Full disclosure: like Taylor Swift, I’m an “enthusiastic optimist.” And thanks to Taylor Swift, I still believe in love stories and happily ever afters. Not prince charmings, though. As she herself has admitted, they usually turn out to be creeps.
Recently, Swift sent an earthquake through the blogosphere by way of an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal’s 125th anniversary. In it, she insightfully inspects the choices of music consumers through the lens that she often uses to inspect her own heart when writing music: that of relationships. To wit:
“Some music is just for fun, a passing fling. Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past. However, some artists will be like finding “the one.”
Two notable rebuttals followed, by Triggerman at Saving Country Music and Nilay Patel at Vox. And they both smugly cherry picked lines from the op-ed as if they were pieces of straw in order to string up a naïf clown who bares little resemblance to the real Miss Swift.
Patel’s headline, “Taylor Swift Doesn’t Understand Supply and Demand,” was tweeted with the chest-pumping line “I Visciously Take Down Taylor Swift”, as if it’s a food fight or high school debate club and he’s about to call out her fake nerd credentials.
The biggest problem with Patel’s piece is that he confuses omission with ignorance. He writes:
“Taylor makes a nice little argument in favor of paying for music. “Music is art,” she says, “and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.” This is…deeply, deeply wrong…On the internet, there is an endless amount of everything available to everyone. Taylor is right that music is art, and that art should be valuable, but figuring out how to value art in a world without scarcity is a problem unlike any other in human history.”
Does he really believe she’s not smart enough to see the relationship between endless supply and shrinking demand, simply because she notes a different relationship that exists alongside it?
Patel himself says that, “You can’t sell a handful of singles and some okayish filler for $10 or $15 or $25.” The keyword there is okayish. He makes this statement in a paragraph meant to rebut her “bet that music consumers will reward quality.” Here, he appears to unintentionally validate that very bet.
Patel says that, “the idea of rarity simply doesn’t exist in the digital marketplace,” implying that Swift was referring to music itself when she used the word “rarity,” after acknowledging that she was referring to a certain kind of music with a certain kind of quality. Of course music isn’t rare; arrows through the heart are.
So which came first: did consumers “kill the album” all on their own, or did artists get lazy and start clogging up albums with so much filler that consumers decided not to waste their money? Did quality die before sales did? The perfect place to start answering this question is bro-country, or “laundry-list country”, as it was defined long before Jody Rosen bestowed upon it a catchier name. This nightmare phenomenon is a perfect example of labels and artists pandering to the lowest common denominator instead of doing precisely what Swift is calling on them to do–what they should be doing–raising it. The distinction between market saturation and market monochromatization was highlighted by Triggerman himself in his takedown of Luke Bryan and Co.: “Bro-Country is merely a symptom,” he said, but none of the causes he mentioned in that piece have to do with YouTube or piracy. It’s about greed, apathy, sexism, and lack of education.
Speaking of warriors against those forces, let’s move on to Triggerman’s rebuttal.
He launches his article by asserting that literally everything she’s done lately, from the op-ed to her recent 4th of July vacation pictures, is deliberate album promotion (never mind the fact that she posted similar pictures the same time last year and there was no big album cycle ‘a coming then.) Like Patel, he begins by outing himself as a big old bitter hammer looking for an innocent little nail to destroy:
“What we are seeing here with this op-ed, and the bevy of Taylor Swift bathing suit pics that surfaced over the 4th of July weekend, is the opening salvo in Taylor Swift’s next album release cycle.”
He goes on to mischaracterize Swift’s perspective (expressed in her opinion—it is an op-ed piece, after all—that ““These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence.”) as one that not just poops all over genre, but polices genre fans themselves:
“The notion that somehow genres limit creativity, and working without genres immediately implies creativity, is ridiculous and misguided, and is insulting to many creative and hard-working artists. Just because something is different, doesn’t make it good.”
When you’re so used to making statements of absolutism, you start to interpret honest opinions which are opposite of yours as equally un-nuanced. Swift, of course, did not proclaim that quality requires nothing more than, say, shipping a rap-infused song to country radio. Rather, she was expressing her taste for artists that innovate successfully, and celebrating the breathing room that artists can experience when freed from the straightjackets of labels.
But he goes further, characterizing her statements as betrayal of the community that helped launch her career:
“Taylor Swift owes country music a historic debt of gratitude. Just because she wants to leave country music, doesn’t mean she has to leave with a torch in her hand, burning the institution behind her.”
While Triggerman acknowledges Swift’s historic philanthropic gestures towards Nashville, he neglects her continued personal loyalty to country radio, and mistakes her celebration of sonic exploration—and acknowledgement of the public’s evident taste for it—as demonization of genre adherence. It’s a reductive, fallacious idea that speaks to an irrational fear:
“Country radio is much more like a family than any other group of people that I’ve met,” Swift says. “They just say, ‘Look, we’ve known each other for years. You’ve stood by us, and we’ve stood by you. That’s how this works…I love country and pop. I love them both.”
Even though I’m a “Millennial,” I was raised on practically everything: My mother leaned toward vocal artists like Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow, while my dad bred me to be a classic rock fan, having been a fan of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Doors, and the Rolling Stones his whole life. Where my parents musically met in the middle was the decade they spent apart before they met: the 70s; Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, etc. I was as obsessed with tween pop as any tween at the time, but I found country through the Dixie Chicks, which led me to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and eventually Miranda Lambert, Patty Griffin, Hunter Hayes, and Taylor (the latter whom I stuck with because, as Triggerman has pointed out, she’s “real”.) It was their storytelling that got me.
