“An Old Curmudgeon Pontificating on Where Taylor Swift Would Stack up in the ’90s in Terms of Popularity”

Now, believe me, it was never my intention to write a post about Taylor Swift. I did muster out one default-love-poem to her circa 2015, during an unusually horny phase of mine, kind of as a way of positing myself as a found art object for whom all the meaning in life has gone. 

I think it’s telling, then, that today, Rihanna, an artist with four times the artistic credibility of Swift, has willingly left music entirely, leaving the Tennesse country-diva-turned-rapping-brat with a sort of stratospheric level of fame and notoriety. Disturbingly, today, in the Whole Foods where I was working, there was an entire sort of “tower” — four magazine racks all in one column flanking one of the registers — with Swift on the cover of each. 

She’s reached demigod status. There’s no question. As a ’90s kid, I personally don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything matching the ubiquitous obsession with her in the world today, and it likely even outweighs the Michael Jackson phase of the ’80s, if not, necessarily, the Beatles one of the ’60s or Elvis of the ’50s. It’s like OJ Simpson in the ’90s, in other words. 

And, indeed, she might have succeeded in murdering country, hip-hop, pop and whatever else might have lay in her path leading up to this kind of perch on top of the world she’s currently enjoying, for better or worse. I have to admit, I listened to her new album and it’s really not terrible music. It’s probably my favorite thing she’s ever done, one troubling thing about it, of course, is that it bears pretty much no similarity to her old stuff, that put her on the map, or whatever, like “We Are Never Ever Getting back Together” and “Shake it off.” In fact, listening to The Tortured Poet’s Department, her new album, I would have had absolutely no idea it were her at all, without looking at the credits. 

Let’s compare her, anyway, with, say, Sarah McLachlan and Alanis Morissette. McLachlan burst onto the scene with Surfacing (1997), an album which gave us four hit singles: “Building a Mystery”; “Sweet Surrender”; “Adia” and “Angel.” Two of these are romantic love songs, essentially (each of which, interestingly, incorporates Christ imagery in its lyrics), one is a song to her grandmother about a falling-out they’ve had, and the other is a sort of humanistic paean, rife enough with emotion to land itself on a commercial for abandoned pets. This is about 10 times the lyrical depth you’ll find in the entire catalogue of Taylor Swift, who sees fit instead to apply half-baked wit to awkward dating situations and try to patent the term “sick beat,” when that’s not even her correct genre of music, in the first place. Similarly, Alanis Morissette has a way, in her lyrics, of really getting her hands dirty with life’s awkward conundrums and contradictions, with even her straight-ahead love songs finding hard-won head-scratchers bubble to the surface like “I’ve never felt this healthy before / I’ve never wanted something rational”. With a similar tenacity, Erykah Badu, and even one-hit-wonders Des’ree, Dionne Farris and Tracy Chapman [1] all manage to carve out lyrical niches way more memorable than Swift’s cheap eighth-grade-guidance-counselor-meets-spin-the-bottle wisdom. In like mode, the haunting, rustic chamber pop of Paula Cole is not something to which Swift could hold a candle in a million years. 

When I first started listening to music, this iron-lunged chick named Vanessa Williams ruled the charts with a song called “Save the Best for Last.” While not a terrible song by any stretch, it nevertheless nestled itself within a fairly banal lyrical territory of a reductive love story, somewhat like a more-dramatic Motown song with a little less cheesy bass sound and “ooh-ooh” presence. Her level of notoriety, fame and success amongst whatever ruling bourgeoise to which we were adhering at the time would be roughly where Swift would end up, with her empty, inconsistent relationship shtick and lack of identity as a sort of social deconstructor (Morissette) or bleeding-heart cherub (McLachlan). In no way does Swift have one tenth the heart of either of these singers, and sure, she’s got a broader body of work than Williams, but this is balanced out by the easier path to fame she enjoyed. In the ’90s, beset with the obnoxious, adolescent sneer of “We Are Never Ever Getting back Together”; iconic TV critics like Janeane Garofalo would have verbally annihilated her as childish and petulant. In fact, in the ’90s, this song would have been like seen as sort of joke song, for its stupidity, like “Barbie Girl” or that “No Sex in the Champagne Room” jingle by Chris Rock. It’s completely immature PMS-ing, in other words, that more than likely never would have even seen the light of day, too cutesy and undeveloped, likely, even for the do-no-wrong Tennessee country scene from which Swift is purportedly supposed to spring. Then, any number of figures would have crucified her, rightly so, for her inane attempt to patent the term “sick beat” in the wake of “Shake it off”; especially with her having started out as a country bimbo and contributed absolutely nothing to the world of hip-hop to date. But, I mean, she’s better than Britney Spears, I’d say, and although I don’t think there’s any hope that Swift will ever do anything artistically meaningful (nor do I even think that would even be a good idea, for her, at this time, and in this nauseatingly PC world of today), I hope for her sake she at least stays in the good favor of the public eye. Lord knows we need her, apparently. 


[1] Excuse me, she’s like a three-hit-wonder, I know. 


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