Sunday, April 21, 2024

Kat's Korner: The tortured lyrics (not poetry) of Taylor Swift

Kat: I can't think of any artist who is more over-exposed than Taylor Swift.  Her friends, her boyfriend, her everything is forever too much in our faces.  Musically?  At her best she's Carole King but an undercurrent is also forever present -- the threat of morphing into Debby Boone.

Familiarity breeds contempt -- an axiom Taylor has so far managed to refute.

The new album dropped Friday, it's 16 tracks and it's entitled THE TORTURED POETS DEPARTMENT: THE ANTHOLOGY and why should you listen?


She wrote the song with Aaron Dressner and it's the best song on the album.

It's also really the only song on the album -- if you listen closely.

If you listen to the album, you'll enjoy her light vocals -- whispered or snarled.  You'll find yourself drifting off on the music.

But at some point, the reality should sink in: These aren't songs, not great songs.  They're generic banalities, the sort of thing that doomed Carole King's singer-songwriter career.

Carole started out as a songwriter.  Like Taylor, she racked up an impressive number of songs to make the top forty.  In fact, Taylor's written over 50 top forty hits while  CRAPAPEDIA says Carole wrote 118 songs that made the top 100.  Well, co-wrote.

Both Carole and Taylor co-write.

Carole's best partners were lyricists Toni Wine and Gerry Goffin.   Carole wrote great music for most of her career and Taylor can say the same.  But lyrics were Carole's weakness when she wasn't working with Toni or Gerry -- and especially weak when she tried to write the lyrics herself.  "Only Love Is Real,"  "I Feel The Earth Move" and "So Far Away" are great songs but, sadly, they are outweighed by embarrassments like "Back To California," "Stand By Me," "Gotta Get Through Another Day," "So Many Ways," the entire SIMPLE THINGS album (in fairness, three of the bad songs were co-written), "Mainstream Saturday Night," "Ride The Music," "Everybody's Got The Spirit," "Dancing" . . . 

I think the point's been made -- I hope it has.  

Before she became a singer-songwriter, Carole was a songwriter.  For others.  And she's talked about how there was pressure to get the next Drifters or the next Shirelles song.  She and first husband Gerry were competing with songwriters like Ellie Greenwich, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann, Jeff Barry, Shadow Morton and Beverly Ross.  

After creating the trio The City in the late sixties, Carole finally heeded the advice of the industry that had loved her demos for years and pursued a solo career.  (In the early sixties, Carole had recorded a few singles and even had a top forty hit with "It Might As Well Rain Until September" -- a song that lived past the sixties largely due to being on the soundtrack of MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITTI -- that's the second soundtrack to the first film -- AMERICAN GRAFFITTI -- and it was released in 1975, it is not the soundtrack to the film  sequel which was also entitled MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITTI.) 

She recorded WRITER which underwhelmed and disappointed upon release.  The City had bombed and now Carole was bombing as a solo act.

WRITER's more than listenable but it plays like . . . a set of demos.  Carole's pretending to be this person and that, there's no theme, there's nothing that penetrates and no coherent voice.

Lou Adler (producer of the Mamas and the Papas, among others) produced the album.  And he believed in Carole's talent.  Carole believed in his -- at least until later success went to her head.  

Lou ran ODE -- the label Carole was signed to.  And he believed in her and wanted to do another album with her.  But he had some advice (pre-conditions) and one of them was: Listen to Laura Nyro.

By 1970, singer-songwriter Laura had not only written huge hits for others ("Stoney End," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Eli's Coming," "And When I Die," "Sweet Blindness," "He's A Runner," "Time & Love," "Save The Country" and "Stoned Soul Picnic"), she'd also released four classic albums: MORE THAN A NEW DISCOVERY, ELI AND THE THIRTEENTH CONFESSION, NEW YORK TENDABERRY, CHRISTMAS AND THE BEADS OF SWEAT.  She played piano and she wrote songs and, like Carole, she had an unconventional singing voice.  Lou thought she could be a huge influence on Carole -- the writer who spent the sixties trying to write for others, trying to write as others.

