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“Baby, Just Say Yes," a retrospective on Taylor Swift

Special to The Chronicle
Special to The Chronicle

This past week, Taylor Swift sold 1,287,000 copies of her latest album 1989. She responded on Tuesday night with a fourteen-second video of her rapping to Kendrick Lamar’s arrogant “Backstreet Freestyle” and the caption “Industry experts predicted 1989 would sell 650k first week. You went and bought 1.287 million albums. AND IT'S GOT ME LIKE:” In many ways, the post encapsulates the essence of Taylor Swift: she is simultaneously our most endearing, inscrutable, humble yet boastful pop star. No other pop star in recent memory has tried so hard to win her fans’ admiration yet seemed so effortless in doing so. Taylor Swift lacks the nonchalance of Rihanna, the regality of Beyoncé, the willingness to mug for the audience of Katy Perry and the avant-garde pretensions of Lady Gaga. So what does she have? The answer is simple. Taylor Swift aspires to be just like us, and we, as her audience, love it.

To understand the mystique of Taylor Swift, we must travel back to her early music career—namely, her eponymous debut album.

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Released in 2006 when she was only sixteen years old, Taylor Swift is her only album that could truly be considered a pure country album. It is also an album that only a sixteen-year old could make. Largely composed of tracks Swift wrote as a freshman and sophomore in high school, Taylor Swift includes crush songs like the star-struck ode “Tim McGraw” and “Tied Together With A Smile” and her calling card break-up anthems like “Picture to Burn” and “Cold as You” (her subtlety hadn’t kicked in yet). Every Taylor Swift fan has song that they think speaks to them. For me, that is this album’s “Teardrops On My Guitar,” because she is literally speaking to a boy named Drew. Of course, said Drew is “the reason for the teardrops on [her] guitar,” and every time I listen to the song, I am reminded of countless obnoxious taunts in middle school questioning why I hurt Taylor Swift’s feelings and whether I felt good being a monster.

Beyond the personal, “Teardrops On My Guitar” is the first and prime example of a narrative that Taylor Swift has long since shed—the underdog in the world of romance. Taylor Swift, as a person and a personality, is not easy to ignore. She is brassy, loud, and attractive, and the idea that someone like her would fade into a crowd or not assert herself is laughable eight years into her career. The song itself is a rather passé country ballad with a slow tempo, soft guitars and strings and cheesy and maudlin lyrics–anyone could have written or sang this song–yet “Teardrops On My Guitar” was her first major hit and the first herald that music might have a new superstar.

For all of “Teardrops On My Guitar”’s Swift-iness, the true representative song on Taylor Swift is “Our Song.” Swift has long been known for her songwriting prowess—even the worst Taylor Swift song is at least somewhat well written—and “Our Song” is her first truly great example of this prodigious talent. The track tells the tale of a high school couple who has to sneak around behind their parents’ back and, as such, say that their “song is the slam of screen-doors.” It is an utterly infectious sing-along with evocative lyrics and a catchy, fiddle-based backing track. “Our Song” was also Swift’s first appeal for her audience to join her on her journey. The “our” in the song’s title does not just refer to the couple, but to all of her audience. The Taylor Swift populism train was in full force. The album sold five million copies, and Swift has never looked back.

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Swift released her second album, Fearless, in 2008, and it continued the same narrative as her first did. You can find the woman-scorned tracks such as “You’re Not Sorry,” the sassy pop jams such as “Hey Stephen,” paeans to the pains of high school like the heartbreaking “Fifteen,” and the sweepingly romantic anthems like “Love Story.” “Love Story” was Swift’s first Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 track, and its princess-themed music video begins her trend of fun, festive and fantastical videos to go along with her tracks. However, Fearless’s best track is unquestionably “You Belong With Me.” This is an objectively true statement. Her first truly ubiquitous song—you could not go anywhere in 2009 without hearing it—“You Belong With Me” is nigh on indelible to all who hear it. I do not think I can overstate how essential to the culture of 2009 this was, with its excellent lyrics, Tom Petty-esque guitars and its wonderful music video of Swift playing two corners of a small town love triangle. “You Belong With Me” is also the last example of the Taylor Swift romantic underdog narrative, and she would soon shed the underdog label altogether.

