7:48 am Nov. 2, 20103
Tomorrow Taylor Swift’s new album, Speak Now, will be Billboard-certified as the fastest-selling album of the year (and decade!), having moved over a million copies in the week since its release.
This handily bests the country-pop singer's last record, Fearless, which had a 592,000-unit debut in November 2008, and the legs to eventually become the top-selling album of 2009 and go, at last count, sextuple-platinum.
These are practically 20th-century numbers! In modern times—specifically, June—Eminem managed an impressive and anomalous 741,000 Recoverys. But the bell curve of 2010 pop otherwise skews closer to the likes of, say, Ke$ha, Justin Bieber, Usher, and Drake, with No. 1 debuts of 152,000, 283,000, 329,000, and 447,000 sold, respectively. That is, add them all together, and you get a rough match for Speak Now.
An even more shocking benchmark: as solo act, Beyoncé Knowles’ single most lucrative week was (not-coincidentally enough) that of her 25th birthday, when the album B’Day sold 541,000 copies; it subsequently became the seventh best-selling album of 2006, her second-highest career showing on the year-end charts. (Dangerously in Love ranked sixth in 2003.) Beyoncé’s got no shortage of paying customers. But to find anything even approaching Taylor Swift numbers, the interested Beyoncéstician must reach all the way back to 2001, before she went solo, to Destiny Childs’ Survivor. (Title track and video were, mercifully, riffs on the then-relevant CBS reality show, not the then-upcoming Al-Qaeda operation.) Even then, it’s hardly close; Survivor still holds the one-week sales record for an all-female group, but fewer than 650,000 buyers were needed to set that record.
IN THE WATERS OF THE MAINSTREAM, SWIFT IS LEVIATHAN, AND HAS BEEN, by any objective measure, for at least two or three hype-cycles now. At age 20, she’s conquered the fin-de-siècle dowagers who hang on with mood stabilizers and C. botulinum. Also the tragicomic Idols, enthroned and deposed annually by mob plebiscite; and of course all the achy-breaky jailbait that once surrounded her. What, then, sustains that protective, almost pastoral impulse even casual listeners develop toward Taylor Swift—the instinct to shield her feelings, and perhaps her senses too, from the real-world predations of commerce, gossip, John Mayer?
I’mma avoid opening old wounds, except to say: He was right, of course.
Kanye West was right, as events at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards would demonstrate, not just on account of taste but logic, formal and informal, as well. How exactly could MTV—if no longer particularly authoritative about music videos, still a powerful authority as pop-cultural set theorist—explain naming Beyoncé's “Single Ladies” Video of the Year but not Best Female Video? To take MTV seriously was to see the odd and rather insidious suggestion that, for all the epochal import of Beyoncé’s clip as generic video qua video, Taylor Swift's winning “she wears short skirts / I wear T-shirts” somehow cut closer to the quick of modern womanhood, of the second sex circa 2009, than demanding a ring be put on it, if one likes it. Was West, the most cripplingly hypersensitive public intellectual in that room, or any, protesting Taylor Swift as a wave too far for post-feminism?
We should hope not, or rather, hope not quite. Accept Beyoncé’s unsexing as simple illogic: Not a serious political statement so much as the weak-willed populism of spreading the wealth. (All basically ludicrous, only music-award categories risk the credibility of the exercise year after year. There’s a reason the Academy doesn’t award an Oscar for Best Actor, one for Best Actress, then close out the night with Best Thespian.) Accept that, and the question becomes: Why not spread the wealth over someone more ambitious, more craven, more pathetic (Gaga, Katy Perry, Pink, all also nominated)? And, for that matter, less pretty, less doe-eyed and helpless in the face of boorish spotlight robbery? (Would Kanye have dared interrupt any of the above three?) What even West proved too smart, or too dumb, to say—though it sure looked like he knew it—was this: Taylor Swift’s was a victory of tokenism.
That is, a token—an imperious icon—of majority rule over the Glee-ful freakishness of today’s pop. The winning video for “You Belong With Me”—a Dawson’s Creek-worthy pastiche as visually and thematically bland as the song was John Hughes-transcendent—is itself a sly essay on the oddity of the Taylor Swift moment.
