I defy anyone who disparages my adoration for Taylor Swift to spend just one evening in my shoes. One evening listening surreptitiously to my daughter as she spins in her desk chair and warbles along with “Sparks Fly” or “Mean” as they play on YouTube. (“Stop listening!” she’ll yell down the stairs when she notices I’ve muted the television.) One dinnertime spent nodding along as Catie rambles excitedly about some unreleased track she’s discovered somewhere on the internet, or the moral conundrum of whether or not to watch homemade videos for songs that have obviously been leaked, because, you know, the album doesn’t come out til next week!
The best of these evenings came one Sunday last August, when Catie’s mom and I took her to see Taylor at Staples Center and Catie got Up Close and Personal with her heroine. The full range of emotions were in effect: Anguish (and a flash of anger from mom) when security at the main entrance tried to confiscate her twinkly lit, guitar-shaped sign because it didn’t conform to the tour’s pre-ordained dimensions. (Gwen hatched a plot to sneak it in, promising the guard she’d hand it over at an indoor kiosk and then disappearing into the crowd.) Annoyance at the half hour wasted by some dance crew (“why are opening acts necessary?”). A quickening of the pulse when Taylor descended from the stage and walked up the far aisle toward a bandstand at the back of the hall (“do you think she’ll come back this way?”). And then the payoff, when Taylor strode back up the aisle directly in front of our row, grabbed Catie’s outstretched hand and held it for about three seconds. When she let go, Catie’s screams of joy dissolved into tears as she was overwhelmed by the moment, struggling to recover her equilibrium. She sat in our laps for nearly 10 minutes, shivering, while Taylor reset on the main stage and plowed through “You Belong with Me.” For a year afterward, her “Speak Now” wristband never left the arm that touched her beloved Tay-Tay. Is it any wonder I tear up whenever the phrase “She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” comes on the radio?
Monday was probably the music industry’s most highly anticipated day of 2012 – the day Taylor’s new album Red hit the iTunes store (in a “specially mastered” version) and Target (in an “exclusive expanded edition”). The album is expected to enjoy the biggest first-week sales of the year, and to sell like hotcakes straight through Christmas – just like the old days, when a single platter of music could make or break the industry’s bottom line. To celebrate the occasion – and to placate Catie, who had spent weeks marking time to this day, and who was eager to follow up her previous Popdose star turns loving (and then hating) Miley Cyrus – I sat her down for a Listening Sesh Monday evening. (The “Hangout Sesh” has replaced the “playdate” in the lexicon of the too-cool-for-school 10-year-old.) We hashed through her feelings about the new album and its creators, as well as her music-listening habits, which still leave me bewildered much of the time.
DAD: So, we’re going to sit here and listen to Red straight through. When was the last time you listened to an entire album?
CATIE: You mean, like, back to back? The whole thing? (rolls her eyes) I dunno, maybe a year ago.
You usually don’t even listen to songs in iTunes – you call up a YouTube video instead. Why is that?
Lots of times I want to see the lyrics while I’m listening, so I watch a lyric video. I learn the song faster that way.
You do understand that the sound quality of your basic YouTube upload is nowhere near as good as listening in iTunes, right?
Yeah. It’s stupid, but it’s helpful.
Fair enough. So, how big a Taylor fan are you these days? I hope the new album doesn’t catch you on a downswing in enthusiasm.
How big? About from here to Pluto – no, from here to Planet X, the newest planet, but we don’t know for sure if it’s a planet or not, the scientists haven’t decided yet. I heard about it in science today. (Dad’s note: Should I mention that the concept of Planet X has been refuted? Nah…)
Do you love her as much as you did last year around this time, before the concert?
More, now – because she touched me. It made me cry.
I remember. Do you know why you got so emotional about it?
Nah … ‘cause I’m stupid. But she’s just so important to me, and now I’ve experienced her in quote-unquote “real life.”
OK. So, you’ve listened to the album once already, but now you’re going to play it for me. What do you think of it so far?
It’s really good. She’s definitely moving her music in a more poppy direction, and that’s good because she’ll grow her audience that way.
What do you mean by “poppy”?
You know – they’ve got a good beat, they’re snappy, they’re upbeat. And she’s definitely showing off more vocal skill now. She took a lot of risks to make her voice louder, and to reach notes she couldn’t before.
How do the songs compare to her older stuff? When Speak Now came out, everyone was talking about which boyfriend each song was about. Is there anything that obvious on the new album?
Well, a lot of the songs are about relationship ups and downs, but I don’t think they’re about anybody in particular. None of them have names in them, at least. Who’s that Kennedy dude she’s dating? (Conor, Bobby & Ethel’s 18-year-old grandson – though she was rumored to be seen recently making out with Conor’s cousin, Patrick Schwarzenegger!) Who are the Kennedys? Why is it such a big deal? She’s so much stronger when she’s single.
Judging from her history, I’m not sure she’d agree with you. Besides, where would she get her material? Anyway, I’ve heard that a number of songs might be about Jake Gyllenhaal.
Who cares? A lot of her songs have good messages and meanings this time. I think a lot of the songs aren’t even about her – you know, she co-wrote a bunch of the songs with different writers who have worked with friends of hers.
