And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
— All Too Well, Taylor Swift
OK, clearly, Taylor Swift is not for me, right? I probably have no business listening to someone who teenage girls get. How could I, a past upper-middle-aged married man and father, even begin to understand?
Well, here’s the thing: I don’t. I probably can’t. But in my recent and admittedly fly-by dealings with young Ms. Swift — before a couple weeks ago, I knew her only as a ditty singer who appealed to that tween crowd — I have been struck, not by the popness of her, but by the bravery and depth of her songs. Or at least one of them.
(If you clicked on that last link, granted, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” may not be the best example of bravery and depth. But, criminy: 588 million views.)
These traits are probably not news to her fans. (… looking on Google…) Swifties, as they’re called, have sworn by their heroine’s direct-to-the-heart lyrics and her willingness to share everything for years. Swift, in fact, has made a career of laying it all out there for her fans. It’s good for business, and Swift (as her many critics have complained about for years) is evidently one heck of a businesswoman, and has been since she broke into the industry in her teens.
Her latest album, Lover, was well-received critically and sold 867,000 copies in its first week, an astounding number considering that pretty much everyone streams music these days. Depending on who you go by (sorry for the Wiki link, but that’s one source), she is the third-best female recording artist of all time, behind Madonna and (who knew?) Rihanna.
I’ve long appreciated young Ms. Swift for her standing as a role model for those angsty tweens and early 20-somethings. Angsty lyrics aside, a girl could learn a lot from Swift and her hard-core marketing and sales whiziness. If I had a daughter, she could do much worse than emulating Swift.
I knew, too, that Swift had talent. But it wasn’t until I sat down at my laptop a few weeks ago — I’m always sitting down at my laptop — and watched her on NPRs Tiny Desk Concert that I began to appreciate her more fully for the full-fledged artist she is.
The last song in her half-hour appearance is one of her older ones, a Swiftie-favorite breakup bit (Swift has made a cottage industry writing about her heartbreaks) called “All Too Well.” It begins in the video ^, with her at the piano, at the 22:58 mark.
Swift wrote the song with Grammy- and Country Music Association-winning songwriter Liz Rose, and it’s filled with the kind of daggers that make these songs so popular, especially with young people. The song’s setting is beautifully realized. One of my favorite lines:
Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place
Like most breakup songs, it begins with the promise of love …
You tell me about your past, thinking your future was me
… but, in the end, a girl has to find a way to fight her way out of misery. Though it’s never easy:
Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it
I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it
After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
The lyrics referenced at the top of this post are especially poignant: … break me like a promise … so casually cruel in the name of being honest.
My wife and I often talk about those “casually cruel” kinds of people. They’re the type who take pride in “telling it like it is,” or being “brutally honest,” the type who get some kind of perverse kick out of jolting people with their perceived “truth.” Instead of being kind and thoughtful, instead of looking to soothe, instead of commiserating, these people revel in their self-appointed role as fact-tellers, and if you can’t handle them keeping things real, well, that’s your problem.
We don’t like those people.
“All Too Well,” is a wonderful, cry-in-your-pillow song that everyone who has ever had a bad breakup can wallow in. And on the other end of Swift’s oeuvre, not unlike “We Are Never Ever …,” is the first song in the NPR set, something from her new album called “The Man,” in which Swift envisions what it would be like to have the power granted to men in our society.
It’s not as thoughtful and deep as “All Too Well,” and it’s not meant to be. Instead, it’s a chin-up, guitar-thumping punch in the nose to sexism and misogyny, a callout to all the Swifties (and anyone else listening, like upper-middle-aged married men) to not settle for the status quo:
What’s it like to brag about raking in dollars
And getting bitches and models?
It’s all good if you’re bad
It’s OK if you’re mad
If I was out flashin’ my dollas
I’d be a bitch, not a baller
They’d paint me out to be bad
So it’s OK that I’m mad
They’d say I hustled
Put in the work
They wouldn’t shake their heads
And question how much of this I deserve
I’m not sure yet, in my brief introduction to Swift, how good of a musician or vocalist she is. Certainly, she can hold her own. And, certainly in my book, what an artist is saying is way more important than how it’s conveyed. It says a lot, too, that she was brave enough to sit in front of an office full of people at NPR, with no backup singers or dancers, and let the lyrics work their magic. I’m a sucker for singer/songwriters that way.
At just 29, Swift already has had an astonishingly successful career that’s been churning along for more than a decade. And it’s not just pop; there’s depth there, too.
With songs like these, she’ll make Swifties out of us all before too long.