Taylor Swift is a polarizing figure, having drawn the ire of some contemporary feminist critics for her squeaky-clean image and break-up ballads. But she is the genuine article and her latest album, 'Red,' is fantastic, writes Marlow Stern.
Earlier this week, lost amid the chaos and tragedy inflicted by Superstorm Sandy, Billboard announced that Red, the fourth album by solo artist Taylor Swift, sold 1.208 million copies in its first week.
To put that staggering number in perspective: it’s the most albums sold in a single week since The Eminem Show, which moved 1.322 million units back in 2002, and the second-most albums sold in a week by a female artist ever since Soundscan began tracking sales in 1991, topped only by Britney Spears’s debut LP, … Baby One More Time, which sold 1.319 million copies 13 years ago. And that was in the pre-iTunes music era when record sales were still relatively robust. This year, the highest-selling week came courtesy of Mumford & Sons, whose sophomore effort moved 600,000 copies, while Justin Bieber’s Believe only managed to rack up 374,000 in first-week sales.
Swift’s Red, meanwhile, signals the 22-year-old artist’s evolution from country-music starlet to full-blown pop diva.
It’s an ambitious, eclectic work that sees the cutesy chanteuse dabbling in U2-esque rock ballads (“State of Grace”), Katy Perry-ish bubblegum-pop sing-alongs (“22”) and, with the hit single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” puissant anthems. Then there’s the standout track “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Opening with a scratchy guitar line complemented by hurried vocals—about some shitty guy, naturally—it then segues into Swift’s airy vocals pendulum-ing before screaming at the top of her lungs, “NOW I’M LYING ON THE COLD HARD GROUND!” as the entire bottom drops out, splintering into fuzzy wub-wub-wub dubstep wobbles. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is, without question, one of the best (and most addictive) pop songs of the year.
With that song, Swift also reached another milestone: in just six years, she’s landed a whopping 50 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100, joining Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and Connie Francis—as only the fifth woman to accomplish such a feat.
Pretty impressive, right?
So why is Swift, a music prodigy—named after James Taylor—who convinced her parents to move the family to Nashville at the age of 14 so she could pursue a music career, so vilified by contemporary feminist critics? Jezebel labeled her “a feminist’s nightmare” in 2010. And a little over a week ago, when Swift was asked if she considers herself a feminist by Newsweek, she replied: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Jezebel then offered this rather misguided analysis:
“Yes, what you’re describing is equality, and equality is what feminism is all about! Except we live in a country where, when you work as hard as guys, you make less money if you’re a woman, or worse, a woman of color. It’s like she doesn’t understand what a feminist is. Is this what happens when you’re home-schooled after the age of 15?”
I’m pretty sure all she said was that she wasn’t preoccupied with the “feminist” label and, as she’s been doing her entire career, leads by example.
The reason that people—in particular 20-something women—seem to take issue with Swift, it seems, is that they feel she merely whines about boys, so they then construe her as being “weak” and “antifeminist,” since she’s a romantic and falls hard. (Hell, wasn’t Adele’s 21 all about a miserable break-up?) Plus, she dresses conservatively and, with her tousled blonde tresses, lipstick, and squinty blue eyes, resembles a grown-up American Girls doll. Oh, and she deals mostly in country music—a genre that’s much maligned by indie snobs.
Unlike her female solo artist contemporaries—the Katy Perrys and Adeles of the world—Swift doesn’t sing about kissing girls and doesn’t chain-smoke or curse. She appears to be, on the surface, a paragon of chastity and virtue. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a feminist. It’s all really a matter of audience. Swift’s target audience is 10- to 18-year-old girls. She’s a hell of a good role model for that age group. I attended a recent Swift show at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan and, her stellar live performance chops aside, by the looks of things the audience was comprised almost entirely of young, wholesome girls—either in groups, or with a parent in tow. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Swift also is the genuine article.
Unlike many female pop stars these days with their avant-garde facades, she’s never undergone an “image transformation” and compromised her artistic integrity. And, since she co-writes all of her own music, they actually come from somewhere within her, unlike virtually every other female pop star today who has high-priced songwriters come in and pen tunes for them. Dr. Luke wrote many of Katy Perry’s hits; “Umbrella” was offered to Britney Spears, who foolishly turned it down before it landed in Rihanna’s lap; and Leona Lewis recently claimed she recorded a version of “We Found Love” before Rihanna snagged it.
Since Swift refuses to address her relationships publicly (classy), preferring to allude to them via song, very little is actually known of her romantic entanglements Thus, gossip rags and their consumers develop their own, quasi-substantiated theories. OK, but don’t knock her for it. She is, after all, a respectable 22-year-old artist who just made one of the best pop albums of the year.
That’s pretty badass.