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Friday, October 26, 2012

Swiftboating


I'm going to say this, and castigate me as you will:  I like Taylor Swift's music.  And the reason I like Taylor Swift's music is because she is one hell of a lyricist.

I can enjoy a song that has incoherent lyrics, as long as they are evocative and have at least some clever word play in them (this pretty much sums up nearly every Blue Oyster Cult song, at least, the ones written by Sandy Pearlman, and seems to comprise everything Adele writes, too... "set fire to the rain"?  "Rolling in the deep"?  does anyone know what these phrases actually mean? ).  I can dig a song that has dumb ass, simple minded lyrics ("Dance the Night Away" and "Jump" by Van Halen are among my all time guilty pleasures).  I can even enjoy a song that is about absolutely nothing except cheap, meaningless, mindless vices, like pretty much 90 percent of the stuff recorded by the Rolling Stones.

But for me to truly enjoy a song, it has to be written well.  It doesn't have to be deep or meaningful (Jeff Webb and I used to say that we both loved Pink Floyd, but we couldn't listen to more than four sequential tracks by the band without wanting to kill ourselves) but it has to have a style, the words have to work together, they have to be memorable and evocative and the song has to either make some kind of narrative sense (to the extent that it actually tells some sort of story) or it just has to be so overwhelmingly powerful that it doesn't need to (like Springsteen's "Thunder Road").  But beyond all that, there have to be phrases that slap me up side of the head, grab my attention and hold it, that stick with me, that I can roll around the corners of my skull for hours afterward with a big, admiring grin on my face, thinking "God, I wish I'd written that".

I left work early Thursday because my voice was pretty much shot by this chest thing I've got going on right now.  The bus back home from up there wasn't going to show up for another three hours, and while I'd have preferred to just stay at my desk and surf the Internet until then, that seemed like it would just piss my boss and other co-workers off if they saw me doing it.  So I left and not wanting to spend fifty bucks on a cab ride home when the bus trip would be free (my wife and I are both working, but the words of House Madigan are "Christmas is coming" and this time of year, that's more true than it usually is), I trekked over about half a mile to a Culver's at the corner of Interstate and Preston.  Got a coke and some chicken and sat down with my Lovecraft compendium (the gigantic black leather bound one that all my black co workers kept smiling mysteriously at last week, until one of them finally asked me if it was The Bible, and I had to deeply disappoint him by telling him no) to kill 180 minutes or so.

Now this Culver's is the only fast food franchise in the entire city of Louisville where every employee is as white as Mitt Romney, and similarly, it's the only one that plays country music.  I'd gotten my nose deep into "The Thing On The Doorstep" (which is excellent; fully mature Lovecraft in absolute control of his form, and probably the inspiration, in many ways, for King's CHRISTINE), having absolutely tuned out whatever drivel was coming over the speakers (I'll listen to some country; Emmylou Harris will always get my attention, and that song about 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu is another guilty pleasure of mine, but for the most part, while it's generally not as offensive to me as rap/hip-hop, still, I'll selectively dis-perceive the vast majority of it in a big way, given the opportunity)... when abruptly I was hauled out of Lovecraft's wonderfully eldritch tale of hideous trans-possession by awful evil wizards by the realization that Taylor Swift was singing "Mine" -

"...I was a flight risk with a fear of fallin’..."

And then, yes, a decently written stanza about laying on a couch, nice imagery, okay, but then she swings into that recurring chorus:

"Do you remember, we were sitting there by the water?
You put your arm around me for the first time.
You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.
You are the best thing that’s ever been mine."

'A careless man's careful daughter'... that's fucking nails, right there.  That's the true gold, that's diamonds and rubies and pearls.  That one beautifully evocative wonderfully rhythmic fantastically well wrought phrase... that's one that stays with me.

And then she does that sneaky little, heart-grabbing reverse in the last chorus, when the female narrator has walked out the apartment crying and the guy she's singing to is chasing her out onto the street and she thinks he's about to break up with her, but instead:

"You said, "I remember how we felt sitting by the water
And every time I look at you, it’s like the first time
I fell in love with a careless man’s careful daughter
She is the best thing that’s ever been mine."

And you know, I just want to cry, because goddamit, this girl... woman... person... human entity... this one right here... she can WRITE.

Goddam, I wish I'd written that.

And it's not uncommon for her.  The cascade of images in a little nothing song like "You Belong With Me" -

"She wears high heels, I wear sneakers
She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers"

is so deft it approaches brilliance, and she makes it look easy... casual.

Oddly, the other lyricist Swift reminds me most of is Billy Joel.   But where Joel's lyrics are mostly about affluent entitled douchebags whining about the ennui and disappointment of their easy easy lives and how hard it is to be rich when you're sensitive, Swift writes about genuinely likable people with recognizable emotions that you don't really honest to God wish would just kill themselves by the end of the song.  (I'm sorry.  I love me a lot of Billy Joel songs, but his narratives are all about rich, cocky pricks who are pissed off because while the world will constantly fellate them, sometimes it spits instead of swallows.  He'll occasionally throw together an exception to this rule just to try to stake out some street cred, as with "Allentown" or "Goodnight Saigon", but it's obvious that his heart is really with the dissipated whiner sniveling his way through "I've Loved These Days" and "Summer Highland Falls", or the braying jackass strutting and crowing his way through "Uptown Girl" or "You May Be Right".)

So, anyway... I enjoy listening to Taylor Swift's songs.  The woman can write.  Even if, apparently, she can't maintain a relationship for shit.

I wish I could write as well as she does.



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