This article originally ran as the cover feature in The Herald Arts Magazine on June 20, 2015.
There was this TV advert for stockings when I was young. It depicted a beautiful woman undressing after a cocktail party, all 1980s sophistication, nylon thighs and subdued lighting. It was sound-tracked by Roxy Music’s Avalon, and the inference was that Bryan Ferry might be reclining – tuxedo loosened, Martini ice clinking, come-hither eyes smouldering – out of shot.
The romanticised sense of adulthood that this advert, and 80s-era Roxy Music, instilled in me as a child remains vivid, if absurd. Hearing Dance Away, or More Than This, or Avalon, makes me profoundly nostalgic for a grown-up life I’ve only ever imagined: for being wealthy and demure; for being surrounded by black ash furniture; for whiling away every waking hour in a low-lit dance of seduction (stockings optional).
None of this has come to pass.
My children have recently banned me from watching the video for Taylor Swift’s Style. Apparently, this is how real-life adulthood plays out. Said pop prohibition kicked off as a joke when I started mainlining Style on repeat – “You love Taylor Swift even more than we do!”, the kids would laugh (the subtext being, of course, that it is their music; not mine).
But a serious intervention was staged when my obsession resulted in said offspring missing vital TV clips from Charli XCX, Rita Ora, Haim and Rihanna (all of which are glorious, don’t get me wrong). So now I listen to Style furtively, 20, 30 times daily, as I did Shake It Off last summer, and I Knew You Were Trouble the summer before – fixated on half-memories of a younger life I’ll never know.
Style is the third single to be taken from Taylor Swift’s fifth album, 1989. The LP, which was released in October last year, shot to Number One in 12 countries, including the UK and the US, and has gone on to shift nigh-on 10 million copies around the world. That’s not counting the 25 million album sales from her back-catalogue. She’s bagged seven Grammy Awards, 11 Country Music Awards, 16 American Music Awards, 21 Teen Choice Awards, eight Academy of Country Music Awards, five MTV Awards, a BRIT Award and 34 Billboard Awards.
Taylor Swift is 25.
She’s been writing songs for half her life. And if her eponymous 2006 debut album heralded a major new country music talent, then so too did its opening words lay bare her modus operandi: relatability, conversational lyrics, romanticism, quiet wisdom, and the epic (and poetic) potential of a fleeting moment or memory: “He said the way my blue eyes shined put those Georgia stars to shame that night / I said, ‘That’s a lie‘”, she sings at the start of Tim McGraw, the first song on her first album, which was also her debut single.
Swift was 16 when her calling card was released, but she’d been eyeing up the music industry for years before that. Her family moved from Reading, Pennsylvania to Nashville, Tennessee, in a bid to support Swift’s burgeoning musical ambitions, and she signed a development deal with RCA when she was 14. It’s testament to her songwriting talent that every track on her debut was either written or co-written by Swift, and that pattern has followed through her albums since – 2008’s Fearless, 2012’s Red, 2014’s 1989 – with the exception of 2010’s Speak Now, which was entirely self-penned.
Her songwriting collaborations are always judicious, and they’ve played a key role in her evolution from teenage country music prodigy to twenty-something global pop phenomenon, as early co-writes with country firebrand Liz Rose (Tim McGraw, Teardrops On My Guitar, White Horse) have given way to intergalactic pop domination in cahoots with Swedish powerhouse Max Martin (We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, I Knew You Were Trouble, Shake It Off, Blank Space, Style).
Swift trades on a glamorous every-girl persona, but there’s a fierce defiance too. It’s in her business clout (she made international headline news for withdrawing her music from Spotify in protest at their free streaming service, which she – rightly – claimed undermines our value of recorded music); it’s in her image and ambition; and it’s all over her wholesale embrace of pop music.
Her journey from country and acoustic (that is to say, what’s historically accepted as “real”) music, to pop, is at odds with a tradition which sees pop acts move towards unplugged music in a bid (perhaps) to signify, or reinforce, authenticity – from Madonna’s Music album to Rihanna’s recruitment of Paul McCartney to play acoustic guitar on FourFiveSeconds (which is an excellent single, granted, but that’s despite – not because of – the rock patriarchy’s stamp having been foisted upon it).
