The transition from pumpkin spice lattes to sickly-sweet peppermint mochas signifies the arrival of another holiday season. Welcome to the time of year when culture publications push year-end-lists in search of peer-validation via narcissistic curation. Arguments will be made for what the year’s best film is or why this artist deserves this award and so forth. As my primary interest is popular music, I pay close attention to and devour as many of these lists as possible, downloading all unheard recommendations in pursuit of retaining as much dumb pop cultural knowledge as my mind can tolerate.
Even though a month of new music lies ahead, some music outlets couldn’t resist releasing their albums-of-the-year rankings early. Paste Magazine became the first of many to tap Frank Ocean’s excellent Channel Orange as 2012’s best release. British it-magazine NME named Australian psych-rockers Tame Impala’s Lonerism as the year’s defining album. Other popular selections include Grimes’ Visions, Chromatics’ Kill For Love and The XX’s Coexist. Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, mAAd City is being favorably compared to Nas’ stone-cold debut Illmatic by prominent hip-hop publications. All you need to know about Japandroids’ Celebration Rock you can infer from its title.
I already notice that one album is being unjustly overlooked from the aggregate. This omission is not due to obscurity. This artist is not hidden in civilization’s crevice, waiting to be unearthed and trumpeted by the most exhausting of today’s army of music bloggers. No, it’s because the album comes from the most popular entertainer on the planet: Taylor Swift.
When I claim that Red, Taylor’s massive unit shifting fourth album, should be slotted beside other great 2012 albums like Grizzly Bear’s Shields or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s masterful ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, noses wrinkle and brows furrow, as if my love for Taylor Swift is not genuine as their love for Titus Andronicus, as if my enjoyment of her songs is part of a generational addiction to irony that was recently lambasted in a ham-fisted New York Times opinion piece.
It’s not a surprise that Red is the least country-sounding of her four albums. Red is about as country as Mitt Romney. Maybe one song on Red even dares to glance back to Nashville. Swift has and still praises many country music artists, but her public admiration now tilts more toward Joni Mitchell than Dolly Parton. Let’s also not ignore that this young songwriter was named after James Taylor and praises her name twin in “Begin Again.” It’s also not common knowledge that Taylor has consistently eschewed themes like God, beer, and pick-up trucks in her music. After winning one of her million industry awards, I’ve heard her thank her fans, her family and her band, but rarely Big Jesus.
In fact, Taylor isn’t southern at all. She’s a national poetry contest-winning daughter of a financial advisor who routinely traveled from her home on a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm to Broadway for talent lessons. She wisely remained mute on political issues to avoid any chance of a Chick-fil-A-like boycott hurting her first week sales, but she has let it slip here and there that she likely votes blue. I truly doubt a Republican would hook up with a scion of America’s most Democratic family. Indeed, Taylor has more in common with Lady Gaga than Miranda Lambert: an immensely talented daughter of privilege who worked her ass off to achieve world domination.
The primary criticism of Taylor Swift is that she simply lacks the chops to write about something other than boys. I’m not ignorant to Swift’s obsession with being the other girl. Her crafted identity as an awkward outsider is a significant reason for her success. But even recognizing the immense psychological gymnastics that a svelte 22-year-old multi-millionaire has to undertake to perceive herself as a social misfit, I’m no cynic. Her fixation of romantic salvation is irritating and vulnerable to feminist critique, but her rocky dating life and biennial multi-platinum emotional harvests also validate her authenticity as another lonely overachieving music prodigy. Take a guess who the youngest songwriter ever hired by the Sony/ATV Tree publishing house is.
Swift is judged alongside entertainers such as Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry due to their current popularity, but this is an inaccurate association. If one compares Swift to contemporary female singer/songwriters like Sharon Van Etten or Fiona Apple (who was also signed to a recording contract at a teenager), I’d grant you that these women surpass the younger Swift in artistic nuance, not to mention vocal delivery. However, I’m hesitant to say they pass her in overall quality.
I’m a fan of all three of these artists—Fiona’s Sixth & I show was the best concert I attended this year— and while The Idler Wheel, Tramp and Red are share a common theme of the narrator reorienting herself after a breakup, Swift ignores the lyrical dexterity seen in “Serpents” and “Werewolf” in favor of blunt condemnations of “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” Fiona’s eponymous ode to ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ames is one of any highlights on The Idler Wheel… but “Dear John” means Taylor doesn’t beat around the bush when she wants America to know that John Mayer is philandering asshole with a racist penis. A critic can argue her lack of subtlety mirrors her lack of talent, but I see this as a conscious style choice and a necessary part of her role as an American idol.
