Thursday, November 15, 2012

album review: 'red' by taylor swift

Dear Taylor Swift,

You know, I thought about writing this review in other ways, but I quickly realized that I’d lose some of the essence of what I’m trying to say if I don’t make this as approachable as possible. Plus, I want to prevent this from devolving into a rant, so a letter is probably the only way this sort of thing can work.

So let’s deal with introductions. I’m Silens Cursor, a semi-professional music critic and – pay attention, this is important – a former fan of yours. Yes, I liked your music. Your first two albums are pretty damn good pop-country, and you earned a lot of kudos from me by actually having a significant hand in writing your own material. It lent a certain ‘realness’ to your lyrics and simple style that was surprisingly appealing. Granted, I’m fairly certain lurking inside me is the spirit of a teenage girl who listens to Avril Lavigne and Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy and the Backstreet Boys and, well, you and who appreciates all these acts completely without irony. I get that some of your appeal was the ‘cuteness’ of it all, for lack of a better term (I’ll come back to this), but I genuinely think you have some well-written material that has some widespread appeal outside of the target demographic.

And then something happened. I’m not sure where, but I’m fairly certain it started with Speak Now, the first album of yours of which I wasn’t really much of a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I liked ‘Back To December’ a lot, but it was here I was beginning to observe a dichotomy I think it’s important to discuss, because it’s an interesting phenomenon I saw both in your music and that of Avril Lavigne, an artist you really have a lot in common with. I guess that also makes this letter something of a warning, because I don’t want to see you go the way she did, and a lot of the major symptoms are starting to crop up.

You see, Avril Lavigne came from the world of pop-punk with Let Go and Under My Skin, two albums I still hold are pretty damn excellent for an early 2000s female act. She had a certain bratty authenticity in her delivery that didn’t drain her of the very real fragility she could display on her ballads. There’s a reason why ‘I’m With You’ is the best song Avril Lavigne ever wrote – it played to all of her strengths, and really turned her into a captivating performer. You know, sort of like with you and ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’ (for the record, ‘I’m With You’ is better – sorry).

But here’s the dichotomy – you both were treading a very fine line between mainstream pop success and artistic authenticity. I’ll grant that Avril had it easier – she was working with a pop climate that was marginally more mature and ‘real’ in 2002 than yours was in 2008. But make no mistake, your careers have charted similar paths, and it’s an unnerving thing to know that it’s only a matter of time before you hit the tipping point.

You see, it’s a terrible thing, but there tends to be a shelf life for artists who work to preserve ‘authenticity’. That’s why you hear about acts ‘selling out’ – the point where artistic integrity is cast aside in order to produce trend-riding material that might sell well, but lacks a certain individual flavor. And given the alarming trend of acts selling out in the past few years – Maroon 5, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, I could go on – I knew it was just a matter of time before everyone’s favourite country princess might be coerced over to that dynamic. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, it was ‘when’. Sorry about the cynicism, but in this day and age, particularly when it comes to pop music, it only makes sense.

Now, I’ll admit that branding an act a ‘sell-out’ is a very serious charge, and not one I would level without very good reason. And it’s also particularly hard with acts that rely on certain definitive qualities that are central to their artistic integrity. You know, how with Pink it was her vindictive, painfully raw feminism, and with Avril Lavigne it was her bratty, shockingly sincere adolescence, and with Maroon 5… well, they always wrote the soundtracks of douchebags, but there was a distinctive loss of personality in their material.

But outside of isolated incidents (the autotune and Wiz Khalifa’s presence on ‘Payphone’), it can be a bit tricky to find the precise elements to truthfully brand an act a sell-out. To me, there are two main elements I can pinpoint: a shift in instrumentation, or a shift in subject matter. And while some elements remain consistent between Red and Speak Now, there are a few things that I can spot that make this album much less tolerable.


Let me start with the instrumentation, which, to be frank Miss Swift, has never been your strong suit. Sure, you can occasionally write a modestly catchy hook, but your strength has never been the pop-country bland guitarwork of your material. At best, it’s inoffensive and occasionally insufferably catchy – at worst, it’s boring and sloppy or mindbogglingly irritating. In short, you’re not a country guitar virtuoso like Brad Paisley – but neither has anyone expected this of you. But in comparison to the modern pop landscape, your material has something of a distinctive sound, given it’s pop-country. It’s sort of like Pink’s preference for loud distorted guitars and heavy drums, or Maroon 5’s pretensions to funk – it isn’t much, but it’s not homogeneous.

