Right now, I’m listening to the jams of Taylor Swift. I happen to love pop music mixed in there with my rock and my punk and classical, and I know more than one adult who will admit to throwing on “Shake it Off” when they need a boost. Hell, I once stood at the bottom of a friend’s driveway while our kids made loops on their bikes around our cul-de-sac, and belted out the entire song into the muggy South Carolina morning, and it was a moment of stay-at-home mom glory.
As I sang to my daughter in the car last night:
“There are people who don’t like Spider-man, but that doesn’t make them bad. There are people who don’t like ice-cream, but that doesn’t make them bad. There are people who don’t like Taylor Swift, but that doesn’t make them bad.”
Last week when Taylor dropped the single “You Need to Calm Down” (wow, I hope I’m not sounding too out of touch with that sentence) I scrolled through Facebook (as one does) and came across a post that stopped me in my tracks. It basically said that the poster usually finds that pop has little to say, but this particular song was good.
I re-read the post a few times, and just felt really disappointed. The poster wasn’t just anyone – it was one of the people on my feed who usually has a lot of really insightful things to say. And I absolutely understand the reputation that pop music has – that it’s empty-headed nonsense, and only teen girls bother with this stuff, but also, we need to be really, really careful of the things we are willing to dismiss as nonsense. If something is hugely popular, there’s usually a valid reason for it. And I’d be inclined to think pop was some kind of trend that is only speaking to a small segment of the population, but pop music has been big for decades.
In 2018, 20 percent of music sales were pop, which was topped only by hip-hop/rap coming in at 21.7 percent. The third most popular category was rock at 14 percent. That’s a big gap between the second and third place music categories. Half of people under the age of 34 call pop their favorite music, with even more people who are younger making the claim.
Meanwhile, in my experience, pop gets derided by “serious” people in a way few other music genres do. And (you had to know I was going here, right?) pop is the only music genre where women artists dominate.
Now, does it matter if some people look down their noses at a clearly popular genre, when the public at large is definitely embracing it? Basically, who cares what the academic discussion is, as long as the stuff sells. There’s a similar issue in the world of romance novels. Sales in that genre are incredible, even if critical opinion is terrible.
But again, we’re talking about a genre dominated by female authors. And instead of taking a hard academic look at why these things that predominantly women are making have to say about our culture, it’s dismissed as trash. (Unless, of course, you’re a dude named Nicholas Sparks, then there are movie deals on the table. Anyway! Moving along!)
So yeah, it’s been my thinking for a while now that pop probably isn’t so frivolous as it’s made out to be, at times. That Taylor Swift’s social justice song maybe isn’t such an aberration. That maybe this music is saying something important all the time, and we just aren’t listening.
Let’s take a look at another song by Swift, and dig a little deeper. It’s one that I keep coming back to, called “Out of the Woods”. If you’ve never heard it, go take a listen, and come back.
Okay, with me yet? Good. (See what I did there? If not, go listen again!) It seems really simple, right? One would be tempted to say that a song that repeats “are we out of the woods yet, are we in the clear yet?” over and over as a chorus is maybe downright empty-headed. And this is absolutely a feature of pop music that turns a lot of people off, but there are reasons this is happening, which I really don’t want to devote a ton of space to (we still have to talk Shakespeare) but you can read about it here. And you’ll notice that all genres of music have this repetition happening, even if it’s not in the lyrics.
So let’s crack open the verses.
Looking at it now
It all seems so simple
We were lying on your couch
You took a Polaroid of us
Then discovered (then discovered)
The rest of the world was black and white
But we were in screaming color
Super simple, right? But also, in eight lines, we are getting this incredible, simple image that describes the magic in the early phase of a relationship. It’s specific and evocative and powerful. And it might be easy to say, “Oh, another song about relationships, do we really need one of those, there are already a million”. But I kind of feel like that’s the overarching sociological point. Feelings are so often the realm of women. And as a group, it’s the work of women to examine emotions and relationships and the ties between us. It’s a major argument of the feminist movement for me that men are losing out in our current social structure, because they’re so often discouraged from delving deeply into these emotional spheres where women are encouraged. And of course some of this might be biological (it’s sort of impossible to know, since we can’t raise babies in a gender-neutral vacuum, from an ethical perspective) but it’s important to note that a lot of scientific articles these days speculate, and the community is turning it’s attention to, the idea that women and girls are diagnosed with autism less, not because there’s less autism among women and girls, but because it’s less obvious when people in those groups are having more trouble in social situations, because their baseline is higher than men and boys in the first place. Perhaps girls with autism are being brushed off as being “boyish” when they are, in fact, struggling with decidedly different wiring.