“You Belong With Me”’s music video also inadvertently led to Swift’s first culture-defining moment when it defeated Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” for the Best Music Video by a Female Artist at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. After she took the podium to accept the award, Kanye West stole the microphone from her, uttered the immortal words “Imma let you finish,” proceeded to undermine her victory and left her shell-shocked and distraught on stage. A nation rallied around Swift. “She’s a victim!” we cried. “Kanye West is mean!” Even President Obama weighed in on the incident. No one could stop talking about Taylor Swift. Throughout it all, Swift remained tactful and graceful, refusing to speak about the incident or wish ill upon West. The VMAs incident marked the precise moment in which Taylor Swift resolved to shed the underdog or victim label that she applied to herself through song and that society had applied to her.

2009 was a watershed year for Taylor Swift. With her music career skyrocketing, she began to seep into the public consciousness by appearing on our television screen. In March 2009, Taylor Swift made her television debut on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as a rebellious teenager. Needless to say, this was not an Emmy-winning portrayal—even in real life, Swift has never seemed rebellious so much as fun-loving—yet she acquitted her self reasonably well. She did far better as the host and musical guest of a November episode of Saturday Night Live, with a self-deprecating monologue, good live musical performances and funny characters (including a spot-on Shakira impression). In February 2010, she portrayed a love-struck high school student opposite her former boyfriend Taylor Lautner in the execrable Valentine’s Day. Swift is not an excellent actress, but these attempts showed that she was willing to tread out of her comfort zone and was not afraid to look goofy while doing so.

I mention Taylor Lautner, who is one of many men essential to the musical development and public perception of Taylor Swift. Never before has a celebrity’s love life been more dissected, scrutinized and judged. Taylor Swift has had a series of high profile boyfriends, including the aforementioned Lautner, Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Mayer, Conor Kennedy and Harry Styles. This is not a new phenomenon—plenty of celebrities date other celebrities—yet Swift differs because she writes incredibly detailed songs about the resulting breakups.

Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner in Valentine's Day Special to The Chronicle

Several of her most popular hits have publicly aired the inner workings of her relationships. It is because of songs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that we know Swift dumped Jake Gyllenhaal because she thought he was snooty, and “You’re Not Sorry” let us know that Joe Jonas cheated on her and broke up with her via text. This tendency is arguably the most polarizing aspect of Taylor Swift. Many champion Taylor Swift for not being afraid to air out her feelings honestly in a public forum, while other think she must have a terrible personality because of her chaotic romantic life. I lie in the former camp: a personal life as largely innocuous as Swift’s should not be vilified to the extent that it has. The discussion around Swift’s personal life tends to fall into misogynistic discourse, and, in this day and age, it is impossible to sympathize with those who use the “importance” of traditional gender roles and negative feminine stereotypes to make their lionizing point. Swift is not the “crazy ex-girlfriend” that so many have called her; she uses music as an outlet to channel her feelings like anyone else.

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Indeed, some of Swift’s best songs have resulted from her frustration from her romantic trials and tribulations. Speak Now, her 2010 third album, contains three highlights of her catalogue that deal with both messy breakups and the vitriol surrounding her personal life. The first, “Dear John,” is a mid-tempo ballad chronicling the end of Swift’s relationship with John Mayer. It is beautiful and spare, yet its lyrics are cutting and self-examining. “Back to December,” a similar-sounding yet equally memorable ballad, continues the same line of introspection as “Dear John.” However, the track lacks the kiss-off laceration of “Dear John,” focusing almost entirely on Swift and her regret. It is the saddest Swift has ever seemed on a song. She is a performer who, while not an extremely technically proficient singer, is very good at selling emotion and very shrewd in the way that she does it. Swift marries this darkness to palatable pop songs; you are not afraid to sing, dance, and cry all at the same time. It is one of the qualities that lets her identify with her audience in a deeper way than most other pop stars, and “Dear John” is one of the highlights of her discography in that respect.

