Taylor Swift arriving at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscars Party. Photo: Getty
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Taylor Swift’s success makes me hopeful for the future of humanity

Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: we could all do well to spend a bit of time in Taylor’s world.

There was a moment this year when I decided, actually, the next generation of girls has every chance of doing all right. The moment was the climax of a Taylor Swift concert at the O2 Arena, with Swifty as the ringmaster of a fantastical circus, dressed in red sequinned coat tails and top hat, singing “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – and the audience sang it back. All around me, teens and tweens lifted up their handmade LED signs and flashing torches of allegiance to their heroine, and they raised their voices too and chanted along: “We-ee are, NEVER, EVER, EVER getting back together!” And I thought: you lot aren’t going to take any nonsense from boys, are you? As they spilled out into the night outside the dome, with lyrics painted on their faces, every girl there had been anointed with knowledge most women take several heartbreaks to acquire: guys just aren’t worth the anguish, but you should matter to you.

Swift is probably about to be the biggest thing in the world, and that’s one of the rare events that makes me feel hopeful for our species. Unequivocally, I love her. “Shake It Off”, the lead single from her new album 1989, has debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (the album is named for the year she was born: implausibly, she’s still only 24, and has been in the business for a decade). Though Swift is surely used to smash hits and sell-out tours, this is likely to be an even more gargantuan form of success as she crosses over definitively from country-pop to POP-pop. “Shake It Off” itself is an endlessly relistenable manifesto of screw-you, as Swift enumerates some of the duller criticisms aimed at her (“Got nothing in my brain”/“Go on too many dates”) before dispatching them magnificently in the chorus: “Just shake it off, shake it off.”  

The video is possibly even more joyous, with Swift scampering to keep up with ever-changing troupes of dancers, and goofily failing, before the screen fills with fan kids freaking out delightfully to the song. It’s the perfect synthesis of the Taylor triple-threat: close to her audience (Swift was one of the first stars to build a fanbase on Myspace, and she still leaves unbearably sweet comments on her fans’ Instagram pictures), not too serious about her public image, and super respectful of hard work and talent. (There’s been justified criticism of the twerking section for insensitivity to the racial politics of white stars using black women’s sexualised bodies as props, but there’s also no doubt that the twerkers – like the ballerinas, the gymnast, the cheer team and the rest of the dancers – have been recruited for being absolutely amazing at what they do.)

Actually, it’s part three of the Taylor equation that is rapidly becoming my favourite thing about Swift: she’s manifestly unfaffed about looking aloof or sexy, but she knows she’s an A-grade songwriter, and she expects her due for it. “They can say whatever they want about my personal life because I know what my personal life is, and it involves a lot of TV and cats and girlfriends,” she said in a recent Guardian interview. “But I don’t like it when they start to make cheap shots at my songwriting. Because there’s no joke to be made there.”

Her last album, Red, has an almost inexhaustible supply of lyrical brilliance – the intoxicating invocation of falling recklessly in love on “Treacherous”, the gleeful celebration of being young and having fun in “22”, the chilly and sly “Last Time” that twists from desperate relationship-saving promise to irrevocable dumping in the last chorus. But I secretly believe that the most heartfelt line of all is one of the sick burns she delivers to the ex in “Never Ever”. “Go and listen to some indie record that’s much, much cooler than mine,” scoffs Swift. She doesn’t care what the try-hard boys think. She knows she’s good.

She knows she deserves to get paid, too. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry (Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the WSJ! She is truly a renaissance woman), Swift sounded an unusual note of optimism about the financial viability of the recording industry: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Whether audiences will universally fall into line after a generation raised in Napster libertarianism is unclear, but what matters is that Swift clearly isn’t going to tolerate a set of rules that don’t value her correctly. It’s a principle that she expands on, too: “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet… is that they all realise their worth and ask for it.”

Until recently, Swift distanced herself clunkily from feminism. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life,” she told the Daily Beast in 2012, and the world echoed to the sound of Swift-loving feminists shouting “Noooooo! You have made a fundamental error about the nature of both society and feminism there, Taylor!” But last week, she revised this in the Guardian interview: “I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities … I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.” Poet laureate of women’s inner lives, resolute booster of the girls who love her, healthily selfish, and heartily unconcerned with what the haters think about her: Taylor’s world is one we should all spend more time living in.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis