Taylor Swift is mostly someone who plays in the background at the gym for me. I don’t really attend to her. But late last year I learned a song to play at a friend’s daughter’s eleventh birthday party and so had to focus in a bit more. At least to the point where I realized that she’s a solid songwriter, worthy of respect.
“You Belong With Me” is I-ii-IV-V in the key of F# which is a bit of a pain on guitar without a capo. The refrain is catchy, but there are false notes in the lyrics. I don’t like the slut-shaming implicit in “She wears short skirts/I wear t-shirts”. Besides which, everybody wears t-shirts. “She doesn’t get your humor like I do,” grates because you have the strong suspicion that the generic high school dreamboat she pursues in the video doesn’t have a funny bone in his body. In the video, their initial exchange of notes through the window is a brilliant bit of staging because what they’re actually doing is Tweeting at each other, and the video makers have found a way to make this cinematic. In the end though, they fall prey to another movie cliché: this is an epic battle for a boy’s affections between two young women who are both equally gorgeous, so one wears glasses to signal that she is the less attractive underdog. C’mon, I’ve seen the glasses trick a million times before! Popping up a meta-level, watching this hoariest of clichés be presented as if it were new is faintly thrilling when I realize that for Swift’s eleven-year old fans it is, but still. Also, it’s not really about the boy at all–it’s about Swift’s rivalry with the other girl. The boy is just a chit. The video’s most passionate moment occurs when the brunette baddie shoots her a look (at around 1:42). T.S. wins in the end, but in the very last shot does she strike anyone else as looking evil?
“Mean” is a much better song. Maybe it’s my arch-conservative bent, but I think country is musically stronger than power pop. I particularly like the VII-I slide between verses. This song works on a couple of levels. You can take it as T.S.’s vengeance against mean girls, but it’s also her It Gets Better entry. Lest there be any mistake, a B-arc of the video shows a homosexual-looking boy in a bowtie and lavender sweater being tormented by the football team. The video later makes it clear that he will become a successful fashion designer. (Though honestly, what was he doing sitting on a bench in the locker room fully dressed? Maybe he was a successful fashion designer all along who paid rent boys to pretend to torment him as part of a kinky fetish.) T.S. skillfully inhabits a no-man’s land where she’s on the one hand singing on behalf of outsiders everywhere and on the other hand singing specifically on behalf of people who are outsiders because of an impedance mismatch with prevailing gender roles. Maybe the whole thing was the idea of her video director, but I don’t care: it works.
I don’t buy the lyrics in the bridge when she talks about her tormentors haunting a barstool in future years. I’m sure Taylor Swift is old enough to know that bars is where blowhards go to die, but her persona is younger. This bit would only work if it came off as a high school girl talking about bars in an attempt to sound more sophisticated then she is, but that’s asking too much of any bridge. Plus the Laurel and Hardy dumbshow in the video is a bit much. Just as an aside, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” does this same thing better, but maybe that’s no fair: Aguilera is just plain better.
Disturbing socioeconomic subtext: you can only escape to a big ol’ city if you have the money and cultural capital to make it there and to leave redneck hicks behind. The video makes this point with a shot of a successful post-graduation T.S. sitting in an office with a degree on the wall that says “College” in giant letters, which I think is kinda brilliant in a silent movie sort of way, but disturbing nonetheless. Question for my fellow liberal elitists: how much do we feel bad about this and how much do we just say, fuck it, there are some things like gender issues where us upper middle class liberals are simply right?
To my knowledge Taylor Swift has not recorded an actual It Gets Better video, but it’s best if she does not. Check out her live performance at the Country Music Awards, getting everyone (but especially the young girls) to sing along about moving to a city and leaving archaic gender roles behind. It’s the homosexual agenda at its most devious!