“1989” by Taylor Swift

What to say about this magnificent album?  Well, many things, as it happens.  But I’ll just pick one or two.

One could wax on at length about the infectiously catchy songs, tinged with just the right touch of sorrow.  One could talk about Swift’s meteoric rise from country curiosity to pop star of epic proportions.  One could question whether Swift is a real artist or a calculated fame-chaser…oh, what’s that you say?  No one that blonde and bubbly could possibly be a real artist?  Indeed, indeed.  Swift’s feminism is shallow, exclusionary, and fake?  Well, I guess like all good feminists, she struck a nerve.  But why?   How?

I heard the singles from the album quite (quite!!!) a lot before hearing the album in its entirety.  All the singles were great, but listening to the album as a complete and coherent work clarified for me in just what way Swift’s music is so distinctively brilliant.  I can’t say I have all the answers, but here are some musings/thoughts:

Aside from her abilities as a singer and tunesmith, as well as her clever lyrics, not to mention her well-chosen collaborations, all of which add up to good music, Swift has one more thing going for her, the thing that, I’ve decided, makes her stand out from most of her female colleagues.  Essentially, in Swift’s musical universe, the most important person is…Taylor Swift.

Awful! you cry.  How dare she!  We must all drown out her self-centered yammering in a flood of righteous indignation!

Ah, but wait!  I just said that this is what makes her stand out from her *female* colleagues.  For a male singer/songwriter, her worldview is perfectly normal.  Songs like “Blank Space” and “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” if you really listen to them, sound deliciously subversive when sung by a woman, but imagine (actually, you don’t have to imagine it, since Ryan Adams has already done it for us) them sung by a man, and you’ll see that they sound like…men’s songs.  Songs in which the singer sees the situation from above and pronounces judgment on it from afar, songs in which the other person is declared to be at least as much at fault as the singer.  Songs in which the singer declares they’re going to do their own thing regardless of what others think, and *means it.*  It’s a bit hard to define, since it seems to be as much a matter of tone as actual words, but like most pop music, these songs are about romantic relationships, but unlike most pop songs by female artists, there’s little of neediness here, little of the nervous over-the-shoulder glances as the artist desperately checks to make sure that everyone’s gotten the joke, and that they haven’t been offended by it.  Swift’s lyrical persona in this album is perfectly aware that lots of people have been offended and are out to take her down, and she’s determined to shake it off.

So is this self-centered, even exclusionary?  Probably.  I don’t know that real art can be created without the artist standing up and saying, “What I think is more important than what other people think.”  Which is what Swift has done here, in her own implicit, catchy pop-music way, and why, I have to assume, so many people, including people who consider themselves committed feminists, find that she rubs them the wrong way.  Love it or hate it, “1989” is a statement about a woman who is committed to her artistic vision above all else, and who uses personal and romantic relationships as fodder for it.  And–oh, funny thing!–we find that so easy to condemn when it’s a pretty blonde girl doing it, but if it were a man, I dare say we would call it genius.

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