Do you want a long read to ease your bank holiday weekend hangover?
Let’s make this clear: I have never listened to Taylor Swift. I know some of her songs, on the grounds that I don’t live under a rock, but she’s previously been the kind of artist that would make me switch the radio off; however, I am not naïve, and 2015 has clearly been Taylor’s year. With her current album causing the surge of support for Taylor’s music and public persona (and, whisper it, appearing to be quite good!), now seems to be the time to jump on the Tay-Swift bandwagon.
Never one to do things by halves, I couldn’t just buy the new album and call it acceptance of the new, pop Taylor: I bought all of her albums* (all deluxe), watched all of her videos, and am now here, objectively reviewing her complete works and assessing her growth as a person up to this point. I am the perfect person to write this review: I am a young, white woman (Taylor’s demographic), I have excellent music knowledge and taste (indisputable, sorry) but am not averse to some proper pop (context: I fucking love Girls Aloud) and can write a pretty mean song myself, making me hyper-critical of other writers (subtext: resentful of people more successful than me). At this turning point in Taylor Swift’s career I am offering a full and frank evaluation of her work so far, good reading (I hope!) for fans and newcomers alike.
- Taylor Swift (2006)
- Best Song: Teardrops on My Guitar
- Worst Song: Tied Together With A Smile
- In a nutshell: I gather quite different from the competition? Shows diversity, skill, potential blah blah
If I were going to listen to country music it would be The Eagles, and I would be switching the hell off at the first sound of a banjo BUT in the name of musical exploration, fairness and impartiality, and remembering my love of English folk music (and previous excitement at gigs by Paul Simon and Robert Plant when some old white man gets out a lute or an African zither), I grudgingly take my first foray into modern country pop.
I have to google who Tim McGraw is.
The song is fine, it works without knowing, but I was grateful for the context. This was Taylor’s first single and I gather it got radioplay, but on country stations rather than conventional radio. It’s pretty good, actually: a simple song about a love left behind but not forgotten. The chorus is the best bit, very relatable (who doesn’t want your favourite musician to be a pleasant prick of a memory to somebody you don’t know anymore?). I’m surprised by how well she conveys this complex emotion, and the song really does have a sense of nostalgia without a sense of loss – until the bridge, when she obviously gets him back.
I also find myself surprised by Teardrops on My Guitar: it clearly wouldn’t work in any genre but country, but I like it. It’s clever (“he’s a song in the car / I keep singing / don’t know why I do” is a perfect image), and heartfelt, and it knows its audience. The video is definitely aesthetically pleasing, sweet, and I find myself pleased that the story it tells doesn’t have a happy ending. I suppose we’re not yet rooting for Taylor to come out on top. I also desperately want to believe there’s a cloaked reference to female masturbation (“I’ll put your picture down and maybe get some sleep tonight”)… but I suspect that it isn’t really there. (Side note: country version is better than pop version. Huh. Who’d have thought it?)
Most of Taylor’s early songs are pretty plot-driven (by that I mean that the sentiment behind them is something people easily relate to and their appeal is their use of emotion to evoke, rather than tell, a story), and that’s no bad thing. Writing is definitely, obviously her skill from even this early point in her career. I’ve read that she wrote literally hundreds of songs before this album came out, that she would write every day about her experience at high school, which I think has helped the album.
One that isn’t too heavy on plot, though, is ‘Our Song’, which is sort of 21st-century La La La Means I Love You, taking the idea of the unspoken and making it into a jangly-pop singalong, with a strange sort-of metaphorical comparison between ordinary actions (“the slam of screen doors”) and teen life (“because it’s late and your mamma don’t know”) and big romantic gestures. Simple but sweet, and self-mocking enough for me to not hate it. Probably the best vocal on the album, too. Loses points for the heavy-handed god reference in the chorus – I’m sure that’s standard on country radio, but not on any British station.
Taylor Swift is surprisingly not bland or standard, and as a grown woman I didn’t find it too saccharine or angsty to listen to – more than I can say for any of my own writing from when I was that age. The subtle touches of heartbreak or love-at-a-distance feel true, as do the portrayals of young love as something that drives around in a truck listening to the radio rather than the all-or-nothing, totally consuming, locker-leaning Romeo & Juliet that tends to crop up in songs and movies (it’s OK to break up, kids!). A week after listening, however, I can’t really remember most of the songs on the album – it’s a fun, well-written album, but it’s not an opus.
