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Taylor Swift “Speak Now” Review

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , , .

Something became quite evident as the term alternative rock morphed into a bastardized parody of itself in the mid-to-late-’90s: there was little left to be an alternative to. Bands such as Creed who were curiously pinned with the label helped contribute to its death, and as the new millennium dawned the vast world of mainstream pop and rock never looked so homogeneous. A decade later, when the term only serves as a distant memory—a seemingly ancient relic which defined a generation, music has shifted once again. We now find ourselves in an era where pop and rock idols are increasingly streamlined and boast a widespread sexual extravagance that is incomparable to generations gone by. Sure, it’s old news, but it helps offer some background on why someone like Taylor Swift has found such widespread success.

Unlike the (for lack of a better term) college rock bands that first helped bring widespread notoriety to the term a few decades back, alternative takes on a different meaning when approaching music in today’s landscape. But what hasn’t changed is the audience which it could be aimed at. Overlooked by the majority, alternative could still represent a music which isn’t being marketed enforce to any and everyone who have ears and an expendable income. Enter Taylor Swift, an unassuming young singer with conventional good looks and banal songwriting. Generic, sure, but the catch is that she’s seemingly secure with herself, her music, and her place in pop culture. Since her 2006 debut she hasn’t sexed things up, publicly struggled with internal demons, or allowed the “real Taylor” to manifest itself in overly detailed lyrics about her sexual exploits (something Christina Aguilera might call a process of self-examination). Rather, she continues to be casually shy through interactions with the media and reveals no more than ambiguous details about relationships in her songs. There aren’t paparazzi photos of her walking her pocket-sized Chihuahua on route to a Starbucks, chain-smoking and dawning light-inhibiting sunglasses help to nurse the hangover from the previous night’s exploits. In 2010, more now than in 2006 even, Taylor Swift’s success can be narrowed down to this: she has become the alternative.

It doesn’t take a stroke of genius to realize that the record industry has figured this out. She is the proverbial record-selling yin to Eminem‘s yang: without both sides neither would bear the same impact. But in browsing the Billboard charts week after week it becomes apparent that the fan base which has been so supportive of Swift’s career is now being catered to less and less. Gone are the days when pop stars would be ridiculed for casually tossing in “fowl” language—the parental advisory sticker means nothing now (as if it ever did) more than ever; Rihanna‘s Rated R would have been perceived as R-rated if it were released in the ’90s. Rather, Swift’s appeal is aimed at young listeners—listeners too young to have an honest knowledge of the adult concepts being forced on them at every turn. More importantly, Swift’s music is also aimed at their parents. Take this NY Times photo for instance: children and their parents greeting the singer, asking for autographs, and taking a few quick photos as the singer makes an appearance. All the while there are few, if any (I don’t see them), aggressive paparazzi battling for their paychecks. Seems a bit strange, doesn’t it?

No musician would be a star if not for scandal though. If only to reinforce Swift’s clean-cut image though, anything remotely resembling a scandal has found her playing the role of victim. Be it Kanye West‘s highly profiled hijacking of Swift’s award speech at the 2009 VMA’s or her public relationships with other celebrities: Swift’s only been at the center of attention due to little to no apparent fault of her own. Her response to any such headline has only materialized in songs faintly aimed at their highly-debated marks: on Speak Now Swift is to have taken on West in “Innocent,” as well as her relationships with John Mayer and Twilight‘s Taylor Lautner in “Dear John” and “Back to December” respectively. Again though, mum’s been the word with Swift and all of this is highly speculated hearsay until confirmation actually comes from her.

Sadly, Speak Now is about as unbearably dry musically as is her public persona. Normally this would be of great burden, but again, the 14 songs on Swift’s new album only go to reinforce the her image. Opening with a sugary set of “Oh oh oh”‘s, “Mine” leads the way as a straightforward pop song which is supported later by “Speak Now”; each referencing love, each lyrically unremarkable. “Sparks Fly” finds Swift romanticizing amidst the sound of lighthearted rock which is echoed, albeit a little more enthusiastically, in “The Story of Us,” “Better Than Revenge” and “Haunted.” The bulk of the album is occupied with sweeping ballads however, an approach that accentuates Swift’s songwriting.

Being the first album that Swift has written entirely on her own, early supporters of Speak Now have made a pattern of treating her confessional approach to songwriting as if she’d reinvented pop music itself; a view which is likely to be echoed by her fan base. But to the casual listener, these slow-moving songs, each with their own faintly individual sound as provided by the small army of Nashville’s finest, do little to add any honest depth to the album. There’s a difference between being safe and being generic, a line which Swift clearly continues to straddle despite taking on a greater role with her new songs. One of the few tracks that diverts from the dull sentimentality of the album is its lead single, “Mean.” In the track Swift branches out musically, doing her best Dixie Chicks as if to realign herself with the increasingly questionable country label which she is so closely associated with. Summing the album up lyrically, the track focuses on her drive to leave behind destructive relationships in her search for glory. The lone issue to take with the song reflects a larger issue however: Just as it is unequaled in tone, it is also musically unrepresentative of the rest of Speak Now.

To approach Taylor Swift critically is difficult. To lavish her music with praise might reflect a lack of any sense of the vast world of pop music and the creative magnitude of many of its most talented artists. To stubbornly dislike her music might reflect a sense of arrogance on par with a cultural elitist. While both sides of the argument have their merits it’s difficult to overlook the state of pop music and Swift’s place in it. She is the alternative to the vast majority, but she is the alternative for a reason. Say what you will about your Katy Perrys and your Ke$has, but they bring with them a sense of enthusiasm and originality (albeit a typically tasteless mediocre sense of originality) that Taylor Swift’s music does not. It’s no fault of hers though—she’s just being herself—and there’s a place for each of them in pop music. That said, Speak Now is simply white bread being served up to those who enjoy white bread, acting only as the music of the moment for many before they graduate from the uninteresting.