Taylor Swift and the search for musical authenticity

Taylor Swift wearing white in New York

The other week, I was doing that late night Youtube thing–you know, when you’re going to go to bed in a bit but see if there’s something fun to watch and then, crap, hours have passed, it’s 2am, and you’re watching a video of a chorale version of Smash Mouth’s great single All Star. Somehow, in one of my more sane Youtube black hole nights, I came across the below video. It’s a live performance by Taylor Swift of her top-ten single Wildest Dreams from her 6x platinum album 1989. It’s just Swift, an electric guitar, and a microphone, on stage for an intimate concert for a small audience at the Grammy Museum in December 2015.

Even if you’re not a Swift fan, this is the kind of performance that commands begrudging respect. There’s no pomp and circumstance, no fancy lighting, no backup dancers, no backing band, no random feuding with other pop stars, and is as exposed as a performance can possibly get. It’s a great version of the song, with the electric guitar rather than an acoustic guitar serving as an inspired choice–as is the decision to slow down the song just a tick or two.

 

Now, I’m a classically trained musician. I play multiple brass instruments and sing in a respectable choral ensemble. My college degree says ‘music’ on it. I once played a passable piano (passable enough to pass my keyboard proficiency, which is to say not very much but I at least did that). The point is: I’m not the key Swiftie demographic.

And yet: I quite enjoy listening to Swift’s music, much to the chagrin of my wife. There’s a reason for that, but we have to step back a little bit to get to an explanation.

Swift and her career is a fascinating case study about celebrity, the modern music industry, feminism, and even class. There’s so many routes of her success to explore, and what that success means. If you want to therefore launch an inquisition into the creation and implosion of Hiddleswift, for instance, go for it.

But the most fascinating part about Swift’s success is how she achieved it. From an extra-musical standpoint, there are two big assisting factors. First, Swift is gorgeous. Being pretty is a huge leg up; that’s just life. Second, Swift has an extraordinary ability to adeptly navigate celebrity without scandal, which is an underrated tool in a celebrity musician’s arsenal. There is a musical factor, though, and that’s the biggest one.

Theodor Adorno, German philosopher and critic, was born in 1903, a year where air flight was science fiction. Gustav Mahler, Charles Stanford, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Dvorak, and Camille Saint-Saens were all alive at Adorno’s birth. Adorno died at the age of 65 in 1969, one month before a quartet of nerdy Brits who named themselves ‘The Beatles’ released some album called Abbey Road and half a century after the first transatlantic airplane flight. As with most things at the start of the 20th Century, music was changing rapidly. A new, simpler, more accessible type of music was growing, fueled by the dual powers of globalization and recording technology.

Adorno witnessed the rise of this ‘popular music’ or, as an average teenager might think of it today, ‘music.’ Regardless, like your cranky old grandpa who refuses to consider to bestow the title of music to anything written in the last thirty years, Adorno was having none of the ‘pop music’ thing. In his essay On Popular Music, Adorno lays out why art music (or ‘classical’ music to some of you) is so much better than popular music. Adorno’s 1938 essay also expresses his distaste for the commercialization of music. Check out this quote, which seems like it was written yesterday, as opposed to 79 years ago:

Provided the material fulfills certain minimum requirements, any given song can be plugged and made a success, if there is adequate tie-up between publishing houses, name bands, radio and moving pictures. Most important is the following requirement: To be plugged, a song-hit must have at least one feature by which it can be distinguished from any other, and yet possess the complete conventionality and triviality of all others. The actual criterion by which a song is judged worthy of plugging is paradoxical. The publisher wants a piece of music that is fundamentally the same as all the other current hits and simultaneously fundamentally different from them.

To save you a whole lot of effort in reading the rest of Adorno’s thick prose on this subject: Adorno thought popular music was inherently and objectively inferior. According to him, it relied on extreme standardization and lacks meaningful musical development, its songs slaves to the churning money-making machine. Everything it does, ‘serious’ music can do better.

But there’s something that Adorno misses, either because 1930s music is indeed a different beast than 2010s music or because Adorno’s noggin is stuffed awfully far up his gluteus maximus. That is this: writing and recording a successful hit pop song is difficult precisely because it must check off so many boxes and adhere to such a strict formula. Writing a hit song necessitates operating within a constrictive box; it’s like trying to cook an entire three course meal utilizing only a microwave. The song must be between three to four minutes, fit into some version of a verse/chorus/bridge format, stick to a small collection of chords, and yet still invoke an emotional response and be catchy and/or memorable.

So what makes a song different? There are hundreds of thousands of musicians writing their own songs. Yeah, most of those songwriters don’t have the strength of the industry behind them, and yeah, hit songs are often the result of a cultural or musical zeitgeist; in other words, timing helps, too.

What makes Swift so good is that she operates within the constrictive pop music box just like everyone else, but her songs still achieve greatness. One reason is that their construction is impeccable, and they can be scaled down to an acoustic level or blasted to arenas and maintain their integrity and meaning. But the second, most important reason is that they come from a sincere place that just can’t be faked, no matter how hard one tries to do so. Millennials are great at sniffing out what is fake and what isn’t, and true originality shines like a bright lighthouse.

Watching an acoustic version of Wildest Dreams is a fantastic reminder of Swift’s great talent from multiple angles. It shows off her musicality, proves the song can work without all the flashy touches of modern pop music, and shows off Swift’s personal connection with her art. Swift, if nothing else, is authentic, which is her greatest achievement.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t see the video in the first place, of course. Maybe we should all go on more Youtube adventures. We might find something exciting. Well, that, or more dumb cat videos and memes.

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