The Curmudgeon: How Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Japanese Breakfast Turn Sorrow into Song

Music Features Taylor Swift
The Curmudgeon: How Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Japanese Breakfast Turn Sorrow into Song

It’s hard to believe but Taylor Swift has been releasing records for 15 years, long enough to no longer be a new artist—or even a young one—long enough to have been a role model for a whole generation of younger listeners, some of who are now making records of their own.

There’s no better example of this than 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, the former Disney kid who has ruled 2021’s Billboard charts in Swiftian fashion. More importantly, she has also created songs that are Swift-like in the magnetic pull of their melodies and the raw power of their adolescent emotions. The youngster proves that Swift has a musical style as distinctive as Joni Mitchell’s or Beyonce’s—and potentially as influential.

“Obviously I think she’s the best songwriter of all time,” Rodrigo famously said about Swift in Nylon magazine, “but she’s so business-savvy and she really cares about her career in that regard too—that’s been really inspiring for me.”

Let’s leave aside the business aspect of Swift’s example and focus on the artistic side. The 31-year-old music veteran has legitimized adolescent female heartbreak, anger and ambition as legitimate territory for serious songwriting. For the person who’s experiencing it, getting dumped at 15 by a lying boyfriend can feel as momentous as war, climate change, unemployment, alcoholism, divorce or the other “serious” topics tackled by older, male songwriters.

And because it’s so earth-shattering for the dumpee, the subject is worth better treatment than the usual pop cliches; it’s worth the best that pop songwriting craft can offer. For Swift, that has meant creating a scene that the listener can easily visualize; telling a story with a beginning, middle and end; infusing everything with melodies that provide the emotional coloring; and creating a musical architecture that carries the listener along.

Rodrigo checks all these boxes on “drivers license,” which debuted in January at #1 on the Billboard singles chart and stayed there for eight weeks. In the first verse, it’s a week after the narrator has finally obtained her driver’s license, and she’s behind the wheel of the family car headed towards her boyfriend’s house, just as she had always imagined her maiden solo drive. But in the second verse, her boyfriend’s not there, because he has left the narrator for an older, prettier blonde. And we find the narrator weeping over the steering wheel as she drives “through the suburbs,” past the leafy trees and manicured lawns, now empty of the love she once had. Many of us have been in that driver’s seat in that scenario.

The music reinforces this story at every turn. The track opens with an unfastened seatbelt beeping, which melts into a piano figure, which sets up the melancholy vocal. When the drums enter, the rising-and-falling melody echoes the alternating romantic memories and present despair. And just when the music seems ready for a power-ballad climax, the bottom drops out, and the lead vocal is left as lonely as narrator. It’s a remarkably restrained performance, foregoing all wailing and melisma, always pulling back from the edge of melodramatic hysteria to return to the reality of a betrayal that’s never going to change.

This has Swift’s fingerprints all over it: the anti-diva restraint, the efficient storytelling, the mixed feelings of hurt and anger, the chorus hook that just won’t let go. But Rodrigo has some things of her own to add. Her vocal instrument is much stronger than Swift’s modest soprano and Rodrigo can lean into key phrases in a way her mentor can’t. Moreover, Rodrigo and her producer/co-writer Daniel Nigro are comfortable with rude rock ‘n’ roll noise and with vernacular profanity in way that Swift never was until last year’s Folklore album.

Rodrigo’s album is called Sour, a good description of the prevailing mood. Nine of the 11 songs depict a narrator whose boyfriend has recently left her and has already hooked up with another girlfriend. The female protagonist is trying hard to get past the pain, the anger, the jealousy, the self-blame, only to get sucked back into the morass again and again. And it’s that tug-of-war between the chaotic power of the feelings and the desire to get control of them that provides the dramatic conflict.

This dynamic is crystalized in one song title, “1 step forward, 3 steps back.” “It’s back and forth, did I do something wrong?” she asks. “It’s back and forth, maybe, this is all your fault instead.” It seems as if she’s talking to her ex, but as the song continues, it becomes clear the dialogue is all in her head, and she’s really talking to herself. Once again, when the number approaches a climax, it gets quieter instead of louder, a gamble that works because Rodrigo’s voice is strong enough to command our attention as she withdraws into a whisper over the piano.

The song’s central piano part is lifted directly from the song “New Year’s Day” from Swift’s 2017 album Reputation. Rodrigo gave Swift (and her co-writer Jack Antonoff) songwriting credit, making the chain of influence unmistakable.

Much of the album is devoted to painful confessions like these—“brutal” is an especially effective example—but there are also a few songs that turn the tables on the ex and attack him for his betrayals. “déjà vu” accuses him of recycling their old experiences with his new girlfriend, from listening to ancient singers like Billy Joel to watching reruns of Glee. “good 4 u,” Rodrigo’s second #1 single, is her snarkiest song yet, offering her ex mock congratulations for moving on from their affair so easily.