And thus when I start hearing tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on a Katy Perry album, with autotune (albeit a bit subtler, because you can actually sing) and electronic production, I just have to shake my head and wonder why. You had your own thing going, and I’ll admit there’s still some of it on Red, but there are several tracks that you can tell came straight from the prepackaged, prefabricated pop architects of Max Martin. Now, to be fair, I don’t normally complain about certain producers being on tracks - I remain an ardent defender of pop music, regardless of its creator – but the lack of authenticity in tracks like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ (I’ll come back to this, because I fucking hate this song) seem less organic and more like a facsimile of what your style actually is. Sure, it might be catchy, but that’s because it was designed to be catchy – they just feel fake next to songs that retain more of your personality on this album. And even in your two collaborations – one with Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and one with Ed Sheeran – it comes across as you’re adopting their style rather than merging yours with theirs to create a newer sound (the Gary Lightbody song in particular sounds a lot like a B-side from Eyes Open). When you’re the main artist on the track and you can’t assert some sort of personality through the instrumentation, there’s a problem.

And now we’re getting to the meat of the problem, because the evidence you’re really sold out comes not just from the instrumentation, but from the content of the songs. It’s going to take a bit of explanation to get to my final thesis on why I find Red such a disaster of an album, but I promise that I’ll get there.

Firstly, let’s talk about your fanbase. Now I know you can’t be held entirely responsible for the actions of your fanbase. I’ll defend Eminem in the same way, although Eminem’s best defense came in songs like ‘Who Knew’ and ‘Stan’ and ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’. But let’s consider your fanbase for a second: most of them are teenage girls, albeit with a few exceptions. But unlike Eminem, who had made it explicitly clear in plenty of tracks that he wasn’t a role model (hell, he wrote a song on his second album The Slim Shady LP called ‘Role Model’ directly addressing this), you haven’t exactly denied the fact that a lot of your fans look up to you. They identify with your songs because nobody quite speaks to teenage girls like you do, and while I’ll give you a lot of credit in being able to identify with your fanbase, it also puts in you in a very special position – a position I think you’ve even acknowledged with songs like ‘Fifteen’. To quote a not-shitty version of a comic book movie I’m assuming you saw at some point, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’

But here’s where part of the problem that began rearing its head in Speak Now comes to the forefront – namely that most of your songs, particularly some of your recent singles, have been about your extremely well-publicized relationships. I mean, ‘Dear John’ was about John Mayer, you can’t exactly make it less blatant than that! Now while some might argue that airing your dirty laundry in public lacks a certain amount of taste and class – and I’m one of those people arguing for that – I will admit it adds a certain degree of authenticity to your tracks. We can put faces to John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhall and Taylor Lautner, and by pinpointing them in your music, you can give your songs some weight. There’s strength that name association has – hell, I’ll even argue that ‘Back To December’ got even better in my eyes (and keep in mind it was easily your best song off of Speak Now) when I discovered it was directed at Taylor Lautner. He was the one that got away, the one you pleaded to take you back, and it’s a little heartbreaking to see that.

But here’s the first point, Taylor, and one that I’m not quite sure you’ve realized just yet: when you write songs about your relationships and place them with just enough ambiguity, people can still identify with them. Hell, even with ‘Dear John’, your fans can identify with the sentiment you’re presenting – to some extent, we can all hate John Mayer. But the problem is that such sentiments aren’t just nebulous feelings – no, with songs like ‘Love Story’ and ‘Fifteen’ and ‘Starlight’, you created a fantasy for your fans. A fantasy that they can dive into, a fantasy they can experience, a fantasy laced with just enough reality to make them almost real, to give your fans that special dream they cherish. And the frustrating thing is that these fantasies has the Twilight problem of being both broad enough to ‘appeal’ to a wide audience and emotionally exploitative enough to take advantage of those feelings.

Now, I’ll get back to your target demographic in a second, but let’s step outside that so I can air one of my big complaints about your situation: namely that, like Metric, the primary focus of your songs are yourself and your own life. And to some degree, there isn’t much a problem about that – some artists have built their entire careers off of exploring their own tics and neuroses (go ask the angry black rapper who interrupted you during the VMAs in 2009, I’m sure he’d be able to elaborate). But here’s the problem – it’s rapidly reaching the point where your material isn’t nearly as relatable to a more discerning demographic, or one that has the maturity who look a little deeper. And considering Red wears a lot of the trappings of the ‘breakup album’, there’s a certain narrowness of focus that I find frustrating about Red. Sure, there are tracks like ‘Begin Again’ that step a bit outside the template, but it’s not like they’re all that insightful – or interesting, for that matter.