- Fearless (2008)
- Best Song: Hey Stephen
- Worst Song: Love Story
- In a nutshell: surprisingly self-knowing
I’m not sorry that I hate ‘Love Story’. I hated it when it was new, I hated the video, I hate the sentiment, I don’t think it’s very well-written. I think it’s everything that her previous album wasn’t: babyish, unimaginative, with poor and generic references. I suspect Swift has probably actually read “The Scarlet Letter”, and definitely knows what it’s about, so why is she pissing about with innocent images that are transparently about saying yes to teen sex? With any other artist this young I would assume that their record label had pushed them in a direction of boring, uncontroversial teeny-bop-pop (which is why the country aspect is turned up to 11 – you have a USP, you stick to it), but Swift’s label is small and her drive is (allegedly) fierce, so I’m not sure. In the interests of fairness, though, I DID download a live acoustic version of the song so that I could listen without the country production and still found it a paint-by-numbers effort at an un-self-aware fairytale with a boring volta.
I found Fifteen a little self-indulgent: I’m aware it’s a bit of a fan-favourite, but how much of this is because of the glimpse of the real Taylor (in the form of the resurgence of red-headed Abigail from the Picture To Burn video and her uncryptic high school experiences)? I found it less honest than her earlier work, and less interesting. The hook is not ‘hook’ enough (“cause when you’re… FIFTEEN… sorry, what’s the rest of the line?”), the perspective is not fresh enough and the song is not upbeat enough to hide the unprofound lyrics. Fifteen is merely fine.
Hey Stephen, though, is fun, catchy and witty. It’s self-deprecating, which is a nice edge on the pop formula, and makes you tap your foot. Simple, but really effective.
I found You Belong With Me hugely endearing. I thought the country elements actually quite entertaining and found them toned-down enough to deal with as a mainstream listener. I liked the intonation and lilt in the singing (especially “you say you’re fine I know you better THAN THAT”), and I think she’s really grown as a singer in this album, able to show depth and emotion. It’s where the Swift persona as we know it is truly created – the ‘other’ that we root for, one of ‘us’ people who notices fashion (“your worn-out jeans”) but not enough to be self-absorbed (“I wear t-shirts”) – an archetypal girl-next-door figure, hung up on some guy friend. It also has a proper chorus, and is thus the advent of a slight change in her writing that enables many of the later period songs.
I liked Jump Then Fall, too – again, a slightly different structure to the previous album, with a simple hook and a focus on the first verse, which is much more conventional pop. I think it’s a really good opener that solidifies the Swift “je ne sais quois” – sweet country pop with subtle hints of sex (“I like the way you sound in the morning”), a good rhythm and some jangle.
As a whole, though, I thought this album didn’t ‘gel’ as well as the previous one. I thought it didn’t have an overall mood or theme, I thought it was a bit up and down, with a much more conventional outlook.
- Speak Now (2010)
- Best Song: Mine
- Bonus best video: Story of Us (#librarianproblems their library is way nicer than mine)
- Worst Song: Enchanted
- In a nutshell: My least favourite
Not really sure why Taylor is obsessed with marriage. Are her parents divorced or something?
Mean: if I knew how to remix it without the banjo then I would. And who is the little kid in the white dress in the video? I have 100% seen her somewhere since she did this and I can’t work out where. But, yes, good song. Fairly average Taylor formula: emotive subject (the venom in “as if I don’t already see them” is subtle but astounding), self-othering with a sense of humour (mean as a word choice appears to be a post-modern playground image) and a stock image write large (“I can see you years from now in a bar… drunk and rumbling on about how I can’t sing”). Actually quite empowering – I can really see why the sentiment of being the bigger person appeals to Swift’s fanbase, because it appeals to me.
