The Friday Morning Listen: Taylor Swift – Speak Now (2010)

There is Anna Netrebko and there is Taylor Swift: there is a right or wrong answer as to which is better, though both can have their own beauty.

OK, who said that? Me? Robert Christgau? Rick Moody over at The Rumpus? Some random dude on a Bruce Springsteen fan forum?

The answer is “None of the above.” Sort of. In truth, it was some random guy at Backstreets.com, except that I altered the players. I’ll get to the original quote in a bit. First, let’s talk about Taylor Swift.

I ran across the article linked above at Salon.com, where Rick Moody wrote a piece talking about how he’d dissed Taylor Swift and was bashed for it. What he basically said was that he didn’t understand how so many established critics seemed to be bending over backwards in praise of Ms. Swift. While I’m not familiar with Swift’s work in particular (the exception being the song “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” because yack about it on the Interwebs was harder to avoid than Monday morning Downton Abbey spoilers), I kind of know that she’s a country/pop sort of artist. So it did seem odd that somebody like Christgau was on her side.

In Moody’s article he did something he said he normally avoids: he went negative. I applaud Moody’s positive outlook and get the driving philosophy: that writing about things you like makes for better writing. What he ended up writing wasn’t any nastier than the usual snark you find everywhere these days but its inherent lack of weight seemed to undermine his point, which was that he didn’t “get” the whole Taylor Swift phenomenon. And yes, the comments did flow. One that struck in particular came from a reader of the meta-article at Salon:

I dunno, pissing on a pop artist like Taylor Swift is a bit like sneaking into your little sister’s bedroom and taking a dump on her Hello Kitty sheet set because it “sucks”.

There’s got to be a better way to approach music directed at young girls. There is a level of maturity, experience, aspiration and taste that should be understood and taken into account. A little empathy for an audience that’s coming from a different place in life could go a long way toward expanding their musical tastes – without shitting all over where they’re at now.

Exactly. That gets close to how I feel about writers dumping on most forms of pop music. People listen to supposedly empty music for all sorts of reasons and those people are not you — so what’s your point?

Now how is this related to me, Bruce Springsteen, and some random dude at one of his fan sites? The discussion started with a statement (not from me), applying the old “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” to music. I agree completely. I’ve said as much before, going even further to say that the definition of music lives with the listener. You perceive something as musical and it is. But another participant in the conversation disagreed, making the above opening statement, except that the comparison was Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to “Dogs playing poker on velvet.”

I had to disagree because I don’t think there are universal objective standards by which art is evaluated. People’s ideas about “goodness” change over time. The old masters weren’t always well-received back in their day. And if we want to modify the original example, what about “Starry Night” and oh, just about anything by Jackson Pollock? Do the supposed “standards” help us to determine which painting is “better”?

My point is that that standards (if they indeed exist) are not particularly useful. Let’s face it, if somebody likes “Dogs Playing Poker” over “Starry Night,” the two artworks’ “ratings” are completely pointless. The same thing goes for Anna Netrebko and Taylor Swift. Is Netrebko a better singer? If you’re a 16-year old kid, not an opera fan, and prefer Taylor Swift, are you “wrong”?

I don’t know a whole lot about Swift except that she’s young, has a decent voice, and writes most of her music (so rare these days). If she’s making some kids happy, then what’s the big deal? Speak Now will be my first whole album listen. Who knows, maybe it’ll make my ride to work a little more enjoyable.

And hey, maybe I’ll stop on my way home and pick up some Hello Kitty bed sheets.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Fred Phillips

    I agree with your premise in theory, but living smack in the middle of pop country hell, you might have chosen the wrong example for me to really get behind. :)

    I’ve always taken the approach in my reviews that I’d rather share something I like with people than bash something I don’t. I write negative reviews from time to time. We all do. But I never go into a review knowing I’m going to dislike it and hoping for a chance to bash as some writers seem to. It’s not worth it to me. Life’s too short to listen to music or read books you don’t like.

    I do have to give Swift some grudging respect because she does write a lot of her own material, which is a rarity on country radio these days. And I’ve always told people who disagree with my opinions, if you really like it, what should it matter what I think? If Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber truly make you happy, listen and enjoy. Heck, if I’d ever worried about what other people thought of my music, I would have grown up listening to New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer instead of Metallica and Slayer. That’s a truly horrifying thought … at least for me.

  • S. Victor Aaron

    You are generally correct. Jandek is the only artist who is objectively horrible.

    ;-)

  • Mark Saleski

    i watched a 60 minutes interview with Swift last night (which i think was from a couple of years ago) and she seemed pretty genuine. and yeah, the fact that she can play and write her own songs put her a step ahead of the biebers of the world.

    much of the music is, you know…eh! just pop music with (occasional) country elements. there were a couple of tunes that i kind of liked…a ballad about a kid not growing up, something that would make perfect sense if somebody like Dar Williams had done it.

    so fred, are you saying you never owned any “hammer pants?”

    • Fred Phillips

      “Pop music with (occasional) country elements” pretty much describes everything on country radio these days.

      Nope. No hammer pants. No spandex, either. I did, however, own parachute pants several years earlier. A pair in black and a pair in royal blue. One of those fashion choices I’d like to forget.

  • Mark Saleski

    hey, Jandek is fronting a _jazz_ band these days?

    sort of.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      What I can’t fathom is how can Ornette Coleman get the shit beat out of him while Jandek goes unscathed? No justice in this world, I tell ya!

      • Mark Saleski

        what percentage of the active listening community (music nerds included) has ever even heard of Jandek?

        pretty sure the only reason i know about him is because of that Songs in the Key of Z book.

  • JC Mosquito

    Well…. Taylor Swift.

    I dunno what I can add to this; I too acknowledge she writes a lot of her material and can sing without having to go all diva like so many female singers thee days. She seems to be nice enough a person as well. I still wish she would have planted her foot somewhere on Kanye’s backside that year he tried to upstage her during the awards show, but her continued success is maybe her best revenge anyway.

    I guess maybe she’s the modern era’s version of the Monkees – it’s almost like one doesn’t mind changing one’s standards in order for a “pop” artist to meet the minimum requirements of artistic integrity. But maybe lowering the bar is just a ruse to convince oneself that it’s still about objectivity and not about each listener’s subjective experience.

    Still, I think it’s important to be able to articulate why “We Are Never Getting Back Together” is nowhere nearly as good as the title track, “Red.” I mean, here’s a neat trick in the chorus:

    “Losing him was blue like I’d never known
    Missing him was dark grey all alone….
    …. But loving him was red”

    Describe blue, describe grey in whatever cliche terms you want… but don’t describe red – let the listener fill that in, just like “Then I saw her face / Now I’m a believer.” Or even “Pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue” for that matter.

    I still think that the more one can connect the dots the more intense the personal experience becomes.