Getting Out of the Woods: A Primer on Not Being a Music Hater

It takes a lot of listening. Good art isn’t obvious.


Taylor Swift just released “Out of the Woods”, the second single from her forthcoming album 1989. I adore this song. I listened to it approximately 60 times on repeat yesterday. I woke early for a day of travel after little sleep, and her track kept me feeling fucking unstoppable. Listen to it here.

I like music. All different types of music. There are so many kinds! You should feel free to listen to whatever music speaks to you. I do.

But the hard thing about music (and all types of art) is that speak can mean something different for every genre, artist, and album. The emotional, tonal, and verbal vocabulary of heavy metal is almost nothing like the vocabulary of jazz. The intention and cultural contexts differ. The listening experience goals for fans of hip-hop may be at odds with what a classical music-lover wants out of a great symphony.

And that means that it often requires intellectual/emotional openness and very close listening (or, like, dancing) to understand what a piece of music is getting at, what language it’s speaking, what feelings it wants to evoke—even who its target audience might be—before we can fairly judge what’s successful or unsuccessful about it.

That may all seem obvious. But as a consequence of these basic language differences, it’s really easy to criticize or dismiss work that falls outside a musical dialect we’re comfortable with, or the role music currently plays in our lives.

As it happens, one increasingly strong vector of my musical consumption history prepared me well for “Out of the Woods”.

That sequence looks something like: Tiffany —> Wilson Phillips — > Tori Amos — > Weezer — > Lush — > U2’s Pop — > Ray of Light-era Madonna — > Bjork — > Outkast — > Justin Timberlake — > Franz Ferdinand — > Gnarls Barkley — > Robyn’s Body Talk — > Lady Gaga — > Taylor Swift’s Red — > Teagan & Sara’s Heartthrob — > CHVRCHES → Icona Pop — > Haim — > Bleachers. I also like to dance, as my coworkers will attest. My body and mind enjoy this music.

I assure you that I didn’t see the latter half of that vector coming. My 14-year-old Cure-obsessed self certainly didn’t. Lush pop melodies really appeal to me right now, for reasons that I can’t entirely explain. The anthemic, triumphant youth of “Out of the Woods” really gets me, at least today. It’s nostalgic, heart-wrenching, forward-looking. I want to go to there.

So I was ripe for this single. But If I hadn’t lived and listened through that history, I might dismiss Taylor Swift and her new song in the following way:

Swift seems like a country star (with a pretty face) turned pop opportunist. Her singles are mostly annoying bubblegum. Can’t get past how she farms her personal relationships for shallow lyrics about heartbreak just to appeal to emotional teenage girls.

It’s easy to dismiss music and musicians without listening closely when you don’t take the time to learn the language they’re using, to discover where the intelligence and artistry lies. Here, I’ll dismiss some other musicians:

Vampire Weekend: I can’t get past the NYC hipster collegiate references and the general smugness of the band. I’d relisten to Paul Simon’s Graceland if I was interested in this kind of thing.
Bob Dylan may be a counter-culture poet, but I just can’t get past his voice. Not really into acoustic guitar music.
Kanye West is a douchebag. I’m sure he’s a creative guy, but the songs I’ve heard seem arrogant.
Aphex Twin cuts up little blips in ProTools, I guess? Always sounds like there are competing sets of beats and musical tones that have nothing to do with each other. I like songs with words and real instruments.
Lady Gaga sells a larger-than-life sexy fashion persona. But she has a musical director! Again, not really into R&B and pop.
Tom Waits is apparently really influential? Can’t get past his grizzled screeching. I like music that’s beautiful, not someone clacking around with wooden things in a garage.
Kraftwerk may have been influential and ahead of the electronic curve, but their work seems really dated and obvious now.
The XX sound like they record one muted song over and over. I wasn’t much into that song the first two times I tried listening.
Aretha Franklin is soulful and awesome, but her music is old now. I’m just never in the mood for stuff that isn’t modern.
Tool just sounds like over-engineered guitar rock with prog themes added so their fans feel smart. Sounds like music for lonely math majors.
Beck slaps together beats with lyrics that… make no sense? Or else he’s droning on about something that’s frankly too sad for me.
Eminem singles grate me. He raps about butts and lips, and basically makes “music” for 15 year-old boys.

I love these musicians. I’ve listened and relistened to their catalogs, including deep cuts from old albums. Their music has made me both laugh with delight and tear up, overcome with emotion, though the methods vary. Each one of my dismissals above includes an arguably valid criticism, but there’s so much more to discover in each set of music.

Kraftwerk builds consuming moods, like a movie soundtrack. Eminem nests satirical storytelling personas, and rhymes about his background and personal challenges in ways that can be both intensely clever and devastatingly honest. Tom Waits uses traditional song structure, but experiments with instruments, voice, and narrative to move his listeners in different ways. Aphex Twin paints symphonies with samples.

I set up some straw men so I could knock them down here. But I’m trying to suggest that Taylor Swift’s ability to distill complex emotional experiences into broadly-appealing music and lyrics is an amazing talent. This kind of pop music has unique rules of engagement. It’s hard to write a catchy pop song. It’s really hard to use words to tell an emotional story with broad appeal while retaining nuance. Especially one that makes me want to dance, want to keep feeling a feeling. That requires a creative intelligence very different from most of the artists I mentioned above.

Have you ever read the lyrics to “Lovesong”, by The Cure? On paper, they are Hallmark-level dumb:

Whenever I’m alone with you
You make me feel like I am free again
Whenever I’m alone with you
You make me feel like I am clean again
However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you

“Lovesong” (and the rest of Disintegration) pulls off simple lyrics like this by wrapping them in beautiful, sorrowful emotional landscapes. It took me a long time, and a lot of listens to a lot of Cure records, before I understood where the band was coming from enough to appreciate that song.

I’d argue that Taylor Swift does something similar, in a different direction. Sometimes in the vein of Madonna. Sometimes in the vein of Neko Case:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BidCMrrJXA

For me, there’s something in “Out of the Woods” that transcends the form of a danceable pop song and speaks to modern youth experience, in the way that both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” did in its day. Millenial love anthem. I don’t think I would have found that if I hadn’t listened to Swift’s back catalog, or a long history of pop music. That’s a lot of prep. I certainly wouldn’t have been open to the kind of raw, emotional connection that fans have with her music, that may be required to fully understand it. And maybe I don’t! I’m an old.

Listen to music that you like. In the end, your taste is your taste. But you should probably avoid saying that something is bad if you haven’t done the work to understand it. I think it’s okay to say, “I guess I haven’t found that song compelling enough to listen more closely.”

Ryan Gantz is not a properly licensed music critic. You may be looking for Maura.