Monday, May 20, 2024

Vigilante Excrement: Thoughts on a Taylor Swift Song

Let me not talk about Taylor Swift's body of work, because I don't know much of it. I won't judge her as a whole. If you are a fan, you can tell me if this does or does not apply to the rest of her work.

[The picture is from DePalma's Dressed to Kill. I dunno. Thought it was an ironic connection... Also, finding pics is hard.]

Yesterday, I heard one of her songs in the car: "Vigilanti S---" [click for the lyrics]

One thing I have learned is that my young high school students, especially the ladies, are big fans of Taylor. One senior girl actually wrote her college application essay about how Taylor Swift helped her get through adolescence. So, there is much dedication there. And let's give Taylor credit where credit is due: she helped a kid as I am sure she has helped at least some others. 

At least as far as the song "Vigilante Sh---" goes, however, and considering the way young women feel about Taylor Swift, I'm going to be a little less tolerant of the woman than I have been -- just in this particular instance. 

I used to just think: Meh. She's decent pop music. What's the harm? A lot of people (musicians especially) often say, "At least she and her band actually play on stage." Yeah, ok. But I am of the camp that with fame comes responsibility. (If you think that is bunk, you might want to stop reading -- it's my foundation here.)

Considering how dedicated her fans are, I think she does some damage with her music -- at least with this song. (And if this is indicative of the rest of her lyrics, I'm even less of a fan. I have been told her music is mostly about break ups, etc, may not be an isolated thing.)

My problem with this is that Swift is smart and her lyrics are clever and maybe a fingertip's reach from poetic, at least on this one. She (and I have observed this as a teacher) appeals to smart young women because of this. But, she delivers just enough intelligence to interest them, then she mires them in petty, unhealthy concepts: like revenge; like being hung up on a relationship after is ends instead of moving on. In the end, the concept -- at least, here and in the few songs I have heard -- is a cliché. Cliché inspires mediocrity. In a sense, she holds smart kids back a bit. (I'm not saying Swift is twirling her proverbial moustache and trying to do is just happening.)

Like or hate what I like or hate, I grew up with lyrics like "Living on a lighted stage/Approaches the unreal/for those who think and feel/In touch with some reality beyond the guilded cage." Pretentious? Some think that Neil Peart's lyrics are (though, his response was: "I'm not pretending anything. I'm writing about what I sincerely think." 

Or, consider Billy Joel's lyrics to "She's Always a Woman": "She can lead you to live/She can take you or leave you/She can ask for the truth/But she'll never believe you/And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free/Yeah, she steals like a thief/But she's always a woman to me." If that is what pretention is, I'll take it over "Picture me as thick as thieves with your ex-wife." Billy Joel was pop, and look at the complexity he delivered. He stimulated the young mind, mine included, to look beyond the literal -- to think metaphorically and to see paradoxes in human behavior...IN A LOVE SONG. It can be done. 

The worst thing is, I know Swift can do better than that. But despite the popular bluster about her being kind of an industry crusader and innovator, let's face it, she is primariy concerned with selling records (or, in today's industry, seats at concerts). That's why you write songs like "Vigilante Sh---" (Either that, or that is what you are intellectually limited to, but, as I said, I don't believe that about her anymore than I believe that about Ed Sheeran, who is also not writing to his potential.) 

All of this falls down, of course, if you think popular artists have no obligation to "think of the kids." I think our society has stopped caring about its young people, so I'm probably in the minority. And, if older people are listening, who cares? The song was on my wife's playlist, yesterday, but she gets that this is light pop and she is already a mature woman who is not being influenced by Swift. For Karen, this is sassy fun. But maybe the danger is that songs like Swift's might help produce women in the future who don't see this difference; who think Swift's stance in the song is one of feminine strength, rather than just another of the millions of "you-hurt-me-so-I-am-hurting-you-back" song. 

Swift seems like a good egg. I just see this as I see it and, again, don't think she's being insidious. But it would be cool, if it is true that she writes mostly about breakups and the same old stuff, if she stretched out to show the world (and the kids) what she can really do. Maybe she has and I haven't heard it, but I stand my my reading of "Vigilante Sh---."

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