Lady in red: Taylor Swift performing at the O2 Arena in London this month. Photo: Sam Hussein/Tas/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Taylor Swift is for grown-ups, too

Her songs offer the sense of a technicolour future stripped of all but the most worthwhile woes. It's time she stopped the silly pep talks in between and just got on with being a pop star.

Every morning before work, an adult female friend of mine watches clips of young girls giving mascara tutorials on YouTube. Serious-faced, in calm voices, they etch their eyes like it’s the most important thing in the world. My friend says she finds it inspiring. It’s an extreme example but teenage entertainment has a place in the life of an intelligent, fully functioning grown-up that isn’t fully acknowledged. Teenage stuff represents both comfort and the glittering void of an unknown future – which we all like to be reminded of from time to time.

“Mean” is one of Taylor Swift’s best songs: a two-finger salute to bullies at school, delivered from the perspective of enormous adult success. There are thousands of thirty­somethings at the O2 Arena on 1 February with their fists in the air; people I know who bought tickets were keen to explain there was “nothing ironic about it at all”. The last time I saw Swift in London, when she was 19, her set contained an innovative name-and-shame section in which ex-boyfriends, played by actors, were shown on-screen and humiliated for being mean to her in the past.

Now that she’s 24 and has played the Grand Ole Opry, things are more age-appropriate. She wears ball gowns and tightly buttoned shirts, projecting Katharine Hepburn-style sophistication, while the ever-shortening shorts acknowledge the delayed dawning of the adult, sexy Taylor. The voice, which would sometimes “run out” during a show, is more powerful. Yet halfway through one of the slickest sets at the O2 in a long time, Swift steps forward and turns, briefly, into a moron: “I started writing songs because I wasn’t invited to parties or sleepovers and I wasn’t noticed by a guy I liked,” she says, almost six foot tall, falteringly picking her banjo. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you if they don’t want to and all you need to worry about is how you get through it, whether it’s [by] writing in your journal, or grabbing a banjo like me . . .”

I search her face for signs of distress at having to talk like this. I think of Juliette Barnes, the country pop starlet in the American TV series Nashville (played expertly by Hayden Panettiere) – eyes flashing, lower jaw extended in anger, spitting at her manager: “When are you going to let me lose this glitter-pop crap? I am 24 years old.”

Swift spends the first 20 minutes of the O2 show – before singing anything at all – processing up and down the stalls, hugging the young audience. It’s a bold new step in artist-fan relations but it’s really boring for the 14,854 people craning their necks to see what’s going on. New models of music distribution and revenue have forced pop stars into these kinds of gushing interactions and they’re intensifying all the time: soon, the top ten super-fans in each city will sit onstage, taking turns to join the pop star in a duet. Lose the kids and lose your audience, they say – but you wonder when someone’s going to put their foot down and get on with the show. That someone ought to be Taylor Swift, because a lot of the things that children love about her are precisely what adults are coming out for, too.

I’ve got an internet radio at home. It has thousands of stations from every country in the world, sorted by category – jazz, politics, drama, Christian. There are 100 country music stations from the US on it; for many months, I have not shifted from one called My 90s Country, broadcast from Ohio, which “exists so you can relive the greatest decade in country music history”.

The 1990s were not the greatest decade in country music history but those years did give rise to many of the genre’s more lion-hearted, playfully self-reflexive songs. On a winter’s evening, I will prepare my spaghetti hoops to an evocative playlist that includes Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”, Rhett Akins’s “That Ain’t My Truck” (. . . parked in her driveway, so whose is it?) and Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”, in which an impoverished mother pushes her daughter into a life of high-class sex work. The colourful portraits of small-town life, pride, happiness, drama and jealousy simply get more enticing the further I forge ahead into adult life.

It was these romances that drew Taylor Swift to country music when she was a child living in Pennsylvania with her financial adviser dad and ex-banker mum. She started off listening to Shania Twain (“Man! I Feel Like a Woman”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Wide Open Spaces”), performed in talent shows and, by the age of 12, was writing her own songs. When she was 14, she persuaded her family to move to Nashville, where she won a songwriting contract for a deal with a small label called Big Machine (her father soon became a 3 per cent stakeholder).

In her first hits, she cleverly marked out her territory by namechecking the country music stars she would one day work with (Tim McGraw, for instance, was the subject of her song “Tim McGraw”). In her 2008 single “Love Story”, she created potent vignettes of teenage longing appropriate for a fan base a decade younger than her. The life those songs evoke (the boy next door scrambling up the drainpipe, proposing on the front porch) could not be further from her own teenage years, friendless and gawky, driven by unwavering ambition – but neither does it bear much resemblance to the life of an ordinary 14-year-old. The Swift canon traces the emotional arc of girls at an accelerated rate, with, you suspect, many experiences substituted by vivid imaginings. At 24, she is maddeningly naive and self-obsessed but brilliant – like a mainstream, country, iron-clad Lena Dunham.

The Red Tour has been travelling the earth for a year and ends at the O2, stretching five nights over 11 calendar days; she has established a kind of residency in London. She appears as a frozen silhouette for the opening song, “State of Grace” – she has never danced much, being tall and lanky, but her sense of poise is electric, like a marionette held up by the energy of the crowd.

Unfortunately, she has not lost her “Who, me?” face yet (this is the expression that inspired the meme “Taylor Swift looking surprised”, featuring footage from various award ceremonies). She uses the expression to ramp up hysteria in the crowd. That it has not been adjusted despite being the butt of so many jokes is admirable, suggesting the presence of an overbearing personality, stubborn and possibly slightly mad. There are other tasteless moments: a rock violinist; a ringleader outfit; a giant bunny for the 2012 pop anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”. Swift is still growing and it’s interesting to watch.

“Some people are romantics, which means they have a different soundtrack playing in their heads,” she says tonight. The disconnect between her life and art has been noted because she has apparently never had a relationship that lasted longer than four and a half months: this seems a strange criticism to level at someone who is 24, which these days – whether you believe Swift, or Nashville, or Girls – is the age at which nothing works out. Likewise, the charge that she uses these doomed trysts simply to generate song material is not something that was ever levelled at, say, Joni Mitchell in her day (Swift is playing her in a forthcoming film). The only thing that gets my goat is how she pushes the idea that there’s a certain glory in misery: love, hate, infatuation and jealousy are “fun” things to write about, she says, beaming: “Love is TREACHEROUS!”

Swift’s songs offer the sense of a technicolour future stripped of all but the most worthwhile woes. She performs the story of a lovelorn best friend in “You Belong With Me” (“She wears high heels, I wear sneakers”) in a sparkling Jessica Rabbit dress and long gloves. The difference between what you hear and what you see is where the escapism lies. You suspect the little girls in the front, with their slash of vermilion lipstick and cowboy boots, understand that – so she should stop giving the silly talks (“Bravery happens to different people in different ways,” she says in her new Keds shoes ad) and just get on with being a pop star.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge