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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

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

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

I heard an interview once with someone who had written a song with her (can’t remember who… maybe something off Reputation?) and it was really illuminating. The writer talked about how Swift had an unerring ear for not just music itself, but for what will sell– she could take a riff and simplify it a little and make it obviously hit-worthy.

(Me, I’m super bourgeois and like 1989 best. Shake it off!)

This post has a lot of similarity to my attitude about Taylor Swift — I have teen daughters so it was her music that first put her on my radar (and mostly my attitude was “competent musician making songs that aren’t really my thing”), which lead to me hearing about how she was handling things and being glad my kids were fans. (And since she went less country I’ve enjoyed several of her songs, “Style” is one of them.)

Part of the reason that the “Taylor’s Own Version” re-recordings have succeeded is her relationship with her fans. But another big part of it is that she made the effort to make them sound good, with production values that match or surpass the originals. So many re-recordings are pale imitations of the original recordings, with things like cheaply made synthesized backing tracks in place of the original musicians; it’s no wonder that people avoid them.

It also helps that she’s not revisiting songs in her distant past. Another problem that re-recordings often have is that the singer’s voice has changed dramatically between the original and the re-recording; either the singer can no longer comfortably reach the notes, or the timbre of their voice is very different.

I was aware of Swift in the same sense that I was aware of all of the other musicians I didn’t pay attention to but knew were popular. Then she was the music guest on SNL last year and covered a 10 minute version of what evidently was one of her popular songs–and I really loved what she did on SNL. When Netflix had the biopic show covering her (filmed with her cooperation and support) I watched that and was impressed by her ability to navigate the scylla of fame and the charybdis of music. I ended up downloading, listening to, and enjoying her music.

Our host said:

…streaming is a messy ball of shady accounting practices as far as I can tell…

This is unusually, unwontedly, unduly generous to the honesty and integrity of the music industry. Music-industry accounting is what H’wood accounting wants to be when it can get sober, get off the couch, and show some ambition — and the streaming segment is even worse.

Taylor’s relationship with her fans is something I’ve found interesting for a while. It matters that the Taylor’s Version recordings are good, but my 18-year-old daughter (a devoted Taylor fan) would have switched over to the Taylor’s Versions out of passionate loyalty even if they’d been terrible.

I really loved that when she rerecorded “Love Story” and did a new video for it, she made it a song about her relationship with her fans.

(My favorite of Taylor’s songs: “No Body No Crime,” because I love a good murder ballad.)

I really appreciate this writing project you have assigned yourself, John. Mr Scalzi? Scalzi?! (I don’t know how to address you, here… sorry for the parasocialness of it all!)

I went ahead and listened to the song and really liked it. I’d heard it before, but didn’t realize it was Swift. Like you (unsurprisingly, b/c we are a similar age/gender/etc etc) I liked listening to Taylor if it was on, but wouldn’t consider her sound in my standard wheelhouse. Turns out she has more than one sound (or even more than two, country-pop and pop-country) – I’ll add more of her stuff to my playlists. Thanks again!

I’ve been a Taylor Swift fan since her Teardrops on my guitar days. Her being less than a year older than I, I could relate to her music immensely. I’ve always admired her storytelling and as I got older, I’ve realized how she’s a powerful force in the music industry. She’s earned her status as an Icon and she’s only 32. We’re lucky to be alive in the same timeline as T.S.

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