Being a pop star means being a populist. By profession, Swift must appeal to as many as possible. Many of her critics view her as part of the dumbed-down mainstream monoculture. She only has herself to blame for appearing on Papa John’s pizza boxes and shilling cheap department store perfume. No doubt that Swift owes her popularity to MTV, Country Music Television and Universal Music Group, but it’s interesting that she has a writing credit for every song on Red, just as she has received a writing credit for every song she’s ever released. It is also ironic that Taylor Swift joins critical darling Arcade Fire as one of the few artists signed to independent labels to win the Grammy Award for Album of The Year, an honor that is fading in importance, but still a notable achievement. I can’t think of many artists who have stuck with the same producer for every album.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I profess that a good song is a good song, regardless of genre. The universal appreciation for “We Found Love,” “Call Me Maybe” and now “Gangnam Style,” a goof song sung in a foreign language, suggests appreciating pop music is in our DNA. We may hover to specific subgenres—your folk rock, your stoner metal, your dream pop, your post-hardcore—but the communal appreciation of these blockbusters endure across class and ethnic divides. Even pop songs that you despised in your adolescence lay dormant in the subconscious, ready to percolate as soon as a wedding DJ cleverly drops “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” In other words, you show me a person who hates “Single Ladies” and I’ll show you an asshole.
I’ll table discussion on this topic—articles arguing that pop music should be seen as “serious music” are a slog to read and generally of little interest except for those who own multiple external hard drives—but I must mention that just like any genre of music, there is intelligent pop music and disposable pop music. The demarcation between the two is subjective, but there is a clear refinement that anyone can hear in Beyonce’s top-notch production and careful songwriting that outshines Ke$ha’s whorecore. Sometimes a dumb pop song really is just a dumb pop song.
In an interview with the New York Times, Taylor was asked to give a “shout out to your favorite hidden indie band.” She declined to answer, saying, “I say something, it becomes a thing — like that’s the band she was talking about in the song.” This is referring to the a snarky lyric delivered in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” a song so catchy that even haters cannot deny its legitimacy.
The lyric chastises an anonymous ex-boyfriend for preferring “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” This is vintage Swift, a tart piece of pop that lashes out on he who dismisses America’s porcelain princess. “We Are Never…” deserves kudos as it is Swift’s first hit that omits her submissive posing and encourages a permanent dissolution of a troubled relationship rather than pouting through the turmoil. (See: “The Story of Us,” “Back to December”, “Forever & Always.”) The message should not be overlooked because it’s cloaked in immaculate production by pop svengalis Max Martin & Shellback. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Swift “punk” as one NPR blogger wrote, but she’s no longer a “feminist nightmare.” Methinks Rihanna should listen to this song a little bit closer.
On previous Swift albums, the singles were also the best songs. “You Belong With Me” and “White Horse” were simply the best-written songs on Fearless. If this trend were to continue, “We Are Never…” and “22” would qualify as Red’s standouts. These songs are fun, but Red also shows a particular growth in Swift’s songwriting: the ability to flesh out an album. Her past three albums are dotted with filler, but nearly every song on Red has value, save two throwaway duets with English blockheads most likely included for cross-promotional purposes. It’s no coincidence that Ed Sheeran is the opening act of her forthcoming North American tour.
Swift softens her scornful tone on the impressive ballad “All Too Well.” Lyrics like “We’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light / Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well” reveal a more relatable narrative than a clichéd Romeo & Juliet romance. The slow build up of “Treacherous” can be compared to U2’s “With or Without You.” As for “Holy Ground,” it’s simply the best thing Swift has ever done. The sprightly “Holland, 1945” knock-off makes me wonder that if her anonymous hipster ex-boyfriend made her suffer through In The Aeroplane Over The Sea—my educated guess for the maligned album in “We Are Never…”—maybe some that Elephant 6 magic seeped past her perfect bangs.
If you’re offended that I’d dare compare Jeff Mangum to Taylor Swift… that’s kind of my point. Swift is as legitimate an artist as Mangum or Frank Ocean or Fiona Apple or Kendrick Lamar or whomever else you want to compare her against. The dominant theme throughout Red is a rejection of the hipper-than-thou attitude that Swift encountered in her failed relationship. A lyric in “22” rings true: “It seems like one of those nights / This place is too crowded too many cool kids.” The tall, blonde, neurotic Swift has long been ostracized by the cool kids, and now the older, more mature Swift is fed up with their dumb games.
A legitimate question can be raised why Pitchfork, an increasingly mainstream publication whose year-end rankings holds some weight in the music industry, has never reviewed a Taylor Swift album. They’ve reviewed Lady Gaga, Adele, Rihanna and Beyonce, but the site only references Swift as part of the Kanye meltdown. It’s a shame Pitchfork didn’t rate Red because it’s an album that truly deserves its best new music label. I’ve listened to hundreds of albums this year, and while there are many indie records that are cooler than Red, there are few that are better.