Reversing the blonde–brunette Manichaeism that’s held since Vertigo, (blond) Taylor dons oversized glasses and makes little additional effort to play the song’s T-shirt–wearing, bleachers-sitting, plain Jane–next–door. It’s completely ridiculous. (For plausibility, Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner has a rule of only letting actors who smoke or smoked in real life light up on screen. We should have the same with glasses.) Swift is so preternaturally, irrepressibly gracile—even when engaged in such dorkish behavior as drumming in the marching band, and reading—that the familiar moral framework comes undone: It’s clear that the boy should be with Good Taylor not because they’re perfect together, but because she’s plain perfect.
While Good Taylor is gorgeously, extravagantly moping, Bad Taylor, hair unforgivably dark and banged, buzzes about, engaged in vigorous post–Title IX athletics, and generally trying to be liked. This, too, is unforgivable. When Taylor Swift snarls about “girls like that,” she means nothing so crude as mere promiscuity (though she means that too). Her main target is, rather, obvious ambition or self-improvement. People who need to try, who publicly exert effort, who need to sculpt their hair or wear reasonable clothes to attract the quarterback, are pitiably undeserving of the position they seek. There’s a natural aristocracy, and it’s blond.
THIS ALL BECOMES CLEARER ON THE NEW ALBUM, WHICH mostly drops pop–rock–country’s traditional outsider pose to wear the pageant-crown of ancient hauteur. Every second song on the radio is about adolescent social warfare; Swift’s the only one writing them from the perspective of the Queen Bee, bravely suffering the resentments of her subjects and lessers. Speak Now is something of a concept album around that thesis: In high school as in life, it’s the outcasts, the marginal, that need compromise and intrigue and cruelty. Against girls like that, the entitled can afford to be nice.
She explains, with banjo, on “Mean”: “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 / and all you’re ever gonna be is mean / why do you have to be so mean?” The chorus at first suggests child battery, but the playground slights recounted in the verses confirm that by “big,” she means “sell a million records in one week.”
And those million buyers have learned: Taylor Swift may be beautiful—and nice—but she also holds an exquisite grudge. Speak Now is perhaps the least ironic kiss-off album since the days of Alanis Morrisette. It’s also devastatingly clever.
Much of the appeal is in the feeling that, under the tantrums, Swift’s only slightly bothered by the mean things people have done to her, while her comebacks destroy them utterly. Massive retaliation comes swiftest in “Better than Revenge,” which drops all pretense of country for punky guitars and synthesizer-voice taunts. Judging by Twitter chatter alone, it’s already a classic. If you’ve ever doubted the utility of the Jonas Brothers, know that had one of them not stopped dating Taylor Swift, we’d never have this incredible chorus: “She’s not a saint / and she’s not what you think / she’s an actress. / Whoa-oh / But she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.”
Having disparaged her rival’s occupation generally, and the state of her career specifically, she reiterates exactly how good Taylor is at her job: “She lives her life like it's a party and she's on the list / She looks at me like I'm a trend and she's so over it / I think her ever-present frown is a little troubling / And she thinks I'm psycho ‘cause I like to rhyme her name with things.” And it just goes on like this, each line more gasp-worthy than the last, until she casually twists the knife, spills the viscera, reads the entrails, and calls Jake Gyllenhaal: “But no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity.”
After the last cheerful “whoa-oh!” Speak Again downshifts to the climactic ballad “Innocent.” (This is a brilliantly track-sequenced album.) You already know its back-story: Kanye West's interruption of Swift's performance at the 2009 Video Music Awards. What’s remarkable is that it barely addresses the actual stage-crashing in favor of thoroughgoing psychoanalysis. Kanye West once interrupted Taylor Swift. She all but diagnoses, for a million followers, his transgression as the work of unresolved Oedipal confusion. (His mother had suddenly died in plastic surgery two years previously.)
Interrupting Taylor Swift is, naturally, hitting rock bottom. “Wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days / always a bigger bed to crawl into?”
And yet, for all that, she still seems nice—and, moreover, good—a sort of American ideal impossible not to defend. Unlike the girls (and boys) “like that” filling our podiums with vague subversions—see the need to conjure Sasha Fierce—she has no angst or doubt or crises of faith. The revenge songs of Speak Now come off as sassy, not nasty, because she’s so clearly and profoundly sure she’s in the right. For two decades, pop starlets have contented themselves with trying to be the next Madonna. Taylor Swift settles for Joan of Arc.