Keep Your Ey-eyes Open for Taylor Swift’s New M.O.

Taylor Swift’s staunchest critics deride her for singing sweet love melodies and nothing more. First of all, this isn’t true. Many of her songs actually relate to real life experiences, other than those about love. Take “Mean” for a great example. But in the smash hit “Eyes Open,” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, Taylor Swift obliterates her detractors’ criticisms by showing the breadth of her songwriting ability and underscoring her capacity to understand the human condition.

“Eyes Open” captures the brutal underdog mentality that pervades many adolescents’ and even adults’ consciousnesses. She starts out singing about how life once was as an innocent child:

The tricky thing is yesterday we were just children
Playing soldiers, just pretending
Dreaming dreams with happy endings
In backyards, winning battles with our wooden swords

She captures the simplicity and naivete of childhood. Then, the song shifts (both tonally and melodically) to talk about the harsh reality of now: “But now we’ve stepped into a cruel world, where everybody stands and keeps score.” This isn’t a song about love, by any measure.

The chorus, which speaks to the struggles faced by the protagonist of the Hunger Games, resonates with all of us:

Everybody’s waiting for you to breakdown
Everybody’s watching to see the fallout
Even when you’re sleeping, sleeping
Keep your ey-eyes open

When she says, “keep your eyes open,” she’s not just saying be on guard and defend yourself, but also, keep your head up. When life gives you lemons, don’t just make lemonade–use those lemons to your advantage.

In the following verse, Taylor Swift dives deeper into the world of the oppressed. She reminds the subject of the song, “But you’ve got something they don’t. You’ve got something they don’t”–alluding to an intrinsic quality that we all have to persevere through tough situations.

One way of interpreting the song is by imagining that she’s singing to her critics, as she did in “Mean.” But I think she’s done something much better and more complex–she’s stepped inside the world of someone else and has truly seen the world through their eyes. She’s singing from her heart, but not about it.

This song is deep–and a true departure from her older material (think the joyful Fearless album), but I think the new tone suits her well. I look forward to her next record which will, no doubt, feature a more-adult perspective. “Eyes Open” serves as a bridge from Speak Now to the rest of her future material, and, based upon the awesome reception she’s received for “Eyes Open,” her next record will undoubtedly be another record-breaking hit.

Taylor Swift IS the Girl Next Door

taylor swift singing from her heart

In today’s New York Times, there’s an article in the Sunday Styles section about Kelly Clarkson, the role model next door, as it were.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Kelly Clarkson’s great. And she’s definitely a role model. As the article points out numerous times, Kelly isn’t exactly your typical pop star (think: physique), and yet carries herself with confidence and candor.

With that said, I can’t understand why Taylor Swift made her way into this article. If the writer alleged that Taylor Swift, like Kelly Clarkson, is the typical girl next door, I’d agree. However, Taylor is invoked with a negative perspective and is contrasted to Kelly as the anti-girl next door.

Courtney E. Martin, who, up until a few months ago, wrote for Feministing, is quoted in the article as saying, “‘There’s so much talk about Taylor Swift being the girl next door’ — the role played by the singer in her video for “You Belong With Me” — ‘but she’s tall and blond, the girl that the girl next door wants to be. But with Kelly, you sense that she really is the girl next door. She acknowledges more complexity than most stars talk about.'”

What? Since when does being tall and blonde preclude someone from being a so-called girl next door? (As my partner says, “I don’t know why being fat makes you more down-to-earth or authentic.”) Didn’t the writer (Jan Hoffman) read the recent awesome New Yorker profile of Taylor, which portrays her as a normal, yet brilliant contributor to society?

