On the song “London Boy” from her new album, Lover, Taylor Swift reassures her listeners that even though she’s dating the British actor Joe Alwyn, she still loves America. To prove her point, she lists some favorite things about her homeland: Tennessee whiskey and faded jeans, “And you know I love Springsteen,” she sings.
While the pop anthems of Swift’s past three albums inhabit a different sonic world than Bruce Springsteen’s rootsy rock ’n’ roll, there are undeniable parallels between them. Both are obviously very smart—as you can tell from both their well-crafted lyrics and self-analyzing interviews—even though neither finished a semester of college.
And both made their reputations by creating a teenage fantasy so vivid that millions wanted to live inside it. For Springsteen, it was the working-class, male-adolescent fantasy of hanging out with friends on streets where loud cars and louder bands might spark an adventure at any moment. For Swift, it was the middle-class, adolescent dream of hanging out with friends in pastel bedrooms where discussions of big crushes and bigger heartbreaks might spark a bond.
This was reflected not only in the lyrics but also in the music, which reinforced each self-contained domain. For Springsteen, it was the pop music of the previous generation: Bob Dylan and the Four Tops, Van Morrison and the Animals. For Swift, it was the music of her own time, at first the pop-country of Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, and later, the pop-R&B of Britney Spears and Beyoncé. In each case, the singer acted as if his or her sphere was the whole world.
Both Swift and Springsteen practiced their fantasy writing with rare skill. But the tensions within their projects wouldn’t go away no matter how deftly they were handled. If you continue to focus on teenage dreams for too long into adulthood, your writing becomes less and less convincing. No matter how determined you are to remain in a bubble of adolescent wish fulfillment, adult reality keeps knocking on the air pocket’s membrane—and sometimes it knocks with switchblades.
Springsteen was lucky. Music journalist Jon Landau befriended the singer in 1974, recognized the songwriter’s native intelligence and fed Springsteen’s intellectual hunger with books, movies and politics. That diet was the college education that the musician had missed out on; that crucial broadening of his horizons burst the bubble of his first two albums and allowed grown-up experience to permeate the transitional album Born To Run.
Those changes made possible his quartet of masterpieces: Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. Suddenly there was a new awareness that music and history existed before Elvis Presley, that forms of writing and music-making existed beyond the AM radio playlists of his childhood, that people keep living after the age of 25 and collide with bad jobs, troubled marriages and unfulfilled dreams. All of that greatly enriched his already skillful songwriting.
Swift hasn’t been that lucky so far. She’s made seven full-length studio albums and her music still hasn’t made that leap from youth to maturity. She has written some of the best depictions of adolescent and post-adolescent romance in popular-music history. But she seems reluctant to explore other angles of the human experience, beyond the small backyard of contemporary pop, beyond the gated sanctuaries reserved for celebrities.
By boxing herself in that way, she is depriving her tremendous talent of the oxygen it needs to expand and flourish. After all, a restless curiosity about different subject matter, new methods and old sources is crucial to the health of an artistic gift. Without such exploration, that capacity can wither.
You could hear that withering on her 2017’s Reputation, easily the weakest album of her career. Her obsession with celebrity, her clinging to adolescent mating rituals well past the expiration date had so narrowed her artistic vision that the wit of her lyrics, the suppleness of her vocals and the catchiness of her melodies all seemed to evaporate. She became just one more cog in her producers’ musical machine.
This was a tragedy—not so much for Swift, who continued to have hits that swelled her bank account—as for pop-music lovers who need the best talents in each generation to continually evolve. There was a danger that she might go the way of Rod Stewart or Whitney Houston, artists whose early promise was suffocated by the gilded cage of celebrity and intellectual starvation.
There are encouraging signs on Lover. The new album begins with one of the great kiss-off songs of all time, “I Forgot That You Existed.” It’s great not because it might be about Kanye West or David Mueller, the bête noirs in Swift’s life. It’s great because it might be about the exes in our own lives. It reminds us that if you’re angry at someone, that person still has a hold on you. It’s only when you’re indifferent to that someone that you’re finally over them.
