Saturday, March 9, 2013

If Taylor Swift Were a Carpenter

I have never been a huge fan of country music, well mainstream country music anyway. I have long liked bluegrass and English and Irish folk. I have long liked somewhat mainstream country artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Garth Brooks. I have even liked some of the songs of traditional country artists like Patsy Cline, some Johnny Cash, and even some Merle Haggard. By and large, however, I find a lot of mainstream country cheesy, over the top, in other words, without the camp. I have long liked like some alt roots country, Dwight Yoakam for example. Recently I discovered that I like a lot more alt country thanks to The Country Network, a commercial network that is broadcast over the digital airwaves in Albany, New York, which introduced me to musicians like the noirish The Civil Wars, the John Prinish Mary Gauthier, the melancholy folk bluegrass of Sarah Jarosz, and the bluegrass cum Fleetwood Macish Little Big Town.

I am not a specialist in the history or culture or social organization of country music but I have recently been thinking a bit about Taylor Swift, the young singer-songwriter who took country music by storm in the 2000s and who has brought, at least for the moment, teenage girls and young women—shades of Shania Twain—into the country music fold. Swift seems to me more pop than traditional or non-traditional country and seems to me to have gravitated toward country pop because pop rock, in the age of rap and hip hop particularly in the US, seems, at least at the moment, to be dead at least on the mega record sales level. In retrospect Swift's first big "country" hit, "Tim McGraw", seems a calculated attempt to make it big in Nashville.

Swift, the daughter of a financial adviser who himself is a descendent of three generations of bank presidents and a mutual fund marketing executive (Lizzie Widdicombe, "You Belong With Me". The New Yorker, 10 October 2011, Rolling Stone Interview: The Unabridged Taylor Swift, Rolling Stone, 2 December, 2008, 2 June 2010, p. 2, Kimberly Cutter, "Taylor Swift's Rise to America's Sweetheart". Marie Claire, 2 June 2010, p. 2), seems, like father like daughter and like mother like daughter, to be interested in making money, lots of money. Swift—it is the age of the investment bank, product branding, and cross-marketing after all—seems to be an investment bank, a marketing brand, and a cross marketing machine crossed with a singer-songwriter. Swift’s album Red had first-week sales of 1.21 million copies, the highest opening week sales for an album in a decade. Swift has ties to Verizon, Wal-Mart, American Greetings, Jakks Pacific, Elizabeth Arden, Papa Johns, Keds, Sony, Diet Coke, and Ralph Lauren, making Swift a far cry from the singer-songwriters of the late 1960s and 1970s who apparently viewed product endorsements and cross-marketing, in the wake of Star Wars, as inauthentic. She is a celebrity in an age of celebrity obsession in which every celebrity word and every celebrity action becomes grist for the celebrity gossip mill of newspapers, magazines, and tabloid TV shows that dominates so much of Western reading and viewing life these days and who has recently made a stab at becoming a star in yet another industry dominated by the cult of celebrity personality, television and film appearing in the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the film Valentine's Day.

Perhaps the thing that interests me most about Swift, however, is how bourgeois she is not only in her investment, branding, and cross-marketing aspects but also in her romantic musical themes. Swift’s musical themes are, as pop music themes have largely always been about, about love, about love’s hoped for, about love’s found in the halls and football stands of high school, about love’s lost, or about love’s found again in the streets of Paris. It is these romantic themes in Swift’s music, Swift’s songwriting abilities—and her songwriting abilities are considerable—and Swift’s supposed common womaness (including her limited vocal abilities) that, so the story goes, makes Swift resonate with her audience of mostly teen girls and twentysomething young women despite the fact that Swift’s family background, a family background with ties that enabled the Swift's to move to Nashville after their daughter expressed an interest in being a part of the music industry, her business acumen, and her song writing abilities make her very far from common. But I guess American teen girls and young women need to be able to dream a dream in which any girl or woman can become Taylor Swift and wander through romantic video dreamscapes drawn from Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Hollywood versions of Parisian streets in order to keep the American myth of upward mobility alive in an age when the poor keep falling further and further behind the rich.

I was thinking about Swift’s bourgeois romanticism recently because I found her music so different from that of another female artist, more alt country artist than pop princess, who is trying to make it in Nashville, Candi Carpenter. Like Swift Carpenter moved to Nashville when she was in her teens and has been writing songs with some of Nashville’s songwriting finest. Unlike Swift, however, Carpenter is as yet an unsigned artist. Despite being unsigned Carpenter has, however, made a video of one of her songs and it is in rotation on The Country Network, particularly its Americana segment of alt country, bluegrass, and roots country. The song, “My Fault Too”, I found very interesting because unlike the autobiographical and ethnographic pop of Taylor Swift, “My Fault Too” explores, like Gretchen Peters’s Martina McBride sung “Independence Day” before it, the darker side of the West’s romantic ideologies with their patriarchalism, their narrow ideologies of what constitutes female beauty, and their construction of the ideal woman in such a way that it leads to self esteem problems for far too many women.

Unfortunately, most of those who listen to pop music, most humans in general, don't want to listen to songs about the darker side of human life. Taylor Swift's paean to the possibility of finding love after love's lost, "Begin Again", has 28 million views on Youtube while Candi Carpenter's "My Fault Too" has only 84,000. Most of us, in other words, sadly prefer the fairy tale of "Mean" to the often much darker realities of human life.

I like and admire the Taylor Swift songs I have heard. They are well-crafted pop tunes. And one can't help but be impressed by Swift's philanthropic support for the arts, children in need, Australian fire relief, and gay and lesbian human rights. I am, however, moved more by the finely crafted and edgier songs of The Civil Wars, Mary Gauthier, and Candi Carpenter. But then I am not a teenage girl or a twentysomething young woman. I am a 58 year old male brought up on great pop songs like those of the Beatles, the Kinks, XTC, and Crowded House.

1 comment:

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