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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.

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.

2. "She wears short skirts/ I wear T-shirts/ She's cheer-captain/ And I'm on the bleachers"

From "You Belong With Me"

There's irony, perhaps, in this irresistible line being sung by a young woman who always looks like she just got made over for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. But country music listeners understand that in songs their stars play characters -- often, un-glam versions of their pre-fame selves. In bad songs, like Billy Currington's "Pretty Good at Drinkin' Beer," that insistence upon averageness can come across as pandering, especially since the characters lack the fascinating hunger and ambition that once boiled over in the star. Some good songs, like Miranda Lambert's "Only Prettier," honor both the character (relatable!) and the star (relatable yet awesome!).

"You Belong With Me" -- a great song, one hard to resist screaming along with -- goes one step further. When Swift shouts "She wears short skirts/ I wear T-shirts," she's not just offering a succinct -- and relatable! -- comparison between a bright everyday sort of girl and that girl's hottie rival. Because Swift herself seems to have started as one and wound up the other, she demonstrates that you, the everyday sort of listener, might one day, too. As Swift notes in another song that should be on this list, the teen years are "life before you know who you're gonna be."

1. "You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter"

From "Mine"

A bubblegum masterpiece, "Mine" demonstrates that Taylor Swift (who wrote it) is at times a lyricist of great power -- and that, like Dolly before her, she's pure country, no matter how pop the backing track. Here, she balls together all three types of Taylor Swift love song into one, creating something rich and singular and more like life than any pop-music genre usually gets. She captures that first wild rush of love, the despair when that first rush doesn't last, and then something rare for a big radio hit: the hard work it takes for couples to keep that initial thrill alive -- and to find it again in each other when it threatens to ebb.

The lived-in detail of her writing here stands tall against anything country has ever produced. In one urgent, standout line -- "You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter" -- she thumbnails these characters, their relationship, a full family history, and the way young people who set out to avoid the mistakes of their parents wind up making a whole new set of mistakes -- reactionary ones.

It even hints at the generational conflict that might explain the loud-guitar ethos of country songs like this one: The boomers' rock music went too far, got too hedonistic, so young Nashville's will always be safer, more studied, and restrained -- the careful daughter of a careless man. But that careful daughter still feels the passions that made her father rebel, so nothing's going to sound like "Tim McGraw" again.

Not even Tim McGraw.

Runners up from "Mine":

"Braced myself for the goodbye/ 'Cause that's all I've ever known"

"We got bills to pay/ We got nothin' figured out"

"There's a drawer of my things at your place"

"You learn my secrets/ And you figure out why I'm guarded/You say we'll never make my parents' mistakes."


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