Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Carpenter and The Ingenue

Viva La Vida (acoustic) - Taylor Swift (mp3)

In January 2011, Bob wrote a piece lovingly titled “Assault on the Avetts.” His assault is one of the most highly-viewed pieces in our blog’s history, and at 29 comments, it also has one of our highest feedback rates, most of it wishing Bob would jump off a tall cliff. #HumbleBrags

In it, Bob commits the unthinkable act of accusing this lovable band of two crimes: (1) being safe, and (2) being too beloved by Conservative Christian teenagers.

The glory of music criticism is in how a particular trait can damn one band while uplifting another. A style or approach that makes one album transcendent can doom another to complete suckitude.

In an almost-apologia to The Avett Brothers for being swayed by Bob into liking them a little less after his post, I purchased The Carpenter on eMusic last week. I wanted to give them a fair shake, since the only album of theirs I’d owned, I and Love and You, sounded not nearly so cute and deep once Bob had thrown the band into the gallows.

This new album, which has received a preponderance of praise since its release in September, is to my ears a subtle but impressive improvement on their sound from their previous release. While I readily admit that I don’t quite understand why the Avetts have the volume and loyalty of the fan base they’ve garnered (if talent and output is the sole determinant), I also fail to see how some egregious injustice has been done by them just because they don’t make earth-shattering music.

Which is my way of acknowledging that The Carptenter is, ultimately, More Of The Safe. But in an OK way.

Which leaves me wondering, what is “safe” in music?

Most popular hair metal bands from the 1980s sang of women like they were f*#k dolls with capillaries. Was that safe? Was it all that risque, since they all seemed to be doing it? Was Motley Crue being “unsafe” by writing “Girls Girls Girls”?

Is it safe for Taylor Swift to translate every last tabloid-worthy picture into a pop song, to literally play out her too-public romances as if they were merely experienced for the purposes of packaging them into three verses, a bridge and a kickass-catchy chorus?

Truth is, I don’t know what musically "safe" is, and I don’t know what musically "risky" is. Perhaps I’m too jaded; I only know what sells, what gets high critical praise, and what flops. Artists who play safe rarely sell the units of the Avetts. Artists who push too far either make platinum or disappear. As for critics, their opinions have a quicker expiration date than 1% organic milk, so no need worrying over them too long.

Speaking of expiration dates, let’s go back to Taylor Swift.

I’ve spent the entire week listening to Lori McKenna’s new EP Heart Shaped Bullet Hole. It’s six beautiful songs varying in tempo and in the degree to which they penetrate your heart like a hypodermic needle. What they all have in common is the need to have experienced a long-term relationship with a single human being. If you have been in a relationship with someone more than a decade and don’t find yourself floored by Mrs. McKenna’s lyrics, I want to meet you and learn from you, because you are not one of us normal folks.

Taylor Swift is, in my mind, the musical progeny of Lori McKenna. If Lori’s songs speak perfectly to dedicated but troubled spouses in challenging times, then Taylor’s speak to youth. It’s about breakups and the roller coasters of every day’s emotions. It’s about wanting everything, about trying to learn compromise, about shattered illusions and ideals that just won’t go away.

While I secretly believe Taylor Swift might be crazy, or at least off most of her rocker, it’s time we all stop pretending she’s just some flash-in-the-pan pop star. She’s writing her songs, and she’s about to release her fourth consecutive multi-platinum album. There’s not one single song on any of those albums she didn’t write herself.

It’s time to acknowledge it. In ways no other pop ingenue of our time can or has, Taylor Swift is dialed into the experience of young love. And it’s not because she’s just milking cash from it; it’s because she lives it and has the smarts to attack her pain ASAP with a rhyme scheme and catchy hook.

She might not get men in their midlife crises, but she gets girls, and she gets young love, and she writes about it in ways that, whether my generation sees it or not, cuts past the surface. Sure, it’s highly-produced and has a fine sheen, but there’s a reason my tween daughters and their friends have long forgotten Justin Bieber and One Direction and even Katy Perry yet have never strayed from Taylor Swift:

The others are making pop songs; Swift is sharing some real version of herself.

Is it safe? I’m not sure it matters.


Tockstar said...

My juniors once convinced me to play "Love Story" on YouTube at the beginning of class because there's a reference to The Scarlet Letter (a pointless and nonsensical one, as it turns out). ANYWAY, I relented and played it. As the video rolled, this class full of 16-year-old boys started to *sing along.* I realized that, for them, life and love was still one huge question mark and here was this beautiful vision of it. They were so earnest in their singing along I actually started to cry. Fortunately, I collected myself before the song was over, but it was a memorable experience.

So, yeah, Taylor Swift is far from my first choice in anything, but I've never forgotten that moment.

troutking said...

That's a great story, Tockstar. And a great post, Billy. I don't know if I would ever say, "That's a great song, Taylor" but I see your point.