Rodrigo has weaknesses in her game. She’s sloppy when it comes to rhymes, an unforgivable sin in this rhyme-obsessed hip-hop era. In “brutal,” for example, she tries to get away with rhyming “might” and “life,” “self” and “help,” “like” and “write.” And she seems trapped in a narrow range of subject matter—a recurring problem for Swift, as well—as if she’s too busy examining herself to notice the rest of the world.

But, come on, she’s only 18. She’s got plenty of time to grow as a songwriter. And there are clues on this first album that she has the good instincts to do so. On “traitor,” she comes up with such strong rhymes as “avoid” and “paranoid,” or “date her” and “traitor.” And the album’s final song, “hope ur ok,” looks outward to voice some empathy for a grade-school friend who had to wear long sleeves because of his abusive, fundamentalist dad, and for a middle-school friend who had to raise her younger siblings because her parents couldn’t be bothered. Compared to these fates, getting dumped by a jerk doesn’t seem so bad.

Swift and her various producers—most notably Max Martin, Antonoff and Aaron Dessner—have fashioned a new kind of pop music where melody and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion dominate—and anything that can reinforce those qualities is fair game. That means that every other musical style—whether it be indie rock, country music, hip-hop, soul, classic rock, folk, classical, EDM—can be borrowed and stuck in the background.

And not for an entire song, necessarily; soothing strings may cushion the vocal for a few measures, only to be abruptly replaced by harsh guitars, which are replaced in turn by programmed beats. There’s no illusion that a band is backing her for the whole number. It’s more that she’s emoting over her latest romance—and she’s sampling different songs on her Spotify playlist to support each twist and turn in the story.

Rodrigo and her producer Nigro pursue this same approach of pop music with modular inserts. Pushing this approach even further than Swift or Rodrigo have is Michelle Zauner, who performs and records as Japanese Breakfast, and her co-producers Ryan Galloway and Jack Tatum. Their new album, Jubilee, is a dizzying montage of chamber music, R&B horns, rock ‘n’ roll guitars, electro-dance beats and dreamy synths. The way Zauner edits all this together into a pop-music whole to tell autobiographical stories of heartache and redemption is very much Taylor Swift territory.

Zauner is nine months older than Swift, but the first Japanese Breakfast album wasn’t released until 2016, by which time Swift had released five albums over nine years. Zauner doesn’t acknowledge a debt to Swift the way Rodrigo does, but it’s clear that Japanese Breakfast is working the same turf. Because she’s older and more experienced than Rodrigo, Zauner’s take on Swiftian pop music is more literate, more compositional and more cautious in its revelations.

Zauner, who published a best-selling memoir, Crying in H Mart, earlier this year, knows how to use language to both entice and puzzle. When she tackles the subject of teenage heartbreak, she employs more metaphoric language than her two colleagues. On “Kokomo, IN,” for example, she sings, “Manifesting like the fear of an oven left on / God, I felt so much back then / I was soft as a dune.” Who hasn’t lain in bed after a break-up, feeling like a pile of sand, shifting this way and that? A slippery viola and a slo-mo guitar break reinforce this swooning sense of desertification.

Like Rodrigo, Zauner wants to get over her heartache, but finds that hard to do. On “Slide Tackle,” she sings, “I want to be good / I want to navigate this hate in my heart / Somewhere better / I want to feel it / but with the feel there is an ache I meet.” The chintzy drum machine reflects the nervous anxiety of the lyrics, but the synth reverie and relaxed sax solo seem to hold out the soothing calm she’s looking for.

On the album’s first single, “Be Sweet,” she calls out to an ex-lover to come back and treat her better this time, to “pacify her rage.” The vocal floats serenely over the jittery rhythm bed, which ricochets like a pinball machine. Zauner sings as if she, not the ex, is calling the shots, displaying a feminist confidence that Rodrigo, even Swift, have rarely mustered.

The new album is called Jubilee because it marks a sharp contrast to the first two Japanese Breakfast albums, 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Those earlier songs were often muted and downbeat as they dealt with the run-up to and fallout from her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2014. But on this new record, she’s feeling “at the center of magic” and “at the height of [her] powers,” as she sings on the opening track, “Paprika.” And what’s it like to share that confidence and joy with an audience? “Oh, it’s a rush,” she exclaims in a Swiftian chorus hook as horns and strings go whooshing behind her.

The new records by Rodrigo and Japanese Breakfast remind us that heartbreak knows no stylistic boundaries—and that Swift’s tools for mining that trauma can be used by anyone with good ears and an imagination.

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