Let me give you something of a personal example, one that I wouldn’t say inspired me to actually publish this review a month late, but one that certainly added additional impetus to pull this review off the shelf and gave me fresh context to speak upon. Namely, about a week and a half ago, my girlfriend and I ended our romantic relationship. Now I’m not going into details (namely, Taylor, because I don’t want you to get any ideas and write a song about it), but while we remain friends, things are a little awkward and strange right now. I can understand that my situation might not be analogous to any of yours, but I feel that the emotions I can summon related to this event are at least raw and conflicted, plenty of material to write songs about. And the closest you come to approaching my emotions is ‘I Almost Do’, and even there the connection’s tenuous and one-sided at best, where it’s plainly obvious that both you and your mystery partner still have feelings for each other and yet you don’t take any steps to actually, you know, discuss matters. I’d call it tame, but that’s not the proper word – I’d go with calculated. You know, just enough to garner an emotional reaction, yet not enough to betray the slightest crack in the innocent façade. Granted, I will give that you did encapsulate some of the peculiar quirkiness of the relationship itself in ‘Stay Stay Stay’, but the song still feels rather calculatingly chipper to be on a breakup album.

In fact, even despite the subject matter of so many of the songs being linked to the termination of relationships, the tone of Red really doesn’t match that of a ‘breakup album’. Any anger feels completely phony, there’s no bitterness or resentment, there’s nothing even close to the genuine grief and desperation that characterized songs like ‘Back To December’. Compared to the great breakup albums (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Beck’s Sea Change), Red lacks an emotional authenticity that just doesn’t feel real. It gives me the impression that the relationships you’re talking about didn’t even matter to you, Taylor, just all the more fodder for placid, bland, utterly weak breakup tracks. I don’t know if you’re blocked from showing real emotion by some clause in your contract or some strange vow you made with Satan to preserve your image of pristine innocence, but it sure as hell isn’t making for good music.

And here’s where I run into my second big issue with Red: even the teenage girl hidden deep inside me can’t identify with you anymore, Taylor, because your experiences and perspective are radically different than that of the vast majority of your audience. I’m going to ‘geek out’ for a moment here and discuss what Yahtzee Croshaw once deemed the ‘Guybrush Threepwood problem’. For those who aren’t aware, Guybrush Threepwood is the protagonist of the Monkey Island series of PC adventure games, and the problem is that as the series continued, Guybrush started to become rather alarmingly competent. Where his charm was once that he was a naïve, weak, clueless twit  that had big dreams of becoming a pirate despite his complete lack of nautical skills, in the later games he actually seemed quite capable of taking that role. And suddenly, all of that wit that was lovable in an underdog becomes insufferable once he gains power and prestige.

And here, Taylor, is where I have a massive issue with Red, because you’ve completely abandoned the idea that you could be the underdog in any relationship. Admittedly, I got tired of ‘You Belong With Me’, but at least in that song you attempted to cast yourself as the underdog in that story, namely because that allows the audience to sympathize and project. But on songs like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, what one might consider ‘cute’ just becomes suffocating and smug.  It doesn’t help matters that the enforced ‘cuteness’ and ‘innocence’ feels so goddamn fake half the time, but even if it were real, I can’t sympathize anymore. It gets utterly repugnant on songs like ‘The Lucky Ones’ where you actually start complaining about being famous – yeah, you’re getting zero sympathy, Miss Swift, I’m sure being a beautiful talented millionaire pop-country princess adored by millions is so hard. Instead of being the girl in T-shirts and sneakers, you transformed into that cheer captain in high heels that we’re suddenly supposed to feel sorry for – uh, why should I? And it gets even worse on songs where you attempt to play the victim card by claiming ‘too many cool kids (Taylor who?)’ and that your soon-to-be-ex is listening to an ‘indie record much cooler than mine’. Taylor, you’re one of the top selling female country acts on the planet – don’t even pretend that you’re not one of the ‘cool kids’ at this point. And considering your millions of fans, you’re long past the point where ‘cool’ should matter to you in any way, shape, or form.

But it’s those fans of yours that ultimately bring me to my final thesis about Red, the one that really pisses me off. You see, Taylor, I get it if you’re not trying to appeal to me or my demographic – you’ve got millions of fans who will eagerly lap up everything you put out regardless of quality, and genuinely believe the messages you’re selling them. And so I have to ask the question: what are you selling them?

Well, considering you’ve billed this album as an album where you’re ‘more mature’, your fans are going to take to mind the fantasy you created of what ‘mature’ looks like. And that maturity fantasy is self-obsessed, shallow, and convinced that ‘dating the bad boys’ is what counts.  I’m not even fucking joking when I say I was shocked when I heard songs like ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘22’ – mostly because they seem to be giving girls the worst sort of message, telling them that the macho, swaggering bro-douchebags of the world are the bad boys that they should date instead of shunning to the lowest rungs of society, where you find Juggalos and people who think Jeff Dunham is funny and Rush Limbaugh is insightful.  And not only that, you’re telling your impressionable fans that they don’t need to worry about all the other side-effects of relationships like these (I could list them, Taylor, but you’re being dishonest if you’re not familiar with them in some way), because they’ll be able to happily bounce away without a care in the world. Hell, you’ll be able to go out drinking and do it all again like you described in ‘22’ – you know, the same fucking song that Ke$ha parodied about three times in 2010!

