Cancel the Taylor backlash


Cancel the Taylor backlash

FRED DE VRIES thought he was over Swift, then he heard her new album.


“THE Taylor Swift backlash starts here!" That’s how I wanted to start this column, very aware of how impressed the world’s biggest pop star would’ve been by this bold statement from an insignificant freelancer who writes for a small independent publication at the bottom of Africa. But she need not fear. Because after listening to the 16 tracks of her new album The Tortured Poets Department, I decided to not start this backlash. Because it simply is a very good record, addictive even. I’m listening to it while typing these sentences, being carried away by her voice, which is not as strident as it used to be. There’s less of what critics have described as her “clipped, chirping staccato", which I wasn’t keen on. Her voice has matured, gaining a kind of husky, grainy quality. Although she’s nowhere near the level of Cat Power yet, she reminds me of that old Lou Reed lyric, “Like a good wine, I’m better as I grow older."

According to the Discogs website, Tortured Poets has been released in 40-plus versions, including CD, vinyl, cassette, downloads and collector’s editions. And then there’s The Anthology with 15 extra tracks, which is the one you’ll find on Spotify.

The cover of Tortured Poets, her 11th studio album, shows our 34-year old star lying on a bed in her underwear, head turned sideways on a pillow, left hand on her pelvis, right hand near her breast. One of the straps of her bra has come loose and hangs limply over her exposed right shoulder. It’s kinda sexy, in that tasteful Taylor way. It spells longing, but also loneliness. Or perhaps it’s the visual accompaniment to the masturbation reference on Guilty As Sin?, where she sings: “These fatal fantasies / Giving way to laboured breath / Taking all of me / We’ve already done it in my head."

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So, if I like this album so much, why was I thinking of spearheading an “enough of you, Taylor!" movement, risking the wrath of the unforgiving army of Swifties? It may have had something to do with the reviews I read before listening. They described it as an album with more tales about former lovers, fame and fans. And I wondered: really? Do we really need more of that when there are so many more urgent issues to address? Hasn’t it all become a bit predictable, these stories of Taylor’s loves and break-ups, turned into wordy puzzles for her fans to solve? Isn’t it just a bit too easy, like a pop version of a perpetuum mobile?

The perpetual logic goes like this. Taylor has yet another amorous relationship. With forensic fanaticism her fans dissect any signifier they can find (photos, clothes, make-up, jewellery, hair, social media messages). Then they jump en masse on social media, where they analyse, speculate, argue, give her unwanted advice. And then, inevitably, things between Taylor and her beau don’t work out and she writes a number of tortured and vengeful tunes about her broken heart and the selfish lover, without naming him, leaving us guessing which of her former lovers she’s referring to. The fans bite into the words, taste them, chew them, spit them out and draw their own conclusions about the fractious love life of their heroine, which sends social media into overdrive again. Subsequently, Taylor will write about that obsession as well, so the machine will keep on turning, endlessly, until the day Taylor finds true love, gets married and has children, and all will be quiet — until that idyll, too, falls apart.

I had become a bit tired of that sequence. Or so I thought. But listening to Tortured Poets I,too, got caught up in the whirlwind of Taylor’s life, her thoughts and revelations, all captured in pop lyrics that are certainly a notch above the general level. A poet? Perhaps. She certainly can do her share of Dylanesque internal rhyme when she comes up with lines such as: “Camera flashes, welcome bashes, get the matches, toss the ashes off the ledge."

I also grew more interested in her new songs after learning that one of the main targets of her venom is Matty Healy, singer with the British band The 1975. I don’t like Healy. I’ve heard and read many interviews with him and he comes across as an annoying, overbearing, narcissistic, self-absorbed young man who thrives on the idea of being a “bad boy" (think shaggy hair, hard drugs, kissing men on stage, laughing at lame racist jokes). And since I also don’t think much of the music of The 1975,  I was curious to hear what she has to say about him. Well, it seems she wanted him because of his bad-boy image. “He was chaos / he was revelry,” she sings. And she tells us she chose him partly to demolish her own image of the lovely, polite girl next door. She got a lot of flak from her fans for dating Healy. On Tortured Poets she hits back at them, calling them “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best" and “wine moms". She sings: “I’ll tell you something right now/ I’d rather burn my whole life down/ Than listen to one more second of all this bitching and moaning/ I’ll tell you something about my good name/ It’s mine alone to disgrace."

The relationship with Healy didn’t last long. It was probably a case of pendulum swing after her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn fell apart. She thought she could reform this bad boy with his bad habit. But Healy turned out to be a proper asshole. So he gets what he deserves in the song The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived. Taylor goes: “[You] Hung me on your wall / Stabbed me with your push pins / In public showed me off / Then sank in stoned oblivion/ 'Cause once your queen had come/ You’d treat her likе an also-ran/ You didn’t measure up/ In any measure of man." Elsewhere she sings about him ghosting her. “Was any of it true? Gazing at me starry-eyed in your Jehovah’s Witness suit. Who the fuck was that guy? You tried to buy some pills from a friend of of mine. They just ghosted you. Now you know what it feels like." It ends with a “good riddance/ cos it wasn’t sexy once it wasn’t forbidden".

I wrote extensively about Swift in a previous column, which mainly dealt with her staggering popularity and the reasons so many young girls are obsessed with her. One of the reasons was the post-Covid need for a collective experience in an increasingly fragmented society where you see a group of six teenage girls huddled together, all glued to their phones, all involved in different worlds. Coherence is a thing of the past. Swift brought back a bit of monoculture that has been missing since the advent of the smartphone.

