Saturday, October 23, 2010

Taylor Swift Is Angry, Darn It

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Taylor Swift Is Angry, Darn It

By JON CARAMANICA FOR pure star-on-star revenge, "Dear John," from the new Taylor Swift album, "Speak Now," will be tough to beat. Six and a half minutes long and flagrantly provocative, it's a deeply uncomfortable song, its protagonist anguished and violated. "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" she asks. "The girl in the dress/Cried the whole way home." The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion. John Mayer has brought this out in Ms. Swift, awakening her pain, her ire and her creativity. Rather than write a song in her familiar country-pop mode, she's written an electric blues, its pealing guitar licks a hilarious and pointed reminder of Mr. Mayer, who's a master of the style. It's warfare on the level of Jay-Z versus Nas, Oasis versus Blur, Carly Simon versus whomever. (It might explain why, according to Ms. Swift's Twitter feed, she and her family were recently debating who "You're So Vain" was about.) Of course, this being the coy, evasive Ms. Swift, the name John Mayer is never uttered on this song, just as she didn't say it during a lengthy interview in Nashville last month, just as she will likely never fully confess that the John of the title is Mr. Mayer, with whom she has performed and who tabloids reported she was involved with earlier this year. Still, whatever he did — or whatever Ms. Swift would like to suggest that he did — must have been brutal: "I feel like in my music I can be a rebel," Ms. Swift said at a quiet restaurant not far from her new Nashville apartment. "I can say things I wouldn't say in real life. I couldn't put the sentence together the way I could put the song together." In interviews she's like her songs, almost revealing. Her communication about communication is as strong as ever. Ms. Swift, while wide-eyed and easily awestruck, is prim and difficult to ruffle. She is still sometimes treated with kid gloves, as if she were a child star, but Ms. Swift is an adult now; she'll turn 21 in December. Still, if this is what this preternaturally wise teen star turned 21st-century multimedia celebrity is developing into, bring it on. She is her own TMZ, "Fatal Attraction" by way of Hannah Montana. "Dear John" is by far the most scorching track on "Speak Now" (Big Machine), which is out on Monday, though plenty of the rest of the album stings. It's the most savage of her career, and also the most musically diverse. And it's excellent too, possibly her best. "Speak Now" is also a bravura work of nontransparent transparency. "I second-guess and overthink and rethink every single thing that I do," she said. The album touches on many of the major public events in Ms. Swift's life the last two years — her conflict with Kanye West at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the sprouting criticisms of her live singing voice, a romantic relationship with the actor Taylor Lautner, rumored dalliances with Mr. Mayer and others — without naming names, relying on fans, critics and tabloids to fill in the blanks. The great accomplishment of this album, though, is that Ms. Swift is at her most musically adventurous when she's most incensed. She may not be outgrowing the ethos of tit for tat — righting wrongs is Ms. Swift's raison d'être — but as an artist, she's finding new ways to fight back. This may not have been an inevitability, but it was definitely a necessity. So much has happened in the two years since the release of "Fearless," Ms. Swift's second album, that running in place wasn't an option. Her musical life, which she has advertised as autobiographical since her first single, "Tim McGraw," four years ago, depends on her version of truth telling. But now that so much of her life unfolds in the public eye, she can't merely trust that listeners will take her word for things. Hers isn't the only narrative. On her first album, "Taylor Swift," and, to a degree, on "Fearless," she had little more to do than share her adolescent imagination. Even her darker songs were about poking the hole in the ideal more than any actual trauma. But experience is gaining on her. "This whole apparent growing up that happens," she called it, with comic dismissal. In these new songs relationships are no longer fantasies, or neutered; they're lived-in places, where bodies share space. "I'll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep," she tells an ex on "Last Kiss." Other beds are in play too. "She's not a saint/And she's not what you think," she spits out on "Better Than Revenge," seething over losing someone to a predatory woman. "She's an actress/But she's better known for the things that she does on the mattress."...

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