The other day I commented on a post that stated: “Taylor Swift should be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Paul McCartney as the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years.”
I replied on the thread: “I like Taylor Swift (due to her recent socio-political stances and the fact that her mega tour is pumping millions into public services), and I think we can include her at the top of any sales, Grammy, and popularity categories, but I can’t include her yet in the pantheon of composers. Popularity cannot be the sole criteria for what is seminal songwriting.
Personally I don’t think she writes particularly groundbreaking music but has mastered current formulas that are extremely popular. In my opinion (I dangerously continued) no one will be considering her music in 50 years as anything but nostalgic.”
Within seconds self-described “Swifties” descended. “You are willfully ignorant. That’s ok. We’re used to it.”
I use “willful ignorance” as a descriptor for modern Republicans so often that I immediately bristled being on the receiving end. We went back and forth for awhile and after a couple of “Okay Boomer” responses I decided to take this to my own page.
Things only got worse! Even though a solid majority of my Facebook friends agreed with my premise that Taylor Swift cannot yet be carved into the Mount Rushmore of songwriters, opposition to my assessment of her future relevance was fast and furious. I backpedaled a little in an attempt to soften the blows (“I think she’s great! Just not quite the Beatles.”) but that only seemed to enflame the thread even more. I unintentionally became THE MAN WHO HATES TAYLOR SWIFT.
And this is where the platform of Facebook takes over. Each response is based on a different response. A thread within a thread takes on a life if its own. One direction was about the subjective nature of art, another was about supporting the feminist movement embodied by millions of empowered young women, another was about my arrogance in thinking I was the last word on who belongs on Composer Mount Olympus, and other tangential threads circled back to diminish Paul McCartney (and the rest).
Welcome to Facebook. Land without nuance.
Even though I use social media like a sheltered teenager in a time warp that is forever 2010, I believe the inability of any social media platform to be a true conversation, nuanced with real time corrections, is what is creating the hostile universe we are now living in. It’s a universe of endless competition and “Gotcha” moral judgements.
But back to Taylor Swift…
For me there was a helpful conclusion from this volley between musical credibility and pop popularity. I found from the process how I actually feel about the matter of what creates legends.
I believe the arbiter of this debate is time. Only time will tell if Taylor Swift (or a host of other modern superstars) belongs in the same breath with legends past generations adored. I pointed out to a friend how my mother didn’t like the undeniably popular Beatles in the 60s but a couple of years ago I visited her senior aerobics class and they were all smiling and grooving to “Penny Lane.” The truth of that composition which fell prey to her bias decades earlier was now revealed as a classic uplifting melody with brilliant lyrics to sing along to.
I hold that Taylor Swift could find the same destiny. But that it will take the passage of time to separate her from the worship of popularity and the criteria of an artistic legacy.
I also realized what I think is the distinction between such legacies and pop phenomena.
Taylor Swift, just like Joni Mitchell, has written about herself in vulnerable ways. In “Our Song,” Swift captures a young relationship: hushed phone calls, night-time rendezvous, joyrides in a newly-licensed car.
“I was ridin’ shotgun with my hair undone
In the front seat of his car
He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel
The other on my heart
I look around, turn the radio down
He says, “Baby, is something wrong?”
I say, “Nothing, I was just thinkin’ how we don’t have a song.”
Great lyric. Personal and relatable. There’s a difference, however, between Swift’s personal lyric and one of Mitchell’s most heartfelt songs, “River.”
“He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had”
It isn’t a better lyric but Mitchell’s river is metaphorical. Taylor’s car is literal. Both are deeply personal, both are relatable, but one is of how close the lyrics are to personal experience and the other includes a poetic description of how one feels. And my awakening was this: I think the eternal life of poetic metaphors transcend the time it’s written and become what’s valued in great art.
On the other hand, my late mother’s favorite new song “Penny Lane” is not a metaphoric journey through a corner in Liverpool (there actually is a barber and a fire station and everything else) but it wasn’t trying to be an expression beyond the description of a time and place in the author’s life. The difference is subtle, but it was intentionally objective. And again, that doesn’t make it a better lyric than Swift’s; it is only a descriptive complement to the tune to evoke a timeless feeling.
Bob Dylan, as another example, tells stories but they are only vehicles for philosophical observations.
“Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.”
That will mean something different to everyone who hears it throughout time. Great artists give us words, sounds and images which transcend the wind blowing through our hair and turn the human experience into abstractions to give us at least an inkling of something more profound. We then get to put the pieces together to have our own experience with the meaning of the art.
And like I’ve said over 100 times already, perhaps Taylor Swift will move into that hallowed space. But only time will tell if she sits on the mountaintop with Joni Mitchell (and so and so…).
And as I said to that friend above, I’m often wrong. In 1977 I turned to my date after seeing a preview for an upcoming film called “Star Wars.” I held my nose and said “ Oh my God! That is going to bomb!”
So what do I know?