Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Deconstruction and Taylor Swift's 'Red'

Do you remember the first time you heard Taylor Swift's ubiquitous single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”? I do. After reattaching my mandible, I laughed until I cried, and then listened to it eight more times in a row.

So, naturally, when the album dropped this week, I just had to give it a spin. Okay, a bunch of spins. And it is my contention that Taylor Swift's new album is a remarkable work of smart, self-aware, post-structuralist deconstruction.

This is what a post-structuralist looks like.
How does Taylor Swift's new album enact the destabilizing process of deconstruction? Let me count the ways:

1. It's called Red. Obviously, this harks back to King Crimson's classic 1974 prog-rock masterpiece of the same name. By recalling a landmark record of cerebral, instrument-heavy progressive rock, Swift teases the listener with evocations of a style of music quite unlike her own, perhaps inviting us to reconsider whether there is really so much difference between seventies prog and aughts country-pop. (We also are reminded of Krzyzstof Kiéslowski's Trois couleurs: Rouge, a film which focuses on the French Revolutionary ideal of fraternité and has been described as an “anti-romance,” thus hinting at the record's deconstruction of romantic categories.)

2. Self-awareness. In the second verse of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” Swift sings about a lover who copes with fights by “hid[ing] away […] with some indie record that's much cooler than mine.” The way she sings it, you can positively hear her rolling her eyes. Similarly, in the impossibly infectious “22,” there's a laugh-out-loud spoken-word moment as Swift sings, “This place is too crowded, too many cool kids,” and a voice in the background asks, “Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ew.” Swift is well aware of her general perception as deeply uncool, and she's not afraid to laugh at both herself and her haters, breaking the fourth wall in endlessly recursive ways.

Swift also displays a strong self-awareness of the public scrutiny of her romantic decisions, and the fact that she is perhaps most famous for writing songs about breakups. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is fairly self-explanatory, and could be a sequel to “22”: “You look like bad news – I gotta have you.” There's a degree of maturity here, a sense of taking responsibility for one's own decisions while still lamenting the more regrettable consequences thereof.

3. Self-contradiction. From start to finish, Red is shot through with ironies and contradictions. Here are just a few hand-picked examples:
  • In “22,” Swift sings about “dancing like we're 22.” Of course, Swift is 22 (holla at a fellow '89 baby! – though the Berlin Wall was still up when I was born, and had fallen by the time Taylor Swift entered the world), so these words seem puzzling until you remember that she's been in the public eye since she was 17. The years since high school, which I spent studying and privately figuring out my many issues, are the years Taylor Swift spent growing up very publicly and documenting it all in song. No wonder it takes a special occasion to make her feel like an ordinary 22-year-old.
  • I Almost Do” addresses an ex-lover for whom the singer still has feelings. These feelings are expressed through a striking inversion of the expected order of events. To tell an ex that every time you almost call them, you don't, would have the nuance of a kiss-off, an assertion of proud singledom; Swift sings instead, “Every time I don't, I almost do.” The hysteron proteron stresses the strangeness of this phrasing, which is much more memorable than its inverse, and highlights the singer's understanding that her feelings make no sense.
  • On its own, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is rich with irony: everything about the song, but especially the gratuitous “ever”s in the chorus and the repeated verbal tic “like” in the spoken-word break, suggests that the singer doth protest too much, and will very likely get back together with the song's addressee. This idea is heightened by the song's placement in the album's running order – in between the wistful longings for an ex expressed in “I Almost Do,” and the bubbly love song “Stay Stay Stay.” The segue from the closing “We are never ever getting back together” into “I'm pretty sure we almost broke up last night” raises intriguing questions: Are these songs addressed to different lovers? To the same lover at different stages of the relationship? Or is it that they simply are, coexisting in the post-structuralist tension of self-contradiction and inviting a neverending cornucopia of interpretive responses?

In short, this is a record of which Foucault and Derrida would be proud, and I strongly urge you to at least listen to the three standout tracks – “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and to consider the multiplicity of hermeneutic possibilities as well as the layers of deconstructive tensions contained therein.

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