I was so abjectly unhappy when “Red” came out that I didn’t even listen to it. I hated everything that Taylor Swift could possibly stand for and wanted her and most other people including myself to die. Red lips were Satan and fuck a bass drop. The dream was over and the past four years were empty lies. Taylor Nation was a betrayal.
For the fourth time since 2006, 2012 saw a Taylor Swift album come out within two weeks of a major election. It’s bizarre how neatly my feelings about American politics tie up with Taylor’s career. Here’s a confession I made to absolutely no one at the time – I didn’t vote in 2012. Because fuck a presidential election. I’d been presented something shiny and perfect and happy my senior year of high school, and four years later it all seemed like junk. I watched everyone around me force themselves to get excited about Obama-Biden and I just wanted to knock their drinks over and spam them with pro-life propaganda. There was nothing good about any of this. There was nothing surprising. Of course Obama was going to win. And of course he had nothing to say. The only singles I’d heard from “Red” were “22” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Which was basic pop trash. That of course went to no. 20 and no. 1. And everyone around me was saying, “this stuff is great!” Like fuck that.
Two years later – another November, another Taylor album, another major election. It seems like “Red”‘s public opinion scores have held up better than Obama’s. I certainly feel better about it, anyway. There will always be a special place of hatred in my heart for “22,” but it occupies the same space as my hatred for being 22 in general, so maybe that says something. Beyond that, though, I have nothing lastingly negative to say about this album. In many ways, I think it’s very cynical record. It’s so categorically geared toward chart success that Taylor doesn’t seem bothered to conceal it. And, when it so admirably succeeds, it’s pretty incredible to watch.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is the best example of this. This is Avril Lavigne-level reductive relationship stupidity. The obligatory nod to country acoustic licks at the start are insulting. The spoken word sections are embarrassing shadows of the ad-libs from “Fearless.” This is a shameful attempt to mollify the Taylor Nation base (children, country music fans, “real” girls) without sacrificing blue-chip chart success. But the song is so obnoxiously excellent that none of it matters. If you’re a Taylor devotee you fall for it. If you’re a cynic you grin and point and say, “I see what you did there, Taylor.”
The whole album follows in this immaculate base-covering mode. “Stay Stay Stay,” a McCartney-ishly perfect happy ballad, ends with Taylor laughing, “this is fun!” “All Too Well,” the dark, mature song, features the disturbing couplet – ““but you keep my old scarf from that very first week / ‘cause it reminds you of innocence, and it smells like me.” “Red” is the closest thing to a country pop song on the album (of course it was the lead-off single) but it throws Three 6 Mafia-style “re-e-e-ed”s in there and drops references to Maseratis. Taylor alternates between playing the victim and slut-shaming herself and then occasionally acts like a fun kid in case anyone feels alienated by her level of romantic success. The whole thing ends on the manipulative masterpiece “Begin Again,” a ballad that somehow plays to every point possible point in a relationship. It is designed to make the maximum number of people cry at the same time, and the fact that it uses perennial tear-jerker “Travelin’ Soldier”‘s instrumentation is a testament to the thoroughness of Taylor’s craft.
Of course the true pop highlight of this album is “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Thumbs up to Taylor’s production team for realizing the massive emotional impact of dubstep wobbles and applying them to a style that is about as far removed from aggro EDM as you can go. “Trouble” is both the epitome of “Red” and the realization of Taylor’s entire career. It capitalizes on a highly marketable music trend and applies it to the demographic-transcending inanity of the Taylor Swift Formula, creating a guaranteed hit. But it also utilizes EDM’s greatest virtue – the world-unifying glory of the drop – and applies it to the universal relatability of Taylor Swift’s love life. The result is one of our generation’s greatest pop songs. Economic dominance and trans-communitarian emotionalism – this is the reason pop music exists.
The best song on “Red” though, I think, is the opener, “State Of Grace.” I don’t know if Taylor knows what grace is, but I think she has the basic idea right. “You were never a saint, I loved your shades of wrong / we learn to live with the pain, mostly of broken hearts” – “we’ll never be the same,” but all the while it’ll be alright. Redemption in agony, rest in broken exhaustion. This isn’t the definition of grace but I can’t think of much that better expresses the state of it.
“State Of Grace” sums up the entire record. “Red” is the sound of someone tired of selling perfection and joy to twelve-year-olds, who isn’t sure if she can keep on doing it but who doesn’t have the option to stop. It’s Taylor’s “Beatles For Sale,” but without the sarcasm and despair. It’s her martyr album. She’s making this noise for all of us. It’s not as good as it used to be, it’s not as fun as it could have been, the outright “goodness” is running dry. But she’s not going to break. She’s not going to give up, even when it seems like it’s obvious that she should.
If I had listened to this album when it came out, I would have hated that sentiment and scorned it along with everything else. I guess I can say that Taylor failed me. I wanted this to be her dark album, the one that threw off the childish bullshit and reflected everything that the color red could actually entail. I think if I’d been paying a bit more attention, though, I would have realized that it was there. “I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ‘cause he never did / and I’ve been spending the last 8 months thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end / but on a Wednesday, at a café, I watched it begin again” she sings on the closing track. Is that a romantic born-again narrative or the set-up for a “Groundhog Day” horror story? Either way it’s a long, long way from “Change.” If only I hadn’t been too pissed off to see it.