I don’t see Martin’s point. Well, I do, in a way — of course, Kelly Clarkson breaks from the mold in that she’s not thin, has trouble dating (“If I were gay, I’d probably have more luck”), and wears brunette hair (now). But there’s no need to bring Taylor Swift into this conversation. If anything, Taylor has proven herself to be the atypical down-to-earth superstar. Only a handful of her songs relate to notable men (there was some suggestion in the article that she dates celebrities, as well); most of her songs relate to the intricate difficulties of relationships–from a grounded, girl-next-door perspective. If listeners connect with Taylor, it’s because they feel they are the girl singing the song, not because they want to be her, as Martin suggests.

Author of one semi-known book, Martin positions herself as an expert on teen idols. She isn’t, nor is Ms. Hoffman (nor am I, for that matter). Martin ignores the obvious reality of Taylor’s influence on young girls–a positive one. Unlike most of her peers, Taylor doesn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. Martin’s Taylor Swift acumen is sorely anemic.

In conclusion, I am horrified that the Times chose to publish an article that trashes Taylor Swift in order to achieve some kind of revelation about Kelly Clarkson.

Taylor Swift: “Mean” Video

Did you know that Taylor Swift plays the banjo? She rocks it, too. Check out this video of “Mean,” an awesome confluence of mandolin and banjo tied up in positive lyrics.

When I listened to this song on the album, I had no idea she was playing the banjo line. (Maybe she’s just playing it in the video to show off her skillz.) As if I needed another reason to be completely floored by this young woman’s talent.

In the video, I love that there’s a little girl watching from the audience. Taylor is acutely aware of her position as role model. This song sends the message that, when someone’s mean to you, they’ve got the problem, not you. It champions the idea that you can overcome adversity and achieve your dreams regardless of the obstacles:

Some day I’ll be living in a big ol’ city

and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.

Why you gotta be so mean?

Some day I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,

and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.

Why you gotta be so mean?

At the end, the little girl smiles and claps at Taylor and looks upon her with awe. She is the face of every girl who bought Speak Now the second it was released, who begged her parents to buy her exorbitantly priced tickets to a sold out show, who dreamily stares into Taylor’s eyes on a poster on her wall. She is me.

Oh My My “Mine”

Utterance on an upbeat and a low-key guitar swings in. Whose voice is this? you wonder. Her smooth inflection jogs your memory: this is Taylor Swift. On “Mine,” the first single from Speak Now, Taylor’s maturity shines through—as songwriter, singer, and, well, Swift.

If you aren’t one of the scores who’s already downloaded “Mine,” you can hear it here.

"Teardrops on My Guitar" on 5/15/10

At first listen, it’s clear that “Mine” has broken from the standard Taylor mold. It involves romance and a guy—elements of many of her songs—but beyond that, it tackles uncharted territory. The music feels laidback, bereft of anger or urgency; her vocals are enhanced by background singers (mostly male); the protagonist is pragmatic, collaborative, and without vengeance. Yeah, that’s new Taylor alright.

A relatable story about a more-adult relationship and how one person,
“the best thing that’s ever been mine,” can make a real, stable relationship feel possible, no matter how emotionally vulnerable you are. One of my favorite lyrics is, “Do you remember all the city lights on the water?/ You saw me start to believe for the first time.” There’s a quiet intimacy in this line; a revelation that feels more mature than the less nuanced declarations of love as found in earlier songs.

"Love Story"

Where the fabled “Love Story” concedes that “this love is difficult but it’s real/ Don’t be afraid we’ll make it out of this mess/ It’s a love story, baby, just say yes,” “Mine” tells us how and why it’s difficult, and exposes her vulnerability. After “flashing forward” to her adult relationship with the “Mine” guy, she admits, “But we got bills to pay/ We got nothing figured out/ When it was hard to take/ Yes, Yes/ This is what I thought about” and returns to the chorus where she focuses on what’s good about her relationship. She sings, “Every time I look at you it’s like the first time.” Truth in power of positive thinking? Sure. Instant therapy? Absolutely.

In the bridge, she rethinks a defining line from “The Other Side of the Door,” a landmark track on Fearless Platinum about a frustrating distance between two people who aren’t communicating their true feelings to each other.

And I remember the slammin’ door,

And all the things that I misread.

