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

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism