September 8th 2018
This blog post is going to take Taylor Swift's music seriously. Far too seriously. Just a warning.
Some time ago my brother wrote a quiz for Oxford Dictionaries where you had to decide whether a particular phrase was written by Jonathan Swift or Taylor Swift (a suggestion I'd made myself, albeit only after they'd already decided to do it... or so he says. Intellectual property rights much?). Simon had a difficult job finding any lyrics that sounded plausibly like they could have come from the pen of the author of A Modest Proposal, and complained that Taylor wasn't so good with the writing. At the time I think this was probably a fair comment ("Can't help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain" is a phrase rarely to be found in Gulliver's Travels) but Taylor's later work showed, in my view, impressive lyrical growth. That is, until her most recent album, Reputation. This, then, is a lament to the lost lyricism of Taylor Swift.
Big reputation, big reputation
Ooh, you and me, we got big reputations
Ah, and you heard about me
Ooh, I got some big enemies (yeah)
Big reputation, big reputation
Ooh, you and me would be a big conversation
Ah, and I heard about you (yeah)
Ooh, you like the bad ones, too
It's... it's not good. And it sounds even worse, but that's a separate point. This chorus from End Game, one of the bigger tracks from the album - featuring Ed Sheeran and some chap with the improbable name of Future - sounds like it was knocked out in five minutes, with time left over to boil an egg. This is emphasised by the fact that the key motif - "you heard about me" - is stolen directly from her earlier hit, Blank Space:
And I know you heard about me
So hey, let's be friends
I'm dying to see how this one ends
Grab your passport and my hand
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend
Sure, it's not Dylan, but it expresses original ideas in a striking way. It's self-mocking - the whole song, and accompanying video, is a rather sharper satire than Taylor's similar attempts in the likes of Look What You Made Me Do (which, by the way, deserved more of a backlash for co-opting the language of abusers) - and gets across a lot in a few lines. While some of it is a bit showy - "I'm a nightmare dressed as a daydream" & "Boys only want love if it's torture", from the same song, are fun but similarly feel a bit like they were written in bold and underlined - the real strength of Taylor's lyrics is, I think, the ability to paint a picture in just a few words. Take, for example, from the same song, again:
Cherry lips, crystal skies
With impressive economy these four words set the scene perfectly: idyllic, romantic, perhaps too idealistic, cosmetic, crafted. Or, jumping back an album, here are some lyrics from Out of the Woods that are not quite so economical but still manage to create a detailed scene from fairly little:
Remember when you hit the brakes too soon?
Twenty stitches in the hospital room
In a song all about a relationship that is teetering and may or may not fall apart - hence the title - the phrase "hit the brakes too soon" clearly has a double meaning, but it's also concise demonstration of intimacy: there is no need to specify the memory aside from a quick reference; further, the extent of damage or injury or repercussion is not highlighted, but instead the time spent together 'in the hospital room'. And how about this shorthand from I Knew You Were Trouble:
Once upon a time
A few mistakes ago
For a singer who rose to prominence with fairy tales - announcing herself with Love Story, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet with a happy ending; even opening Forever and Always with "Once upon a time" - this is a neat trick to reference her past while clearly indicating that she is maturing as a writer as well as a musician. Speaking of Dylan (remember that?), it even calls to mind the opening of arguably his greatest song, Like a Rolling Stone ("Once upon a time you dressed so fine..."). Am I stretching this too far? Maybe. Although it's worth noting that when Taylor first broke through she sang with musicians like James Taylor - referenced in Begin Again - and Carole King; only when she reached peaks of fame did she abandon them for the likes of *checks notes* Future.
So, what happened to all that economy on Reputation? Well, here are some lyrics from Call It What You Want:
I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck
Chain round my neck
Not because he owns me
But 'cause he really knows me
Leaving aside, again, the fact that Taylor's other and longer-standing strength - the catchiest melodies in all the town - has entirely almost disappeared on this one, these phrases feel like they were a first draft. Far from expressing complex thoughts in a few lines, they're expressing a fairly obvious idea in about as long as it's possible to do so. I mean, the words are even self-correcting, just in case you're getting the wrong idea about what a necklace might be.
In fairness, there are some nice ideas on Reputation. "I'll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year's Day" might be my favourite - Taylor clearly liked it, too, as she called the song New Year's Day. I'd prefer it if she spent more time devising those kind of lyrics and less time on spiteful, nasty songs like This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things (e.g. "Forgiveness is a nice thing to do / Haha, I can't even say it with a straight face"). Where, for example, is the concise beauty of the opening to The Lucky One:
New to town with a made-up name
One more to finish, a lyrical masterpiece that I think might be her best. When I ranked my favourite Taylor Swift songs last year I missed this off the list, but I have listened to it quite a lot since and it has risen immensely in my estimation. It's All Too Well - the full lyrics are in the link - in which Taylor looks back with regret on a relationship that promised much but fell apart. It is bittersweet and personal, crescendoing into an outburst of pain and anger before falling back, again, into something more tender. And while it has some more of the showy lyrics that she sometimes adopts (think Jim Steinman), it also contains several of the best examples of complex pictures being painted in just a few words. Here are some of each:
Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place
Photo album on the counter
Your cheeks were turning red
You used to be a little kid with glasses
In a twin-sized bed
You tell me 'bout your past
Thinking your future was me
I forget about you long enough
To forget why I needed to
'Cause there we are again in the middle of the night
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light
You call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
Plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
So, there you go. I've officially gone insane. But if you ever want to discuss the exciting and variable career of Taylor Swift, you now know who to ask. Next week: how One Direction are the new Beethoven.
|what am I listening to?
Reputation - Taylor Swift
|what am I reading?
Brown at 10 - Anthony Seldon & Guy Lodge
|what am I watching?
Avengers: Infinity War