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Here’s an academic question: What do artists do, exactly? Tell stories? Advance causes? Or something trickier? If you’re, say, a 20-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter and newly minted tabloid superstar, what exactly should you be trying for with your lyrics about boys and breakups? What’s the best you can do?
Speak Now is Taylor Swift’s third album. Her second album was called Fearless, and it sold nine million copies. Consequently, its successor comes encrusted with gossip: You’ve probably heard that this song’s about that guy, and that song’s about this one, and “Innocent” is about Kanye West. Which is fine, but being told What Songs Mean is like having a really pushy professor. And it imperils a true appreciation of Swift’s talent, which is not confessional, but dramatic: Like a procession of country songwriters before her, she creates characters and situations—some from life—and finds potent ways to describe them.
All of Speak Now‘s songs are by Swift alone, and you can learn something about her talent from the gimmicks she likes. For example, she likes to attribute the first few choruses of a song to the narrator, and the last one to someone else—like, she’ll say she loves someone, and then at the end, someone will use the same words to say they love her. It’s a reliable thrill: The song’s emotional universe is suddenly shared.
This little tic is representative. Swift enjoys slipping in and out of identities, and her best songs are constructed from multiple, superimposed points of view. She also likes using a tossed-off phrase to suggest large and serious things that won’t fit in the song, things that enhance or subvert the surface narrative. She writes iceberg songs. Consider Speak Now‘s “Mean.” Not quite four minutes long, it’s made of handclaps, amiable banjo strums, and multitracked Taylor Swifts. It’s chipper and funny, because the narrator is predicting escape from someone she dislikes: “Some day, I’ll be living in a big ol’ city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” And then, slipped in casually, a glimpse of the submerged shadow: “Some day, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me.”
These lines are from the chorus, which is in the future tense. The abuse, thorough and quiet, is in the present, and the narrator’s future is in doubt, and the word “mean” is a juvenile understatement—a trivial word, used because the narrator is imagining a future where the abuser will be trivial, too. Except, in a different vernacular, the word’s huge and contemptuous, and means “impoverished”: The guy in the song is mean of spirit, of soul, of manhood. In this sense, there’s no judgment more total than “all you are is mean,” which means that behind every cheerful repetition of the song’s title is a second voice, wise and compassionate, whispering like a ghost. So regardless of whether the girl escapes, she’s redeemed: She’s been observed, and her tormentor judged. The song is overwhelming.
Fearless had a few songs like this. It was gorgeous in places, but it also often sounded boxy and constricted, and even its best tracks were sonically unadventurous: strings when Swift was sad, banjo when she was peppy, sheets of anonymous electric guitar throughout. She’s more comfortable inside these new songs, and cleverer. “Speak Now” is light and cute and teases at being cloying; the giddy, bombastic “The Story of Us” plays around with glammy dance-pop; “Better Than Revenge,” full of bitchy emo-isms, sounds almost exactly like Paramore. (Twitter tells me Swift and Paramore’s Hayley Williams are BFFs, so I doubt this escapes either of them.) Swift’s voice isn’t a technical wonder, and on Fearless her phrasing could be bland and muddled, but that’s changed. She can still sound strained and thin, and often strays into a pitch that drives some people crazy; but she’s learned how to make words sound like what they mean. After those nine million copies, she can do whatever she wants; Speak Now proves her talent’s expanding in proportion to her freedom.
Of course, not everyone in the world is a Taylor Swift fan. Criticisms include: She’s a conformist stooge of the patriarchy (she’s now had two hits about defying fathers); she idolizes chastity (she’s coy about sex, but only the willful could miss the fucking in the new “Sparks Fly,” which includes the line “Gimme something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around”); and she sells girls corrupt and shallow fairy-tale notions of romance (one of the two fairy-tale songs on Fearless mocked a guy for trying to white-knight her, and the only mention of such things on Speak Now is “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you”—note the tense). These gripes are shallow and gross, in that special way that things get gross when you cram shaded and living work through an ideological sieve like you’re mechanically separating chicken.
I mention them because I heard Speak Now the same week that a dutiful line of politicians and celebrities stepped up to entreat bullied gay teenagers not to kill themselves. So when “Mean” came on—a song about being utterly trapped, about keeping your head above dark water by promising that some day you’ll be “living in a big ol’ city,” about the strength of knowing exactly how mean bullies are—it was difficult not to think of Tyler Clementi and his tragic ilk. Unlike even the deftest and best-meant “It Gets Better” videos, “Mean” is huge, and hugely compassionate, and fearless in the way it bears its attached iceberg. It deserves these besieged people; they certainly deserve it. The political objection would be that Taylor Swift, a straight, white, blond girl currently enjoying unfathomable success and adulation, does not know how it feels to be an unfamous gay teenager daily being told that he should expedite his journey to hell. That’s true. But this might also be true: What artists do, at their best, is try to figure out how things feel.