Jewel—perhaps one of Swift’s most important predecessors, whose crossover history was Swift’s mirror image—has said that after ten years of bigwigs telling her to “take the twang out” of her songs, she encountered arguments that she was “too pop” when shopping her first post-Atlantic record to country labels around Nashville, before Valory (a Big Machine imprint) finally signed her. This confirmed for her that:
“Music isn’t a race you belong to; it’s colors you paint with.”
While I understand the difference between country decades ago and country now, I can’t bring myself to feel like I’m under attack, as he argues certain fans are. It’s his very neon-sign warning, rather, that constitutes a condescending, patronizing attack. It makes me feel like I missed some memo about last week’s music vigilante meeting, and should second-guess myself for not flipping through radio stations and scrolling through iTunes as if I were a minuteman on patrol.
This is the problem with analysts like these men: they live in a them-against-the-world fantasy universe in which genres might as well be, as Jewel disputes, warring races. But the industry’s economy is not sacred ground built for the purposes of piety. It’s just the marketplace. Triggerman writes that Swift is “getting out of country while the getting is good,” as if she woke up seven years ago and said “I’m going to be the biggest pop star in the world in seven years, but before I do that I’m going to masquerade as a simple-minded country cutie, just to fuck with a bunch of bitter hipster dudes.” It’s also not as if country radio is a desert of opportunities these days, making the getting not necessarily the best move if one is operating on a purely marketing-driven basis.
The truth is, she’s the same girl who ran out of her high school math class when struck with the idea for her first single. She’s the same girl who ran into her bedroom after a fight with her parents with the idea for her first international hit. She didn’t get from there to here by tossing magical glitter in the air; she did it by defying jaded suit-and-ties with sheer will and sweat. She did it by finding excitement in the challenge from day one:
"I can understand," she says [of being rejected by major labels in Nashville]. "They were afraid to put out a 13-year-old. They were afraid to put out a 14-year-old. Then they were afraid to put out a 15-year-old. Then they were nervous about putting out a 16-year-old. And I’m sure if I hadn’t signed with Scott Borchetta [head of Big Machine Records], everybody would be afraid to put out a 17-year-old."
“I went to my record label and I said to the guy at the record label, ‘I think we should really put this song on the record because my friends at high school love it.’ He was like, ‘Now you can’t just make all your decisions about a very serious thing like an album based on if your high school friends like it or not.’ It ended up being our first number one at country radio so I guess you can.”
That song, ‘Our Song’, was the first great example of Swift’s flair for cinematic songwriting: crafting vivid and lived imagery within an indelible melody. I don’t believe she’s forgotten those days, despite the “easy for her to say” arguments:
“If you’re Taylor Swift…your enormous army of fans will pre-order anything you tell them to.”
This is true, of course, but I don’t know where Patel gets the idea that Swift is blind to this truth. The notion that privilege necessitates myopia is as preposterous as the idea that enthusiastic optimism necessitates naïveté.
Her drive for songwriting has always been those undeniable blood-rushing moments of honest inspiration, as has her production strategy: when she played I Knew You Were Trouble. for Max Martin on piano, she didn’t rub her hands together mischievously and say, “Let’s put a dash of dubstep on here. That’ll show the old Nashville crows!” As she tells it:
“I said, ‘At the end of the chorus, I just want this to go crazy. I want it to be really chaotic’…I don’t really know what to call it, but I just kind of sing it how I want it to sound. And they’re like, ‘Oh, sort of like a dubstep thing.’ And I’m like, ‘I guess, I don’t know? Whatever that is…’.”
I’m a proud country fan. I bought Cruise by Florida Georgia Line (I guess because I’m young and empty-headed or some such thing.) But of course, I didn’t buy the album it was off of (whatever it was called). That same year, I bought 100 Proof by Kellie Pickler (Saving Country Music’s album of the year), because the album had soul. Of course Pickler can’t afford to put on a show with surprise guest stars every night like Swift can. She didn’t need to, at least not to earn the respect of those who appreciate a substantive album. All she needed was guts:
“I don’t need to be manufactured, and I don’t need anyone to tell me what to say or what to sing.”
Perhaps the biggest hole in Patel’s logic can be summed up in this question: If endless proliferation of product directly caused album sales to “stop, full stop,” as he put it to me on Twitter, then why are single sales up? People buy both albums and singles with the same money, don’t they? The numbers don’t indicate a decreasing interest in music; they indicate a decreasing faith in artistry.
It’s because, as Swift pointed out, “people are buying only the albums that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.” Adele didn’t break records with her record earlier this decade because she was doing anything particularly innovative musically. It was because she “broke through on an emotional level.” After all, what other explanations could there really be? I’ll be seeing her on tour for that reason—the same basic reason I go to see Swift. Because, in theorizing that “perhaps being Taylor Swift is more valuable than Taylor Swift’s music,” Patel ignores the fact that, with an artist like Swift, the two are virtually indistinguishable.
To the heart, singles are the knock-off fancy coats that end up in the back of your closet, if they’re lucky; albums are the ones that you spend years joyously breaking in. As a consumer, I’m proud to be picky, patiently perusing the market for something that fits just right. After all, there’s a lot to pick from.
Taylor Swift being cute with her koala bear in Melbourne, Australia.