In celebration of the upcoming release T. Swift’s pretty good record “1989,” here’s a look back on her first four albums in an attempt to understand Taylor Swift’s career the way Taylor Nation does – that is, spiritually.
I. “TAYLOR SWIFT”
In a Pitchfork article earlier this year about Twitter trending, Lindsay Zoladz (hero) wrote:
If you have any doubt that the hashtag is a frighteningly powerful tool in our modern vocabulary, imagine a person you care about texting you […] out of the blue: “You’re beautiful.” Now think of the same person texting, “You’re #beautiful.” The second one is jokey, ironic, distant – and hey, maybe that’s what that person was going for. But it also hammers home that point that the internet too often asserts: you’re not as original as you once thought. “Beautiful” is analog, unquantifiable, one-in-a-million. #Beautiful, on the other hand, is crowded terrain. Ten more people have just tweeted about something or someone #beautiful since you started reading this sentence.
Looking back now to Taylor Swift’s s/t debut, it’s hard to remember a world where hashtags hadn’t made this, implicitly or not, more or less universal knowledge. But in October 2006, when “Taylor Swift” came out, Twitter had only existed for three months – hashtags were still just a button you never pressed on your phone. Sure, the unspectacularity of everyone’s individual experience was a thing, but it wasn’t splayed out in front of you the way it is now. You had to think a little bit to realize how basic you were – every little thought, yet unpublished, still felt special.
I don’t think “Taylor Swift” could have happened in a post-Twitter world. Maybe this is giving too much credit to the world’s capacity for internet-catered existential freak-outs, but really, imagine “Our Song” in a world where five people have used #screendoor in the past 12 hours. “Our Song” is full enough of country music cliches as it is – and when it becomes painfully obvious that those cliches are basic elements of romance for everyone in the world, boot-wearing or otherwise, the absurdity of a 16-year-old girl telling her boyfriend that awkward first date kisses (or lack thereof) are a component of “our song” becomes unpalatable.
Then again, I guess this was always sort of the genius of “Our Song.” Imagine being 16-year-old Taylor and writing this. She knew exactly what she had the second she spewed it out – you don’t write a song like that and have any doubts about its becoming an international hit. She knew, and everyone around her knew, from the second she recorded it that “Our Song,” this supposed hyper-specific anthem to one unique romance, was going to be considered by every teen couple in the country as a potential “our song” contender. This is one of those getting-at-the-raw-essence-of-What-Love-Really-Means songs. It’s the kind of song that you listen to and somehow manage to blast past the horrifying fact that everyone else in the world feels the exact same about their boyfriend as you do. When you hear to “Our Song,” you don’t care about how #beautiful your love is. The fact that it’s so direct about it’s cliche is a testament to its self-assured success.
This dgaf trans-obliviousness is the essence of early Taylor Swift. On the s/t’s opener, she makes Tim McGraw, one of the most universally beloved figures in a country music, “her” music. Heads on chests, little white dresses, faded blue jeans – these are “her” signs. Damned if they aren’t everyone’s signs – these are what will make “you” think of “me.” Because – in the universal first-person pronouns of pop music, “I” am “you,” and “you” are “everyone.” This is the epitome of populist music, the universal funneled into the particular and then spewed back to the universal, Taylor channeling and then centering the spirit of humanity around her own totalizing axis.
Only someone in Taylor Swift’s unique position could have done this. This wasn’t necessarily a blessing at first – It’s obvious, watching her first set of music videos, that Big Country had no idea quite what to do with her. the clips flit between Nickelodeon-esque high school narratives and generic country scenes, sometimes doing both at the same time. “Picture To Burn” features trucks, muscle cars, and slash-his-tires country girl posing, but in the context of a suburban street and a dreamy teen boy w/ Zach Efron hair. “Our Song” is even more of a hodgepodge, with Trey Fanjoy jumping from Taylor w/ straight hair and booty shorts to Taylor w/ rockin’ country band to Taylor in rhinestones and princess dress and back again. Despite her inevitable popularity, it’s clear that at the start Taylor Swift was a bit of a marketing problem.
In retrospect, this is the way it had to be. Country music allowed Taylor to sell herself as an autonomous human being (something essentially unique in pop music to country music – if you don’t believe this consider how many mainstream female pop stars ever talk about driving a car) – teen pop allowed her to sell universal love experience. Where most country stars gain autonomy by making themselves inaccessible to anyone beyond their core base by means of their country-ness, Taylor used the autonomous tropes of the Nashville stage to sell something that looked, sounded, and acted essentially like teen pop. She wrote her own songs, she sang about her own problems, she threatened boys like a mini Miranda Lambert – but she used it all to create an image and a sound that was so basic that it could be related to by pretty much anyone. In that bizarre mixture, 50% country, 50% suburban, 100% American teen, she created a persona that transcended cliched inanity without sacrificing its innate universality – a trending term that everyone typed and never clicked on, a #beautiful album that was nevertheless completely, individually, analog beautiful.