So babe if you know everything

Tell me why you couldn’t see

That when I left I wanted you to

Chase after me?

“Mine” takes a different approach:

And I remember that fight, two-thirty AM

You said everything was slipping right out of our hands

I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street

From “Door” to “Mine” Taylor has made some progress. The guy in “Door” obviously doesn’t and cannot know what she wants because she’s afraid to reveal her true emotion (“I said leave but all I really want is you”), but in “Mine,” her partner understands her vulnerability because she’s revealed herself to him. I can’t say whether Taylor Swift (the real person) has personally changed—I suspect she’s been “Mine”-mature all along—but her perceptive ability as written into this song is brilliant.

She doesn’t need that white horse—because it wasn’t the horse (or the guy with the horse) who could turn her life into fairy tale. Now, she’s found an adult relationship (as further evidenced by the line, “And there’s a drawer of my things at your place”) and is proud of it. “Mine” shows Taylor’s embarked on crafting a new narrative for herself—a story more tangible to most of us.

Speak Now will be available October 25.

Fearless Platinum Edition: Audio

Why Fearless Again? Why Not.

You probably pre-ordered your copy of Fearless Platinum Edition from Amazon.com like I did.

Amazon probably e-mailed you a coupon for this album because the industrious goods-search-engine instinctively knows how much you love Taylor Swift.

So, when you received the new Fearless album with six previously unreleased recordings at work last week, you probably threw up your hands and yelled Hallelujah at a volume for your entire office suite to hear. Alarmed by your exclamation, they asked, “What’s the good news? Are you getting married or are you pregnant or did you get a new job or all of the above?” You waved the silver, black, and blonde CD in their direction and slowly retreated to the corner of your cubicle, your headphones tangled in white knots.

Am I right?

… It doesn’t matter if I’m right. Keep reading.

Fearless Platinum features five new tracks and one re-vision of an original Fearless song, “Forever and Always.” This is a big deal. Can you think of any artist who’s so graciously re-packaged his/her/their album with new music only one year after the original release? And a DVD with all kinds of visual goodies on it? I can’t.

On the inside cover of the CD booklet, there’s a handwritten note from Taylor. It begins:

First and foremost, thank you for buying the Fearless Platinum Edition. When I put out Fearless, I had high hopes and no expectations. A short time later, I sit here, trying to think of words that might fully express to you how thankful I am.

Is she nuts? Fearless is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life. Believe it or not – other people agree with me. The note continues to describe the songs she’s included in the platinum edition, but I’ll tell you about that.

The Quintessential Taylor Swift

Two songs strike me as through-and-through Taylor Swift-ies: “Jump Then Fall” and “The Other Side of the Door.”

The album opens with “Jump Then Fall,” solely written by Taylor, (which, were I to re-organize this album, would not come first). It has the positive energy that seeps through jaunty guitar playing and Taylor’s pretty voice singing

I like the way you sound in the morning

We’re on the phone and without a warning

I realize your laugh is the best sound I have ever heard

Love it. Live it. This is Taylor Swift. Don’t mistake her gushing as some romantic teenager’s vision of love. She sees what’s beautiful in the world and infuses her music with her view.

I might argue that “The Other Side of the Door,” the other totally-Taylor (and totally written by her) newbie to Fearless, is actually the best song on the CD. It reminds me of everything that’s great about Taylor’s music: a laidback banjo-beat, earnest delivery of lyrics, brazenly honest self-portrait as someone who’s difficult in love:

I said leave, but all I really want is you

To stand outside my window throwing pebbles

Screaming I’m in love with you

What do I love best about this song? It has so much Taylor imagery: “throwing pebbles” (from “Love Story”), “that little black dress” (from “Tim McGraw), ” slamming door” (from “Our Song”), “pouring rain” and even “faded picture of a beautiful night” (from “Fearless”), “beautiful eyes” (from “Teardrops on My Guitar”) and possibly more.

