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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

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5. "She's not what you think/ She's an actress/ She's better known for the things that she does/ On the mattress."

From "Better Than Revenge"

Musically, "Better Than Revenge" is all pop-punk pique, a ferocious piffle that's two parts cake frosting and one part flamethrower. Lyrically, it's mostly been picked over for its alleged autobiographical elements: The story goes that some Disney-channel hunk cheated on Swift with some blandly beautiful starlet. But Swift's words will still command attention long after those cheaters have been forgotten: That mattress/actress couplet should shut down the fools who think nobody writes like Loretta Lynn anymore. Then there's the snarling line "No amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity," which is like Loretta times Liz Phair times the kind of dishy thing your friends might say.

4. "Wearing a gown shaped like a pastry"

From "Speak Now"

Those barroom Roses that Loretta sent to Fist City have no home in Swift's suburbia, but here the old story remains the same: A good woman marches into enemy territory to claim a man some floozy purloined. Pretty much the last third of a romantic comedy smooshed into a song, "Speak Now" exemplifies country music's narrative impulse -- that love of storytelling that has helped lure many listeners from rock radio, where lyrics still tend toward the abstract.

Swift's narrator shows up at the wedding of the guy who should be with her -- probably the same chump from "You Belong With Me" -- and steels herself to declare her love when the preacher gets to the forever-hold-your-peace moment. Swift is extravagant with detail: all these families and friends; pastry-shaped dresses; the organ playing a "death march." Before the final choruses, as her heroine plucks up the gumption to "speak now," she describes "shaking hands" and "horrified looks" -- the Loretta Lynn-style fist fights of Generation Awkward. Then the chorus hits, and real feeling bursts through all the shopworn decorum.

3. "The story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now"

From "The Story of Us"

Swift belts this old-fashioned tag-line/punchline after a Superbowl-sized holler-along chorus, and over sour-candy guitars that owe more to the Ramones than to Chet Atkins. But it's still an old-fashioned tag-line/punchline, both wry and despairing, one worthy of a George and Tammy duet. Not that the song is some cutesy throwback. For all its hurtling rock energy, this is perhaps Swift's most cutting examination of a failing relationship. With more feeling than critics ascribe her, she cries, "I'm standing alone in a crowded room/ And we're not speaking," encapsulating in two lines what a love affair's slow-motion collapse actually feels like. That line -- and much of the song in general -- recalls "Something's Gotta Give," the centerpiece break-up song off the Drive-by Truckers' best record, which further demonstrates that Swift, at her best, ranks with today's best songwriters.

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Alan Scherstuhl


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