Everything you needed to know about Taylor Swift's teen music was right there in the opening lyric of her debut single.
"He said the way my blue eyes shined put the Georgia stars to shame that night," a then 16-year-old Swift sang on "Tim McGraw," commemorating a first boyfriend, and then she followed up that swooning intro with the clincher, a flat admission of reality: "I said, 'That's a lie.'"
Like so many girls of her generation, Swift indulged the fairy tales fed to her and envisioned the big-movie happy endings. But she also frequently saw their limitations. She spoke to her peers and those coming up behind in her own words and their own language. And she gave them a perhaps unprecedented teen-pop role model: gifted and generous, interested in English class, her overly analyzed chastity more a function of self-determination than purity, and deeply appreciative of her stable home life. She was simultaneously one of pop music's greatest optimists and one of its greatest pragmatists.
Swift is not a teenager anymore, a fact established on "Mine," the lead single/opening track of her third album, Speak Now. A premonition of young adult love that re-establishes her songwriting chops (the concise emotional biography of "careless man's careful daughter" only the highlight), the song references "bills to pay" and — gasp — "a drawer of my things at your place." The album's elegant title song daydreams drama not at the prom but at a wedding, with Swift as the other woman interrupting someone else's vows, and sex is subtle but unmistakable on "Sparks Fly." Fairy tales are absent, dispatched with Swift's loving dedication to a teen-era friend: "I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you."
By now, even if you don't care about Swift or can't imagine yourself doing so, you've probably heard about how the songs on Speak Now allegedly address other famous people — Kanye West, John Mayer, the werewolf from Twilight, etc. Maybe it's the only thing you know about Speak Now. But Swift's music is far less meaningful and far less interesting when approached with the sleuthing zeal of an US Weekly or TMZ addict.
As a very different pop-music institution — okay, it was Pavement — once told us, songs mean a lot when songs are bought, and Swift's music means a lot more when filtered through her enormous audience than when considered as closed-circuit communiqués, regardless of the intent. Maybe the epic, bruised "Dear John" is about Swift's dalliance with musician John Mayer, but the experience of being a teen girl mistreated by an older guy is more relatable, particularly for the small-town girls among Swift's constituency, who might find considerable power in the song's defiant climax: "I'm shining like fireworks over your sad empty town."
The theme of growing up in small towns, dreaming beyond them, and getting out of them pops up across all three of Swift's albums. In truth, beyond the occasional fiddle or banjo or CMT's say-so, it's the most country thing about her music. And it's what animates probably the grandest song on Speak Now, "Mean," a jaunty number in which Swift pushes back against a bully with the promise: "Someday I'll be living in a big ole city/And all you're ever gonna be is mean/Someday I'll be big enough that you can't hit me." As a particularly astute Village Voice review has already pointed out, the resonance of the song is beyond personal and beyond intent: It's an "it gets better" weapon made more potent by its lack of specificity.
"Mean," like most of Swift's very best songs (exceptions: "Tim McGraw," "White Horse," "Mine"), is among the scattered few that aren't about the Boy. In this regard, "Mean" is a sequel of sorts to the earlier "Fifteen," another guidebook of enormous empathy.
The other great song on Speak Now is another romance-free song that builds off a predecessor. Swift's 2008 "The Best Day" was the (only?) pop-song equivalent of a heart-stopping children's picture book. On the new "Never Grow Up," Swift again evokes the happy childhood she captured so warmly on "The Best Day" but with a new layer of distance and regret. I don't really care much what Swift has to say about awards-show tormentor Kanye West, but when she reminds her 14-year-old fans of their parents' mortality on the way to introducing them to their own, it can wreck you.
It's a shame that Swift and West — arguably the two most significant pop musicians of the moment — are united by an overblown tabloid moment, but West's public villain stature is the animating force on his own new album — which is even better than Swift's, if decidedly less righteous.
West's cumbersomely titled My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a work on a par with his career-launching classics The College Dropout and Late Registration, though it doesn't immediately present itself as such. Nothing here sounds like a hit single, even if a couple of titles have actually earned that designation. There's no "Gold Digger" or "Jesus Walks."
West comes on like a pro-wrestling heel, soaking up the boos: "Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it/I guess every superhero needs his theme music," he snaps on "Power." But despite the rampant arrogance and aggression, West comes across as deeply conflicted about where he's found himself. Insecurity, awkwardness, and self-flagellation would be fatal flaws in the Darwinian world of mainstream hip-hop, but West has long made these traits the source of his artistic strength. And they are everything on this relentlessly self-focused, dark-comic, and belligerent opus. "The plan was to drink until the pain's over/But what's worse, the pain or the hangover?" he muses on the opening "Dark Fantasy." "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most," he admits on "Runaway." "This shit is fucking ridiculous," he concludes on the choice title "So Appalled."
Even on the rare occasion when words fail him, the music never does. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy combines unnerving distortion, stormy orchestral passages, icy piano loops, thundering beats, and sharp samples (most pointedly: King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man") into a musical maelstrom that seems to reflect West's rattled psyche.
Swift remains a role model of sorts. West is most definitely not, but he's far from the first pop musician to turn his bullshit and baggage into great art. In fact, he might as well be the Rolling Stones.