Tried a Little Tenderness

At the center of her additions to Fearless is a mass of tenderness so stark your heart all but melts as you listen to her sweet voice move across bars supported by banjo and guitar strumming.

Take “Forever and Always,” for instance. A song that once felt angst-driven is now stripped down to delicate vocals and piano, with harmonizing voices weaving through the chorus.

It isn’t a song about a girl on the brink of revenge. It’s raw, in the midst of heartbreak and betrayal. We’re with her at the center of an emotional mess much deeper than the quicker, louder parent version of the song might betray.

Second on the CD, the less memorable “Untouchable,” co-written with a handful of others, similarly penetrates this mushy tender place behind the strong exterior often associated with Taylor’s persona. Slower and accented with steel guitar shimmers, this song lacks the tightly wound narrative and line-by-line perfection characteristic of the bulk of Fearless. Yet there’s a lulling, dream-like quality to it that has definitely made the wait between tracks one and three manageable.

A Lot More Country (Than I Expected)

Although her roots are in Nashville’s scene, Taylor is perceived as not-quite-country by many.

She doesn’t write songs about NASCAR. Give her a break.

“Come in With the Rain” and “Superstar” have distinctively country vibes. Steel guitar, strings, banjo, and the staccato rhythms of the verses followed by a long sway of choruses create the right kind of tension to at least give the impression she isn’t the pop star US Weekly wants her to be.

In “Come in With the Rain,” co-written by Liz Rose of “White Horse” fame, she sings:

Talk to the wind, talk to the sky

Talk to the man with the reasons why

And let me know what you find

Read these lines in your head or aloud. Take in their simple poetry that reminds you of so many “real” country songs you’ve heard.

“Superstar,” which is also co-written by Liz Rose, totally blows my mind. It’s a beautiful song, yes, but the lyrics truly define what sets Taylor Swift apart from her contemporaries. She’s singing about a superstar–not herself:

So dim that spotlight, tell me things like I can’t take my eyes off of you

I’m no one special, just another wide eyed girl who’s desperately in love with you

Give me a photograph to hang on my wall

Superstar

Who does this? Taylor Swift is the definition of Superstar, yet she’s willing to show us that she’s like us–I mean, like me–the unflappable fan who can only admire the larger-than-life performer from afar; the person who sees herself as so much smaller and as “no one special” in comparison to the singer on stage.

On every album, in every song, Taylor Swift is showing her listener that she’s the same as anyone at the other end of the headphones. She’d never see it any differently.

If you haven’t used your Amazon coupon to buy Fearless Platinum, I suggest you use it today, at this very moment.

WE HEART TAYLOR.

I’M NOT A PRINCESS,THIS AIN’T A FAIRY TALE

She is and it is.

After the villain stole her crown, the fairy godmother returned it to her, unfettered and pristine. The fairy godmother stepped back to watch the princess take her bow. No better ending than that, right?

Kanye West and his alcohol swagger stepped onstage to burst the bubble of my favorite Queen of Universal Appeal. But Taylor Swift’s got class. Though crestfallen she was, as Goody Bathtub said, and tears did fall on her guitar backstage, she changed her dress and got down what she does best: enthralling her fans.

And I’ll admit. Kanye was right. Beyonce had a better video (but she won the big prize, didn’t she?). “Single Ladies” bears iconic status. It features the dance everyone wants to learn, here (Joe Jonas), here (vomitous), and here (adorable).

Have you watched “You Belong With Me” (below)? Taylor plays both the wallflower/blonde and the cheer captain/brunette. What’s she telling us? You can be anyone. You have choices and potential greater than high school (and beyond) categories. To the ‘tween, no matter who you are, you can feel confident in belting out “you belong with me” and declare it through sharpie-drawn copy paper.  Full disclosure: I believe Taylor Swift is behind the brains of all of her brilliance–the shows, the incredible songs, the music videos, everything.

