Having started her career so early, Taylor Swift has always been considered “good for her age.” Her thematic draw has, to this point, been in relating stories of love-prone, innocent youth. So twenty-year old Swift finds herself in something of a transitional point—both as a soon-to-be adult, and as a potentially powerful pop force.
And there’s no doubt that she’s in contest for the best of her kind.
But allow me to break my train of thought for a second here. Yeah, Taylor Swift’s new record is pretty good. But have you heard Kanye’s new tracks? They’re some of the best I’ve ever heard.
Look, I don’t mean to take away from Swift at all. She’s obviously maturing, especially after being the victim of an out-of-place, degrading comment at last year’s VMAs.
In fact, her new record, “Speak Now,” is a testament to a growing Swift: while it keeps the catchy sentiment and vulnerability that Swift is known for, she’s now writing a coming-of-age story, and it’s one that many of us will identify with.
Take the already-ubiquitous “Mine” as an example. It takes more than a few notes from the musical and narrative formula of “Love Story”—a faulty father figure is at the center of both songs. But her more recent track cuts the kiddy Shakespearean conflicts and replaces them with an ever-present one: “We’ve got bills to pay, and we’ve got nothing figured out.” Even though I doubt she’s hard-pressed for money, her hope for a quietly working love does translate well into these more adult-like circumstances.
In general, there’s a better awareness that “life is a tough crowd.” And many of these tracks (“Dear John,” “Mean,” “Better Than Revenge”) can be traced back to her real-life relationships that fans are no doubt aware of. One important thing to note is that unlike her first two records, she wrote the songs of “Speak Now,” which are by far her best she’s recorded (with a couple of exceptions in “The Story of Us” and “Haunted”). Her involvement accounts for a very accurate shift from girl to woman.
Even so, this in-between time—however familiar it is to our past or present—can be annoying if given a detailed look. On the one hand, Swift insists on being helpless and innocent, as with “Dear John.” Supposedly about John Mayer, she writes, “Don’t you think 19’s too young to be messed with? The girl in the dress cried the whole way home.” And though I’m inclined to agree with her rhetorical question on the surface, I have to also point out that she’s a young person who cannot possibly be as powerlessly blameless as she wants to make herself out to be.
How do I know? Listen to her sense of entitlement and ego on other tracks like “Sparks Fly,” “Better Than Revenge” and “Mean.” Or “Long Live,” which is almost like a toast to her own prom-queen accomplishments.
Which leads me back to Kanye West, who’s also making toasts for himself in his recent single, “Runaway.” The difference is that in his new material, he admits and embraces that egotism. Swift, in an admirably forgiving stroke, refers to him as an “Innocent,” recalling a time “before the monsters caught up to [him].” But Kanye, in his absolutely best-track-of-the-year brilliant “Monster”, doesn’t try to displace blame, saying “Everybody knows I’m a [bleep-bleep-bleeping] monster.”
I don’t expect Swift to say exactly the same thing about herself (she’s done nothing as publically appalling as West). Her “family-friendly” persona is what distinguishes her from others in the genre.
But I think it’s immature and manipulative for her to be self-described as weakly defenseless. By doing so, she’s able to take shots at her peers without running any real risk. In that sense, she’s still only “good for her age.”
Maybe that’s okay for some people. I’ll admit that her songs evoke a pleasant nostalgia for me. But in the end, I’m more interested in the hardworking Kanye, who has to write music that supersedes his bad reputation.