He knew what he was doing.

The resulting songs -- plus re-workings of two of Carole's sixties songs ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" -- were amazing.  Pretending to be Laura Nyro let Carole dig deeper than she ever had in her life.

During TAPESTRY's initial run, Carole was very honest about this.  Even sang Laura's praises in her concerts.  But as TAPESTRY stopped selling like an album and began selling like a must-have household item, Carole became less kind.  She wrote a whole book -- a whole bad book ["Carole King's Conditioned Role and Desire (Ava and C.I.)'] and couldn't be bothered with even mentioning Laura's influence.  

She never made an album like TAPESTRY again -- though Elton John's often argued that her next three albums all sounded like they were recorded at TAPESTRY sessions but recorded after everyone was exhausted and sleepy.

Maybe Taylor needs to pretend to be someone else?

It might finally provide her with something worth saying?

That is the problem with a Taylor Swift song.

There's no meat.  

The lyrics rhyme.

Sometimes they shoe-horn in a big word -- one that's generally clunky and doesn't scan.

A second verse pops up with no real connection to the first verse.

Lyrics are her downfall.  I don't know if she's writing them or if her songwriting partners are.

But they're generic and bromides don't result in greatness.

You can get a hit with them -- look at Sheryl Crow with "All I Want To Do Is Have Some Fun." 

But they don't have any real meaning.

There's not a song of Taylor's that you can see Joni Mitchell calling "finished."  They wouldn't even qualify as first drafts for Joni.  They'd be doodles for Joni.

And that's the problem with THE TORTURED POETS DEPARMENT: THE ANTHOLOGY.  It's really worthless.  "I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)" is a good idea for a song, for example, but a real lyricist would have fleshed it out.  "Clara Bow" is never sure what it's actually about or what it wants to say.  And why would it want to say anything?

Among the many things it's about is Taylor's fame.  

As is "The Prophecy."  As are far too many tracks on the album.

Carole King's TOUCH THE SKY bombed.  The album didn't even crack the top 100 on BILLBOARD.  But I can listen to it.  No, it's not a great album.  But it's a good album and it's good because Carole's stretching beyond her comfort zone.  It's one of her finer albums. 

I bring it up because of "Thank You Aimee."  It's another Taylor song about Taylor's fame.  And it's rumored to be about Kim Kardashian.

It's not excellent or amazing.  The lyrics often don't make sense -- I'm referring to make sense in the context of the song, I'm not saying, "Oh, I'm confused what real life event this is about!"  But there's also a kernel of honesty in it and there's a real attitude there -- one that doesn't bode well for The Swifties ("And our town, it looks so small from up here" -- is the sort of superior attitude that could be aimed at them, no matter how much they pretend they relate to Taylor and are just like her). That truth and/or attitude could be the avenue that let's Taylor leave sameness behind.

By the way, I don't hate or loathe Taylor Swift.  I praised RED.  I appreciate that she has a large female following.  I appreciate that she often highlights those who have come before like Carole, Carly Simon and -- on this album -- Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks.

But I loathe sameness.

It's not just her refusal to dig deep.  It's also her refusal to stop obsessing over herself.  Navel-gazing is too polite of a term for her writing.  And forget an attempt at a third person song,  she can't even pull off a first person song like Elton John and Bernie Taupen's "Daniel" -- where it's about her noticing someone else. 

She's got talent as a singer and there's some strong music there from time to time.  (There's also a lot of rip offs -- this time around, she borrows from "Mandy" and "Blue Bayou" as well her own "New Year's Day".)  But something has to be said before we endure another "Robin."

Way to go, Tiger
Higher and higher 
Wilder and lighter
For you

That's a chorus to a song?  And this is her ode to childhood?  Invoking Christopher Robin?  Kenny Loggins did it much better in "House On Pooh Corner."  So much better.

Her album's already a big success and this review isn't going to hurt her.  She has millions of listeners who are buying it (this review is of the vinyl version of the album) and streaming it.   It's just too bad that she has so little actually worth saying.