Wednesday, October 29, 2014

1989, Taylor Swift, and Sexism in Media

1989 just came out, and everyone’s talking about how Taylor Swift has grown up so much and finally made an album that people are proud to listen to. But she’s actually had great songs for a few years now… you just never heard them.

Part of the problem with Taylor Swift as a brand is that her singles are rarely her best songs, and the general public doesn’t realize how much better she is on the album tracks than the 3 minute megahit you hear on the radio every half hour. While I can appreciate the histrionics of faux dystopian revolutionary freedom fighter Matt Bellamy or the sparkling, earthy wails of witchy Florence Welch or fae-like Christina Perri, Taylor Swift seems to veer closest to silly when she’s leading a brash singalong about never getting back together or life at 22, complete with self-deprecating spoken-word comments.

In her quieter moments, though? Taylor Swift is an impressive songwriter. By her second album she showed potential, but it was her third album when she really blossomed. Her specific images, much like Lorde’s, are so pointed and vivid that they create a universal feeling. Never is she better than when she’s describing a scene:

I walked through the door with you, the air was cold,
But something ‘bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister’s house,
And you still got it in your drawer even now.

Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze.
We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate.

Much has been said about Taylor Swift writing from personal experience, though I would venture to say people who think that’s odd or problematic aren’t writers. Writers draw from the well of their experiences. Her songs have become stronger as they’ve become more specific and evocative, drawn so directly from life experience that sometimes you feel more like you’re reading her diary.

Some of her best lyrics, from “Innocent”, show her ability to craft devastating poetry out of more subtle images and words:

Wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days?
Always a bigger bed to crawl into
Wasn’t it beautiful when you believed in everything?
And everybody believed in you?

Some of her other best songs (“Enchanted”, “The Last Time”, “Holy Ground”, “State of Grace”, “Long Live”) deal in similar deep subject matter, delicately impacting word play.

One of the other greatest issues with Taylor Swift has always been the is she/isn’t she media storm that has always surrounded her. Much of that isn’t her fault, of course, because fame came to her very early, before she could form opinions on a range of adult issues like feminism, relationships and sex.  In the early days she, much like I did once, bought into an image of herself as a pure, innocent, chaste girl in a world of handsome boys and mean cheerleaders. She played the outsider by way of tennis shoes and t-shirts and glasses. The sexist media, sensing an opportunity to cause trouble, latched onto her ideas and multiplied them in every article, every interview, laughing and pointing at this “good girl” who was also dating boys. Taylor Swift, like many other girls that age, struck back by insisting that she was not “one of those girls.” The cycle of viciousness spiraled downward from there, until at some point she broke out of her media-spun dichotomy and realized you can love love, love relationships, love boys, date often and still wear 1950s dresses and be a good person. There are no “other girls” to not be like. Women can be as complicated and multifaceted as men, despite what the sexist media says.

To me, 1989 is that realization in one album. It’s less apologetic about romance, it’s more honest about flaws in both side of every relationship. The style of the songs feels drawn from Lorde, from Lana Del Rey, from other women who have been strong in their message from the beginning. The songs are cohesive and interesting and mature. And the songwriting is good.

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