Editor’s Note: With Taylor Swift having just been named Time’s “Person Of the Year,” it was perfect timing for this piece by the dad of a “Swiftie.” Maybe those of us out of her target demo should give her a chance. Read on.
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve been there myself. My now early-twenties daughter was obsessed with Taylor Swift as a teen and still is. I was constantly reminded that she’s had more number ones than the Beatles. All I heard in the car was “Mean”, “Shake it Off” and “Dear John” (poor John Mayer). But here I am asking you to reconsider what you might think of her music, Travis Kelce romance aside.
Let’s start with Taylor’s accomplishments. Starting in 2006 with her self-titled album, she’s released what seems like a non-ending stream of highly successful LPs (ten of them), each of which has done very well and earned significant airplay. She’s won 12 Grammy Awards (three for Album of the Year, tying for most by an artist), 40 American Music Awards, 23 MTV Video Awards, 12 Country Music Association Awards, and was the youngest artist on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. She’s sold 50 million albums and 150 million singles. On Spotify, she has the most single-day streams and most single-week streams. Her latest album, Midnights, entered Billboard at number one, and at one point the top ten slots on the Billboard Top 100 were all from this album (the first artist to do that). And then when her label would not allow her to buy her music catalog, she re-recorded and re-released four of them to great fanfare. She has spoken out against TicketMaster’s monopoly and pricing tactics and has even considered starting her own ticketing service.
Being a weekend musician, I had some skepticism about the simplicity of her songs, the rare chord changes, the lack of harmonies, her words and phrasing; thoughts that caused me to skip over any songs of hers that popped up on her playlist. But then I had an epiphany and it happened during a Karaoke outing while on a business trip with some fellow fathers.
After I’d done my take on “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats, a young girl started singing a song that caught my attention. When she got to the chorus, the entire place sang along – including the four middle-aged men who were on the trip with me. I asked them, “What’s this song?” They replied incredulously “’Betty’? By Taylor Swift? Dude!”
Shortly after I returned, I snagged some tickets for my daughter to see Swift in Tampa for her Eras concert. When she returned she spoke of a fantastic show, three hours’ worth, with no intermission, constant costume changes, and…guitar solos! And then she suggested we see the IMAX movie version of the concert; I was hooked. A lot of the songs I’d first heard casually had been rearranged with stronger basslines and guitar parts, which piqued my interest even more.
Speaking of the Eras tour, here are some impressive statistics: it contributed $2.2 billion to the US economy. She funded twice the amount of money needed to cover her carbon footprint. She tried to hire only local workers at each stop. Typically, every $100 spent on live performances generates $300 in other spending like hotels, transportation, etc. For the Eras tour, audiences are spending upwards of $1,500 of additional monies and boosting local economies. She paid each driver in her tour trucking staff a $100,000 bonus. She’s donated generously to local food banks along the way and has led a voter registration drive among her young fans.
But let’s talk about her music and some songs that are worth your time. In my opinion, these are well-crafted, clever, or just plain catchy.
“Betty” – (album: folklore)
This is the song that brought down the Karaoke joint and it’s one of my favorites. The story is subtle and tells the tale of someone who has wronged Betty in some way that is made clear later in the song. Right off the start the simple harmonica intro and acoustic guitar are Bob Dylan or Neil Young worthy. Chord changes are simple, and the lyrics paint a vivid tale that ends each verse with a pause and the spoken words “the worst thing that I ever did… is what I did to you.” The narrator worries about what would happen if they dared to show up at a forthcoming party to make amends. And then the party approaches and the song slows to nearly a standstill, ending with a simple strum, a major to minor chord to suggest the coming dread. And when the inevitable happens, the words “so I showed up at your party” are repeated without any indication of the outcome, which takes us to an unexpected modulation that makes the song soar right to the end. Well-written and poignant, it’s one that I can now sing at Karaoke.
“You Need to Calm Down” – (album: Lover)
This is a more pop-oriented song with a simple synth bass line but it’s the lyrics are that are particularly amusing. The tune is directed at someone throwing shade, presumably at Taylor. The arpeggiated “uh-oh’s” are well done, especially the last high-octave one. Clever lyrics drive home the point that just being hateful is wrong.
“Anti-Hero” – (album: Midnights)
This is another song that’s lyric-driven and speaks of the exhaustion Taylor (presumably) feels of being criticized or labeled. I’ll just quote the chorus:
“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me
At tea time, everybody agrees”
Great lines, and a straightforward song that speaks to the insecurities that most people suffer from.
“Dear John” – (album: Taylor)
This song off her first album turns out to be a hit job on John Mayer whom she dated and collaborated with for a while in 2009. While it mimics some of the guitar stylings of Mayer, including a great guitar solo, it’s just beautifully performed and fun to play on guitar. And the words are interesting even if a little hateful. She rarely does this song in concert as both she and Mayer have moved on and she considers the song “a bit mean.” Note that a similar song with the same timing and harmonica is “I Bet You Think About Me.” from Red (Taylor’s Version) with a great vocal accompaniment by Chris Stapleton.
“Vigilante Shit” – (album: Midnights)
Get those sub-woofers ready because this song will drive them into the ground with a simple synth-bass line and cutting lyrics.
That’s not to say all of Taylor Swift’s music is fantastic; whose is? Even Led Zeppelin II included the clunker “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” But as Taylor Swift has matured, her songwriting skills have also improved. And she’s one of the few artists who writes nearly all of her own music; that’s notable nowadays. Her lyrics often speak of courage and empowerment, which her young female fans especially love. Take a listen to the ones above, and then check out some of her other songs. You might find that she’s not as “bad” as you might think.
Photo: Taylor Swift, 2019 (© Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com via Wikimedia Commons)