This point can’t be stressed enough: Pop music is at its best not when it provides insights about the artist but when it provides insights about the listener. Only when Swift grasps that concept will she be able to fully realize her potential. If she began to further explore the many lives around her and not just her own, her knack for melody and lyric could mean so much more.
When you stop staring in the mirror and start looking out the window at the wider world, one thing you inevitably notice is the power relationships between individuals and between groups of people. Someone usually has an edge, and often it’s an unfair advantage. That’s politics at its most essential. Elections and demonstrations are merely two of the many expressions of the fundamental question: Who gets to decide and who benefits?
Swift dips her toe into these questions on the new album. On “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” she views American society as if it were a high school where the male bullies slap high fives, the games are meaningless, and the rebel girl is shamed in the hallway. The chorus harmonies are even sung as if they were cheerleader chants. One might wish that Swift didn’t always default to adolescence, but it’s a clever analogy.
In the same vein is “You Need To Calm Down,” which dresses down a social media troll who’s making demeaning remarks about queer people and young women. Maybe that person is Donald Trump, but it could just as easily be the obnoxious guy at your job. In either case, it’s a good example of Swift’s dexterity with rhyme and meter: “Say it in the street, that’s a knockout, but say it in a tweet, that’s a cop-out.”
In “I’m the Man,” she muses about how differently she’d be viewed if she were male—her career, she thinks, would have been so much easier. It’s a clever dissection of gender roles, but it’s undercut by her reflexive celebrity name-dropping and by her instinctive self-references. She’s the biggest pop-music star on the planet; surely her point about sexism would be more pointed if she pegged the story to someone other than herself.
Most of the album is taken up with valentines to her boyfriend, and she wrestles with the challenge of writing a positive love song. Songs, like plays, depend on dramatic conflict, and songs that are entirely positive are boring. So she introduces an obstacle or at least a doubt in each song. On the album’s title track, for example, she wonders, given her track record, how long her latest love might last.
On the steamy “I Think He Knows,” she describes that uncertain moment between deciding to sleep with someone and actually doing it. On the album-ending “Daylight,” she describes the dark night of her recent life in the verses and then hails the dawn of a new relationship in the chorus. The minimal arrangement and minor chords unfold into full harmonies and major chords with the rising sun.
Most of the record was co-written and co-produced with Jack Antonoff, who worked with her on the most palatable tracks from the previous album: “Getaway Car,” “Dress” and “New Year’s Day.” Antonoff restores the buoyancy and transparency to Swift’s dance-pop after Max Martin’s heavy murkiness on Reputation. Even more encouraging are her cautious moves away from contemporary pop into the new-wave rockabilly of “Paper Rings,” the piano-anchored girl-group sound of the title track and sax-colored R&B slow jam of “False God.”
Most encouraging of all is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” her collaboration with the Dixie Chicks. Inspired by Swift’s mother’s recent struggle with cancer, the song could apply to any adult child of an ailing parent. It begins with some expert scene setting: “The buttons of my coat were tangled in my hair in doctor’s office lighting,” an office full of “holy orange bottles.” Soon the song’s narrator is praying for her parent’s recovery.
Then comes the most surprising, bravest lines of Swift’s entire career: “I know delusion when I see it in the mirror…. This won’t go back to normal.” That acknowledgement that good intentions don’t guarantee a happy ending is a welcome sign of maturity, as is the recognition that someone else’s problems might be more important than her own. And the music reflects that clarity in its understated vocals and in its crucial use of fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar to root the music and the story in a history older than the singer.
Swift got her start signed to a country-music label in Nashville, but even then she didn’t betray much connection to country music’s past. She emphasized the pop in pop-country, and eventually it was easy for her to dispense with the country altogether. But now that she’s at a crossroads. Thematically, she’ll have to decide whether to dwell further on youth, or, ultimately mature.
There’s something about belonging to a cultural tradition older and larger than oneself that paradoxically provides the strength to try new things, to tackle a broader range of experience. There are a lot of musical pasts Swift could choose from, but country is where she started, and country is where she sounds surprisingly at home on “Soon You’ll Get Better.”
Springsteen busted out of his boxed-in worldview in his 20s, so why not Swift?