Swift’s lastest CD a romantic tell-all
By Thomas Conner Sun-Times Media Pop Music Critic October 25, 2010 4:26PM
She eulogizes her brief relationship (or was it just friendship?) with “Glee” star Cory Monteith. She excoriates John Mayer (hallelujah), and lets Joe Jonas have it (again). She delivers a tearful apology to “Twilight” star Taylor Lautner. She lashes out at music critics and the media (ahem), and then there’s the whole dreary thing about Kanye West.
Is this an album or somebody’s Facebook wall?
Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated third CD, “Speak Now,” out Monday, is a fishing expedition for Us magazine readers and anyone playing Match the Song to the Jilted Jerk. It’s also a carefully crafted album of mostly well-written pop tunes that music moguls are watching this week, hoping it sets a sales record for a sluggish industry.
Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut sold 4 million copies. The follow-up, “Fearless,” moved 592,000 discs in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, on its way to more than 6 million sales. “Mine,” the first single from “Speak Now,” sold 1 million downloads. Big Machine Records hopes “Speak Now” will sell a million copies this week — which no one’s done since Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III” in June 2008 — and has put 2 million copies into circulation, so you won’t have trouble finding it if you’re looking.
If you are looking, what you’ll find is a tuneful diary of Swift’s love life during the last two years — lyrics about events so fresh in Swift’s mind (and heart) she hasn’t even finished processing what they mean. “I write songs about things that really intensely, emotionally affect me at the time I’m going through them,” Swift, 20, recently told MTV News. “I sort of write as life is happening to me, so all of these songs are snapshots of what I was feeling at that moment.”
What she feels in each moment is regret or revulsion for a particular fella — a different one in each song. The scorecard: “Mine” is allegedly about Monteith, “Back to December” apologizes to Lautner, “The Story of Us” might be about running into the ex Jonas at an awards show, “Dear John” (all seven, scathing minutes of it) is surely about Mayer and “Innocent” we know is her absolution of West’s gaffe. Girl gets around.
But those names are mere speculation. No one is named outright — even the title “Dear John” is just an old cliché — and Swift has been coy about the subjects, while also not denying any of the logical guesses.
That may be the one thing that gives this album legs, that will find it an audience (or at least a slot on someone’s breakup playlist) months from now when we’ve forgotten which song was supposed to be about which guy. Her poison pen draws a line neatly between specifics and generalities — just juicy enough to give it flavor, not so clear-cut it loses its universality. No wonder Stevie Nicks felt enough kinship with the young star to join her for a duet at the Grammys; these are just the kind of veiled, he’s-standing-right-there-so-I-can’t-actually-say-his-name lyrics that fueled the melodious soap opera of Fleetwood Mac, which also set a few sales records.
By most templates for young stardom, this should have been the road album — the one where Swift bemoans her sudden rise to fame and describes the interior of her motel room, the crushing isolation of fame. To her credit, she’s still writing about real people, real life. (She has sole writing credit for each of the 14 tracks.) Plus, the spontaneity she mentioned makes these songs crackle in the present tense. It’s not a breakup retrospective; she’s constantly saying goodbye in every song, right now.
Two ill-advised detours in subject: First, “Mean,” in which Swift points a matronly finger at her critics, offering psychoanalysis (“I bet you got pushed around / somebody made you cold”) as explanation for those of us who pointed out things like how horribly off-key she sang at both her recent awards-show performances. (Everything’s perfect pitch here, of course.) The juvenile retort comes off a little … Michael Jacksony.
Second, “Innocent” is her unasked-for absolution of West for his interruption at the MTV VMAs. There were two ways to handle that situation: laugh it off, or stop talking about it. To keep pouting about that moment, unfortunate for both of them — and to write, perform, record and sell a weak and self-righteous song about it — just drags out the embarrassment.
The topicality of “Speak Now,” plus Swift’s penchant for screwing a big, diesel-powered chorus into every song (“Enchanted” would have been an utterly enchanting ballad without one), makes the album a little exhausting. But with half a billion of us succumbed to Facebook and reality TV, this is the pop music we get now. Who wants broadly drawn fiction and metaphors when each song can be a boy-by-boy status line — real, and in real time?