Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 6: “Style” by Taylor Swift

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My path to Taylor Swift and my appreciation of her as a musician and songwriter was a bit backward from how I think it’s usually done, either by me or by other folks. Usually there’s the music first: a song or album that catches our ear and makes us want to listen, and having listened, be curious about the person who made the music — what they’re like (at least, in public), what their opinions are, how they exist in the world and what their path is through it. For me with Taylor Swift, it was mostly the other way around.

Not that I hadn’t heard her music; I’m not a hermit, and Taylor Swift is one of the biggest names in music and has been since she was a teenager. I’d heard “Love Story” and other songs of the early era and they were perfectly good, pleasant, slightly country-tinged pop. The songs were not pitched toward me directly, but then a lot of music isn’t pitched at me directly and I can still enjoy it. I slotted her into the category of “musicians who were fine but not for me” and mostly didn’t think about her.

When I did start thinking about her was when I became aware of her intelligence and her refusal to be passive in regard to the shape of her career or her public persona, both of which emerging in my consciousness at the same time. I don’t need to recount all the various stories about her that have percolated about over the years, in terms of her personal life; what I do want to note was that her response to them was to address them on her own terms, and in doing so, control and redefine them. Swift knew what the world thought of her; she told the world what she thought of that, and then Taylor’s version became the narrative of her life, not someone else’s version.

In terms of career moves, two things she did caught my eye. The first was her deal with Universal Music Group, which as part the deal, UMG changed the way they compensated musicians for streaming — not just Taylor Swift, but all of the artists on UMG’s labels. It’s not news when one of the biggest names in music crafts an extremely savvy business deal for themselves; it is news to me, as a creator, when that same name goes out of their way to use their personal leverage to benefit other musicians, most of whom she does not and will not know. I can’t say how successful that change has been over time for all those other musicians (streaming is a messy ball of shady accounting practices as far as I can tell), but Swift still gets credit from me for making the attempt.

The second thing is her decision to re-record her entire back catalog of work when the original versions of the work were sold to people that she felt neither respected her nor had her best interests at heart (note that I am massively eliding the full story here). Her solution: make new, near note-perfect versions of those previous albums and encourage her fanbase (and also, all the film/tv/etc people looking to use Taylor Swift songs in their own work) to switch to those versions instead.

The tactic has mostly worked, which on the surface is mildly surprising — many other musical artists have re-recorded their work in order to better control them, but fans have largely stuck to the versions they’re familiar with — but further down, speaks to Swift’s grasp both of her place in the musical universe, and her relationship with her fanbase. Not very many musicians could do what Swift is doing, and have it be successful. She’s not afraid to do it.

Which is pretty great. I genuinely admire Swift’s understanding of her place in the music industry and in the world of celebrity, and her willingness to navigate and negotiate both on her terms rather than someone else’s. She is living the dream of nearly every creative person, and she is doing it in such a way that at least some of the benefit of that will accrue to other creatives.

Let me be clear that Swift neither asked for nor needs my respect, and that it would be incorrect and self-centering to say she somehow “earned” my respect. She did what she did for herself and for her own reasons; I merely became aware of it over time. I approve of it because as a creative I want for my own career many of the same things she wants (and acts on) for hers, and because as a creative I think it’s important that those who have the ability to make things better for their fellow creatives do that when they can, not because it will engender gratefulness in them, or that they will even be aware of it, but because being an artist of any sort is fucking hard, and making it a little easier for the whole group is a mitzvah.

Learning these things about Swift over time made me re-evaluate her as a musician who could speak to me. After all, how she was handling her fame and her career spoke to me very directly, so it was entirely possible that in lumping her music into the “not for me” category, I was missing something.

And as it turns out, I was. Swift is a canny songwriter, in her own right and in choosing the people she writes with, and crafts songs that build a place and mood as well as anyone does. She’s still developing as an artist, which is a fine thing; do anything for coming on two decades and it’s easy to either peter out creatively or get into a safe, comfortable rut. Swift knows what side her bread is buttered on — she’s going to keep writing pop hits, I’m guessing — but she’s still finding new places within that rubric to explore.

“Style” is the song of hers that hits best for me. It’s vapor-wave dreamy and synthy, which speaks directly to my musical interests as a child of the 80s, it’s about desire and the joy of knowing that someone is for you, and you for them, despite occasional setbacks, and it’s got a killer chorus that hooks into your brain and doesn’t let go. It’s a whole highly polished TV relationship drama in just under four minutes.

