I have just discovered Taylor Swift.
That might sound a strange thing to say, because she has been massively successful for several years. And it is a little bit ucky for a fifty year old bloke to express an interest in a twenty five year old chanteuse.
The two things are linked. There comes a time in life when you only know about pop music when your kids tell you about a cool new band. Or you watch Eurovision for the annual farce of countries voting for their neighbours and the UK getting null points. Boom bang a bang, shine a light, we love the world. Apparently.
There is a delightful story that in the 1960s a High Court judge asked who the Beatles were. One of the barristers explained “a popular beat combo, m’lud.”
Until recently, that was more or less my knowledge of Ms Swift. A popular female singer, m’lud.
There is something a little bit strange going on here. This is a story with many levels.
On the first level, she is a good performer. She makes some nice choons, starting in yee-hah country and more recently tending into bouncy pop. At the risk of sounding ucky again, she is easy on the eye to this fifty year old bloke. She makes clever videos with high production values and a great sense of humour. I appreciate the fact that she is a singer-songwriter.
So at level one we have tick, tick, tick. It’s all good so far.
Then we notice that “Shake it off” and “Mean” have similar themes. Both are about Taylor dealing with criticism.
“Mean” is about bullying – a rare topic for a pop song. Why have you gotta be so mean? The video shows people being bullied and excluded by their peers. The chorus shows the victim fighting back. One day I’ll be living in a big ol’ city, but all you’re ever going to be is mean.
“Shake it off” explores a similar idea. Don’t worry about being criticised or not fitting in. Do your own thing and everything will be okay.
So I do some internet research and discover that Ms Swift is a criticism magnet. There are queues of people saying that she can’t sing. Others whining that she only sings about breaking up with boys. Criticism of her romantic exploits. Today there is a new article saying that she isn’t an underdog and that she had help from her wealthy parents.
Why all this hate? What is it about Taylor Swift that seems to have annoyed so many people?
I saw none of this when I first found her music and videos. Her voice is fine. Admittedly she may not have the belt-it-out vocal horsepower that some singers have. She is no Adele. But her singing voice is perfectly listenable. I can’t easily relate to her songs about breaking up with boys. That’s not something I’ve ever tried. But I can relate to her themes around bullying and succeeding despite the criticism.
And I have no interest in her love life. What she does after hours is her own business.
So why all the criticism? Part of the answer, I think, is that we are living in a negative age. The internet has turned all of into critics. Had a bad cup of coffee? Then go straight to tripadvisor and leave a scathing review. Saw a rubbish movie? Then tell the world about it on IMDB. Criticise books on Amazon and Goodreads.
Heck, you could even write a blog. Like this one.
This negativity is starting to spill over into every area of our lives. One of the people I chat to on Goodreads is convinced that every politician is corrupt. Every last one. The current crop of politicians. The next wave of new MPs. Politicians who haven’t been born yet. Everything to do with the establishment is wrong. On principle.
There is a contrarian effect here. If something is very successful, some people feel the need to express the opposite view. We see that in Goodreads book reviews with some of the classic books. There are some books, like “To Kill a Mockingbird” which are almost universally admired. For some people this makes them into a target. Every now and then we will see a review along the lines of “I don’t know why people like this. I think it’s rubbish.”
Yawn. What these people are usually saying is not “It’s rubbish”. What they are really saying is “look at me!”. I’m different. I have interesting opinions. Look at me!
And that is part of the Taylor Swift phenomenon. People attack her because she is successful. It is in large part driven by jealousy.
Let’s go down a level. Why is Taylor Swift so successful? The video to “Shake it off” is supposedly about her not fitting in. She dances alongside professional ballet dancers, cheerleaders, twerkers, robot dancers, ribbon dancers. And we are supposed to see that she can’t dance as well as them. This makes her feel like an outcast until she is dancing with her fans at the end. That is where she fits in. The moral is: do your own thing and you will be okay.
That is what we are supposed to see. That’s the story board for the video. But it’s not what I see.
I see a woman who is incredibly fit … in both senses of the word. She may not be a trained ballet dancer, but she has a similar body shape. She didn’t get that way by accident. It will have taken years of hard work in the gym.
And while she may not be able to dance like the professionals in each of the different styles in the videos, she makes a pretty good attempt at it. You get the strong sense that if she had practised at any one of those dancing styles, she could be as good as the professionals. Because of the hard work and determination that she would have put in to any endeavour.
And that may help to explain some of the negativity directed at her. Taylor Swift is a grafter. She always has been. From a very young age (and with the help of a pushy Mom) she has been determined to succeed. “One day I’ll be living in a big old city…” And she is. She was always going to.
When we see someone like that being successful, some people will whoop and holler. Good for her. Like most overnight successes, she has worked damned hard to get there.
Some people – the negative people – will see it as a reflection of the hard work that they haven’t put in themselves. Hard working people can make us feel guilty if we don’t reach their standards. And that feeling can come out as criticism.
I am tempted to say that Taylor Swift is this generation’s Madonna. Maybe not the best natural singer, but determined and hardworking. And sometimes hated because of that.
But there is something else. This Taylor Swift riddle keeps on getting more complex. There is also a hint that she needs her critics. In a “Boy named Sue” sort of way, the negativity has helped to shape her. Part of her determination has come from wanting to prove the critics wrong.
It is also part of her fan-base. At the end of the video for Mean, a young girl watches Taylor Swift performing in a provincial theatre. This young girl has been the victim of exclusion earlier in the video. In Taylor she sees a way to deal with her feelings of being bullied.
By singing about bullying and criticism, Taylor Swift appeals to people who have felt the same emotions. It is part of the reason for her success. It is a part of her character.
One final thought. The song “Mean” is unusual because it is directed at the bully. She is facing the camera and talking directly to the person who is excluding her. Most songs are aimed at lovers or friends. We usually sing to lovers with variations of “I love you” or “I want to go to bed with you.” Or we are singing to our friends something like “I’ve got a great car” or “My girlfriend/ boyfriend is soooo fine.”
We don’t often sing to bullies. That reminds me of the Beatles song “You’re going to lose that girl” which is similarly unusual because it is aimed at a love rival. If you don’t take her out tonight, I will and you will lose her.
Hmm. Now there’s a thought. Taylor Swift is a singer-songwriter. She is very hard working and determined. She understands the power of video as well as music. She has a sense of humour. She innovates with songs, telling stories and exploring themes that few other people are touching.
We have seen that somewhere before, haven’t we? Maybe she isn’t this generation’s Madonna. Maybe there are links to the Beatles, to the Rolling Stones, the Beachboys, REM. Far-fetched as it sounds, we might be seeing someone who isn’t just another pop clone. Something a little bit special.
A popular beat combo, mlud?
Or we can criticise her singing voice. It’s your choice.