In a world where once-innocent teen starlets routinely jettison anything approximating wholesomeness, Taylor Swift has been a breath of fresh air. The 20-year-old singer/songwriter had her first hit at age 16. Since then she's maintained a down-to-earth demeanor without succumbing to the temptation to vamp or tramp things up. She's not been arrested. She's not been to rehab.
The result is a legion of young fans who are hungry for her effervescent, idealistic take on life and love. So hungry, in fact, that more than 1 million of them snatched up Taylor's third album, Speak Now, in its debut week—a feat only three other female artists (Whitney Houston, Norah Jones and Britney Spears) have accomplished.
I recently reviewed Speak Now, and three things stood out: First, Taylor remains utterly in love with the beauty and unpredictability of love. Second, a handful of allusions to spending the night at various boyfriends' houses have crept in to her material, signaling that she's edging into more adult themes. As Los Angeles Times reviewer Ann Powers put it, "[Taylor] offers glimpses that finally confirm she's not a princess, but a modern young woman who stashes clothes for the morning at her boyfriend's place." Third, Taylor's uncensored, confessional approach to her music ultimately mirrors the unexpurgated mindset of Facebook as well as the standard operating procedures of the celebrity gossip world.
The first is fine, even inspiring at times. The second is obviously troubling, especially given the adoration—and age—of Taylor's fans. The third takes a bit more unpacking, but may actually deserve the most attention.
From Taylor … With Love?
Most of us probably have had some moments in life we wish we could do over. And it's exactly those moments Taylor says inspired the songs on Speak Now. In the album's liner notes she writes, "Real life is a funny thing, you know. In real life, saying the right thing at the right moment is beyond crucial. So crucial, in fact, that most of us start to hesitate for fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But lately what I've begun to fear more than that is letting the moment pass without saying anything. … These songs are made up of words I didn't say when the moment was right in front of me. These songs are open letters. Each is written with a specific person in mind, telling them what I meant to tell them in person. To the beautiful boy whose heart I broke in December. To my first love who I never thought would be my first heartbreak. To my band. To a mean man I used to be afraid of. To someone who made my world very dark for a while. To a girl who stole something of mine. To someone I forgive for what he said in front of the whole world."
Or, as Taylor told Parade, "Guys get what they deserve in my songs, and if they deserve an apology, they should get one."
At first that insistence on authenticity, on saying the right thing even if it's said later than it should have been seems laudable. But what happens when it's not said face-to-face but rather on an album that's purchased by 1 million people its first week of release?
That thought struck me while listening to the song "Back to December." "So this is me swallowing my pride/Standing in front of you saying I'm sorry for that night," Taylor sings. "Turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you/Wishing I'd realized what I had when you were mine."
A virtual cottage industry has sprung up to decipher the identities of the real-world subjects Taylor addresses, and the consensus on this one is that she's talking about former boyfriend and Twilight star Taylor Lautner.
So now I'm officially feeling weird. The same kind of weird I feel hearing Carly Simon sing "You're So Vain," a decades-old lambaste of, well, either Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger or David Geffen, if the mountain of gossip the song has generated is to be believed. Yes, Taylor's hardly the first to bare her soul in song. "I'll bet you think this song is about you," Carly taunted—as the world watched, waiting for the train wreck.
Lines such as Carly's and Taylor's make for good music—if you define good as something listeners will instantly relate to. But should we be instantly relating to a young singer's personal pouts, doubts, loves and losses? Taylor's tying up private loose ends in a public forum. She's pulling back the curtains on a personal relationship and inviting fans in for a voyeuristic peek at what really happened. She's kissing and telling, in other words. And from that perspective, her tell-all approach to singing about her many romances (and there are lots of them) isn't much different from the way tabloids and gossip sites operate every day.
It's also how teens are being taught to conduct their lives on the pages of Facebook.
Ready, Aim, Write
The Lautner lament may be considered too much information, but at least it's a fond recalling of a relationship in which Swift realizes she may have made a mistake. Elsewhere on the album, some of her confessional moments take nasty turns. This kitten has claws, apparently. She takes (assumedly) fellow singer and former boyfriend John Mayer to task for playing "dark and twisted games" with her heart. And she levels this line at the girl who (assumedly) stole Joe Jonas from her: "She's not a saint/And she's not what you think/She's an actress/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress."
Ouch. Those are some serious scratch marks.
"I've never kept quiet the fact that I write songs about people," Taylor told MTV. "It's like, this is album number three. You guys have had fair warning!" And she's pretty adamant about that idea, too. She's repeated it in numerous forums and to numerous publications. To Glamour she said, "Everything that happens to me gets put into a song. For some reason, I'm really comfortable talking about my personal life in songs. There, I don't hold back: names, dates, times, expressions on people's faces, exactly where we were and how it felt, what I wish I would have said to them in the moment." She writes in her liner notes, "PS: To all the boys who inspired this album, you should've known." And she told USA Today, "I've never been shy about the fact that if you enter my life, you are basically willingly entering an album."
Suddenly we're back to Facebook and all the other public ways teens and tweens are learning to express themselves. After posting a cutting diatribe about a classmate, an ex-boyfriend, a teacher or a parent, couldn't any girl reasonably say the same thing Taylor's saying? "Well, I've been posting my thoughts about life for three years now, so you guys had fair warning."
Superstars aren't the only ones who can pound bully pulpits anymore. We all can. With the push of an onscreen button, the click of a few keys, every personal thought, feeling or idea can be made public.
"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all," your mom tells you. Or at least she used to tell you that. Now the standing advice reads more like this: "If you have anything to say, tell everybody."
And millions upon millions are doing just that. The Internet is bursting at the seams with mean, hurtful takedowns and tirades. With boyfriends bragging about the sex they just scored. With girlfriends baring their souls about the love they've just made. With broken hearts pining for what might have been. With angry exes dishing about the stupid things that were done to them.
Taylor Swift, for all her class and character, is showing her fans that all of that is just part of the 21st-century digital experience.
Telling It Like It Is
I suspect that Taylor wouldn't say she's trying to encourage her fans to blatantly blast anybody and everybody who disses them. She's just striving to tell her version of the truth when it comes to her love life. She just values honesty and authenticity above all else. In pursuit of those things, however, she may have lost sight of the fact that the people we love—and the people we hate—deserve respect, too, not just candor.
In the pre-Internet age it was called discretion and decorum, an understanding that some messages must be delivered face-to-face, not in front of a watching, listening world.
Taylor (along with everyone else who does what she's doing) fails to honor her subjects as real people, instead treating them as objects to be used however she deems fit in the service of her art. Her writing. Her self-expression. From her we learn that you can say whatever you want about anyone in your life. If someone hurts you, strike back—just do it with flair. And for a generation growing up on unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness Facebook updates and Twitter feeds, having a high-profile star put it all out there for everyone to see, in the name of being "honest and authentic," can feel like permission. That may not be the most damaging message we've ever seen in popular music, but it's quite possibly the best at avoiding attention.