On the one hand, I shouldn’t be surprised: it’s the natural evolution of the princess myth crossed with the fantasies of the ‘bad boys’. But on the other hand, what kind of message is that to give? Dating assholes isn’t a sign of maturity, it’s a sign of blindness and inexperience and occasional willful stupidity! And while you might be able to flounce away with hurt feelings that you can channel into a breakup song that will net you millions, Taylor, your fans don’t always have it so fucking easy! The reason why Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ works is because it’s harsh and angry and Kelly sounds legitimately pissed and burned from the fallout of her relationship – there’s none of that here! And sure, Taylor, you might have been able to get away from the assholes with only an easily mended broken heart for now, but you might not always be so damn lucky. How about you ask Rihanna how well dating assholes went for her? 

Actually, given the news that she’s probably going to be touring with Chris Brown, don’t ask Rihanna. Learn from her bad example.

And here is where the final piece of evidence comes that you’ve sold out, Miss Swift, and the reasons why I hate this album: because while Max Martin and Shellback were responsible for the worst tracks on this album, the sentiment behind those tracks stretches throughout the entire work, including the stuff you wrote. And the Taylor Swift I knew and I liked from her first two albums wouldn’t have pushed messages like the ones you did here. That version of Taylor Swift might have been naïve and a hopeless romantic, but she wasn’t the kind of person to shill the worthless, soulless tripe that the record labels are trying to shove down our throats time and time again. The Taylor Swift I liked wasn’t so self-obsessed and actually gave a damn about the message she was conveying to the fans instead of the steady stream of relationships she turned into homogeneous breakup songs that lack the courage to be anything real.

Look, maybe the pop princess life is getting to you, and you’re losing touch with your roots (it’s about the only explanation I can get for why you wrote ‘The Lucky Ones’), but as it is, Red feels like a blatant sellout not just of your art, but of the principles you once held, the responsibility you once felt towards your fanbase. Now, to be fair, songs like ‘Fifteen’ weren’t helping matters, but I was willing to call that an isolated incident – until now. And even despite the few songs on this album that I can tolerate, Red is definitely a step, both artistically and morally, in the wrong direction for you. I wouldn’t call it the horrifying disaster that Pink’s newest album was, or something on the magnitude of awful like Chris Brown’s Fortune, but it’s never heartening to see a promising artist produce something so shallow and vapid as this.

Taylor, with great power comes great responsibility, and while you don’t have any obligation to your fanbase, I hope you know the message you’re selling them, and know what that message will mean for someone who doesn’t have the privilege to be rich, white, beautiful, and successful. I’d use the word ‘privilege’, but that’s the wrong word here.

No, the right word is blindness. Open your eyes, Taylor. Please.

-Silens

3 comments:

  1. Nói cách khác, nhi tử ngươi đã chết rồi !

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    cao thủ hải tộc ra, các ngươi thả Ny Khả ! Dù sao lần mua bán này các
    ngươi cũng lời chán!

    - Đoạn Vân, làm sao ngươi mới có thể đồng ý cứu nhi tử ta ? - Trên mặt
    Mai Lan Ny xuất hiện vài tia thống khổ .

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    học kế toán thực hành tại đồng nai

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    - Nhi tử ngươi? Nhi tử ngươi đã chết ! Đoạn Vân ta không phải là thần,
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    thật sự là ngây thơ !

    - Đoạn Vân, nguyên lai ngươi một mạch lừa gạt ta !

    - Có thể là vì trong lòng quá đau đớn, trên mặt mụ đàn bà trung niên này
    bỗng xuất hiện vẻ phẫn nộ, còn Đoạn Vân đột nhiên ý thức được một luồng
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    ReplyDelete
  2. AI THAM GIA CŨNG CÓ QUÀ HẾT NHÉ.
    học kế toán trưởng bộ tài chính
    học chứng chỉ kế toán tổng hợp
    đào tạo kế toán cho giám đốc
    Có Duy nữa kìa !Xin chúc men 97er trong fan club ngày mai thi thật tốt nher. Thành công giống như anh hường z đó. Giỏi thì anh mới tự hào về fa

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is actually my favorite Taylor album lol.

    ReplyDelete