Below is the full piece I wrote for the Village Voice’s 2014 Pazz & Jop poll. Explanation on poll choices may be found here.
Taylor Swift, You used to annoy me.
I mean…really annoy me. Skipped any song of hers, dismissed her performances, rolled my eyes at her magazine covers…the whole kit and kaboodle. And yet she surprised me this year. In fact, I get where she is coming from.
This may seem trivial, but let’s just say it’s a huge turnaround for someone like me. My favorite albums consist of Synchronicity, A Love Supreme, Moving Pictures…you get the idea. As a kid and teenager I collected tapes of showtunes, soundtracks, film scores, and classic rock. The first CD I ever bought myself was Metallica’s Black Album. You might say I’m not Taylor Swift’s demographic.
Swift’s approach from her early popularity drove me nuts from a musical and industry perspective. As someone who knows plenty of female guitarists (rock, metal, jazz, anything really), the tag of Swift and her guitar irritated me. Fine, call me a music snob, but everyone shouting from the rooftops of how awesome they thought it was that she was young, female, wrote her own music, and played her own guitar was enough to prompt me to grab a barf bag. Really? We were being marketed a female guitarist, and the songs were all about boysboyboys, with the same style melodies and chord progressions? That’s all good and fine, but I didn’t see what the phenomenon was. Were women in music so poorly regarded, that this was considered a big deal?
Most pop songs (and even as country, Swift was already tiptoeing around pop) have co-writers, a lengthy list of producers shaping the song, or the star of the song (think Rihanna) has no creative shaping of it, as this New Yorker piece from 2012 so bluntly explained. Having had to keep track of some of Swift’s publishing and licensing agreements at one of my previous jobs, I could see that those songs were all under her name, or with one additional writer. Ok. Somewhat of an anomaly in the Top 40, which is usually full of Ryan Tedder and Max Martin produced tracks.
Maybe I had a mental block, fiercely preventing absorption of Swift’s singles, but I had trouble telling the difference between them. However, with any popular singer that I’ve had a knee jerk dislike for, I try to find out more, curious as to whether I can see eye to eye. I looked into Swift’s musical background, where and how she started out, and some of the ‘behind the scenes’ videos available on Youtube. To put it lightly, they didn’t do much at the time other than water her down more for me. The singing didn’t blow me out of the water. She was cute, but that’s a sexist reason to peddle a child into entertainment, and kind of wrong all around. One behind the scenes show in particular showcased Swift’s earlier recording and home life, which I’m sure was meant to make her seem more relatable, and just came off as spoiled and clueless, however fair that is, showing her driving around in a giant SUV, walking around a house that screamed “I’m very well off”, and edited in a way that really made her seem less intelligent than I’m sure she is.
As Swift steered away from country music, I sneered along with others. When 1989 was released, I scoffed, but told myself I’d be ignorant if I didn’t look into it, listen, and read about her intent.
“Welcome to New York” is a manufactured representation of what is arguably one of the best cities in the world. It sounds like the beginning of a Cars track, with the life sapped out of it, and all the things that tourists like about New York City. Hardly getting me off on the right foot with that one.
I listened to some of the other tracks, and actually chuckled when the video for “Blank Space” was released. It’s not a terrible pop song, and it has a sense of humor. Because if Swift didn’t notice, her discography started to look like she was a serial dater with a penchant for stacking up men for lyrical fodder. The music video is enough to make any eligible bachelor leave a man shaped hole in Swift’s wall, and it knows it.
“Out of the Woods” and its heavy Jack Antonoff sound, and M83 style synths and reflections, is another big departure. Pop? Sure. Happily not about princess style daydreaming and boy crushing, though. Relationship centric? Most songs are.
What I found most compelling about Swift’s apparent 2014 makeover was the Spotify debate. What, you didn’t think I’d mention it? I’m a nerd for music licensing. While some in my circle argue that this was a move by Big Machine Records to try and amp up records sales, for fear of their own business status, especially with many touting that Swift’s 1989 could be the last Platinum album ever, others pinned her move from Spotify as a temper tantrum to make heavier sales elsewhere. I disagree with these sentiments, and the fact that streaming services produce fluff royalties has since been circulating everywhere. In a society where artists are constantly asked to work for free, a big time celebrity like Swift is one at the top who can afford to pull the plug on streaming, without it hurting her exposure. Small time acts depend on free downloads, streaming, and Youtube to help boost ticket sales and fans, which Swift is already raking in.
The decision to speak out against how musicians and labels pay out, while shifting gears in genre, could have flopped, and yet Swift deliberately changed her image. I have to admit that I was one of the individuals who dismissed her, and probably assumed less of her based on lyrics that just seemed like pure fluff in her previous records, but reading about her blunt decision to turn away from country was interesting, to say the least. Swift acknowledges that she’s not trying to fool anyone–she’s not in the same category she was in before, and she doesn’t expect you to think otherwise. Her image has gone from fairy princess sweetheart, to outspoken with mature costumes, and sometimes a little pissed off.
What irks me a lot in pop music is when a song is credited to a performer, and you then see the song was engineered entirely by a team, sans said performer. Swift promoted 1989 and put Max Martin out in the open for everyone, citing that she insisted on listing him in the credits because he recorded so many takes, even tracks he wasn’t co-writing or producing. If this is true, Swift is not only saying that musicians don’t get compensated fairly by streaming, she’s acknowledging that pop writers and producers, along with recording engineers, have as much to do with a pop hit as the performer who is writing with them.
Lastly, Swift used to irritate me with her persona of the princess mourning a boy, and all of the other tropes that just made me feel like young girls deserved a better musician to look up to. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t vulgar or anything like that, but it seemed pretty vapid to me.
As I’ve read more and more interviews about Swift’s recent decisions, I see her point about people not taking her seriously, and their way of picking her apart being pretty sexist. Facing criticism for not putting her dolled up mug on the album cover, for going against the advice of sticking with country, or for bringing up the fact that men like Bruno Mars don’t face the same criticism of writing about their exes that she does…I reflected and have to say I agree with her.
So, congrats Taylor.
While I don’t see myself actively seeking out her music anytime soon, I see where she’s coming from, and respect her decisions. I appreciate her activeness in bringing artist royalties and women in music to our attention. I don’t think she’s an over the top amazing guitar player or lyricist, but anyone looking at negative comments from men on most of her videos will see how derogatory they are. If she were a male performer in the same level, I don’t think people would treat her the same way. I guess time will tell as to how she will evolve.
So, when do we get to see Taylor Swift shred?
An excerpt from this appeared in the 2014 Village Voice Pazz & Jop commentary.