In this new series, 10 Listens will publish two writers’ takes on a given record, artist, or concept. The exchange will be given as a series of brief essays, with each subsequent one a response to the previous. Today, B Michael responds to Brad Nelson’s response to his original post.
I do not disagree: Taylor Swift’s main songwriting strength is the ability to pick out one, two, or three details in a situation or story; she bludgeons you about the head, neck, and ears with her limited observational palette until you’ve mistaken detail for depth. Shining up a mirror really good doesn’t provide you with a singular biographer. At the most basic level, it’s still you and your experiences that are what allows you to parse and express your idea of you and your experiences. And I’m saying that Taylor Swift isn’t even a particularly well-polished mirror. She’s more like one of those pitted, surface-blasted plastic mirrors you’d find at a garage sale or broken into pieces in an alley.
Saying that something isn’t deep has already lodged within it the rejoinder that you’re not trying hard enough. It’s like, Oh, you don’t get the latest Almodóvar film? It’s like cutting the cheese in an Olympian’s hyperbaric chamber. Sorry…
The thing about perspectives is that everyone’s got one, but some people have, like, ten. My previous criticism—that Swift is immoral because of her conflicting perspectives—does not hang on the conflict of the perspectives. It hangs on each perspective’s impoverishment. We’re talking painting with a wide brush or using light from a narrow spectrum. Naiveté, narcolepsy, car crashes. The point is not that Swift contradicts herself. The point is Swift, herself.
It’s always nice to hear songs with a complex emotional or perspectival valence. That’s why, for instance, people appreciate irony. Because, ironically, it shows the patient has a pulse. One-dimensional songwriting needs to be pretty amazing in order to be amazing. There’s no multiplier. Swift’s songwriting is profoundly one-dimensional, but it’s not profound.
You closed your piece by saying,
Of course there’s no outright dawning of self-awareness. Swift considers herself exempt from the whims and calculations that govern others. None of her steps are light. She moves or is moved and it resonates in the fucking earth, and meanwhile attendant bodies, events, tablecloths are dragged into the rift. This is why half of Speak Now is didactic.
I’m not sure that a dearth of self-awareness should be the marquee attribute of your singer-songwriter type. And, therefore, I think you’ve again proved my point about Swift (or her record, at least) being something like immoral. You have an elemental, non-self-aware, one dimensional tweener millennial writing best-selling, didactic pop music. I mean, I think the War On Terror is a little ill-prosecuted. But even I don’t think Al-Qaeda should be the ones writing the strategy papers.
If I’m not mistaken, we have a twenty-year-old Swift telling grown men that they’re “innocent” at one point. And at another, she’s telling her unborn child to cherish his imagined childhood and to be nice to his non-mothered mom. Considered from a distance, “Never Grow Up” could be reconfigured as an avant-guard planned parenthood jingle.
The last time I checked, it was a good thing to have experience on the job. I’m not sure you can make getting hornswoggled because you were so young (nineteen) the centerpiece of your album, and then go on to write a bunch of condescending songs about being the America’s Next Top Authority On Grown-Up Shit. I mean, you can do that, but call me crazy? I want our teachers to finish college before we let them teach the freshman seminar. Thing is, there’s no such thing as an “emotional prodigy” like there are math prodigies or chess prodigies. There are tons of young, talented people doing creative work, but Taylor Swift is more of a technician than anything else. Her work paints inside the lines, and the lines are drawn up with star-chart precision. She’s like a goldendoodle: Cute, with big fluffy hair; created entirely to please a large swathe of people who are allergic to natural interaction.