In continued celebration of the glory of American existence beneath the shine of “1989,” here’s a (slow in coming) look back at Taylor Swift’s first four albums in an attempt to understand her career the way Taylor Nation does – that is, spiritually. (Pt. 1, on “Taylor Swift” s/t. Pt. 2, on Fearless.)
So you’ve taken over a nation of unconverted heathens without betraying your conservative upbringing – what do you do next?
“Speak Now” is Taylor’s attempt to manage her incredible position as the beloved bastion of country music morality in a landscape that is actively opposed to country music morality. It is, in many ways, a failure. But, in its ability to move units, retain its base, and solidify Taylor’s celebrity, it is an unparalleled success. That it managed to do so in spite of its remarkable flaws is a testament to the power of Taylor Swift’s appeal.
“Fearless” saw Taylor’s initially scrambled image settling into the “high school girl with princess fantasy” persona. This was a great PR move that allowed Taylor to make transcendentally happy music without coming across as unrelateably successful. “Speak Now” attempts to move away from the princess image and instead settles into the “high school girl with high school problems” persona. The music videos abandon ball gowns and focus on the real world – “Mine,” for example, features the same essential daydream as “Love Story” – girl meets boy, experiences minor hardship, gets married – but lets it play out in the believable world of sweaters, suburban houses, and trips to the beach. The accompanying “Speak Now” tour featured elaborate princess dramatizations, but the only semblance of the fantasy in any of the album’s promotional material is the album’s strangely out-of-place cover. This is a back-to-earth album. It’s the necessary appeal to reality after “Fearless”’s ascent to the highest heights of fantasy.
Fantasy has the ability to unite disparate demographics by means of its appealing non-reality. Reality, unfortunately, can’t do the same thing. Returned to the ground, Taylor could no longer channel the hopes and dreams of the entire universe all at the same time. The ordinary response to this predicament would be to make an album that attempts to appeal, one song at a time, to every demographic – half country songs, half pop songs, a song about farm boys here, a song about city boys there, maybe a hip hop feature for good measure. Taylor, instead, turned her focus to the thing that united everyone in the first place – the glory of herself.
And so, we get her most explicitly personal album – the record’s most prominent tracks are thinly veiled accounts of Taylor’s experience with famous men. “The one about [famous person]” has become fan shorthand for the songs on “Speak Now” – “Back To December” is the one about Taylor Lautner, “Innocent” is the one about Kanye West, “Better Than Revenge” is the one about Joe Jonas (/Camille Belle), “Story Of Us” and “Dear John” are the ones about John Mayer. This made good fodder for tabloids and provided endless entertainment for those interested in playing the “who’s it about?” game, but it’s alienating for the vast majority of the world who don’t date famous people. It’s remarkable that the vanity of this project didn’t sink Taylor’s career.
In some ways, it maybe almost did. At first glance it would seem that “Speak Now”’s personal focus should have been particularly offensive to Taylor’s country base – the themes of this album, which include “loss of virginity to John Mayer,” have little to do with the problems of conservative America – but, oddly, I think they were more jarring for the mainstream. Women in country music have always been vindictive, and Taylor has participated in the Nashville culture of harassing ex-boyfriends from the start of her career (“Picture To Burn,” “You’re Not Sorry,” Kellie Pickler’s “The Best Days Of Your Life”). Taylor’s lyrically vague attacks against her famous ex-boyfriends, then, are essentially the same as Miranda Lambert’s lyrically specific attacks against her non-famous ex-boyfriends. But for a demographic that isn’t used to that kind of attitude from it’s (young white female) pop stars, the cruelty came as a bit of a shock. A lot of people got offended.
Overall, though, “Speak Now” maintains an oddly happy medium. Taylor’s celebrity-obsessed mainstream audience is able to relate to her via the realness of her celebrity-obsessed lyrics. Her integrity-oriented core audience is able to relate to her via her country spirit and overall belief in forgiveness, redemption, and vengeance. And her relatively thoughtless teen audience is caught up enough in her cult to relate to her unconditionally despite the sparseness the princess imagery that drew them in the first place.
And, of course, the songs are very, very good. Except for occasional steps to one side (“Better Than Revenge,” “The Story Of Us,” “Haunted” to power pop; “Dear John,” “Mean” to country), most of “Speak Now” occupies the same transcendental country pop space as “Fearless.” Most of it isn’t as good as “Fearless” – some of it is better. On the strength of Taylor’s writing and the complex simplicity of her image, every single on “Speak Now” made it to the top 20. None hit number one, but the overall success was great enough to secure Taylor’s spot as one of the most famous person in the world.
The mixture of immaturity, vindictive self-righteousness, and perceived lack of integrity, however, elevated Taylor’s reputation in the critical class to the status of “psycho.” “Fearless” made her a moral paragon, and “crazy ex-girlfriend” was not a permissible aspect of that persona. One could only date John Mayer and then have the audacity to grant Kanye West Christ-like forgiveness if one was a maniacally self-obsessed moral authority. One could only write a thoughtful song about an emotional break-up and then write out a childish marriage fantasy if one had a problematic maturity complex.
This is the ultimate impact of “Speak Now.” It attempted to play to its massive audience the only way that it could outside of continuing the impossible glory of “Fearless.” It convinced enough people to retain its maker’s cult, but it earned its fair share of justly deserved scorn. It’s Taylor’s worst record, and it’s the one that will most quickly be forgotten. But it’s arguably the one that played the most part in creating her complex public persona, and it’s the one that paved the way for the redemptive trauma of “Red.” It’s maybe not worth listening to in its entirety, but it remains an essential document in the development of Taylor Swift.