote a song about it and that song is incredibly important and meaningful. To Taffy and millions of air-heads.
The third song they talked about was “All too Well”. Once again, he was her friend, then he wasn’t. Apparently it’s about Jake Gyllenhaal. One version goes on for ten minutes. Taffy is deeply impressed by lyrics like
And maybe we got lost in translation
Maybe I asked for too much
But maybe this thing was a masterpiece
’til you tore it all up
Running scared, I was there
I remember it all too well
Come on. Seriously?
What all of these songs have in common is the over-looked possibility that Taylor Swift is annoying. Perhaps her friends didn’t accept her invitation to go to the mall because they really wanted to hurt her feelings. Perhaps they just didn’t like her. But Taffy, listen to yourself! It’s a fucking song about going to the mall and hanging out with your friends. It is not deep. It’s not original. It’s not fresh. It’s not profound. It’s a trivial song about a trivial transaction blip in an adolescent girls’ social life. But Taffy– in the ultimate expression of confirmation bias– proclaims it courageous precisely because almost no self-respecting female singer-songwriter would ever embarrass herself by writing such triviality.
It’s true. Because the female singer-songwriters we think of were into much more substantial and original expressions of their art. And absolutely, they would be embarrassed by “All too Well”.
And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all
The language is stiff, forced. “casually cruel” and “in the name of being honest” and “crumpled up piece of paper” are neither striking nor original and certainly not very powerful. It’s the very definition of sophomoric.
I wonder if Ms. Brodesser-Akner has heard of Joni Mitchell or Ani DiFranco,
It was bad enough that the Times gave overweening preposterous adoration to a trivial, inane pop figure whose success is hugely the result of massive publicity and promotion as much as her own skill at manipulating her public image. Worse was yet to come: Taffy was audibly tearful about how she could relate to Swift’s struggles against her music company after it sold her masters to an investor. She too had been exploited and cheated by people she trusted and loved– paid less then her male colleagues*, not being appreciated for her real talents and skills, being grateful to even have a job, the way Taylor Swift was grateful to her record company for making her famous and rich. Taffy was astounded at Swift’s stunningly amazing decision to re-record her masters so she could sell them instead of the ones owned by the investors.
What would have been genuinely impressive would be if Swift was smart enough not to sign the deal she signed– willingly, in exchange for fame and riches– in the first place, or if she, like Ani Difranco, a female artist who is light-years more interesting than Taylor Swift, told the record companies to just fuck off while she managed her own recordings and career.