Speak Now by Taylor Swift
The title of Taylor Swift’s third record, Speak Now, is indicative of the singer’s disinclination to forever hold her peace. The result is a mixture of apologies, confrontations and self-reflections that constitute a bold leap for such a young star. The risk, of course, lies in the titular assumption that at the ripe old age of 20 (she’ll be 21 this December), the girl actually has something to say.
Turns out, she does.
At face value, Speak Now is merely a pop record. Every song sounds exactly like some other chanteuse’s pop hit from the last two decades. Musically, Swift is interchangeable with Jewel, Shania Twain, or Kelly Clarkson (for a brief moment, the transition to the chorus on the second track, “Sparks Fly,” sounds like Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance”). But Swift is not content to be background music, opting instead for brutal honesty and at times borderline spite to distinguish herself from her peers. At times youthful, at times poetically complex, Speak Now, like Swift herself, straddles the line between naiveté and maturity.
The record opens with “Mine,” an upbeat song that follows a couple who triumph in love despite growing up around parents who didn’t. When Swift sings, “I was… wondering why we bother with love if it never lasts,” I have to wonder—How does a 20-year-old end up skeptical about the permanence of relationships? Isn’t the principle joy of youth the conviction that no one has ever experienced anything like this before? However, like every teenager’s sense of self, the song resolves just like a romantic movie: a late night argument causes Girl to flee into the street. Guy chases after, promising never to leave Girl alone, because she’s the best thing that ever happened to him. For good measure, Swift throws in some city lights glimmering on water, and the first song ends as one feels it should: the musical version of a Hugh Grant movie.
On the confrontational songs, whether contrite or vengeful, Swift isn’t exactly worried about masking identities. “Back to December” is an apology letter to a former boyfriend, whom references indicate is Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner. Camilla Belle (presumably) gets singled out in the devilishly wicked tune “Better Than Revenge,” about an actress who steals the singer’s boyfriend: “She took him faster than you could say sabotage.” Yet Swift is not going to take it lying down: “I'm just another thing for you to roll your eyes at honey / you might have him but I always get the last word.” And she does on the chorus singing, “She's better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” Based on that last reference, Joe Jonas must be thrilled.
Speak Now’s crowning moment is “Dear John,” on which Swift strikes a perfect balance between vulnerability and snark. “Dear John” is more specific than the title cliché suggests – rumors abound that Swift crafted the song as a personal response to a fling with musician John Mayer. Now, I feel a bit creepy at my age (which is a tad younger than Mayer) just writing about Taylor Swift, so I find it amusing that Mayer, a notorious self-styled roué, actually dated a 19-year-old Swift only to be left with his pants around his ankles (metaphorically speaking, of course) in public: “But I took your matches before fire could catch me / so don't look now / I'm shining like fireworks over your sad empty town.” Astoundingly, Swift seems to have grasped everything that was wrong with the relationship when she asks, “Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?”, and the song’s refrain, “I should have known” strikes me as out of place in all the right ways. Actually, she shouldn’t have known. 19-year-olds are supposed to ignore their parents’ and friends’ warnings and plunge headlong into the mistakes we all have to make before we grow up. That in hindsight Swift employs elegant metaphors to earnestly analyze what happened rather than flashing a lyrical middle finger shows that she is not just a girl anymore. She’s not quite a woman yet either, but that combination is what distinguishes Speak Now from the rest of the pop world. The record deserves a little more attention than your average pop fare, but the strength of the record ultimately lies in how accurately Swift hits her target demographic—very young females with bright dreams and likely several (less famous) John Mayers in their future.
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