“I listen to everything except country.”
This recognizable urban teen statement irks me to no end. First of all, he/she probably doesn’t listen to everything – it’s probably mostly pop, hip hop and maybe some techno. Secondly, what’s so wrong with country music?
Now, I don’t really listen to country myself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I uttered that despicable sentiment in a previous phase of life. I find country simplistic and slow; it’s vocally-driven – which should appeal to most pop fans – but the vocalist often has a twang that’s unfamiliar (and therefore unfavorable) to the urban ear. What drives country songs more than voice or guitar, however, is narrative. The lyrics are not only meaningful, but they tell a story. That means you don’t just hear different metaphors for the same exact feeling that peak in yet another metaphor; you have to actually listen, and there’s a climax to the plot.
It’s no wonder that country music is wildly popular among most Americans. Our brains are made to understand stories. That’s how we learn best, and that’s how most information was – and continues to be – passed on from one generation to another. We love certain types of stories, especially stories of love, loss and betrayal. Shakespeare knew this, and wrote classic plays exploiting our pull toward these themes. And Taylor Swift knows exactly what themes draw in teenage girl listeners.
While you may categorize Taylor Swift as just another pop teen icon, she really does differ from most (there was a great profile of her in a recent issue of the New Yorker). While her pretty appearance and her decent voice help make country music appealing to a wider audience, her gift is songwriting. Jody Rosen wrote in Rolling Stone:
“Swift is a songwriting savant with an intuitive gift for verse-chorus-bridge architecture that…calls to mind Swedish pop gods Dr. Luke and Max Martin. If she ever tires of stardom, she could retire to Sweden and make a fine living churning out hits for Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry.”
This is a particular kind of songwriting. It’s not life-changing, and the songs are often interchangeable and unmemorable, but, boy-oh-boy, is it commercially successful! These simple stories are, first of all, extremely relatable. Everyone is familiar with unrequited love, crushes, loneliness…and Swift is especially good at crafting the narratives because they are based on real-life scenarios. She’s young, and she hasn’t had many boyfriends, but she can turn a simple glance or conversation into a song. And don’t all teenage girls make a big deal out of glances and conversations? Connecting to your audience is key if you want to make money from music. And stories are a great way to do that.
Are they a cheap move, though? After all, the musicians that we admire the most can make an emotional connection with listeners with a single chord progression or vocal line, or a perfect storm of instrumentation. I don’t know, but I don’t think so. While Taylor Swift’s songwriting may not represent the pinnacle of musicianship, it still has its intricacies and difficulties.
And I’ll admit, I get a little bit emotional when I hear her line: “Marry me, Juliet. You’ll never have to be alone.” *sigh.*