This is the first installment of “Musical Blindspot,” a series in which our writers examine the discographies of well-known artists whose music they’ve somehow overlooked.
Today, we explore the sparkling, dangerous, boy-obsessed universe of one of the world’s biggest pop stars: Taylor Swift.
The extent of my knowledge about Taylor Swift prior to immersing myself in her discography could be summed up in four facts:
1) Kanye cut her off at the VMAs.
2) Father John Misty sang “Bedding Taylor Swift/each night inside the Oculus Rift” on his song, “Total Entertainment Forever.”
3) I hear a random tune of hers every now and again in a grocery store.
4) She’s dated a lot of famous guys.
Beyond that, I didn’t have much to go on. For years, I operated under the presumption that I didn’t like her music, based on minimal evidence to support this belief. That’s not a mature way to approach art, so instead of remaining ignorant to Swift’s discography, I sat on my couch over the course of three days and (while doing other work, let it be known) absorbed all six of her albums.
That’s five hours, 30 minutes and 30 seconds of T. Swift pumped directly into my ears via moderate quality headphones. It was an informative and mostly enjoyable experience, one that confirmed some of my preconceived notions about Swift (ie. that she’s written a lot of songs about boys) while discounting others (ie. that she’s just a vapid pop star).
Here’s my exploration of T. Swift’s musical universe.
Albums, from Best to Worst
1. 1989 (2014)
2. Fearless (2009)
3. Speak Now (2010)
4. Taylor Swift (2006)
5. Red (2012)
6. Reputation (2017)
One interesting thing: So Many Boys
The one thing you always hear about Swift is that most of her songs are about boys. During my so-called research, this turned out to be objectively true.
Sixty-three (give or take) of her 85 songs could conceivably be about boys/relationships/etc. While this can make for monotonous listening, I hardly hold it against her: after all, five of her six albums were released before she turned 26. Aren’t most young folks enamored by the beauty of their partners (or partners-to-be/ partners that could have been)? Swift, after all, is an everygirl who appeals to everygirls.
“Taylor Swift, after all, is an everygirl who appeals to everygirls.”
It should be noted that she appears to be becoming less boy-crazy as she matures, which bodes well for future albums.
Favorite album: “1989”
Swift utterly abandons her country roots on her fifth album, and while some original fans may bemoan her move toward electronic music, it’s a well-timed shift in tone and style. The Shania Twain-esque anthems of her first four albums were becoming a bit tired, and “1989” breaks up the monotony with an ethereal atmosphere, greater emotional depth and some of the best songs she’s ever written (“Blank Space,” “Shake it Off” and “Clean,” to name three).
“The Shania Twain-esque anthems of her first four albums were becoming a bit tired, and ‘1989’ breaks up that monotony with an ethereal atmosphere, greater emotional depth and some of the best songs she’s ever written.”
Favorite song: “Shake it Off”
If Taylor Swift’s music, approach to life and pop culture reputation could be encapsulated in a single song, perhaps this would be the one.
In the first verse, “Shake It Off” directly addresses the most common complaints from her critics (ie. “I stay out too late/got nothin’ in my brain/that’s what people say/I go on too many dates/etc”) then hurls a big fuck you at those critics in the chorus (“the players gonna play/the haters gonna hate/I’m just gonna shake it off”).
Not only is Swift shaking off the haters, as it were, she’s also shaking off the “old” Taylor (ie the perpetually alone country star who pined for ex-lovers over an acoustic guitar) in exchange for nascent self-assurance.
Lyrical messages aside, “Shake it Off” is also so damn catchy and danceable that not even a questionable spoken word section in the middle (something about “getting down” to a “sick beat”) can ruin it, try as it might.
Least favorite album: “Reputation”
Production-wise, Swift’s most recent album is probably the best in her discography.
Her newfound sense of aggressive confidence — a determination to become the player instead of the played — is admirable. On previous albums, she passively-but-gracefully belted out helpless lines like “I can’t breathe without you, but I have to.” But on “Reputation,” she’s all female empowerment and raw sexuality, growling about “scratches down her back” while declaring the old, reactionary Taylor “dead.” She even cusses for the first time on record (She says “shit” on “I Did Something Bad.” Tsk tsk).
“On ‘Reputation,’ she’s all female empowerment and raw sexuality, growling about ‘scratches down her back’ while declaring the old, reactionary Taylor to be ‘dead.’ She even cusses for the first time”
Her feminine bravado, mixed with the chirps and chugs of the EDM backing music, make for an intriguing listen. But it all seems too calculated. She’s abandoned emotional authenticity (her strong suit all along) for a grittiness that often feels disingenuous.
It’s her “Yeezus.” But unlike Kanye, she’s not crazy enough to pull it off.
Swift has undergone a significant transformation over her decade-plus in the spotlight, from a wide-eyed (and talented) teenage country song writer to a sex symbol who’s fully embraced EDM beats and an bellicose alpha persona. While much of her songwriting lacks thematic depth (see: those 63 songs about boys), there’s something endearing about the way she wears her heart on her sleeve, haters be damned. Her choruses are perfectly catchy, and her lyrics more nuanced than people give her credit for. Plus she (mostly) writes from the heart about what she knows, and it’s hard not to respect that — even if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
My new favorite artist? Not quite. But Swift’s expressive voice, underrated lyricism and oft-overlooked sense of humor proves she’s worthy of more respect that she often gets — or at least more respect that I gave her before familiarizing myself with her music.
“While much of her songwriting lacks thematic depth (see: those 63 songs about boys), there’s something endearing about the way she wears her heart on her sleeve, haters be damned.”
“Nothing’s stopping me, I’m going out with all your boyfriends.” — Picture to Burn
“The only one who doesn’t see your beauty is the face in the mirror looking back at you.” — Tied together with a Smile.
“I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale.” — White Horse
“I can’t breathe without you, but I have to.” — Breathe
“We got bills to pay, we got nothing figured out.” — Mine
“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” — Mine
“Brace myself for the goodbye, because that’s all I’ve ever known.” — Mine
“Soon she’s gonna find stealing other people’s toys on the playground won’t make her any friends.” — Better than Revenge
“Wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days?” —Innocent
“This slope is treacherous and I like it.” — Treacherous
“Nothing safe is worth the drive.” — Treacherous
“You call me up again just to break me like a promise/so casually cruel in the name of being honest.” — All Too Well.
“It’s a new sound, I could dance to this beat.” — Welcome to New York
“I got a long list of ex-lovers, they’ll tell you I’m insane.” — Blank Space
“Band Aids don’t fix bulletholes.” — Bad Blood
“Remember how it used to be/pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks.” — How you Get the Girl
“When you’re young, you just run.” — This Love
“You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.” — Clean
“I swear I don’t love the drama/it loves me.” — End Game
“I never trust a narcissist, but they love me/Every lie I tell, they tell three.” — I Did Something Bad
“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead.” — Look What You Made Me Do
“I’m a mess, but the mess you wanted.” — Dancing with Our Hands Tied
“If I get burned, at least we were electrified.” — Dress
“All my flowers grew back as thorns.” — Call it What You Want