If you are a woman or know any women between the ages of about 18 and 35, odds are you’ve heard about Taylor Swift re-recording and re-releasing her old albums. (I don’t fully understand the legal reasons, but the short version is she didn’t have ownership of the original master tracks of her songs.) Last week, she re-released her 2012 album Red, along with some previously-unreleased songs and a 10-minute (!!!) expansion of the track “All Too Well”.
Like most women my age, I have paid attention to Taylor Swift for about the last ten years (I was late to the “Swiftie” party). Now, don’t get me wrong, I have very strong feelings about the Reputation and Lover eras (in short: they were awful), but I’ve been happily surprised at both her return to her older music and her more recent work in folklore and evermore. But, when a recent business project gave me a couple of hours in the car to spend scanning the pop stations, I realized something else: Taylor Swift seems to be the only well-known female pop artist who still writes songs that are actually stories.
I could spend a lot of time talking about how Taylor Swift still actually writes songs with physical instruments and seems to avoid the excesses of autotune that overload most of the Top 40 songs right now. And this is true. But I was more shocked at how different she is lyrically from the stuff I was hearing on pop radio. I don’t listen much to the radio—I’m not in the car by myself for long stretches of time, and I usually just camp out on the classical station for jaunts about town—and I listen mostly to playlists, audiobooks, or the occasional podcast if I’m listening to anything at home. But with about seven-ish hours total in the car, I decided to just see what they were playing on the radio. Not only is a lot of female pop music shockingly vulgar—if you need an example, you can find them on your own—but it’s also just…dull. It’s not a story, it’s not about characters, there’s no plot or problem or anything.
Here’s an example off the album evermore:
Taylor Swift has a good voice—she’s not doing anything vocally insane, she just performs car-singable songs. And no, the instrumentals aren’t baroque, but it’s so much more interesting that the dull guitar lick or synthesized hook played over claps/snaps equation that dominates everything else on the radio right now. But she paints a really evocative mental image. Her writing has always been really good; she’s got a knack for picking the right word or crafting a great line to capture an emotion, and the “plot” of songs like this one is compelling.
She also captures something uniquely feminine in her music that I think a lot of other female pop singers fail to. Taylor Swift is (in)famous for break-up songs—but they are almost all about fragility, regret, and loss from a distinctly female perspective. She taps into a lot of the same topics that we see treated in literature: the intensity of female emotions, especially in love, and how these can be redemptive or ruinous, productive or destructive, beautiful or tragic. Maybe she doesn’t have the same ability and literary complexity as Austen or Shakespeare when it comes to depicting this, but the themes are still there.
I think this is why Taylor Swift has managed to have more staying power than some of her contemporaries from the late-2000s/early-2010s. I’m no expert on this, but it seems like her more recent endeavours (even the ones I disliked) have been more popular than those of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, who were equally popular a decade ago. The cloying, forced-peppy banality of “Firework” (with my least favorite lyric in all of music: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”) has more or less disappeared from the popular mind, but you see teenage girls singing “You Belong with Me,” and “Fifteen” still resonates with the excitement, hopes, and tragedies of adolescence today and always.
If you haven’t yet, you should check out Taylor Swift’s more recent work and re-releases, especially if, like me, you’ve felt burned out on pop music for the last several years. There are some really cool tracks, really creative lyrics, and really compelling storytelling on the albums she’s put out in the last year or two.