You have heard about the post-Taylor Swift Kanye West. He is an embattled man--a victim, to similar extents, of America's unspoken racial tensions and of his own id. During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards in New York, West jumped on stage to rip the microphone out of Swift's hand. She had just been announced as the winner for Best Female Video, and West was incredulous. Beyonce, he explained to the stunned audience, had made "one of the best videos of all time", and the Chicago rapper/producer was seated too close to the stage to let such injustice proceed unchecked. The moment has been frozen in our collective unconscious: a speechless Swift clutching her trophy, a leather-clad West simply shrugging. The reaction came quickly and without mercy; West was a monster, and How Could He Do That and Who Does He Think He Is? It would be naive to ignore the politics of race in all of this, the angry black man stealing the spotlight from the innocent white girl. But West was a jerk, first and foremost, and he never did learn how to apologize.
So Kanye West went away. He went to France, then Hawaii, then back to the 2010 VMAs, where he played "Runaway", his defiant non-apology for the illicit photos in his email and the poor white girls from whom he stole microphones. His My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy took critics and fans by the shoulders, rattling them awake: For all the tabloids and all the easy jokes, the man was and is brilliant. The '09 VMAs are forever the site of the Taylor Swift Incident, a stumble from which Kanye West resoundingly recovered. Maybe you love West's experimental 2013 album, Yeezus. Maybe you hate it. But you talked about it with your friends and your Twitter followers and on first dates and in gym locker rooms. Kanye West is a complicated man, and he has your attention, even if you don't think he deserves it.
You don't talk about the post-Kanye West Taylor Swift. There are those who believe those '09 VMAs made Swift a household name, and they are not necessarily wrong: While Fearless--the album that was home to "You Belong With Me", the video West couldn't believe topped "Single Ladies"--sold over six million copies, it wasn't until 2010's Speak Now that Swift was the household name she is today. But that name has a different kind of baggage. Taylor Swift is not, in your eyes, a complicated, brilliant pop star. Taylor Swift is the punchline to Tina Fey jokes and boycotted Abercrombie shirts. She is Always Complaining About Something and Why Does She Date All These Guys and Careful, She Might Write A Song About You! For all the vitriol hurled at (and overcome by) West in the wake of the VMAs, for all the people who rushed to Swift's defense, we never really let her back on the microphone.
We have made Swift one of the biggest acts in music: her most recent tour grossed 115 million dollars; her albums consistently sell as if no one told her it isn't 2002 anymore. But we have also made her identity that of a hollow, reductive shadow. The jokes about her perceived serial dating have swallowed her persona whole, and while the debates over slut-shaming and Swift's role in pop-feminism rage on, no one is really listening to her. Sure, her tone-deaf barbs for Fey and Amy Poehler made the rounds (it's generally bad form to say there's a "special place in hell" for satirists). But if West was wrong for denying her the chance to finish what she started to say, why have we, too, taken away that agency?
Entertainment Weekly's review of Red--one of the more positive write-ups the album received, mind you--lamented, "One gets the feeling that it's not this guy's love she's after. She's just using him for the breakup songs." It goes on to add that, at this point, it's "getting harder to feel sorry for Swift". This is the consistent reading of Red: a compilation of songs about boys. Beyond that, the discussion is painfully thin. There are nods to formal improvements in her songwriting and a mid-brow debate over whether it retains any qualities of a country record in its grasps for more mainstream pop. But Red is a clever, strikingly mature record in ways that have, so far, been totally glossed over.
The record is full of songs about loss and longing, sure. But in sequence, Red is a coming-of-age story that takes place entirely within a global superstar's head. Those breakup songs work inside themselves and with their adjacent tracks to tell a complex story: what is "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" if not a sober response to the insecure bet-hedging of "I Almost Do"? The latter is itself a qualification of the present-tense celebration on "22", the emotional hangover from setting aside your emotional baggage for a night. As transitions go, neither "Treacherous" nor "I Knew You Were Trouble" can be taken at face value when played back-to-back; first, Swift throws caution to the wind, then she kicks herself for doing so. To do this is to be any human twenty-something, but to acknowledge and understand it--and put it into monstrous pop songs--is divine.
This progression is deliberate and purposeful. "Never Ever" falls at the end of Red's A-side, the culmination of Swift working through her own feelings for one person. For the album's entire second half, she knows exactly what she wants, and isn't afraid to articulate it. "Stay, Stay, Stay" is, ultimately, a record about self-respect masquerading as a summery love song. (It also features one of Swift's cleverest songwriting moments, the faux-serious breakdown in which she abruptly reverses the tone to confess "I just like hanging out with you".) This assured Swift also leaves behind the whitewashed image of the girl from "Tim McGraw"; "The Lucky One" muses about "big black cars" and anonymous sex. "Lucky One" has a special kind of ethos: seldom has their been such a wearied take on fame from an artist who is neither a tortured celebrity nor nearing the end of their fifteen minutes. For someone whose albums have been as carefully focused (let's admit it--branded) as Swift's, if the song doesn't exactly break the fourth wall, but it at least leans on it.
Red came out well over eighteen months ago. It’s too late for a more accurate picture of the album to emerge and too early for the historical revisionism we’ll get with the ten-year boxsets. No one is holding vigils for a twenty-four-year-old who just bought a $20 million apartment in Manhattan, nor should they. But can we give Taylor Swift her mic back?
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