She was always there for them, like an older sister. New York therapist Suzanne Garfinkle-Crowell wrote: “Whatever you are upset about, the poet laureate of this generation has got a song somewhere in her mega-oeuvre describing that precise feeling. She is not going to solve whatever problem you are having, but she is going to sit with you in it until the passage of time does its work: look at her now."

But I’m not a tweenage girl, so I found it pretty hard to relate to all this. And I also couldn’t care less who she’s dating (right now, for your information, it’s American footballer Travis Kelce) or who she has dated (Elle Australia counted 17 names since 2008). But what I did find interesting were her political views and the fact that Swift can theoretically decide the American elections by telling her fans who to vote for. She did that in 2018 when she endorsed two Democrats for the midterm elections in Tennessee. As for the Biden-Trump race, she hasn’t spoken out for either of them, but last September she did call out to her fans to register to vote. “I’ve been so lucky to see so many of you guys at my US shows recently. I've heard you raise your voices, and I know how powerful they are," she wrote on Instagram. “Make sure you're ready to use them in our elections this year!" Her post came with a link to register at the non-partisan, non-profit organisation, which later said it recorded more than 35,000 registrations after Swift’s appeal.

It’s a good sign that our biggest pop star with 282 million Instagram followers engages in things that matter beyond boyfriends and the price of fame. Way back in the day, we had long-haired rock bands such as The Allman Brothers Band endorsing Jimmy Carter. These days it seems the cultural push comes from the right, especially from country singers such as Jason Aldean, Kid Rock and to a lesser extent Oliver Anthony.

Now that's out of the way, a few more words about Swift’s new album with that intriguing title. Most of the production of the first/main album was in the hands of Jack Antonoff, who has worked with her since 2014 and co-wrote some of the songs. Aaron Dessner of The National produced five tracks from the first album and most of The Anthology. Musically, it follows her previous album, Midnights, which means a mix of moody electro-pop and dream pop, all covered in comfortable sheets of synthesiser, which has become Antonoff’s trademark. Every now and then you’ll hear a slide guitar or a fiddle, buried deep in the mix. Apart from Florida!!!, which features Florence + The Machine, there are no attempts at something jubilant, nothing in the vein of the pop punk anthems that her young competitor Olivia Rodrigo loves so much. There’s also nothing like Beyoncé’s shit-stirring, perverse takes on country. Apart from the occasional use of “fuck", it’s all very refined and sophisticated. It’s almost as if the words matter more than the music.

I like the fact that she shows her vulnerabilities, that she sings how she fooled those hundreds of thousands who came to watch the Eras tour where she seemed so professional and passionate. In I Can Do It With A Broken Heart she sings: “I cry a lot but I am so productive / It’s an art." And “All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting ‘more’." Yes, she’s great at keeping up appearances.

New York Times music critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote that the album, certainly with the 15 extra tracks, is way too long. Swift needs an editor, she stated. She also said those extra tracks were superfluous. I disagree. Although the opening salvo of Fortnight, The Tortured Poets Department and My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys is superb, I prefer the more introverted, sparsely instrumented soundscapes of The Anthology, which sonically hark back to the organic-sounding “folk" albums evermore and folklore which she recorded during the pandemic.

Of course, it is a bit of an overload, 31 new Taylor Swift tracks which all shimmer with many layers of extra meaning and references to other musicians. In many ways, it’s a magnificent modern-day version of the good old jigsaw puzzle. Guilty as Sin? definitely has touches of the dark world that Lana Del Rey depicts, while bits of the title track remind me of Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time. On the same song she also references the greatest female singer of them all, Patti Smith. Lyrically, it’s another story of Matty Healy, about him pretending to be an Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac. She introduces him as pretentiously carrying a typewriter. “I laughed in your face and said, ‘You’re not Dylan Thomas / I’m not Patti Smith / This ain’t the Chelsea Hotel / We’re modern idiots'."

It’s a nice touch of self-effacement. But it does make you wonder: when she was besotted with him, did she feel the same way? Or did she actually think they were the modern-day Thomas and Smith banging out words on an old and battered typewriter in the seminal Chelsea Hotel where Janis Joplin had performed oral sex on Leonard Cohen (as recounted on the latter’s Chelsea Hotel #2) and Sid Vicious had killed his girlfriend?

There are other interesting cultural references, like her mentioning Downtown Lights by Scottish 80s band The Blue Nile on the track Guilty as Sin?, or the dropping the name of Charlie Puth, an artist I had never heard of (and from listening to him on YouTube, I haven’t missed much). Or the line about an obscure Pennsylvania pop punk band called The Starting Line on The Black Dog. Now that’s also an interesting song title. Usually it’s a metaphor for depression, and older music fans will know it as a Led Zeppelin classic. But in Taylor’s lexicon it refers to a pub in south London which one of her previous boyfriends used to frequent. The mention has done wonders for the pub, which had to hire extra security staff because of the avalanche of Swifties who wanted to see the place for themselves and order a “Swift half pint", which comes free if you can sing a lyric. There are also Taylor versions of the cocktails.

There’s so much more to devour. I do love this fantasy Swift universe as a temporary escape from drought in southern Africa, oceans full of plastic and political parties that threaten to do away with our constitution. Any shrink would agree: we need a happy space. So just let me listen to the final track, The Manuscript, another highlight with many more clues. I know, I know, I sound like a Swiftie.

This week Fred has also been listening to the weird ambient sounds and robotic vocals that Claire Rousay has recorded for her album Sentiment. You can find it here.

♦ VWB ♦

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