Back to “Out of the Woods”. Taylor Swift performed this song at the GRAMMY museum, and in her introduction, she described it as being about a relationship that was fragile. In which there were a lot of break-ups and chaos and questions of how long things would last. But it was a relationship as beautiful as it was delicate, and she wanted to express the beauty of all that difficulty and chaos in a song.
To which I say, when was the last time you ended a relationship, and were able to sit down and write a song about the beautiful things in that relationship, even though it had plenty of pain within it, and create sense and clarity and relatability in that song? Because hell, I sure haven’t. I’ve certainly tried to write essays about my divorce, which I initiated almost two years ago, and I still haven’t written anything about it that isn’t angry or a little vindictive.
This is enormous emotional work, for someone to sit down, examine a relationship for all its best parts, see the beauty in them, and then make something that is strikingly beautiful of that. This song is incredibly simple, which I think is deceptive. And this kind of refinement of those kinds of feelings is anything but frivolous. This work is valuable, but easy to overlook because these kinds of bonds between people are universal. We all love somebody, and it’s invariably complicated. But being able to express something that we all know succinctly and with power is as difficult as it is important. And when pop music is at its best, this is what it’s doing.
And where does Shakespeare come in?
Well, we all probably learned at some point in school that William Shakespeare, playwright and poet, contributed some ludicrous number of words to the English language. Things like “addiction” and “bedazzled” and “eventful” and “uncomfortable” and the list goes on. He was, apparently, throwing new words out every other page.
That was, until we were able to start going through old letters with computers. It turns out that a lot of those words were being used in people’s writings before Shakespeare ever got them down on paper – we just didn’t have the time as a society to comb through everything ever written to figure it out. This article also points out that if all these plays, which were being performed in front of a very average public were full of new language, how the heck was anybody understanding what was being said? Of course a lot of these words had to have been in use at the time, or were at the most a twist on an existing word.
The real language innovators, according to this article, are the teenage girls. That’s right. When you roll your eyes at a young woman using vocal fry, or upspeak, you are rolling your eyes at a vocal tic that might just catch on, and that everyone is going to be using in ten years. As the article suggests:
Women are consistently responsible for about 90 percent of linguistic changes today, writes McCulloch. Why do women lead the way with language? Linguists aren’t really sure. Women may have greater social awareness, bigger social networks or even a neurobiological leg up. There are some clues to why men lag behind: A 2009 study estimated that when it comes to changing language patterns, men trail by about a generation.
Could some of this trailing be because of attitudes about traditionally women’s media, such as romance novels and pop? After all, if something is considered unintelligent or somehow of less value, what are the chances it’s going to be adopted by the people so dismissive of it. And it’s tempting to say, “shame on you boys, for dissing on cultural innovation,” but the truth is, this potential communication gap just makes me sad. It lessens us all, male and female and nonbinary when we aren’t sharing in one another’s worlds. When vocal fry evokes contempt, or when pop songs exploring really difficult feelings are classed as “having nothing to say”. It’s a terrible attitude, as much because it means that person is missing out on something vitally important, something that is speaking so much truth to half the population.
Look, I don’t think every Taylor Swift song is a work of genius. But I absolutely think that pop music is doing big, difficult, innovative work that’s going unexamined because, well, that’s frivolous teen girl stuff, after all. These are building blocks of our relationships with one another, and considering humans are incredibly social creatures, it’s vitally important. About half the population is doing this work, and talking about it. And the other half is maybe missing out on the lessons being unearthed*.
So I say, go forth! Enjoy your pop and your romance novels and feel no shame. Know that your girly vocal quirks are cutting-edge. And if you’re on the other side of the fence wondering what the heck is going on, I say, hop over, give it a shot, and if you don’t think anything important is being said, maybe you need to listen more closely.
And listen to more Taylor Swift. Your heart could be better for it.
Twenty stitches in a hospital room
When you started crying baby, I did too
But when the sun came up I was looking at you
Remember when we couldn’t take the heat
I walked out, I said, I’m setting you free
But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up you were looking at me
*There are guys who listen to pop. There are girls who examine their feelings as little as possible. I’m making generalities here based off statistics and observation, and so please don’t feel left out by this if it doesn’t describe you! The fact that these generalities and this gap exists is exactly why I write.