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Friday, February 3, 2012

Eight Taylor Swift Lyrics as Good as Any in Country Music

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 3:30 AM

click to enlarge Professionally styled but still totally like you.
  • Professionally styled but still totally like you.

Smart people I know have argued that Taylor Swift is not a country singer.

That argument demonstrates little understanding of country music or of Taylor Swift. It's rooted, I suspect, in a belief commonly held by smart people who don't care for country music: That country music should sound more like that one Johnny Cash song they like and less like Def Leppard.

But part of the point of country is that people who aren't country get no say in country, so people who want their country music to sound like their grandparents' country music should go dig out some Ray Price and enjoy it. That's the great thing about being alive now: All earlier culture is ours to savor, no matter what's going on now.

Most Americans, meanwhile, find the culture in front of them plenty edifying, and millions relish and relate to Taylor Swift, who is a great and fundamentally serious pop-music artist. Swift's music may sound nothing like Hee Haw, but the songs she sings (and often writes) are, in their strong narrative detail and lovestruck world view, still straight-up, grade-A country.

Now, as her single "Ours" creeps toward Billboard's country top ten, here's eight examples. I could offer 20 -- and she's just three albums in.

8. "People throw rocks at things that shine"

from "Ours"

There's lots of rock-throwing in Taylor Swift songs, but mostly it's not cruel and biblical, as it is here. Instead, it's usually stones tossed lightly at a window, as one lovelorn kid burns to wake up another. Despite that public stoning right out of Shirley Jackson or a Carter Family song, "Ours" -- Swift's airy latest single -- does not seem to portend some new, darker Swift.

The song holds to familiar Swift tendencies: The choruses are made up of the reassuring words one lover speaks to another, and the lyrical specifics seem to fit both the everylife of the listeners and the glam life of the singer. The first verse concerns the narrator's awkward elevator ride to some job where, she sighs, "my time is theirs," which is a fine example of country music's empathy: Whether that elevator goes to a temp agency or the office of some Nashville exec, the feeling Swift evokes is an American universal. The rest of the song is about how when a couple's in love, haters are going to hate 'cause people throw rocks at things that shine. That chorus could be the chatter of small-town teens, or it could be what Callista whispers to Newt at night.

7. "I start a fight 'cause I need to feel something "

From "Cold As You"

Most of Swift's songs are love songs, and like most love songs hers come in three categories: The thrill of new or incipient romance (for Swift, this often involves sparks, fireworks, dancing all night); the process of tending the love that flowered from that first thrill (the reassuring words of "Ours," "Mine," and "Our Song"); and the whimper or scream after that thrill burns out.

On "Cold As You" those sparks are now ice, and Swift sings -- for the first of many times in her career -- of the inability of people once in love to find anything to say to each other. In some songs, she spits on the dead relationship; here she laments it, even as she gets off the brittle insult of the title: "Now that I'm sitting here/ thinking it through/ I've never been anywhere cold as you."

6. "When you think Tim McGraw/ I hope you think of me"

From "Tim McGraw"

Besides love, heartache, and whatever it feels like to be a white, tradition-minded American right now, the great subject of today's country music might be country music itself -- as is the case in early hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, and almost any other pop genre that feels at odds with the culture at large. Her debut single, "Tim McGraw," established Swift not just as a promising chronicler of dewy romance but as a serious country fan, one who derives from the music the same pleasures that her audience might.

In the song, Swift's narrator and some boy have danced all night to a Tim McGraw ballad, and now she daydreams that the boy might forever associate her -- and that moment of connection -- to McGraw himself. Since that kind of pop-becomes-personal transcendence is exactly what Tim McGraw ballads are engineered for, "Tim McGraw" seems less like an attention-grabbing exploitation of an existing star's celebrity than it does a slight, sweet how-to. This is a user's guide to country music.

Also, this is one of the few Taylor Swift songs that sounds like what people who don't like country think country should sound like. It's rustic, restrained, lovely -- and a little boring.

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Alan Scherstuhl


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