Taylor Swift’s Biblical Success

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I am unabashedly overjoyed about Fearless, the new Taylor Swift album.  It is freakishly good.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Both the New Yorker and the New York Times have highly complimentary reviews of both Swift and her sophomore album.

The New Yorker article in particular has a fascinating read on Swift’s genius:

You could also give a Swift composition like “Our Song� to someone twenty years older and it could work just fine. The concerns of kids aren’t necessarily juvenile—just their reactions. Bridging this gap is the trick of pop music; when people sing “Love Me Do� to themselves on their way to a date ten years on the other side of their second divorce, it’s a sign that a young songwriter has got to a universal truth. This kind of precocious wisdom is embedded in the work of songwriters like Hank Williams, Prince, Elvis Costello, and Randy Newman. People who aren’t old enough to have lived the songs they’ve written nevertheless know how the song embodying that life should go.

Swift’s songs are weirdly immortal already, even though some of them were released all of two days ago. She’s good at taking a moment or a scene that’s prototypical and giving it enough of a twist that it doesn’t seem generic anymore, even though it could still apply to pretty much anyone.  Part of this is achieved by using real names when she writes about friends and boys in her life, but a lot of it is in her songwriting skills in general.  Here’s a verse from her song ’15:’

When all you wanted was to be wanted
Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now
Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday
But I realized some bigger dreams of mine
And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy
Who changed his mind and we both cried

It’s a universal truth backed up with an anecdote about Abigail, who really is her best friend.

The other component to Swift’s success is how available she makes herself to her fans.  The Times explains:

Right before the show in Chattanooga, as she does before every performance, Ms. Swift loaded up her wrists with bracelets that she would later toss out to fans, allowing them to take home a small piece of her. And after she finished singing “Should’ve Said No,� about a boy who cheated on her, she dropped to her knees and bent forward, holding her head still as fans in the front rows patted it concernedly. It was a scarily intimate moment but essential to her self-presentation that there is no barrier between her and her songs, and their listeners, the consumers. That insistence informs every aspect of her work.

Universality and connection with the people at every opportunity.

Is it me, or is that what makes, um, the Bible, so popular, too?  There are lots of stories that are full of universal truths but also have strange little specific bits that we like to take apart and puzzle over.  And it’s available to everyone, constantly being sold to anyone who reaches out for it in any small way, and even to people who don’t…

I’m not saying that Taylor Swift is a prophet or is in any way Divine, but I’m interested in the way her success has been defined in ways that also define the success of religion.  Cool, no?

Posted on November 13, 2008

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