Speak Now


Band: Taylor Swift
Album: Speak Now
Best song: Every song sounds the same. It’s so very bland.
Worst song: See above.

The simplest of understandings of democracy and capitalism is, essentially, based on the wisdom of the crowd. This notion is not a terribly awful one; the “hive mind” of Wikipedia is largely based on this notion. After all, one person is not as brilliant as one hundred people. Ever.

With that said, one looks to Abraham Lincoln, who famously said “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Now, insert “please” in place of “fool” and you get the point. It’s impossible to make everyone happy; making lots of people happy involves compromise.

In rudimentary political science — that is to say, PS 1, my first political science at the lovely University of Missouri — the notion of compromise is called the median voter theorem. A candidate will be somewhat liberal in the Democratic primary, then shift more toward the middle of the political spectrum for the general election. Our current president would be a very nice example of that. He’s trying to play to the middle more, as a consequence of trying to please as many of the people as he can.

This happens everywhere and it makes some sense. In a capitalist society, the money follows as many people as possible. Which is to say that the Smithsonian will often move to the most center of places in order to not offend the voting public.

And so on.

The proliferation of cultural outlets cuts both ways. On one hand, the niche audiences make it such that a cultural entity can find its audience (the American version of the Office and its online following is the great example of this, as it would’ve been canceled in any other era) or find new life, thanks to an online audience (COUGHconanCOUGH).

Still, the most mainstream of American culture exists and it continues to find a large audience. And because there are so many cultural creators in the current system, there isn’t a refining that there was so long ago. Instead of the Capitol records people signing the great band of the other side of the Atlantic in the early 1960s, there are simply more bands out there to sign and promote.

Which is all a way of saying that Taylor Swift’s music is about as boring as it gets.

Ms. Swift is of some consequence largely because insane genius Kanye West ruined her VMA moment so long ago. Without West, she’d probably be another pop star; we would mock her in the same way we mock Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and the like.

There is credit to be sent to her for writing her own music, but she is the musical median voter theorem. Her music is not actively offensive or bad. It’s pleasant enough. Like Muzak or “smooth” jazz, it’s there to not offend. It’s the politician who wants to clean up Washington. It’s the mayoral candidate who cares about the kids. It’s the Applebee’s of music — big, bland and mildly easy to digest.

Look, I’m not going to say I hate Swift’s music. I don’t. I came upon this record because a friend and I were discussing Rolling Stone’s — god, I need to stop paying any attention to that magazine — top albums of 2010, in which Speak Now makes an appearance. I’d never heard any of Swift’s music, so I wanted to take a listen. So, I did and sent this e-mail to said friend:

I’ve now started listening to Ms. Swift’s new album. The first song is remarkably inoffensive. The kind of thing I imagine hearing in a drug store.

That is not praise.

It’s drug store music. It’s boring boring music for boring boring people.

Of course, I see the draw in Swift’s music. She is relatable, as a personality. Her Amazon.com store has a bio she’s written for herself and this is how it begins:

Hi, I’m Taylor. I’ve been alive for 20 years now, and I finally have my own kitchen. I’m very excited about this, and generally excited by anything else that falls into the “cute” or “cozy” categories. I learned to play guitar when I was twelve from this guy named Ronnie who came over to fix my parents’ computer. I like quilts. But that’s probably because I’m always freezing cold. I LOVE Nashville. That’s where I live, when I’m lucky enough to be there.

I can just see teenage girls around the world saying “She is always cold! OMG! SO AM I!” Her songs — though not on this album, which is slightly less upbeat — talk about her struggles with popularity in high school. On “Last Kiss,” she recounts “wearing your clothes” and the “handshake meetin’ my father,” as though she’s no older than 15.

As the Oxford (yes, I was shocked, too) magazine review writes, the record is more melancholy in “its own original vocabulary of regret, loneliness, and solitude.” It’s outstandingly easy to listen to, because it is facile. She rhymes “known” with “alone” on “Mine,” for example. Her shimmery voice uses the far too easy December-as-regret lyrical theme on “Back to December” and falls into easy lyrical tropes on other songs (see/me on “Innocent,” funny/honey on “Never Grow Up,” etc.). Lots of “boy” and “girl” stuff on there (the title track, specifically, features that construction a lot), which is, ultimately, ridiculous. She is a woman. She is not a girl. This week, she’ll be 21 years old. She can legally vote, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, buy pornography and server her nation in the military. The only things she can’t do are run for president and rent a car without wonky penalties.

Another e-mail to my friend on listening to Speak Now:

Also, my brain has officially turned to mush after listening to Taylor Swift. I need to stop garglepants walrus obstruction sandwich.

That pretty much says it.

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