This video transcends brilliant. Kanye should watch it some time. Even if he doesn’t, he should realize that for Taylor, the VMAs doesn’t have to be a big deal. She’s nominated for Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards. That is a big deal. Much bigger than my moon man and MTV. And yet, it’s clear, this acknowledgment is dear to her.

Yet, the fact that Taylor, whose roots are still deep in Nashville, won this category speaks to her universal appeal. I was impressed with MTV. More, I am impressed with the artists seated at the VMAs last night who booed Kanye; with Pink who talked shit about him on Twitter; with the ladies of The View who will have Taylor as a guest Tuesday morning; with the newscasters who said, “Isn’t this a shame? How could he do this to that young, talented Taylor Swift?” when there are 100 other worldly topics they might discuss; and, of course, it is the response from average people (you, reader) who have risen up in comment spots to claim that no one should steal Taylor’s, anyone’s thunder–this impresses and delights me.

I am overwhelmed by the class displayed by Taylor and Beyonce. The one and only Beyonce’s staggering professionalism totally caught me off guard. Her invitation to Taylor was unprecedented (maybe it wasn’t, sure argue with me). She accepted her award then allowed a newer, younger artist to have the moment she deserves, a moment that Beyonce, perhaps, recalled. Bravo!

And Taylor. Bigger than moon man and New York City and MTV. Yet she is utterly gracious. So eager to be accepted by all of us–a theme of her music–no matter what the award or venue; backwoods West Virginia crowd or Madison Square Garden’s; innocent, admiring blogger or magazine reporter who tirelessly bangs upon the brick wall subject of her personal life. It doesn’t matter who we are. She wants us with her–singing her songs, screaming her name, squealing and screeching until certain deafness.

That’s what separates her from the other people on the stage last night. She isn’t expecting it or us at all. She is surprised every time. And even those of us who aren’t familiar with her music or don’t care for it, we instinctively sense this about her.

Watch this video of her performance at the VMAs. At the end, she stands on a taxi cab for the final chorus of the song. Anyone can tell she’s having the time of her life and so are the fans around her. But any time she sings, the fans will always behave this way. The thing is, so will Taylor. That’s what makes her special. She’s real, y’all.

Greater Adoration

TAYLOR COUNTDOWN: 2 DAYS

Contrary to your belief, there are people out there who adore Taylor Swift more than I do.

And they’re talented musicians.

Take this one–Mary–singing “You Belong With Me”

My favorite part of Mary’s performance–filled with props that Taylor, no doubt, appropriates in her real life–happens around the 35 second mark.

During the lyrics “She’ll never know your story like I do,” Mary pulls out a Bible, bearing some kind of label (is it from the library?), and holds it in front of her distressed face. Maybe if she selected Swann’s Way, I’d understand the meaningfulness of her literary selection … and facial expression.

But Mary knows the Bible. The cheerleader “she” in the song, who wears short skirts and high heels, clearly does not. Mary sings “You Belong With Me” at Sunday church services, exalting at the alter.

Good for Mary–and Jesus, her subject.

And then there’s BatRomeo, who took it upon himself to rewrite “Love Story” from Romeo’s perspective.

Clad in a vintage Batman T-shirt with 99cent store RayBans, BatRomeo wants to tell his Love Story on his own terms.

You’ll be the princess. I’ll be the prince.
Oh. It’s a love story just say yes.

BatRomeo’s voice is sweet, though. I’ll give him that.

Who knows? BatRomeo could be Taylor’s next muse. He’s almost 1/100th as attractive as Taylor Lautner.

These two, Mary Kate and Ashley, definitely adore Taylor more than I do, and win the covers competition on Taylor’s Ham.

Singing “Our Song,” Mary Kate and Ashley in similarly tweeny outfits (purple and pink, of course) manage to pull off a pretty good harmony. Mary Kate strums the guitar while Ashley keeps the rhythm with her bouncing dance moves.

They are the next Taylor Swifts.

FYI: If I’m ever on YouTube singing a Taylor Swift song, you know you won’t find it here.