Zac Pennington is one half of the basically un-Google-able group Popular Music, and was formerly the creative director for the band Parenthetical Girls. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Popular Music’s new album, Minor Works, is out Friday, October 13 via Sanitarium Sound Services.
The first heated argument I had on the topic of Taylor Swift began in the latter months of 2009. These were heated times — post-Kanye, after two living U.S. presidents had already jumped to defend her honor — and though it shames me to admit this now, I stood that day on the wrong side of history. What began with an off-handed remark was very quickly met with a genuine, fundamental fervor—a conspicuously rousing defense of a teenaged bubblegum-country starlet. This was distinct from the winking ironies and frivolity that usually colors the pop cultural tête-à-têtes of people-who-should-surely-know-better — this was personal. It’s an argument I’ve grown increasingly accustomed to, and one that on several occasions since I’ve found myself on the opposite side of.
With Swift’s omnipresence surrounding the recent release of her fourth studio album Red, she’s once again elevated this now biennial flood of complex, weirdly zealous emotion and discourse — both devotional and disdainful — amongst an altogether improbable cultural demographic: for myself and seemingly many other actual adults with no particular investment in the goings on of willowy, country-singing multi-millionaires, Taylor Swift — the woman, the product, and the archetype — means significantly more than she probably has any right to. Taylor Swift is America’s shining, privileged white girl on the hill. And I believe in Taylor Swift.
As she advances her inevitable passage from nü-country crossover toward a full-fledged contemporary pop bid, Swift manages in Red yet another calculating, masterful navigation of these myriad meanings — more than enough to sate both her champions and her detractors. Though the record’s predominant narrative seems to be Swift’s now ankle-deep submersion into the Top 40 waters she’s been toeing for some time — shamelessly mining every favored radio-pop parlor trick from dubstep drops (“I Knew You Were Trouble”) to staccato syllable choruses (“Red”) — the riveting thing about Red is the way it distills and skillfully matures all of the attributes that have long defined Taylor Swift the character: Broad-stroke sentimentality, victimhood, virtue, co-dependence, and the elusive, ever-dubious construct of her “authenticity.”
Swift continues to pilot her improbable protagonist with bubbling ease, even as she’s cast into what would appear to be a series of ill-suited roles. Even more astonishingly, she pulls off almost every seemingly terrible idea jackbooted into the fabric of the record: Epic, faux-U2 opener? Works. Duet with the dude from Snow Patrol? Works. Dubstep flirtation? WORKS. Celebratory club jam, complete with sub-Ke$ha-ian affectations? Doesn’t really work… but the risk/reward ratio is alarming high throughout the whole ofRed. This speaks as much to Swift’s musical versatility as it does to the homogeny of contemporary radio genres, where a few modest signifiers (slide guitar here, house-y filter sweep there) are more or less all that separate contemporary country from traditional Top 40. What’s significant here is that Swift is one of the few artists whose audience has allowed her to truly Red Rover between these dubious disparities — and how she manages to function in both roles with seamless credibility.
Part of the strange singularity of Taylor Swift’s public persona — and what presumably sets her immediately apart in the hearts of most of her adult partisans — is the unmistakable air of poise, humility, and relative maturity she projects as a teen pop star. Though detractors may (successfully) argue that these qualities appear contrived or affected, they play out in the narrative voice Swift developed over her meteoric pubescence: a preternaturally perceptive expression of a certain brand of rose-colored Teen-girl-dom — seemingly too romanticized and wistful to be truly teenaged, but one that nonetheless inarguably is. As a lyricist, Swift seems to have caught up to that narrative voice a bit on Red — she’s grown into it in a way that makes her Instagrammed brand of contemporaneous nostalgia now feel less gawky and uncanny. Her failed love affairs, though Vaseline-lensed as ever, reflect a sense of floundering experience rather than projective imagination.
Which isn’t to suggest that she’s “all-grown-up” in the awkward, seemingly inevitable way of teen pop’s sexual unveilings — Swift continues to project piety by skirting direct allusions to sexuality, and Red still mostly concerns itself with the boy-crazed co-dependence anthems she’s perfected since her adolescence. From a feminist perspective, this lovelorn virginal victim persona presents no shortage of problems, but regardless of how plainly Swift’s fairytale plays into patriarchal extremes, it’s impossible to deny the fact that she’s one of the few women in her rarified position to have authored her own narrative since its inception. That Swift is wholesome, apolitical, obliging, and innocuous is neither congenital nor superimposed—if it were, she would have crumbled beneath it a long time ago. Taylor Swift has simply (and accurately) estimated what it is that the world wants her to be — a living embodiment of heavy-hearted American idealism — and is personally intelligent enough to reflect it with implausibly modest effort. In this sense, Taylor Swift the woman is neither a patsy nor a pawn — she’s a fucking genius.
(An aside: it is perhaps useful here as point of comparison to consider another teenaged pop star of note—one who marketed a similar brand of bible-belted piety. It’s no coincidence that Swift chose to work with Britney Spears architect Max Martin more than any other writer/producer throughout Red — Swift herself professes an “unwavering devotion to Britney Spears.” Issues of class and exploitation notwithstanding, the Swift/Spears comparison is worthy of reflection: Swift at 22 is at the top of her game—as buoyant, poised, and seemingly unjaded as ever. Spears, by the time of her twenty-second birthday, had already completely collapsed beneath the weight of her own persona.)
Ironically, it’s the calculated control Swift employs over her own legend that enables what is undoubtedly her most divisive asset: that of her strangely ineffable blush of “authenticity.” It’s a distinctly American brand of quotation-marked authenticity — one that is a deliberate and performative manifestation of red-blooded American myths and ideals. Cultivated amongst the aw-shucks everyman-ism of contemporary country music, where mock-humility and artless egalitarianism remain a matter of life and death, Taylor’s brand of hopeful authenticity is road-tested, diamond-sharp and, most astonishingly, believable. Like a gender-flipped rendering of Springsteen’s equally cultivated, populist everyman character, Swift’s (to paraphrase a friend) “down-home, study hall sweetheart meets weekend humane society volunteer” façade is the deliberate amplification of a truth to the point of archetypal caricature — and just like the Boss, the performance is as credible as it is captivating.
As with its predecessors, Red supports this tightrope act with a three-to-one balance of wide-net confessionals (“The Last Time,” the truly great “All Too Well,” etc.) and effervescent juvenilia (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the truly awful “22”), each tied together by Swift’s imposing melodic gift and seemingly instinctual grasp of pop architecture. While neither of these extremes is inherently exceptional, the difference in Taylor’s manifestation once again comes down to narrative voice: palpable in both the anguish and elation is the distinct sensibility of an actual 22-year-old woman—not a 40-year-old Swedish man’s awkward embodiment of one. Swift is increasingly unique in this respect, and the grace and guileless enthusiasm she exhibits in her execution is more or less unparalleled.
Taylor Swift is the considered embodiment of America’s once unjaded optimism: a privileged, flaxen-haired fairy tale who by limitless talent and opportunity has seen every absurd school-girl fantasy she could’ve possibly imagined come true in spades. She is alive and uncynical in ways made virtually impossible for less-favored adults, yet charismatic and self-possessed enough to capture the imagination of the huddled masses. She is problematic and she is effortless. And though remaining as ever faithless as these times insist upon, I can honestly say there is at least one thing left to believe in.