In celebration of the 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.
In 2010, the kingdom of pop music was split evenly, GOT-style, between three houses. In one corner, representing the crumbling throne of the New York avante-garde, was Stefani Germanotta, better known to her public as Lady of the Haus of Gaga. In another corner stood Beyoncé Knowles, heiress to the “urban” throne and the latest in the line of pop/soul prodigies stretching back to Stax, Blue Note, and beyond. And in the third corner, from the long-impoverished country capitol of Nashville, rode the virgin queen of the South, the beloved teen pop angel, Taylor Swift.
Never before and maybe never again will the complex landscape of American pop music ever be so neatly defined by an award show nomination. Germanotta, with her postmodern scorn and aggressive sexuality, represented the gleeful nihilism of post-9/11 hedonism, a life ethic defined by drugs, obscure politics, and dancing. Knowles, not yet acknowledged as the embodiment of absolute feminine perfection but universally lauded for her strength and beauty, represented the joy of sexual empowerment and the glory of sweaty physicality. And Swift, as if in active defiance of her times, represented the conservative values that somehow persisted, however vainly, outside the liberalism of cultural media – family, hope, love, chastity, and two AM rainstorms. To be reductively Freudian – Beyoncé held the id, Gaga the ego, and Taylor the increasingly irrelevant superego, of American sexuality. And they were all up for album of the year in 2010.*
No one cares who wins a Grammy anymore. But it’s neat symbolic history to see those three, each at arguably the peak of their imperial periods, all up for the same meaningless award. And it’s worth noting (barely worth it, but still) that Taylor Swift won.
It’s hard to come up with a solid argument for how good “Fearless” is. There are two types of pop perfection – the type that was bound to eventually happen by way of natural selection (“Be My Baby,” “Where Did Our Love Go?”, “Wild Thing”) and the type that’s the result of intricate human genius (“Oblivion,” “The Chauffeur,” Mariah Carey’s “Daydream”-era no. 1 singles run). “Fearless” falls somewhere in between. There is absolutely nothing special about this album. The instrumentation is basic country pop, the vocals are average at best, the melodies are about as complex as early Green Day cuts. Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with it – not the way there’s nothing wrong with Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, but the way there’s nothing wrong with the Virgin Mary, or Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game. This is literal perfection – each track is wrapped immaculately tight to pack maximal emotional punch with minimal musical substance. It’s so simple that it feels like a necessary accident of fate. This would arguably put it closer to the“Wild Thing” side of the perfection spectrum, but where “Wild Thing” is a raw act of nature (pure id), “Fearless” is so clearly calculated that it has to fall into the “Oblivion” category. It’s Romanesque ornamentation stripped down to Cistercian simplicity. It’s the “Sun Also Rises” of pop music.
This sort of goodness is unnaturally good – it seems to bypass human abilities and come straight from the source of pop goodness itself. It’s incredible that no one wrote “Love Story” before Taylor did. Really, Taylor wrote it before Taylor wrote it – the song, in melodic structure and lyrical theme, is essentially the same as “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” from the s/t. But somehow, for theory reasons that are probably beyond even people who actually understand music theory, “Love Story” is the better song. It’s a better song than most songs. It is the Platonic form of what a good song is.
It’s almost disturbing that an 18-year-old managed to create this. I imagine her writing process to be similar to Shaolin kung fu, where perfect physical control is used as a vehicle for transcendence. To make music like this you need to go into a computational mindset where pop songs are set of triggers and impulses, mathematically designed to create feelings of unity and elation. This is the mindset that created Abba, The Cranberries, and Max Martin. But “Fearless” goes beyond the mathematical limits of Swedish pop music. Because instead of a sterile top-40 serum brewed by pale blond men and injected into tan blonde women, “Fearless” all happened – insight, production, expulsion – within the universally relateable and completely autonomous person of Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift made this. No one took her and filled her with data for the purpose of global 4-to-the-floor pop music unity. She did it herself. She obviously had help, but we have to accept the mythology here – she created these songs, she wrote these lyrics. She looked into herself via her autonomously created country-music princess self, and within that self she saw the raw form of pop music. And instead of bottling it and distributing it via studio creations, she absorbed it into herself and bled it out across the country, blood that was both her own and the blood of the pop music version of God. In “Fearless”‘s fourteen songs we experience some of the most intimately personal and transcendentally universal pop music album ever made. Her voice unites with the Voice of All. To listen to the title track is to subsume into the Pop Universal via the Sacrament of Taylor Swift.
It’s the little changes that make this album, the brief points when Taylor deviates from the plan and reminds us that she’s human. The laugh after “would they write a song for you?” in “Hey Steven” – the sudden ascending minor of “whatchu doing with a girl like that?” in the disgustingly major “You Belong With Me” – the vocal break on “cursing your name” in the third pre-chorus of “The Way I Loved You.” Only a real human being could have done these things. Not a human being who’s given herself over to raw emotionalism (Bernard Sumner in “Age of Consent,” Mary Clayton in “Gimme Shelter”), but a real human being who is in complete control of her actions and who knows how to best convey this unconvey-able force that she’s been chosen by fate to share with the world. Without these moments, “Fearless” would have been lost upon the world, pure dogma without genuine materiality. It would have been just another Peter Bjorn and John album – calculated, perfect, and dead.
That kind of death is the structure that Gaga ironizes and destroys. It’s the theoretical deliberation that Beyoncé rejects in favor of pure physical finesse. But on “Fearless,” for maybe the last time, Taylor showed us that physicality was the embodiment of the spiritual. She let perfection seep through herself, and then she spilled it out, God-infused loves and shames and something ’bout the ways and all. Not messy like Jeff Mangum, or painful like Fiona Apple – just pure and perfect and impossibly human. She reminded the world why temperance was a virtue. She reminded the country why hope was worth living for. “Fearless” was released one week after Obama won the presidency on a campaign of hope and change. Four years later, some of us felt betrayed – the hope was all a lie. But it was there the whole time, always present and all too real – held, unbloody and beating, in the heart of a 19-year-old Christian girl in Nashville who knew, like a Goddamn Khaleesi, that she was going to take over the world.
* So were The Black Eyed Peas (“The E.N.D.”) and Dave Matthews Band (“Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King”) – lol.