Most people just assume I’m kidding when I say that I really like Taylor Swift. I don’t know why. It’s socially acceptable for a music geek like me to like all sorts of frothy pop music, from Elvis down to Rihanna, but for some reason, pop-country is anathema. Not even the hipster poptimist types who celebrate craftsmanship over artistic vision like Taylor Swift. Why?
A lot of people are going to automatically dismiss anyone who comes out of what they regard as the cultural cesspool of contemporary country music. I think that’s completely wrongheaded for a couple of reasons. Toby Keith, Allan Jackson and their hyperbolically patriotic ilk can be irritating, but Nashville as a whole actually produces extremely high quality, if fairly formulaic, music. This is no doubt a consequence of country having maintained the same standards for the last 20 or so years. Stars aren’t supposed to be auteurs or iconoclasts, but seasoned professionals. Consequently, unlike just about any other music scene, country rewards skill above everything. Country artists know very, very well what they need to do: deliver some catchy-ass tunes. And Taylor Swift has become one of the most successful country artists: not because she’s cool, not because of hype, not because she’s a close associate of T-Pain, but because she is one of the world’s leading experts on catchy-ass tunery.
It’s actually a bit silly to call the music on “Fearless,” Swift’s second album, country. Sure, she sings with a hint of a southern accent, and there’s some banjo thrown in on each track, but this is, like most post-Garth country, pop rock. She has as much in common with Cyndi Lauper as she does with Hank Williams Jr.
Swift definitely has a demographic, but it’s not red-staters so much as teenagers. She writes in the grand tradition of teenaged romanticism: the tradition of the Ronettes, young Springsteen and Weezer, wherein every crush is treated like eternal love and every frustration becomes abject heartbreak. There are, I believe, three separate references to kissing in the rain on three separate songs. The level of devotion that Swift professes to her various love interests on “Fearless” or “Best Day” border on creepy, and the girl power-y declaration of independence on “White Horse” is awfully trite. Ironically, in “Fifteen” Swift reflects on her own bygone romantic naiveté. Then on the next track she’s dreaming about an idealized marriage proposal. The melodrama gets pretty silly sometimes, but I think we’re all close enough to being teenagers to forgive it.
But you don’t listen to this sort of music for the lyrics. You listen to it because every song on this album has a spectacular hook, because Swift can use orchestration to build drama better than anyone who isn’t in the Arcade Fire, because you appreciate the fine art of the sing-a-long chorus. “Fearless” does everything a pop record should do. It follows every rule of songwriting, and demonstrates that those rules were made for a goddamn reason. I’m not really comfortable with the idea of guilty pleasure. This album is just a pleasure, pure and simple.