However, the best song on Speak Now is “Mean,” which announces a new, feral side to Taylor Swift—one who is defiant in the face of her critics. Over a strumming acoustic hoedown, Swift sings, “Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me/and all you’re ever gonna be is mean,” simultaneously pumping herself up and dismissing her haters’ harsh words. “Mean”’s power lies also with Swift’s expression of vulnerability. She acknowledges that the online bullying and vitriol that she faces hurts, yet she finds the spunk and courage to move on and not let it affect her development as a person. It is an achingly human sentiment that powerfully hits the audience while uplifting them at the same time. Swift may be catering to us, but she wants to lead by example. Songs like this capture why so many find Swift to be our most accessible and personal pop star.

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“Mean” is arguably also Swift’s last pure country song. Her 2012 album Red marks her transition into a more pure pop sound, not that she had never dabbled in the genre before. Indeed, all three of her previous albums utilized traditional pop structures to great effect. Who would consider the arena rock of “You Belong With Me” a country song? However, Red is her best album because it marries her country background to her increasingly pop sensibilities, and as a result it contains some of her greatest songs thanks to the excellent production of noted pop stylists Max Martin and Shellback. The first single, the aforementioned “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” is one of the catchiest songs of the new millennium. Its girl-power message and sing-song message propelled it straight to the top of the Billboard Charts, becoming her first Number One hit. The music video, a one-take romp where Swift cavorts with woodland creatures in a Brooklyn brownstone, also signified her transformation from Nashville darling to something more hipster and cosmopolitan (see also the “night out at the club” jam “22").

The best song on Red, however, is “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which you may know as alternately ‘Taylor Swift’s dubstep song” and “that song that was everywhere in 2013 and I can’t get it unstuck from my brain.” My pick for Taylor Swift’s best song, “I Knew You Were Trouble” is far more the latter than the former. The song starts with an insistent, syncopated guitar line and typically Swiftian lyrics about her regret over succumbing to the charms of a bad man, but the chorus breaks into a dubstep-influenced drop punctuated by occasional howls of anguish which YouTube has mercilessly compared to a bleating goat and the lunatic utterings of Nicolas Cage, among other unsavory things. It is the type of song that could easily have devolved into an overambitious mess of styles and content, yet it works fantastically because:

a) It’s well crafted and sonically interesting. There has never been a song since like “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

b) At its fundament, it is a Taylor Swift song. The content is classic Swift, and her vocals are charmingly imperfect—like every other song in her discography.

c) It is both a country and a pop song.

“What?” you say! “How could this song—a song with dubstep ever be considered a country song?” Well, it is and it is not. Dubstep is obviously and inarguably not a traditional element of country, and leans firmly into the land of pop tricks. What does indicate “I Knew You Were Trouble”’s country influence is its reliance on steel guitars and its lyrical content. If you rearrange the orchestration of the track, it would not be out of place among the songs of Tammy Wynette or Dolly Parton. Swift has never really delved into tired and pop-specific tropes. Though many of her themes are universal to all forms of music, they have always harkened back to the female-centric power of country music. Not many other pop stars delve into topics like pure friendship or motivating the downtrodden these days, and the raw emotion of songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble” could fit right next to the desperation of “Jolene.”

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This leads us to now and the recent release of 1989. In the promotional press tour for the album, Swift described it as her first pure pop album—as if she had not been writing pop songs for years—and explained the meaning of its title as both a reference to the year she was born and the cultural year she wanted to reference on the album. The first single, the uplifting pep-rally jam “Shake It Off,” is similar to Toni Basil’s “Mickey” but with a distinctly modern production. It has been ubiquitous for the latter half of 2014, and its undeniably catchiness is on a superior plane from other Taylor Swift songs, yet its release led to major trepidation in her fan base. Simply put, “Shake It Off” is a lyrical mess compared to her usually well-written oeuvre. The chorus—sing it with me!—goes “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate" and "the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake” is not exactly poetry. The rest of the song is in the same boat with its one-dimensionally positive message and deprecating look at Swift’s public persona. Yet the song succeeds anyway despite its shortcomings, mostly because its repetition and sonic stickiness combine to form a sort of mantra. You cannot help but sing along.

