Like it or not, Taylor Swift is apparently the confessional female singer/songwriter of her generation. Articles breathlessly describe the "revealing" nature of her work, and report statements she's made like "I continue to write music about my life and my life is always changing" as if no-one had tried such a thing before. And with her third album Speak Now, there's more attention than ever being paid to what she's confessing. Which is entirely predictable: Her life now includes plenty of famous names, including allegedly faithless Disney star Joe Jonas, Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner, and tabloid fixture John Mayer. Although Swift is coy in interviews, she leaves plenty of clues as to the identities of her subjects, and never denies that these are the men she's singing about, making listening to Speak Now more like reading an extremely emotional issue of Us Weekly than taking in a new, soon-to-be-hit album.
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Of course, celebrities writing about celebrities is a long-standing tradition. So are attempts to figure out exactly who is the target of each song. Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" was released in 1972; Simon was still releasing "clues" about it early this year, and all we know is that it's not about Mick Jagger, it might be partly about Warren Beatty, and Simon says it has nothing to do with a "David" despite reported confirmation from her representatives that it does. Joni Mitchell attached names to her songs only intermittently; "Willy" is pretty much explicitly about Graham Nash, but according to the biography Girls Like Us, she told one friend that "A Case of You" was about Leonard Cohen, and another that it was about James Taylor. Tori Amos's fans are still trying to figure out the exact nature of her relationship with Trent Reznor, based on a handful of lyrical references and the fact that they seemed close in the mid-90s. Sure, you'll get an occasional Fleetwood Mac, whose Rumors deliberately played with their well-known break-ups and changing alliances.
But Swift makes detecting the identities of her subjects remarkably easy. The girl who once proclaimed that "every single one of the guys that I've written songs about has been tracked down on MySpace by my fans" is including names, professions, and ages in her lyrics, seemingly to ensure that her subjects can be hunted down like dogs, potentially by the media, which participates ever more eagerly in the game of Find the Dirty Laundry. Swift's closest contemporary, in terms of willingness to specify her subjects, might just be (speaking of Trent Reznor) Courtney Love.
In comparison to her forebears, however, Swift's "autobiographical" songs feel alarmingly market-driven. Confessional writing is meant to implicate the writer more than anyone else; Mitchell wrote lyrics like "I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish, and I'm sad," and the sentiment was so vulnerable and brave that it didn't matter who the "best baby she'd ever had" actually was. Swift, by comparison, has built her career on strongly worded condemnations of others, with nary an incriminating self-disclosure in sight; on Speak Now, the closest she can come is admitting, on "Back in December," that she feels bad about breaking up with Taylor Lautner. The real draw of her songs is not their emotional intimacy, but the fun of pinning celebrity faces to specific songs.
Swift's strategy of building her career by tying her name to other attention-getting names goes back to her first single, "Tim McGraw." The president of Big Machine Records explained why they chose to name the song after the country superstar: "We put that out deliberately, so people would ask, who's this new artist with a song called 'Tim McGraw'?"
Swift's choice to write about Lautner is similarly convenient. Their relationship was short, reportedly anywhere from three to six months in duration. But it garnered lots of positive publicity for them both, which they actively courted; both referenced it when appearing on Saturday Night Live. A single about him seems like a prudent financial investment; the story is a proven draw, so it's guaranteed promotion for her work. And, considering the boost that her previous album got from tying woman-scorned songs to the very bankable name of Joe Jonas (whose cross-marketing potential didn't exactly go untapped during their relationship) it's in line with previously established modes of revenue generation and marketing for the Taylor Swift brand.
One song from the new album, "Better Than Revenge," hangs on the lines "she's an actress / but she's better known for the things she does on the mattress." (Yes, there is already speculation on the identity of the actress in question.) Although Swift has done a great deal to distance her public image from mattresses, and the unspeakable things done thereupon, it's worth noting that she's a singer and actress, and she's better known for her involvement with various heartthrobs who are popular with her target demographic than she is for, say, her vocal range. The hype around the new song "Dear John," a nearly seven-minute-long odyssey through the seas of petulance, is based pretty much entirely on the idea that she might have slept with John Mayer. Swift cashes in on her associations with men even when they're not intimates. "Innocent," a power ballad about the Kanye West incident at last year's VMAs, devotes over five minutes to an interruption that clocked in at about thirty seconds. But it had built-in marketing opportunities: She got to debut it at the VMAs, thus assuring herself of another spotlight moment and reminding everyone of the sales-boostingcontroversy.
Which isn't to condemn Swift totally, or to say that her much-publicized dating life or much-published feelings are entirely artificial. It's just hard to believe that the most important emotional moments in Taylor Swift's life line up, so very closely, with the most important moments in her tabloid narrative. Yet her songs seize upon them unfailingly.
Early in her career, Swift embraced social media in order to build a fan base; now, she's tapped into one of the most troubling problems facing the music industry. The Internet has given us an unprecedented amount of access to personal information about celebrities, creating the very hunger for information it aims to satisfy, yet it's also decimated record sales. Swift, as others have noted, has become "her own TMZ." You can hear that she may have dated John Mayer anywhere, but for the real, true, unfiltered tell-all, buy Speak Now! Available wherever fine music and/or gossip is sold! Remember: If you pirate the album, you'll miss out on the top-secret coded messages in the CD booklet! It's ethically questionable (pity Joe Jonas, forced to take to his own MySpace blog to explain to an audience of angry, sheltered tweens that "maybe there were reasons for a breakup") but it sells.
Still, there is nothing like listening to Speak Now to make you appreciate Carly Simon. Speaking in 2005 about "You're So Vain," she said that she didn't see the point of naming the subject. "If people knew who it was to begin with," she said, "it might not have become a hit."