(That’s certainly true. Among Taylor’s accomplices on Red are uber-producers Max Martin and Shellback, Adele collaborator Dan Wilson, Beyonce/Kanye buddy Jeff Bhasker, UK darling Ed Sheeran, and Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody.)
So, here we go. What will we be hearing first?
“Red,” of course! It’s the name of the album!
But it’s not the first song on the album.
(rolls her eyes) The sequence doesn’t matter unless the album is telling a story. I don’t worry about that.
All right, then, fire it up!
I’ve heard this before. It’s cute, but I don’t know if I get the “loving him was red” bit.
It’s all metaphoric! Wait, is it similes? I think there are some of both, because there are some “likes” and “as thoughs” and stuff, right?
Right. By the way, do you even know what a Mazerati is? (“Loving him is like driving a new Mazerati down a dead-end street.”)
I guess it’s a brand of car, right? I put a comment up on YouTube about that earlier, asking, “What the heck is a Marseraty?”
Now you know. OK, so let’s go back to the actual first song, “State of Grace.”
Wow, this is different for Taylor. Very alt-rock. Atmospheric. Do you hear that guitar? It sounds kind of like U2. And her vocals are like the singer from the Cranberries, or maybe like Voice of the Beehive.
Voice of the Beehive? Oh my god, stop saying names of bands I don’t know.
So, as an old-time Taylor fan, what do you think of this song?
I like it ‘cause it has lots of drums, which you don’t usually notice so much in her songs. And she’s really extended her vocal range for this.
The next track after “Red,” “Treacherous,” sounds like one of the Dixie Chicks’ quieter moments. But then “I Knew You Were Trouble” doesn’t have a trace of country in it – it’s a state-of-the-art pop song, full of light dubstep and distorted vocals. What’s up with that?
What do you mean by “distorted”? Are you saying it’s not her singing?
You don’t think a lot of this might be auto-tuned?
(glares at me) No way! I know a lot of people have to do it, but knowing Taylor, I don’t think she would do it on a song like this.
Whatever you say. It’s a pretty hot song, though. It’s kind of a companion to “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” isn’t it? They’re both about breakups with guys who didn’t turn out to be all that, and neither of them sounds like anything Taylor’s done before. And both of them are, if anything, less mature lyrically than your basic single off Speak Now.
Yeah, well, why does she have to act all mature when she’s making kids’ music?
Is Taylor “kids’ music,” the same way that Victoria Justice or Hannah Montana is?
Don’t say her (Hannah Montana’s) name! And no, Taylor’s not like them. But she’s still writing for people like me.
She’s 22 years old. She even has a song here called “22” – a song that sounds completely like Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight, Tonight,” which she sang with them at the concert we went to. And she talks about “dancing like we’re 22.” She IS 22! Shouldn’t she be writing stuff that’s a bit more grown-up?
Sorry to be rude, but most grown-ups are married, unless they get divorced or their spouse dies or something. Why would she want to write for people like that?
I like it. It has an easiness to it.
I don’t know what that means.
I posted a comment about this song on YouTube. There’s a line where she sings “I threw my phone across the room,” so I wrote, “Uh-oh! Looks like Tay-Tay needs a new cellphone!”
She can afford it.
Yeah, she probably made a million dollars today.
OK, let’s wind this down. Some of these last tracks are pretty dull – the duets with Ed Sheeran and the Snow Patrol guy don’t do much for me. But “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is pretty cool. It’s quiet, and kinda haunting, and there’s some nice Spanish-style guitar in there…
Is that what that is? What about “Lucky One”? I really like it – it’s about a famous person and how hard it is to be famous and have everyone watching you all the time.
Actually, that’s the one song that a lot of people whose opinions I’ve read don’t like very much. It’s like she’s whining about her success.
I don’t think it’s about her. I think it’s about somebody else.
How often does Taylor write about somebody else? Isn’t she famous for writing about herself?
I suppose. But still.
What about this last song, “Begin Again”? It’s really nice, but it could easily have gone on Fearless or Speak Now. After all the dubstep and the Avril Lavigne pop and the rock stuff on this album, it sounds like a throwback.
Well, that’s good! It’s telling people that she is the same person she’s always been, and that she doesn’t want to throw away her old audience to get a new one.
You think she’s really thinking that way?
Of course! She’s saying, go back to my old music and see how much I’ve changed, but I’m not giving up the music you got to know me with. She’s also telling her new pop fans to check out her old stuff.
So, basically, she’s trying to sell a bunch of other albums with this song.
Yeah, why not? Everybody should have all her albums, to see how she’s grown as an artist.
Where do you think she’ll go from here? How do you think this album will change her career?
She’s getting new fans by making pop songs. I think it will give her more confidence to have more fans.
She didn’t have enough already?
Well, she had a lot – that theater was pretty packed.
So what do you think her future music will sound like? Do you think she’ll keep making poppy records like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” or do you think she’ll eventually move back toward country?
I think she’ll have a balance. She’s trying to extend her fanbase while staying true to herself. That’s probably not easy. But she’s a country girl. That’s the music she grew up on, and she won’t forget about that.
Wow. I hope you’re right. Now, go to bed before your mom gets ticked off at us.
Wait – there was something else I wanted to say. Let me listen to –