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Not the Taylor Swift album I wanted, but the one I should have expected...
on October 23, 2012
My initial impression of Taylor Swift's new album RED was that it's very good, and that's probably a fair assessment, but there are two things that I have to say about it. First, a little history...
You see, Taylor's albums have all come two years apart. Her self-titled debut dropped in 2006. FEARLESS followed in 2008, SPEAK NOW in 2010, etc. So it's been six years since her debut, and four since what was, in the opinion of myself and many others, her best album. FEARLESS showed some of the true potential of an emerging young songwriter who combined outstanding pop sensibility with a maturity beyond her years that was both fresh and wholesome. And SPEAK NOW saw her exploring different influences and directions in songwriting. The problem for me comes with RED and the fact that, two years after SPEAK NOW, and four years after FEARLESS, her music leaves me no reason to believe she is any longer mature beyond her years; in fact, she is still singing about the same kind of whimsical experiences that only a person like herself -- young, wealthy, gorgeous -- gets to have. Compare the song "Fifteen" on FEARLESS, which cautions young girls about the danger of falling in love too young, with "22" on RED... a song about the mania of being 22 and dancing with guys who are "bad news". One shows wisdom not necessarily common among young women her age, while the other eschews that wisdom for potentially reckless whimsy. So the first thing is this: whatever credit I once gave Taylor Swift for being mature beyond her years has evaporated.
The second thing is more easily explained, but also warrants some comparison to older albums. Taylor's debut album was clearly country music. FEARLESS, however, tightly walked the line between country and pop, and this fact is probably why it took off the way it did. SPEAK NOW was, if FEARLESS wasn't, a pop album first and foremost; there were tracks on it that could have just as easily been performed by Evanescence or Paramore. RED not only follows in this tradition of moving away from country and towards pop, but is basically the culmination of this movement. RED is the kind of pop album one could expect from any of a countless number of industry-produced pop stars who are largely disposable. So yes, it's catchy as all hell, but not the way I personally want a Taylor Swift album to be. And I get that much of this might be due to outside pressure. And no, I don't blame her for wanting to be a bazillionaire. But the reality, as far as I can tell, is that she sold out with this album.
Do I trust her as an artist to find her way again? That's the question someone essentially posed to me while we were talking about this. My answer is: I do. I think RED probably marks the end of one phase of her career, even knowing that it will be ridiculously successful from a commercial standpoint, but I think she has the talent to reinvent herself before she really does become just another disposable popstar. And if not, well, I'll still have FEARLESS and the best tracks from SPEAK NOW to remind me of what she could've and, in my opinion, should've been.