‘Speak Now’ takes Taylor’s self-othering to a whole new level, though, and it was hard to feel sympathy for her ruining her friend’s wedding whilst being incredibly snide about the woman he’s marrying, who is some kind of caricature bridezilla. There is no honest emotion here, no searing portrayal of their lost love or analysis of her own emotions. The song might be catchy, but it’s also simplistic and unimaginative. Enchanted isn’t even this interesting – it’s cliche city, living in the same world of high school Rapunzels as Love Story off the previous album, the whole song turning on the weary conceit of conventionally claiming to be “enchanted, I’m sure” upon meeting someone.
On the other side of the coin is Dear John, which is lyrically nice (“I took your matches before fire could catch me”) but sonically boring (it would be better acapella), and therefore less powerful, and Innocent (“wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days”) which is a really good song, but drowns on an album of slow songs which all seem to focus on innocence/experience.
The album as a whole and the songs individually don’t hit as high as Swift’s efforts prior to this. It’s easily the most boring as a whole, and it holds up better when you don’t listen to it in one go. Swift is lucky that there were some beautiful videos and an acclaimed tour in this era which probably kept people interested, but I think this one is for proper fans rather than casuals like myself. It all sort of sounds the same, which is fine if you like that sound but it’s not my favourite.
- Red (2012)
- Best Song: State of Grace
- Worst Song: The Last Time ft Gary Lightbody
- In a nutshell: The strange case of the disappearing Nashville accent.
What I have learned by now is that Taylor writes a FUCKING CRACKING opener. State of Grace is far and away my favourite track on the album. It’s a signal of difference: straight up pop, no jangle, great bridge. Lyrically it’s typical Swiftian deep love with the ability to recognise it may not last forever (“we fall in love until it hurts or bleeds or fades in time”), but well-done, and fits really well with the energetic drums.
Red also sees the development of Taylor’s songwriting, in particular what I would call her signature technique, the metaphor. The title track explains what love feels like with a list of metaphors which are strangely compelling (“memorising him was as easy as knowing all the words to your old favourite song” – an obvious flashback to her earlier work). The country sound is back for this song, but mixed with a rock-pop sound that’s clearly aimed at breaking out to a wider audience, and probably testing out the waters for radioplay. I think this is an excellent song which explores why you fall for somebody and why it doesn’t work out, and I think it’s perfect for the teen girl market because it is simultaneously suggesting love is easy, natural and powerful AND that it is painful and life altering.
On the other hand, Taylor is here trying her hand at pop writing, and Red gets conventional and predictable in places. Mainly, actually, the collaborations (do you remember the days when nobody had really heard of Ed Sheeran? They feel so long ago).
These guest appearances are dirges in comparisons to the fresh, individual looks at exciting young love Swift has been showing us throughout her career.
To contrast this dullness, Swift has added ‘Stay Stay Stay’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ – popsongs with not much fire lyrically but a much-needed upbeatness to save the album from the Speak Now-era dullness.
I’m definitely too old for WANEGBT. I can appreciate the ‘Mean’-esque playground taunts (“you go talk to your friends talk to my friends talk to me”), and the self-deprecating humour of the track (“some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”), and I can appreciate that even typing that has got the song stuck in my head, but the whole portrayal of a breakup like that just seems gauche and not particularly observational. Great video, though – that’s peak Swift.
‘Stay Stay Stay’ has a similar sense of humour, and a much more honest perspective on relationships. There’s a couple of great images (“you come in wearing a football helmet”) that are kooky enough to catch your attention, but somehow make a point (I suppose the point of that one is that talking is hard but you have to take the knocks?)
One last question: why is this album so LONG? I know it’s 22 tracks and you are 22 and the lead single is called 22 and whatever you’re probably superstitious about the number 22 but FUCK ME I could NOT listen to this album in one go! I also count a major loss of points for overt christianity in the Knew You Were Trouble video. Just get an ostentatious cross tattoo like all the other pop stars if you need to flaunt your religion, then we can ignore it if we are so inclined.
- 1989 (2014)
- Best Song: Welcome to NY
- Worst Song: How You Get The Girl
- In a nutshell: actual brilliance
I was slightly distressed to learn that one of my favourite tracks is apparently Zoella’s favourite song (Wildest Dreams), but we move on from that and into the nitty gritty. Wildest Dreams is, to me, the direct descendant of Taylor’s ‘plot-driven’ work from her first album: it’s not a ballad because it doesn’t go anywhere, but it works like a ballad by telling its listener how things ought to go (“let’s get out of this town”, “my last request is”).
