TAYLOR SWIFT, a 22-year-old young woman from Reading, Pennsylvania, released a new album last month. It’s called Red. According to Billboard, it sold 1.21 million copies in its first week of release, which is an extremely impressive number of records (or CDs, or downloads, or even cassettes) to sell, but particularly so in an era when, as any musician will tell you, and any number of non-musicians will then scold any musician for telling you, it is very, very difficult to get anyone to buy music.
I’m not going to argue the merits of Swift’s album, having been given a dishonorable discharge from the noble profession of record-reviewing for laziness and incompetence. Except to say that I think it’s a very fine record, and you’re free to disagree, and I don’t care. What I do want to talk about is the flurry of concern raised in certain quarters by Ms. Swift’s ascendancy, which in any case is not exactly news, as her previous album, Speak Now, also opened to first-week sales of over a million, and the one before that, Fearless, sold close to a googolplex over the course of its run.
Writing last week in Salon, Mark Guarino posed the epically dumb question “Is Taylor Swift being taken too seriously?” and proceeded, unfortunately, to answer it. (Turns out he was using a rhetorical device known as aporia.) He argued that the largely positive critical reaction to Red results from diminished expectations on the part of reviewers, whose critical senses have been dulled by the slurry of calorie-free sonic confectionery served up by the music biz for the past ten years (which sad condition is all George W. Bush’s fault, somehow). Here’s the weird thing: all the examples Guarino cites to underline his point are women. “The last decade produced enough pop trash to fill a landfill,” he writes, apparently without the benefit of an editor averse to clichéd constructions (speaking as someone who’s never met a cliché he didn’t want to marry and have, like, a million babies with): “Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ashley [sic] Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Kelly Osbourne, Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff and even back benchers t.A.T.u, M2M, Hoku, Skye Sweetnam, Brooke Allison, Willa Ford and many others.” Italics mine. First of all, Hoku’s record was freaking great (go listen to this. Do it. I’ll wait. I know, right?), and second of all, Britney and Xtina were so 90s, dude, and third of all, WTF?
You couldn’t think of a single example of boy-based pop trash to bolster your argument? How about this, just off the top of my not-well-versed-in-this-stuff head: For every Britney, there was a Justin, for every Avril, a Sum 41, for every Ashley [sic], a That Guy From That One Awful Band, and while I’m not here to debate the relative merits of boy vs. girl pop, I’m more likely to plump for the distaff version of what Guarino wants to throw in the dumpster in each of the false equivalences I just set up. But that’s both me and irrelevant. Miss/dissing an entire sex while dismissing an entire genre is more frankly and inexplicably skewed than the straight white rockism of Joe Carducci, for example.
The takeaway here as summarized by Guarino is that the critical praise for Swift “reflects how tight our comfort zone has shrunk — just like our wallets — these last few years. Instead of singers who might leave our scars exposed, we cling to the ones who are CoverGirl-ready and know how to touch them up.” Though he neglects to cite examples of scarifying pop stars, one presumes he did not have in mind Justin Bieber. Or Bon Iver, for that matter.
In his eagerness to tie Swift’s popularity, somehow, to post-recessionary restraint, Guarino posits a world where authenticity is not a construct. This world does not exist. Kurt Cobain, to pick an example completely at random, manipulated and contrived his own image just like Taylor Swift does, just like every single artist in the history of music has always done. The difference is only ever one of degree (and skill). It has always been this way. Socio-cultural trends, while not irrelevant, are rarely prescriptive with respect to any given artist or style of music’s relative popularity at any given moment. Music is not better or worse right now than it has ever been. There’s as much great stuff right now, everywhere, as ever. It was not better in the 60s, it was not better in the 90s, it was not better anywhere else or at any other time. It’s just different. And not even that different.
Salon itself seems to have recognized that Guarino’s piece required a response, which Lizzy Goodman provided with “In Defense of Taylor Swift” two days later. She starts off by admitting that “though Guarino’s opinion is manifestly unpopular (the piece inspired a round of vitriol on Twitter, spearheaded by New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones), I suspect it’s more widely held than the euphoric press on Swift would suggest,” and then proceeds to unpack the ways in which she believes Guarino to be wrong about Swift’s merits as a songwriter and performer. She adds in passing that “Frere-Jones found an inherent sexism in Guarino’s argument,” but declines to engage with that charge, asserting only that “I think Swift would be neither as ridiculed nor as successful if she were a dude.”
Goodman makes a number of incisive points about the nature of Swift’s musical gifts, but I don’t think that throway line is one of them. While it’s true that many of the artists currently shifting major units in what remains of the music industry are female, not all of them are – for example, UK folk-poppies Mumford and Sons sold 600,000 copies of their new album Babel in its first week, best week of the year for a debut until Red arrived, followed by Justin Bieber’s Believe in third. I’m not sure that either the Mumfords or the Bieber would have sold more records if they were women, and I think I can make a pretty good argument that Bieber faces his share of critical scorn, even ridicule; more than a few reviewers dislike Mumford and Sons, too.
The larger issue is that from an aesthetic standpoint, Taylor Swift needs no defense, from me or Lizzy Goodman or Sasha Frere-Jones or anyone else. She’s hugely talented and hard-working and seems to be handling the fruits of her labors with uncommon grace. Bully for her. But Frere-Jones was certainly not the only one who noticed the blithely sexist slant of Guarino’s Swift-boating. Though it was likely unintentional, it was nevertheless real, and at least to me the more problematic aspect of his piece. As quondam Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston, who is so much better qualified than I am to deal with this subject matter that I’m wincing at my glossy MacBook Pro screen as I type, asks Gaurino in a concise takedown on Tumblr:
1. Why are you only holding up female pop stars as the examples of “trash”?
2. What does “trash” mean here? It’s unclear. Do you mean that the songs are enjoyable for their own sake and didn’t have Deep Meaning behind them? What songs that were popular during this period weren’t trash? Were any of them performed by women?
Fighting aporia with aporia. One of my favorite rhetorical gambits. I wonder if it will stop male music writers, who really ought to know better by now, from making silly sexist mistakes ever again?