It’s safe to say that Taylor Swift has officially made the jump from country chick with a guitar to cultural phenomenon. No matter where you live or what you do, she’s as inescapable a pop star as there is these days. In an era when female singer and oversexualized images are almost synonymous, Taylor’s a throwback to a simpler time, sort of an Olivia Newton-John (kids, look her up) for the new millennium.
Unlike ONJ, Taylor plays guitar and writes her own songs. However, the music she writes contains sentiments that appeal to the naive innocent in all of us. Most of us would like to think that she’s writing from the perspective of most girls her age, but I’d like to think that most 20-year old women are a little more wizened and savvy than Taylor comes across as on her records. Of course, when you consider that she makes music for a living, it’s easy for cynics like me to imagine that naivete as an adopted image. An artificial good girl for this generation without the threat of “going bad” (like Rihanna, for example). Normally, this type of artifice would annoy me to the point where I wouldn’t necessarily be able to enjoy her music, but thankfully, Taylor also knows how to write songs with indelible hooks and catchy rhythms, which is ultimately where “Speak Now” scores.
“Speak Now” is a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and a lot pop. I’m certainly not qualified to tell you what real country is vs. what real country isn’t, but I can tell you that particular argument has been going on for 35 years (see the above referenced ONJ) and literally may not end until the cows come home. Taylor makes music that fits comfortably in all three genres, although for my money, she sounds best when she’s rocking out on songs like “The Story of Us” and “Better Than Revenge”, a bad girl story that’s the best Avril Lavigne song she never recorded.
Taylor’s capable of writing a compelling song as well, with the best example being the title track. Her Achilles Heel, though, is that she often comes off as lyrically passive-aggressive and sanctimonious-she’s the innocent and everyone else is the bad guy. It’s not a particularly endearing trait. So while the public is swooning over songs like “Dear John” (allegedly written about man-whore John Mayer, who Taylor apparently had a brief dalliance with) or “Innocent”, which offers her take on the MTV Kanye West controversy, I’m not really impressed with the lyrical content on a personal level. The album’s biggest transgressor is “Mean”, a mandolin-spiked number on which Taylor addresses a critic that she felt mistreated her. The basic sentiment of the song is “well, I’m a rich superstar and all you’ll ever be is mean”, which to my ears is no different than people like 50 Cent calling out “haters” by saying how much more money he has than them. Of course, Taylor can play the deer-in-the-headlights card because she’s Middle America’s favorite girl, but that quality in her songwriting is a thorn in my side.
All things considered, “Speak Now” is a solid effort. It will, of course, sell like hotcakes, although when someone looks back a decade from now, I don’t think it will be any kind of artistic tentpole-and who said all music has to be? If you’re looking for an album that captures Middle American post-adolescent angst OR just something to sing along to when you’re driving around or washing the dishes or whatever, you could do a lot worse than Taylor Swift’s latest.