By this stage, however, Swift has learned (or, cynically, begun working with people who know how – I see that Ryan Tedder has a credit on this album) to construct a formulaic and more than respectable popsong: this is the album where Swift has learned how to construct a bridge and use the traditional verse/chorus pop standard structure to put her images in a vessel that makes them more punchy and immediate. For all the hype about Swift’s ‘squad’, it is this pop power subtly masking the vulnerabilities we have seen in Swift before (“I wish you never hung up the phone… like I did”) that makes this stand out from the crowd. Her self-referential tendencies build on the weak images from earlier in her career (“we show off our different scarlet letters / trust me mine is better”) and show a more complete, complex image of Swift’s public persona.
This album barely has a weak moment. It’s cohesive and listens well from start to finish, but the individual songs are usually pretty good too. It’s not immune from being formulaic – lead single ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘How You Get The Girl’ are simplistic and rely on their catchiness credentials and Swift’s core audience of not-quite-alternative girls with crushes to carry them (‘Shake It Off’ is much more successful with this – ‘How You Get The Girl’ falls back into the genericisms of the ‘Love Story’ era and a boring boy-meets-girl story), but they slot well into the album and keep it upbeat and fun between the ‘Styles’ and the ‘Cleans’ that make are more mature explorations of relationships. Much of the speculation about Swift’s personal relationships ought to be considered a credit to the record – like Beyoncé’s ultra-relatable ‘Becky With The Good Hair’ moment, it is difficult to believe from a pop singer that what she’s talking about here is imaginary. I don’t think for a moment that’s accidental, or even unembellished – the press hasn’t exactly stopped the record selling. I also think that this record has allowed both Swift and her audience to grow up – there is a string to be drawn from ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’ to ‘State of Grace’ to ‘Out of the Woods’ and from ‘Our Song’ to ‘Red’ to ‘Clean’, both thematically in the lyrics and in a distinctively Swiftian sound that’s been there all this time. This is no longer the music of the gauche early/mid 2000s, but is pop for the YouTube generation that prides itself in not being fake whilst it covers itself in a thick slake of gloss.
IMMA LET YOU FINISH. (I’m not sorry. I had to make reference to it somewhere.)
I am transformed, and on Taylor’s side. Not without criticism: the video for Bad Blood deserved the hype less than a James Cameron movie and fell into lazy female stereotyping; it contains a RAPPER (?! why though? Why is Kendrick giving a couple of saccharine verses that add nothing? Go somewhere you can be more controversial, Kendrick), looks way too much like Toxic by Britney Spears and has the typical American attitude to the rest of the world (I find this in rap and urban music particularly) where you expect us to know who your celebrities are? Mate, I’ve got better things to do with my life than watch “Law & Order” or baseball.
I have not paid any attention to her songs on film soundtracks and I don’t particularly care about her relationships or her squad or her live performances. I only listen to what I deem to be the best songs: mainly the singles, and not quite all of them, but a few of my own favourites too. I am not a fan enough to care about the rest of her catalogue. I still hate Love Story, the song that originally turned me and my radio off from Taylor Swift, but I accept that this song is, essentially, in her large collection of published juvenilia.
I appreciate Taylor’s songwriting and persona creation. I am wholeheartedly convinced that the face the public sees IS a persona, so I would be cautious about discussing anything regarding her personal life (except to say congratulations, if I were a celebrity I would bang all of the attractive men too. Own it.) I find myself listening to her music, sometimes. I think I might have become a fan?
But where is the shame in recognising talent?
I was surprised to find not merely well-crafted hits, but songs I connected to on an emotional level and genuinely good writing (I do love a good metaphor). Even avoiding difficult subject matter, Taylor’s work occasionally conforms not only to its genre but to conventions in the American poetical canon – though it is most often like a good, all-American high school movie: cynical, funny, self-mocking and trope-heavy, but fundamentally to be recognised as more than just entertaining, and to be unironically liked.
*NB: an EP is not an album, and I draw the line at christmas music.