Saturday, November 3, 2012

Taylor Swift and the Duty of Pop Music

Taylor Swift and the Duty of Pop Music

"And you, will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that's much cooler than mine" Taylor Swift - We Are Never Getting Back Together

There’s been quite a bit of discussion about the slight change in direction Taylor Swift has taken on her new album, Red. It’s easy to agree with the detractors.  The album’s opening song “State of Grace” has a rock beat, and a clamoring guitar section. There is no sign of her usual pop-country in sight. It’s understandable how this could be a shock to longtime fans.

The next track starts with a banjo. This is pop music, and it’s edging closer to mainstream than ever. Swift has always been mainstream, but never before has she made music you could imagine hearing in clubs. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the closest to urban a pretty white girl can get without being disowned by her father. It’s great pop song.  It sounds like a pretty typical Swift song until the chorus kicks in, followed by a floor shattering beat.  The hook is nonsense, but catchy as a pokemon. Swift yelps about how she knew some guy was trouble, and then accusing him of never loving anything, or anyone.

This is pretty typical subject matter. Most of these songs are about falling in or out of love, and being a young girl. Most of it is pretty and non-offensive. It appeals to a wide audience.  Swift is only trying to appeal to a wider audience. Sales wise it worked. With this album she’s posted her biggest numbers (a million plus copies sold in the first week).

Thing is, it probably isn’t just a career move. People get bored. People want to different things. Hell, even fans get bored. You can’t make the same album more than two or three times. If you look at female pop stars like Norah Jones or Kelly Clarkson, there’s always a bit of a shift around the third or fourth album. It’s “Mature Album” syndrome.  It isn't a bad thing. It’s kind of necessary if an artist wants to stay in the public consciousness for more than a decade.

The other complaint I’ve seen thrown at the record is that people can’t connect with it as well as the older songs. This probably isn’t Swift’s fault. People grow older, they lose touch when how they felt when they were younger. It’s the duty of pop music to connect with an audience and mean something to someone. That’s what it’s there for:  to be happy with you when you’re happy, to be sad with you when you’re sad, and a million emotions in-between.  To my ears Swift accomplishes that goal, even if it means nothing to me on a personal level.  People change. Enjoy the old records. It’s unlikely you’ll love the same pop princess for the rest of your life. That’s fine, there’s always going to be another one right around the corner.

Still, Swift could be one of the ones who remain interesting twenty years in. Her lyrics are occasionally astonishing: “you should've been there, should've burst through the door, with that 'baby I'm right here' smile, and it would've felt like, a million little shining stars had just aligned, and I would've been so happy”. That verse from “The Moment I Knew”, one of Red’s bonus tracks, could cripple a person. Swift does this a lot. Even if she screws around with her sound a bit, she remains one of the best mainstream pop has to offer at the moment.