Taylor Swift Needs a Gap Year
It is a telling sign that Taylor Swift begins Speak Now with a coy, flirty, “Uh-oh, uh-oh…” lyrically wagging her finger at, well, everyone: at ex’s, romantic rivals, critics, John Mayer—and herself. On a first run, the album sounds like typical T-Swizzle fare: the dopamine-infused, hair-whipping stuff of “Sparks Fly”, the well-paced anthem in “Speak Now”, and the foot-stamping anger of “Better Than Revenge”. Miss Swift would have satisfied every 11-year-old in America with those three songs. The sure-to-be single hits, though, do not define the album. Her songwriting may be pop, but it is Nashville pop: not only catchy and satisfying enough to play on Manhattan radio stations, but with its own original vocabulary of regret, loneliness, and solitude.
The portraits that Swift crafted of herself on her debut album were in pick-up trucks (“Tim McGraw”, “Our Song”), school hallways (“Teardrops On My Guitar”), and sidewalk corners (“Stay Beautiful”). Her second album, Fearless, was set in similar places, but with fairy tale trappings (“Love Story”, “White Horse”). Swift in Speak Now is at her happiest in her bedroom, her breath still shallow as she recounts alone a first meeting (“Enchanted”). At her lowest, she is on the floor of someone else’s bedroom, in someone else’s shirt, just as alone, whispering “Never thought we’d have a/Last kiss”. This is not just stuff for 11-year-olds.
If loneliness is usually dark, then the darkest night of the year is also the most isolating. December is a month to get through so we can return to the beginning, and is certainly not a month to relish. Yet, Swift goes there—“all the time”—in “Back to December” by delivering an apology to an ex-boyfriend, which she never did on her prior two albums. Her voice in this song has the barely discernible, but immensely charming twang that lets Swift do melancholy so well. Hear the recurring verve of the strings with the wavering regret in Swift’s voice (“Your guard is up/And I know why-y-y-y”), and this is the congruence of her singing and songwriting at its finest. She sings in a comfortable range, and lets her clever writing dominate the strings.
Equating regret with December is a mainstream American musical tradition. Christmas spirit is not enough to console Kate Winslet in the aptly titled “What If” from Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001), nor does it deter Collective Soul from telling December “Turn your head baby/Now just spit me out”. And the month just cannot end quickly enough for the Counting Crows in “A Long December”.
It is as if Swift is drawing her despondence from bluegrass-country legend Alison Kraus, who—with her angelic pleading beyond fuss—sings that “My heart has grown cold/My love stored away” in her wish to “Get Me Through December”. These words describe Swift in this song and this album more than any other. Her love is still there, but, she seems to be saying, now is not the time: “And then the cold came/The dark days when fear crept into my mind…”
Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, in his favorable review, said that Swift is angry. That’s not it. She’s lonely. She loves 2:00 a.m. and wants to own it. She was cursing a boy’s name at that quiet hour because she was so infatuated with him in “The Way I Loved You” on her first album, and has her heart broken at 1:58 in “Last Kiss” on this one. What Caramanica sees as anger is a deliberate loneliness, a self-conscious effort to guard against the vicissitudes of beginning adulthood.
The mark of previous songs—the name-telling of her favorites like Drew, Stephen, Corey—is noticeably missing. The only one named here is “John”, an obvious reference to the apparently difficult relationship she broke off with the soulful, or soulless, pop artist (“Dear John”). A friend once musically associated with Mayer told me, “I guess if you’re mildly talented on the guitar, whisper a lot, and make the same face on stage as you do on the toilet, you can get some choice [bleep] without any real looks or talent.” I don’t know exactly what Mayer did to Taylor Swift to deserve being tossed into the second circle of Hell, but…boy. Swift spends 6 minutes and 44 seconds—the longest yet of any of her songs—mocking his guitar licks, softly ripping apart in a slow burn his “sick need/To give love then take it away”, justifying all of us who always suspected that Mayer’s crooning was full of shit.
Speak Now has misses that are few and far in between. “Haunted” is simply over-cooked, trying to mix Swift’s dexterous writing with what sounds like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. “Better Than Revenge” and “The Story of Us” are fast-paced and destined for girls’ gym mixes, but otherwise boring.
In the category of intrigue are the peeks at Swift’s thoughts on redemption and criticism. She dealt with the infamous interruption by Kanye West of her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards by composing a darkly set song that is, at turns, forgiving and oddly condescending (“Innocent”). Swift’s scolding of a vicious critic—with the jabber and jaunt of an actual country song—in “Mean” is less ambiguous, revealing a deep sensitivity to assessments of her voice. She is not LeAnn Rimes or Faith Hill, though, and why should anyone care? Swift has always been a songwriter first, singer second. Being herself has been more than enough to make it in the world—much less Nashville—and that should be enough for the future. She has deliberately intended for her songwriting to record her life, so the more interesting her life is, all the more variegated her music should be.
In light of her advice to a young relative (“Never Grow Up”), Taylor Swift has done a lot of growing up since her last album: “It’s so much colder than I thought it would be”. But Speak Now is about more than loneliness and regret. Like Swift, Krauss, and the others, Robert Frost recognized, too, that the darkest night falls in December. His horseman is in the middle of his journey, and lonely, but in a contemplative solitude, staring where “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”. In “Enchanted”, again at 2:00 a.m., her time of solitude, Swift is pacing at the memory of whom she just met. She can tell what the end of the journey is like, and she is thankful for her moment (“Long Live”), but it is clear that Taylor Swift will be with us for a long time. And in the middle of her journey, solitude may be what she needs most.
Rahul Prabhakar is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford. Rahul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.