On Taylor Swift, Excellence, and Comfort

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

There’s a lyric off of Phoebe Bridger’s newest album, Punisher, that rings close to home for me. In “Moon Song” she sings, “We fought about John Lennon until I cried/ And then went to bed upset.”

I’ve never fought with anyone about John Lennon until I cried, but I have fought about Taylor Swift until I cried.

It was a fight with an emo-music-listening-boyfriend, and at the time, he refused to believe that Taylor Swift wrote her own songs. And I cried. I remember explaining: Taylor Swift was the first woman in country music to have a writing credit on every song on a platinum-selling debut album. It was a milestone achievement, and at the time, I, a young twelve year old girl, pinned Swift as a role model. And while I wouldn't call myself a stan or even a Swiftie, Swift has remained an admiration of mine since that debut album.

I earnestly believe that a work of art can exist as inherently good, or well-put together, or even excellent, without liking it yourself. So, vice-versa as well - you can like something that isn’t “good” or “excellent.”

In a recent article by Kathryn VanArendonk, "Peak Comfort," she defines the meaning of prestige. “It’s not easy or fluffy or fun because, somewhere deep in the American psyche, there’s still a puritanical belief that fun things cannot also be serious,” writes VanArendonk. She is writing in regards to celebrated “prestige” TV shows, like Mad Men, but when I read her words, my mind immediately jumped to Taylor Swift and folklore.

Swift’s newest work, folklore, features Aaron Dessner of the National as a producer, and even Justin Vernon from Bon Iver as a co-writer and feature. There was virtually no rollout for folklore (highly unusual from Swift). The album was announced only 17 hours in advance, and was accompanied by images of Swift alone in a forest that, along with the title, suggested she was moving away from big pop anthems and into the arena of woodsy, folky tunes. And although I would argue that folklore is still very much Taylor Swift, the announcement caused quite a stir.

The day folklore dropped, I saw more than one meme, mostly shared by “indie” guys, mocking Swift fans who were now likely listening to Bon Iver for the first time, referencing his strangest songs like “21 M♢♢N WATER” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄.” (By the way - if you’re complaining about the all-lowercase song titles from Swift, are you also complaining about Bon Iver’s character stylings, Childish Gambino’s number names, or Kendrick Lamar’s all-uppercase titles?)

The implication of these memes is that Swift fans, who presumably like lighter, fluffier music, are not going to know how to process the strange sounds of Bon Iver (particularly his recent albums i,i and 22, A Million). The implication is that 22, A Million is not a fun album, but a serious one. Swift, on the other hand, has a reputation for writing fun and catchy songs - but those can not be serious. And to these meme-makers and meme-sharers, serious means excellence.

“Excellence is also judged by the capacity to calm and gratify,” VanArendonk argues later in her piece as she writes about the greatness of comfort TV, like Tiger King and Never Have I Ever. And this idea is easily transferable to any type of art, especially music. Something can be easy to listen to, easy to understand, carry mass appeal, and still be excellent. Sonically, folklore is Taylor Swift at her calmest, and in some aspects, her most simple. And don’t we need that sometimes - especially in this moment? Don’t we need words and songs that pull at our heart and our softness, without needing to dig deep to understand the softness? Simplicity does not remove excellence.

From folklore, “this is me trying” is one of my personal favorites: Swift sings, “I didn't know if you'd care if I came back, I have a lot of regrets about that/ Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, could've followed my fears all the way down.” It’s a simple line, at the core, but the image is striking. I can see it clearly - looking out over a cliff and feeling all of your fears represented by the depth of the gorge.

“hoax,” the final track from folklore, begins with just Swift’s voice and a piano. “You knew it still hurts, underneath my scars, from when they pulled me apart/ But what you did was just as dark,” she sings, relaying the story of believing in a love that was not quite love. Is it not excellence when a songwriter can distill such a heavy, weighty emotion into a few beautifully crafted lines?

“Poptimism” - the idea that pop music deserves critical attention - has been around for a while in music journalism and on Twitter. There are dissenters, sure, but overall, in those spaces, poptimism is alive and thriving. But putting that aside, among those of us who fancy ourselves as “emo” or “indie” or “punk” or “DIY” or in any way not a “normie,” there are still many who think that pop music is inherently bad, soulless, dumb, or overproduced.

Excuse yourselves, please, and go listen to “betty.”