I wish I’d had a Taylor Swift when I was 15 years old. Somebody smart, talented, poised, level-headed and classy who nonetheless makes very human mistakes and isn’t afraid to explore them openly and eloquently.
When you have the likes of Ke$ha and Katy Perry soiling the airwaves, it’s comforting to see Swift outshine them all, selling more than a million copies of her latest album, Speak Now, in a week.
Speak Now is the first Taylor Swift album I’ve owned (though I do have a CD full of her songs hand-picked by my niece, a huge fan every bit as poised, smart and talented as her idol). And after just a few listens, it has impressed me as a fine addition to a year in music that has been full of great surprises.
Swift basically does one thing, but she does it exceptionally well. Call it confessional pop with a hint of country. There is a sameness to many of her songs on the surface but when you give them awhile each emerges as its own special slice of Taylor-dom.
Much has been made of the transparency of Swift’s lyrics this time around, as about half of these songs are about specific people and events that are easy to decipher (the rest, she assures us in the beautifully designed liner notes, are about specific people and events as well, just ones with which we’re not as familiar).
That openness works both ways. On a song such as ‘Back to December,’ a beautiful expression of regret for her mistreatment of a young man she obviously still loves, it adds to the poignancy when we can picture Taylor Lautner’s little muscled face reacting to her sorrow.
And standout track ‘Dear John,’ a painful look at Swift’s own mistreatment by bad-boy Lothario John Mayer, is all the more gut-wrenching when you can picture the creep who broke her teenage heart. I’m sure Mayer’s album sales will take a 20% hit as a result of this lashing.
On the flip side, ‘Innocent’ is a lovely and powerful song rendered a bit empty when you know it’s about the Kanye West MTV award show incident. Seriously, is all this drama necessary over an interrupted Moon Man speech? And Kanye doesn’t strike me as a guy who had too many “firefly catching days.”
The inspirations for the other songs aren’t as obvious to a casual fan like me. I’ve heard that the catty ‘Better Than Revenge’ is calling out actress Camilla Belle for stealing away Joe Jonas, and the elegant ‘Enchanted’ is about an encounter with Owl City’s Adam Young.
On the whole, this voyeuristic sideshow aspect of the album is fun, giving us a glimpse into her showbiz life and no doubt scaring the hell out of anybody who’s crossed Swift’s path in recent years and not wound up in a song. Yet.
I’ve been critical of Swift’s singing in live performances. I suspect her voice is better suited to recordings and more intimate settings than sold-out arenas. But on Speak Now she delivers a very strong set, vocally. She tosses in clever spoken-word asides in the lighter songs and pours the emotion into the tear-jerkers.
But of course her principal appeal is her songwriting. It’s been much-publicized that Swift wrote every one of Speak Now‘s tracks on her own, and I think that’s a major statement. So often you see professional co-writers on popular tracks and can’t help but wonder exactly how much of a role the artist played in the process. Swift is boldly declaring that she’s no studio product… she owns this, for better or worse.
And it’s certainly for better. There isn’t a dud among the album’s 14 tracks and many stand up against her best work on the celebrated Fearless.
One of my favorites is ‘Mean,’ the one song that embraces her country roots, a slap at somebody (a music critic, I presume) who has repeatedly hurled insults at her. The song could be addressed to any bully, though, and I can imagine countless high schoolers humming this in their head as they fend off the taunts of hallway Neanderthals.
I particularly like the final verse:
Talking over a football game
With that same big loud opinion
But nobody’s listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing
But all you are is mean
All you are is mean
And a liar and pathetic and alone in life
And mean, and mean, and mean
But someday I’ll be living in a big ole city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean, yeah
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Swift is an extremely effective lyricist, her conversational tone interrupted at just the right times with bursts of true poetry. Take these lines from ‘Dear John’:
And keeping lines blurry
Never impressed by me acing your tests
All the girls that you’ve run dry
Have tired, lifeless eyes
Cause you burned them out
But I took your matches before fire could catch me
So don’t look now
I’m shining like fireworks
Over your sad empty town
Or the final verse of ‘Long Live,’ which Swift says is about her band and production team but which I read as a sort of high school anthem, a celebration of the majesty young people experience on a football field or auditorium stage.
That you’ll stand by me forever
But if God forbid fate should step in
And force us into a goodbye
If you have children someday
When they point to the pictures
Please tell them my name
Tell them how the crowds went wild
Tell them how I hope they shine
The song that hits me the hardest is, inevitably, the one about growing up. As a father of two little girls, I’m a sucker for songs like ‘Never Grow Up,’ in which Swift implores her young fans to not rush into adulthood and pines for her own lost innocence.
Memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home
Remember the footsteps, remember the words said
And all your little brother’s favorite songs
I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone
So here I am in my new apartment
In a big city, they just dropped me off
It’s so much colder than I thought it would be
So I tuck myself in and turn my night light on
Wish I’d never grown up
I wish I’d never grown up
There is a simplicity and a directness about Taylor Swift’s music that makes her appeal to my daughters. My 4-year-old has been asking to hear Speak Now‘s first single, ‘Mine,’ in the car all week. That this young woman’s music can capture the imagination of a preschooler as well as a 38-year-old father is a testament to not just her talent but her spirit.
I suspect that we’ll be hearing the name Taylor Swift for a long time, and that she’ll continue to hone her considerable gifts. I can’t wait to see her branch out musically, explore new sounds and song structures. At just 20 years old she is already at the top of her profession. It’s amazing to think of this as just her starting point.