Swift is having none of that. She launched 1989 by introducing it as her “very first, documented, official pop album”, and the album draws influence from the 1980s – from Blank Space’s epic synth-pop balladry to the angular, Chvrches-invoking electro of Out Of The Woods. And then there’s the album’s brilliant, ebullient lead single, Shake It Off – all Toni Basil party beats and Cyndi Lauper-esque lyrical shrugs.
But all the best pop songs are about longing, and the promise – or at least the vaguest possibility – of sex, and these constituents are never more apparent, nor evocative, than on Style. It’s a 21st century power ballad that conjures an illicit rendezvous (“Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights”), all nagging basslines, low-lit seduction and blazing eyes, and its unhurried build-ups to minor-chord climaxes that coincide with “crashing down” lyrics – not to mention the video’s simultaneous cresting waves … Well, it’s hardly subtle code for carnal gratification.
The video’s female gaze bears noting, too: in Style, the man is objectified, stripped-bare and in-focus – traditionally, we’d see the woman in that role – and Swift amped up her feminist viewpoint for its follow-up video, Bad Blood, which blew a high-octane (high-budget) hole through gender conventions and superhero cliches, hurling us headlong into a to a kick-ass, woman-dominated world populated by the likes of Swift, Cindy Crawford and Lena Dunham. It’s ludicrous and fun – and it’s also a lot less controversial than the clip that accompanied Shake It Off.
Swift’s rise and rise has not been without criticism, and the Shake It Off video drew more than most, thanks to widespread accusations of cultural appropriation (Earl Sweatshirt accused her of “perpetuating black stereotypes” in the clip). The song, too, which flicks the vs at “haters”, had its detractors, who felt it was at odds with Swift’s trademark messages of optimism and self-empowerment. And she constantly comes under fire for writing about her ex-partners. (It’s fine for a man to do this, of course: the artist needs his muse).
One of the most persistent criticisms is that Swift peddles fairy tales to youngsters. But won’t somebody think of the grown-ups? She’s stirring all manner of yearning for times past (real or imagined) in men and women the world over, as proven by recent Spotify research which suggested that when people hit 42, they rediscover the pop joys of Swift et al, which prompted countless articles claiming that – among her countless other achievements – Taylor Swift has usurped motorbikes as the universal symbol of mid-life crisis.
One thing though. Any criticism that she flogs unattainable daydreams to young girls across the world, and / or crippling nostalgia to ageing mothers in the central belt, overlooks her self-defined fallibility; her knack for revelling in tales without a happy ending; in admitting and celebrating her failings. Take her 2010 break-through hit, I Knew You Were Trouble: “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago,” she begins, suggesting that her fairy stories have a knowing, ongoing, sting in their tales.
And they have humour, too. Her laughter is an instrument in itself – from the carefree, uplifting what’s-a-girl-gonna-do giggle that follows “I go on too many dates” in Shake It Off, to the abashed half-laugh that ends this line in Style: “He said, ‘What you’ve heard is true but I, can’t stop thinking ’bout you and I’ / I said, ‘I’ve been there too, a few times,’” as if she’s been caught out by her own honesty, or her own heart, and I love her for that alone.
Stephen Hawking offered solace to a One Direction fan last month. Appearing in holograph form in Australia, he proffered theoretical physics as a remedy for the burning heartbreak sparked by Zayn Malik’s departure from the fab five. “One day there may well be proof of multiple universes,” consoled the cosmologist. “And in that universe, Zayn is still in One Direction.”
If it’s good enough for Hawking, it’s good enough for me. Stick Avalon on the turntable and, in a parallel world, you won’t see my sophisticated alter-ego for a black cocktail dress, an oil baron and (gold) dust. In another of Hawking’s conjectural realms, Style blares out in perpetuity, all the better to soundtrack my illicit existence of late-night seduction. Meanwhile, in this one, I’m still being laughed at by my own children for how much I love 1989.
But we all need our fairy-tales and our daydreams; we all need our (false) hopes and our half-memories. We need Taylor Swift, and Roxy Music, and the infinite magic of pop music, to galvanise our hearts and minds; to make us feel young, and old, and alive; to make the most of our (not so) simple lives. More than this, there’s nothing.
Taylor Swift plays Glasgow Hydro on June 20