On a cloudy night last fall, a group debate about Taylor Swift arose, as group debates about Taylor Swift are prone to when and wherever three or more bored and opinionated college students sit around a dinner table. But this particular debate escalated over the course of eight or so hours of shouting over three days. I exaggerate not when I say that the stakes eventually turned into our questioning of relationships with one another.
Along the way I was accused of being anti-feminist for being pro-Tay, and in response I likened her lyrical empathy to Bob Dylan’s (marking the conversation’s point of no return). My central argument in her defense was that taste is fundamentally rooted in the viscera, not the intellect. That within reason, no one should be asked to justify or change what she likes. I should and would and do listen to Swift unapologetically, cultural contrarians be damned.
Her latest album has been permeating strangers’ apartments in my building on permanent repeat thanks to yours truly. I belt it loudly and proudly walking down the street, hoping to bump into that friend of mine who told me at the dinner table that he respected me significantly less for listening to Tay.
The days of crimped hair and plain acoustic twang are over for the former “country” starlet. Her fourth studio album, Red, ventures into a poppier land than any Taylor Swift album has before. Listening to the three songs she co-wrote with the all-star songwriting duo behind various P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, and Britney Spears chart-toppers, one forgets the gal whose sworn obsessions were Nashville and the Dixie Chicks and recognizes the one who’s transitioned to doting on Cape Cod and HBO’s Girls.
As always, Swift’s core goal for the album is to convey life in moments. She invites us to take a noncommittal dip in her stream of consciousness with the buoyant intro and first line of the opener, “State of Grace”: “I’m walking fast through the traffic lights/Busy streets and busy lives,/And all we know is touch and go.” Such threads of rumination aren’t merely reflected in the song for Swift; her thoughts and the lyrics are one and the same. Diary wide open, she’s an autobiographer in acute three-and-a-half minute slices.
With a broken heart in less existential pain than Fiona Apple’s and a presence far less performative than Lana Del Rey’s, Swift’s “sad girl” music is nothing if not relatable. There’s nothing dreamlike about this album; even in its most cinematic moments, her lyrical aesthetic remains purely naturalistic. Unsurprising given how she is desperate to communicate that which is in between, to close the distance between her and other people or the gap between public social personas and stranger private selves.
A forty-email-long thread followed the debate between me and two friends, and it ended on an Einstein quote I sent them from my phone: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”
That was over a year ago, and since then she’s gotten older and richer, more famous and more successful. But Taylor Swift, in persona and in person, remains completely unpretentious. It’s no struggle to understand what she means in any of these 16 songs, which alternate between addictively catchy/empowering and somberly sweet/vulnerable. She narrows, simplifies, and tames with the nuanced ease of lines like “you took the time to memorize me” or “I’ll do anything you say if you say it with your hands.” She resists gilding the lily and the resulting plainness of her words turns them into makeshift prayers as they repeat—pleas to boys, pleas to listeners, pleas to herself.
In the past year, the “bohemian” reinvention of her style (scare quotes because it’s still Taylor Swift), ironically accompanies a musical shift away from her down-to-earth Joni Mitchell folk rockness and toward old-school Britney pop balladry. She’s mixed up her lipstick, her boyfriends, her intros—and the album is her most diverse in many ways—but she continues to lie out the facts of her world straightforwardly and keep her inner life far from elusive.
In The Poetics, Aristotle sets apart the roles of the poet and the historian. The latter describes the thing that’s happened whereas the former describes the kind of thing that could happen. What has been versus what might be. By this definition Swift is both a historian of her relationship résumé and its resident poet, turning to the potential of her seemingly infinite and constant new love interests—who she might become, and how.
She’s been condemned before for not using metaphors in her lyrics, for keeping them too simple and, the argument goes, too surface-level. And indeed, metaphors are not her strength on Red (“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street” doesn’t seem to radically bridge worlds). But her simplicity is precious as long as it rings true. With lines like “I just like hanging out with you all the time…I just want to hang out with you for my whole life,” she isn’t planting sly references or creating puzzles for her listeners to feel satisfied about “getting.”
This strength has been deemed a flaw; she is often dismissed categorically because her music is easily accessible in every way. But this album continues to prove her a naturally charming and intensely earnest lyricist. It’s uncertain how long her proclivity for romantic infatuation and intense intimacy can sustain itself, but it’s clear that it makes for valuable material. The most specific (least clichéd) songbook of Swift’s career, the album has something for everyone—everyone who’s willing to let go and unashamedly buy in, that is.
Two albums ago, she realized in the folky “Fifteen” that there are “greater things than dating the boy on the football team.” In Red, Swift shows signs of delicately working through and past her romanticized fifties-style girlhood that once seemed dangerously, peculiarly perpetual. Seven years out, in “22,” she reminds us—to a more heavily produced and upbeat melody—to dance even when we’re “happy free confused and lonely at the same time/It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah.” Swift once again projects herself as ever young, ever in love with love. The more things change, the more she stays the dame.
Editors’ note: In the Nov. 2, 2012 print issue of the Herald, the wrong version of this article appeared on page 20. The correct version appears here online. Our apologies to the writer.