This is for me, as it turns out. It’s on me that I had previously and pre-emptively decided it wasn’t. Fortunately, I know better now.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dave Creek

Today’s Big Idea is Super-Sized, because author Dave Creek has not just one, but two, new books out in the world, released simultaneously. How did this happen and how do his books — Watcher of the Skies and Chanda’s Homecoming — relate to each other? Dave is here to give you all the details about his literary fraternal twins.


Sometimes a Big Idea is too expansive to be contained in one book!

I have two novels coming out on the same day — Watcher of the Skies, featuring my series character Mike Christopher, a galactic explorer, and Chandas Homecoming, the latest adventure of another series character, “frontier ambassador” Chanda Kasmira.  I’m published by a small press, Hydra Publications, and we depend a lot upon in-person events to sell books.  The pandemic halted that for a couple of years, which means these two books have been put on hold — until now!

The Big Idea is this — what is home?  Is it the place you feel the most comfortable, or the place that most molded you into the person you are, for better or worse?  What if those are different physical locations, or different groups of people you think of as family, whether biological or “found?” 

Both novels take place in the same future history, and they look at the aftermath of a failed alien invasion of the Earth.  In Watcher, Mike Christopher, a crewmember of the starship Asaph Hall, played a big part in repelling that invasion, and it was the first time in a quarter century that he’d returned to his homeworld. 

Now he’s dealing with the aftermath of that invasion — one he helped defend the planet against, and he’s facing a tough decision.  Even as the Earth is recovering from this massive conflict, Mike has the opportunity to re-connect with friends and loved ones from his childhood and young adulthood, and to create a new romantic connection.  Should he remain on Earth or return to space, with its continuing promise of adventure and a deeper closeness to his “found family” aboard his starship?

As for Chanda Kasmira, her relationship with the Earth as she grew up was complicated.  Her parents were explorers, and habitually kept her in stasis while they were away, for months and years at a time, so they wouldn’t miss a moment of her childhood.  She resented them for doing that, since upon awakening she would find herself years younger than friends who were suddenly years older than she was.  Not many fifteen-year-olds want to hang out with someone they once knew who is, physically and subjectively, still nine years old.

Then her parents died in an accident during one of their exploratory missions.  Chanda’s grandparents on her mother’s side raised her, on an orbital habitat that eschewed advanced technology, and had a strict, moralistic society.  Social, and especially sexual or romantic relationships were quite constrained, and she was frustrated by the lack of a scientific education.  She left the habitat in her late teens to embrace the spacing life, and hadn’t considered returning for years, until the alien invasion.  As Chandas Homecoming opens, Chanda knows she’ll have an emotional, perhaps even harrowing trip back to Earth, where she could learn of the death of loved ones.

The challenge here was not to repeat myself in the two books.  Ultimately that required a focus on character, which is my preference in storytelling anyway.  Mike’s emotional journey forces him to decide whether to remain home or return to the shipboard life he’s lived for the past 25 years.  Chanda knows she’ll travel to a new embassy post, but must still cope with the regrets that decision entails.

Many of the events of Watcher of the Skies and Chandas Homecoming take place simultaneously, and in fact they share a scene in each book.  Mike and Chanda have met before and each takes the measure of the other during their brief reunion (each of them thinking the other looks the worse for wear given recent events).  That overlap isn’t complete, though, and I had the fun (?) of keeping track of their individual timelines as I wrote Chandas Homecoming (which was the second one written).

Most of my stories take place out in space or on other planets, so another challenge was to depict a post-invasion Earth where much of the planet was devastated, yet other parts survived untouched.  Communications, transportation, and other amenities went on as usual in some areas, but were drastically curtailed or non-existent in others.  Death and famine ravaged some places, while others opened back up to tourism.

In some ways, Mike and Chanda now find the Earth to be an alien world to them.  Those wildly divergent settings reflected the similarly divergent emotions their experiences evoked within each of my lead characters.

I write a lot of series stories.  The goal I set for myself is not just to recycle characters and themes, but to examine them in new ways.  I believe I achieved that in Watcher of the Skies and Chanda’s Homecoming.

Watcher of the Skies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble Chanda’s Homecoming: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Read an excerpt of Watcher. Read an excerpt of Chanda’s. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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