The rest of 1989 is far more successful. It is largely comprised of mid-tempo anthems with influences ranging from Phil Collins to Annie Lennox to Fine Young Cannibals. However, Swift is not content to merely copy the sounds of the year 1989—the tracks are all distinctly modern and fresh. 1989 is the most sonically diverse and interesting Taylor Swift albums despite some lyrical shortcomings, and it is a testament to Swift’s persona and charisma that she is able to work with so many producers (like Max Martin and Shellback) and still retain her voice and imprint. I have listened to the album four or five times now, and I still cannot choose which song I like the best. The quality is all consistently excellent, but I find myself favoring the stomping “Bad Blood,” the Lana Del Rey homage “Wildest Dreams” and the flirty “Style” more than many of the others. Then, of course, there is “Blank Space,” which is clearly a top-five Swift song. Of all of the self-analyzing tracks she has done, “Blank Space” is the only time she has sounded like she is having fun finding out who she is. “Got a long list of ex-lovers/they’ll tell you I’m insane/but I’ve got a blank space, babe/and I’ll write your name,” she taunts, striking a perfect balance between haughtiness and playfulness. Swift, in her peppy songs, always sounds like she is having the time of her life, but she has never before brought that ebullience to her introspective songs. She knows what she is, and she likes it.

We are currently at a place in our cultural timeline where Taylor Swift has been borderline deified. She, at 24, is as much a staple of our culture as Beyoncé, Star Wars, and other iconic touchstones. Five platinum albums per decade—with certainly many more to come—only cement this. Her upcoming tour has already sold out within mere days of its announcement.

Of course, she is still not immune to controversy. On Monday, Swift pulled the entirety of her catalogue from the music streaming service Spotify in protest that the service cheated artists out of their money, citing that only a fraction of a penny goes to an artist every time their song is played. The move has been met by an equal outpouring of support and backlash from fans and the media, with some applauding her stance for musicians’ right to compensation while other decrying her move as alienating for her audience, as many people would otherwise not be able to listen to her new album. Regardless of the backlash, Swift’s stance is almost unprecedented in the music industry (artists like Prince and the Beatles attempted to keep their music out of streaming services before eventually succumbing to financial pressure). Spotify has responded in hilarious fashion, releasing a bizarrely curated playlist yesterday with the intention of imploring Swift to return to the service. In a way, it is fitting—of course the way to woo the self-described “old soul” Swift would be to send her a mix tape.

Taylor Swift has also been recently pilloried for her new role as New York City’s Global Welcome Ambassador, which was prompted by the release of “Welcome to New York,” her fizzy ode to the Big Apple after her recent move there from Nashville. To be fair, the track is not a realistic depiction of New York nor is it accurate to the lives of most New Yorkers. However, it is not meant to be either of those things—it is what Swift thinks about her new home. “Welcome to New York” captures that universal feeling of wonder and excitement that results from moving to a new place: the joy, the trepidation and the awe. Swift writes from her person, as she always does, and the track does a great job of encapsulating her in an important moment of time in her life. As a truthful portrayal of New York it fails, but I can see why the city itself chose her to assume the position. Who wouldn’t want to visit Taylor Swift’s New York?

Overall, Swift’s strengths and weaknesses combine make her almost unassailable as a cultural entity. When she inevitably releases a subpar album (though five good albums out of five is a very impressive track record), she will still go platinum many times over. When she makes a public screw-up, her contrition and ability to introspect will get her through the snafu. She will make money and continue to make fans for the foreseeable future, because Swift has mastered the art of accumulating and appealing to a broad fan base–that she has done so without compromising her musical integrity or her identity is admirable. Ultimately, Taylor Swift just wants to be liked, and she has ensured this by remaining as relatable as possible while still maintaining an air of aspirational celebrity. In “Love Song,” Swift implores, “Baby, just say yes!” Her fans already have and will likely to continue to do so.

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