In “Feedback”, I reexamine the least famous album by a major artist, and today, I’m writing about Taylor Swift’s aptly named debut Taylor Swift.
Few people get to the pop culture stratosphere and even fewer stay there as long as singer/song-writer/occasional actress Taylor Swift has. But, as this is a Feedback, w’re not looking at her today, we’re looking at her from 2006. First, let’s see what 2013 T.Swift is up to.
Taylor Swift was a star before last year’s album Red, but that album made her the kind of star that shoots Ke$ha-as-told-by-Youth-Group-ministers videos through Instragram filters. Swift’s fourth album contained some no-apologies pop songs that have launched her into the Top 40 as one of the regulars, not the country pop visitor she’d been when the crossovers came. Since her breakout Fearless, Swift’s been a cultural mainstay, now she was occupying a space similar to Katy Perry instead of Miranda Lambert, and the change feels natural. And a little overdue; Red makrs the first time that her image has changed any in the last seven years since Taylor Swift.
It’s a little weird, to me at least, to think that Taylor Swift’s existed as a standalone artist since 2006. My first limited exposure to her was in 2007 when “Teardrops on My Guitar” charted, and even then, I was only vaguely aware of her existence as an entertainer of some sort; the same way I imagine plenty of people think of Vampire Weekend. Taylor Swift has moved 5.6 million copies since its release, but it had a long gestation period, and picked back up once Swift broke out with Fearless. So, does any of that future greatness show through? What was Taylor Swift: The High School Years like?
Most of the songs on the album were written in Swift’s freshmen year of high school (the album was released when she was 16), and she’d been trying for a record deal since even before that. As early as 11, she was making trips from her hometown in Pennsylvania to Nashville to hunt for a record deal. A calculated if cynical look at Taylor Swift suggests that she was after mega-stardom from this record onward: she sought out a record deal, worked with Nashville movers and shakers, and was quick to establish her approach and image. Her first music videos are quick to assert her brand, too, as the country girl next door who had an understandable but complicated relationship with a boy.
Taylor Swift’s lovelife has been a near singular source of her lyrics, and a talking point around her entire public life and career (interestingly, she gets infinitely more flack for any romantic move she makes as opposed to, say, Bruno Mars, who pouts about romantic bullshit more than Swift ever has). That’s still the case with Taylor Swift, which has a grand total of three songs that aren’t about relationships: the loneliness anthem “The Outside”, the searching “A Place in This World”, and the ‘My Friend’s a Mess’ tune “Tied Together With a Smile”. The songs about relationships get handled in relatively simple ways as well; “Dump that idiot and date me, dammit” is the most complicated take present. An album full of loving romance, hating an ex, loneliness, and trainwreck friends? Yeah, that’s high school.
Some of the love songs get downright idyllic. “Our Song” (detailing every pre-Internet tactic teenage couples used to talk to each other) is so innocuous it’s the audio version of drawing hearts drawn in a biology notebook. Part of the reason that it’s so picturesque could be that Swift wrote it for a talent show, but even her explicitly personal cuts have a cinematic disconnection between their big emotions and their diary “this happened, then this happened” depiction. First person pronouns aside, “Teardrops on My Guitar” reads like stage directions more than a personal account. The storybook vibe is only helped by the song’s big chorus of slide guitars, anguished duets, and slowly strummed mandolins.
Just as much as Taylor Swift is by a country artist, it’s by a country music fan. For crying out loud, the first song is called “Tim McGraw”. More than that, though, the album’s very “country”. For one thing, Swift sings with the most “I’m Actually From Pennsylvania” affected country accent you’ll come across, and additionally, each song takes a very basic country approach to songcraft. It’s not hard to imagine that each of these songs began as bedroom acoustic guitar compositions that got an added backing band with banjo, fiddle, and mandolin once Swift hit the studio. The livelier cuts hold up alright, but even without the comparison to Swift’s grandiose later albums, the entire album can’t help but feel slight.
Nowadays, Swift has started to leave country behind, and with that, her most country album. She’s moved on to bigger and better things; Taylor Swift‘s biggest song is basically just a practice swing for one of her biggest hits. Besides, at age 23, I’d rather not sing whatever I wrote when I was a high school freshmen, either. But even taken alone, does Taylor Swift deserve to get ditched? Well…yeah. Even though Swift and her songwriting are the exception to the “Burn every lyric you wrote in high school” rule, very little of the album leaves any last impact; she’s talented, but there’s little noteworthy material here. At the very least, I guess it’s a good listen for teenage girls to have someone who gets them like this, but even they’ll outgrow this sooner rather than later. Taylor Swift sure did.