Taylor Swift is a Musical Genius
It’s 12am. It’s Wednesday night. Tomorrow I have an early flight to Berlin. And I’ve got Taylor Swift’s reedy alto echoing in my ear.
A couple of days ago I found myself actually in tears listening to Swift’s ‘All Too Well’. It’s about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, a one-sided break-up, which broke her “like a promise”. I was reacting to an echo of something I’ve felt myself.
Yet here I am again, and as a little-known culture critic said: ‘If something makes you cry, again and again, you have to ask yourself: why.’ So: why? Why the song? Why Taylor Swift?
The song has a lot to recommend it, in my opinion. Its lyrics are delicate, and boldly confessional, albeit with this Swiftian gravitas afforded to short love affairs (her relationship with Gyllenhaal lasted 2 months). See: ‘masterpiece’ lyric above, or this one: ‘You taught me ‘bout your past, thinking your future was me’.
But the music is what especially draws me to this piece, and it makes the song so strong. Sadly, I don’t how much of the accompaniment she wrote, in order to distribute the proper credit. Why the music is so good is difficult to pin down: until I began to tap with my foot on the sofa bed I’m lying on, while beating the rhythm with my hand against my waist.
Here’s what I noticed: a lot of the most impactful or important lyrics in the song lie off the beat. Here’s an example; lyrics on the beat in the bold.
Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it
I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it.
The lyrics dance around the beat. They dodge, let’s say, certainty, and a willingness to commit. This communicates that the only things Swiftis certain about is the length of time and her ongoing struggle to resolve her pain.
The song’s subject matches its musical composition in Swift’s unwillingness to admit, I believe, that Gyllenhaal was right about their relationship, and they were a poor match (This is something he said later in an interview). Swift then said this was one of the hardest songs to write on the album Red, possibly because her approach, both to this song, which is essentially revisionist, and to the romance had been insistence — on the relationship’s quality, and its possibilities — and refusing to Gyllenhaal’s version.
Realising this about the song, and its amazingly clever fusion of form with meaning, added to my sense of Swift’s great genius for songwriting. That is, at least in her early, pre-Pop career.
There are other songs of her’s I admire greatly. ‘Last Kiss’, Enchanted, The Moment I Knew, Safe and Sound, Red. These songs can easily and sensibly be accussed of being revealingly fragile and Doris Day-like in their approach to romance — even: banal, a uncompromising but unimaginitive schema for what romance should be, but often fails to be. But I mean — that’s why I like them. Because that has, for a lot of my romantic life, been my approach to romance.
Her songs are popular because they evoke exactly what she meant them to evoke: which is what an artist is supposed to do. For Swift, it is this Doris Day-like fascination with romance, which for young people like myself is attractively cynical and naive. Swift herself tried to expound this in the track ‘New Romantics’ — although the song sets out for big game and doesn’t try very hard.
There are problems with Swiftian lyrics, of course. They are abysmally saccharine. They reek of something not quite right in her approach to romance, which I will get onto later. But then, have you read Emily Dickinson? Or Keats? So many Romantic poets were abusive of taste to get their point across, or to be ‘true’. Swift’s idolatry of love may be sickening, but that’s the case for many people.
My favourite of her songs remains one of her early ones (‘I love her early work’, says the pop-music dilettante: risking no credibility, losing none). It’s called Tim McGraw. It has some darling, witty lyrics (‘Just a boy in a pick-up truck, which had a tendency of getting stuck back-roads at night’). It also doesn’t suffer from the fault that many of her later work suffers from, and which has made her a controversial pop figure today.
What’s beautiful about the sentiments in ‘Tim McGraw’ is that Swift is thinking generously and lovingly about an ex-lover, and hoping he stops to think the same way about her. She imagines he might do so when hearing her favourite song, by the titular country artist. It is one of the few songs in which Swift doesn’t frame the narrative upon herself, front-and-center, which has since been the fault in Swift’s music generally.
It is a compulsion for Swift to paint herself as a victim in her own life. Even with her first album, there are hints of it, in the song The Outside for instance, where Swift is just trying to get those gosh-darn men to let her date them already. Every album after that notably puts Swift as either victim or victim-in-waiting for the men she hopes to date, yet as clearly not wanting to compromise on the quality of the relationship (Furious! Madly! Deeply!). If the song is a celebration of love (‘Love Story’, ‘Enchanted’), she is celebrating herself finding love, or her feelings of love, and not her mate. This reveals an egoism that runs not only in Swift, but her fans, too. A feeling that romance is really about them and secondarily their partners.
When Swift finds herself disappointed in another failed romance, she complains that her partner has not ‘got it’ the way she ‘got it’. This is exactly the narrative within ‘All Too Well’. In ‘1989’, her most recent album, she tries to answer this a bit but appearing willing to share the blame, as in ‘Style’ — but is disingenuous, and really engaging in a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink ribaldry (‘I’ve been there too a few times’). Aye, good for you!
Yet she is being honest with her work; even if, in communicating with the press, she has lamely called criticism of her work ‘sexist’, and not sought instead to criticise it herself. I would not, anyway, recommend her to change her style. Sadly, she already has. 1989 was an attempt to dramatically steer the ship away from innocently choppy waters toward overfished territory: Pop. I’m not saying I hate the album, but I thought it was charmless, the same way much pop music today is. I like her early work (ha!).
In some ways her genius (using that term loosely to mean ‘exceptionalism’) has shifted to insightful musical riffs. See: ‘I Wish You Would’ and ‘Clean’. The lyrics are a bit tired — created from the worst of Swift’s instincts as a writer, without the earnest y— but, in Clean, the sound of the raindrops dropping like a broken pendulum is very effective. But I think for pop musicians, music will always remain the backing track to the main event: the lyrics. Without strong lyrics, it’s all gloss.
Truth be told, I’m really looking forward to Swift’s late career. I really would love to see her arrest her current direction and take back some of the sincerity she has been bullied out of. She’s got the time.
I suppose, I wonder, whether Swift is evangelising her own approach to romance — that is to say, a bad one — in her music. I think she is. Swift reaches out to you, the listener, and confirms your belief that you are the wronged party. Well, you ain’t. Or rather, it is such a poisonous attitude, to yourself mostly, to believe you are ever wronged in a break-up. Poisonous because you are never owed the good grace of another person. If you don’t feel they’re giving it to you, then leave.
Still, Swift’s music should stay boldly sympathetic to her own cause, that of the lonesome, sensitive girl, who deserves True Love, while secretly hoping for the more exciting silver medal: ephemeral love. I’m no longer that girl myself, but my heart reaches out eternally to them.