Red


Band: Taylor Swift
Album: Red
Best song: “I Knew You Were Trouble.” is strong. Very strong.
Worst song: “Everything Has Changed” stinks.

I know it’s the least important thing in the mountains of things that women are up against, but I really don’t listen to enough female musicians. I’ve been making a concerted effort since March of this year to try and explore more female singers and female-led bands. It is not that easy.

Looking over my last.fm all-time listening profile, it’s almost entirely male. My top all-time artists have 2.5 women in the top 20: Cat Power, Chelsea Wolfe and Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell. Part of that is because men tend to dominate the types of music I like (post-rock, progressive rock, metal, classic rock, etc.), but mostly it’s because men dominate all types of music. Great rappers are almost all dudes because little girls aren’t told that they can grow up to be great rappers. Young guitar players look up to guitar gods — Clapton, Van Halen, Hendrix, etc. — and they’re all dudes. 

It’s better than it used to be, certainly. When giving interviews, artists like Wolfe and Cat Power don’t cite female singers as inspiration, but rather give a mostly gender-neutral answer about bands they’ve loved (in Wolfe’s case, Neurosis or Rudimentary Penii; in Cat Power’s, blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf). That’s a start, on some level, in that women can see music not as “lady’s music” or “men’s music,” but simply music. That’s valuable, certainly.

But, nevertheless, it bothers me. The vast ocean of artists in the world means that there have got to be great female-led bands and female singers in the world. I do feel like I’m making progress, as the last three months of my listening (to preserve it on June 3, I took a screenshot, as it is a dynamic page and this piece has been sitting around for a month and a half) contain all but one female artist in the top 10. So, since March, I’ve listened to a lot more female artists.

It’s not like I only listen to dudes; it’s just that there are a ton more dudes out there. I’ve always said I prefer female vocalists to male vocalists — and I listen to a lot of instrumental records. Last year, on a recommendation of my Sardinian friend Luisa (and in an effort to learn more Italian), I got into Carmen Consoli last year. Upon hearing Ἀποκάλυψις, I fell deeply in love with Wolfe’s music and listen to her more than anyone now. I listen to PJ Harvey about as much as I listen to any artist. I find pop music to be enjoyable, but only when women are singing — I’m a little tired of the Postal Service thing and Justin Bieber makes me retch. So, I end up listening to a fair amount of Taylor Swift (Red is fucking awesome) and Ke$ha.

And that’s the rub. So many women record within types of music that largely do not appeal to me: Pop, singer/songwriter, modern R&B and mainstream country. I’m mostly not interested in Selena Gomez, Regina Spektor, Ciara or Lady Antelbellum (to name one from each of the mentioned genres), so I’m left to the other sides of things. Post-rock doesn’t employ a monumental amount of women and metal remains largely the domain of growlers and pains in the ass.

It’s all very well and good, but it does bring up Taylor Swift’s Red, a record I mentioned above. You’ve likely noticed that I’ve decreased output on this site since my dog’s passing in December. Some of that is processing Nino’s death, some of it is reassessing my priorities as an adult human and some of it is simply my being busy. A lot of it is simply not wanting to write, as I think I’ve exhausted most of the words I have in me.

I don’t know what I’ll do, going forward. Nino’s death really jarred me; it rattled my brain in this weird “Where am I now?” way. I was — as you can imagine from what I’ve written — severely depressed after his passing (even more than usual). Part of dealing with his death involved watching a whole lot of movies and listening to Red.

I’m not going to act like Red is some work of great art. Dark Side of the Moon it is not. But, the first half of that album is shockingly good, with a combination of absurd assertiveness mixed with a light touch of vulnerability (Swift’s best quality). A lot gets made of her romantic life and the music builds off that legend. The album’s first single — “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — was rightfully mocked for its childish chorus. In its defense, the song is about a teenager and her dumb boyfriend; to expect Swift to examine the realities of romantic love in a modern world might be a bridge too far. Nevertheless, the song is catchy and fun, even with Swift’s dopey talking bits.

(A quick aside: I highly recommend Mark Lee’s opus discussing the dualities of Swift on OverthinkingIt.com. While a bit inconsistent and with some unimportant arguments, Lee looks at the notion of Swift as a young woman in America dancing the line of virgin/whore and urban/country, all wrapped in a very odd bit about furries. Really, it’s worth a read.)

That’s sort of her deal, though, isn’t it? Swift’s going through the requisite growing pains that everyone experiences in his or her early 20s. Look, for instance, in the album art differences between each of her records. gone are the accouterments of guitars or flowing Disney Princess dresses and all that is left is half of Swift’s face. She’s in her moody, mostly immature college phase. Many of us have been there (I have never left). But, it’s certainly a fun phase. There is brilliance (the romp of the title track) and there is garbage (the garbage that is the track recorded with tourmate and sometime boyfriend Ed Sheeran, “Everything Has Changed”) and there is stuff in between (album opener “State of Grace” is shallow, but well-arranged and perfectly sung).

The album’s best track — second single “I Knew You Were Trouble.” — is the simplest story of “Boy and girl meet, boy makes girl regret it, girl gets angry” done over a stuttering popstep chorus. The chant-worthy — and, it turns out, meme-able — speaks volumes about how catchy the song is. More importantly, it’s a strong lyrical song, with the record’s protagonist sounding like she’s upset and powerful. Scorned, she will not accept the ex’s overtures and avoiding the trap that so many romantic songs have laid out before. Like Swift herself, “I Knew You Were Trouble.” skirts the femininity lines while continuing to be aspirational.

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