Taking the long view on popular music

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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.

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

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.