By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A recent episode of “This American Life,” the long-running public radio show, posited that more practical, non-cognitive skills, such as resilience and impulse control, are just as important to long-term success as the book smarts traditionally emphasized by public education. It makes sense.
While the episode didn’t mention Taylor Swift, I suspect that if she weren’t already the biggest-selling pop star in the country, she’d be dominating pharmaceutical sales or running the Disney Princess franchise. She is the kind of driven, intensely ambitious person who’d thrive regardless of her profession, but right now she’s completing her conquest of the music business.
Early sales figures Monday indicated Swift sold more than 1 million copies of her fourth album “Red” in its first week of release, making her the only artist since the SoundScan era began in 1991 to have two albums surpass the million-sales mark in just seven days.
With her newest single “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” co-written and produced by pop impresario Max Martin, Swift also notched her first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single. She has also famously enjoyed success in her personal life, dating Joe Jonas, Jake Gyllenhaal and most recently an honest-to-god Kennedy.
As with her long list of famous boyfriends, whom she is notorious for making the subjects of her songs, Swift’s music has similarly progressed from the country ghetto to the rarefied world of pop superstardom. For the purposes of this metaphor, Joe Jonas is the country ghetto and Conor Kennedy is pop superstardom. Like any good social climber, Swift has endeavored to shed her coarser habits, which in real life means swapping princess dresses for couture clothing and a house in Cape Cod.
In her music, this refinement appears to involve severing herself from her humble country beginnings.
“We Are Never Getting Back Together” signaled Swift’s move into pure pop. Not that any close listener couldn’t have seen this coming -- scrap the banjos on Swift’s 2009 hit “You Belong With Me,” and it’s not that far removed from any other pop-rock song Martin’s designed for artists such as Kelly Clarkson or Katy Perry. Even so, “We Are” is sleeker and shinier than anything Swift’s done before, with a lifting chorus engineered for anyone wishing to shout along.
Elsewhere, miraculously, Swift dabbles in dubstep-lite (the excellent “I Knew You Were Trouble,” also co-produced by Martin), atmospheric arena rock (“State of Grace”), tween pop (“Stay Stay Stay”) and a duet with Gary Lighbody, of Snow Patrol, that I’m pretty sure was written to capture the Gotye demographic (“The Last Time.”) By any measure, this is the sound of a blockbuster album.
Not that Swift completely abandons her country audience. One of the album’s best songs is the simmering break-up lament “All Too Well” that, over its 5 and 1/2 minutes, builds to a storm of guitar and regret, and it would be at home in the middle of any of Swift’s past albums. “I Almost Do” also could slide seamlessly into the playlist of any country station, no matter who was singing it.
But if “Red” contains some of the 22-year-old star’s best songs, it also doesn’t hang together as well as her past albums. The shifting styles is only part of the problem.
What I originally liked about Swift was her point of view. On her debut album, which she released when she was 16, the non-single “Stay Beautiful” began with the couplet: “Cory’s eyes are like a jungle. He smiles, it’s like the radio.”
The sentiment scanned as believably written by a teenage girl instead of focus-grouped to appeal to teenage girls. Elsewhere on her debut album, Swift’s compositions were more sophisticated, particularly “Our Song.” On her next album “Fearless,” -- her best in my opinion -- she married her privileged view into the life of a regular teenager with her growing abilities as a songwriting prodigy. There aren’t many songs about being a teenager better than “Fifteen.”
The problem is I don’t think Swift has yet figured out to write as interestingly about being an adult as she did about being a girl.
She’s still good at peppering her songs with on-the-ground details. “Dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light” on the aforementioned “All Too Well” is a nice image, and this romcom bit from “Stay Stay Stay” is cute: “This morning I said we should talk about it cause I read you should never leave a fight unresolved. That’s when you came in wearing a football helmet.”
Overall, however, it’s less well observed than Swift’s previous efforts, relying too heavily on generic statements about love or falling out of love.
That said, her start as a songwriter coming up through the Nashville machine serves her well. Say what you will about modern country music, but its formula is a rigidly formal one, relying on storytelling and requiring a central lyrical conceit to drive the songs. Pop, meanwhile, doesn’t even necessarily require discernible words. While its lack of rules is what makes it exciting, it also means the conceptual difference between a Rihanna song and a Katy Perry song is often thin.
Even at her most pop moments, however, Swift hasn’t completely forsaken the lesson she learned from country songwriting that details matter. What sets “We Are Never Getting Back Together” apart from its peers at the top of the charts is the snippets of seemingly casual dialogue Swift includes, like the cutting aside, “I mean this is exhausting, you know?“, that reinforce the song’s title.
It’s smart songwriting, and proof you can take the country out of the girl’s music, but you can’t take country music out of the girl.