Monday, September 21st, 2009

Taylor Swift – Fifteen



Martin Skidmore: This is lovely, and very precise in its evocation of how heartbreaking and all-consuming love can be for teenagers. As it happened I read one of the magnificent Alice Hoffman’s teen novels this afternoon, which may be why the delicate specificity and emotional conviction of this reminded me of her, and I can’t give higher praise than that to a song of this kind. I also confess that the typically moronic La Roux attack on her makes me more disposed to love her. Still, I don’t need bias to admire this: it’s rather beautiful, and one of the most acute and intelligent analyses of a key pop theme I’ve heard in ages.

Chuck Eddy: I’ve thought this song was slightly lacking in the hook department since the album came out, but hearing it on the car radio is already proving me wrong. And as unfair as it may be to Lily Allen, girls fretting about being 15 makes me care more than girls fretting about being 22. Though maybe when my daughter hits 22 I’ll think otherwise.

Hillary Brown: Compared to “You Belong with Me” (which in retrospect I keep upping my rating on mentally), this points up all of Swift’s weaknesses as a singer-songwriter: the tendency to outstay her welcome, the repetitiveness, the thin vocals, the high school soap opera, and so forth. None of this means it’s a bad song, but it’s nearly 5 minutes long!

Alex Ostroff: I was surprised to learn that this relatively unassuming track was Taylor’s next single, but underneath its reserve there’s a fragile beauty. “Fifteen” pulls Taylor’s standard trick of breathing life into generic situations, but musically and lyrically, the devil is always in the details. The bridge begins powerfully, with the desperation in Taylor’s voice at “When all you wanted was to be wanted,” chunky guitar chords and a warm cello counterpoint. But the centrepiece of the song is buried in the final verse, matter-of-fact and quiet, and punches me in the gut every time: “And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy / who changed his mind.” And then Taylor aches: “We both cried.” And so do I.

Renato Pagnani: The range of emotions she manages to shoehorn into “Fifteen” is astounding; the wide-eyed optimism of the first day of class; the pit-of-your-stomach nerves of your first date; the comfort and strength that having your BFF (the red-headed Abigail) around you gives you; the tender empathy for your friend who thought she was going to marry him; the wistful desire to go back and tell your fifteen-year-old self what you know now. Taylor can’t do that,of course, but she realized what she /could/ do—write a song and tell present fifteen-year-olds that they’ll survive high school, as unlikely as it might seem at times.

Anthony Easton: It is nice to have a teenager speak about teenage angst and, more importantly, it is vital for someone that age to say out loud — the whole thing is a con, a set of rituals, and the feelings you have are legitimate, but keep aware, be careful, do not give away yr integrity too closely. There is no nostalgia here, there is no attempt to guide behavior, nor to check the hormones because power and ambition are more important. It is a warning not to fuck, but not to fuck to get out of town, or because you are not sure of yourself, or because fucking makes you lose a bit of autonomy, or because fucking is scary are all legitimate. I think that in small towns where there is little to do, and boredom encroaches, and in conservative circles where all sex is suspect, a message about not having sex to maintain or extend personal autonomy is a message that needs to be heard. The rhetoric around abstinence is explicitly patriarchal: it is still mired in the desire for an imaginary purity. Swift has built a corpus of work about that, about maintaining self, about the authority of one’s own vision away from the dominant trends of both Nashville and Hollywood.

Martin Kavka: Taylor Swift is perhaps the best country songwriter since Dolly Parton. But while the backdrop of Parton’s songs is a genuine love for the region in which she grew up (even in bittersweet songs such as “To Daddy” or “Malena”), Swift’s “Fifteen” is far more jaded. Life in a small town is nothing more than being teased by popular bitches, and having your pants taken off by boys through their rank dishonesty. They are places that will fuck you up no matter how many wiser eighteen-year-old girls warn you of this fact. And so when you flee them, you flee into the warm arms of pop. “Fifteen” is country music for people who hate country. The fact that it’s such a good song makes this a real conundrum.

Ian Mathers: She really is sui generis at this point; even compared to the other pop-country singles I’ve liked here (there have been a few, I swear), my love for “Fifteen” feels wholly different. I’m sort of in awe of how good the melody, the vocal performance and, crucially, the lyrics are. Anyone who at 19 can write such a bittersweet song about looking back at being a teenager, and make much older people think about their own high school days with a bit of a lump in their throats, has got something.

Edward Okulicz: Taylor’s gift is that when she sings about her own life, she does so with such clarity it might as well be yours as well. “Fifteen” is a reasonably good demonstration of this, though it is a little bit distant emotionally, the stories a step removed, the chorus a touch overlong and the her vocal performance here is restrained and detached. Of course that’s just nitpicking; it’s a pretty tune and the numbness is part of the point. It’s not what she does best, but she does it well.

Alfred Soto: From the opening mandolin strums — reminiscent of “Back in the High Life Again” — to the way her voice rushes and ascends as she remembers those cute “senior boys,” Taylor Swift’s confidence never wavers. The choral melody isn’t as strong as the rest, which makes sense: she refuses to yield to a situation she hasn’t worked out as singer and songwriter. The kid’s 19, right? Failing to reach the necessary detachment only adds to her charm.

Melissa Bradshaw: Taylor Swift has tapped into a globally captivating mode of writing about small town America. “Fifteen”‘s honeyed chorus sounds designed for 15-year-olds, while her narrative will transport older listeners back to their formative teenage years, and the song’s technically deft and moving climax shifts the lens onto the inevitable heartbreak of adulthood. It’s the antithesis in mood to “You Belong With Me”, and the perfect complement. She is also saying something big and universal about being a woman. This, in combination with her undeniable talent and her appeal for a massive demographic, makes her every bit Beyonce’s equal.

Jonathan Bradley: Swift’s touch is sufficiently light that when she sings of flying after a date, her feet could plausibly have lost contact with the earth. “He’s got a car,” she marvels of the boy on the football team who asks out the adolescent Taylor, and her voice becomes even higher and more girlish than usual as she describes the thrill. And sure, first kisses and sports studs can make for painfully clichéd subject matter, but despite the soft touch, Swift sings of them with an appropriate weightiness. “Fifteen” is serious enough about the small triumphs and crushing confusions of high school to be plainspoken about them. She has an astonishing ability to elucidate the exact feeling of being young and in love, and her precision and detail reminds, without a hint of melodrama, that such a state is something very amazing and very crushing indeed.

John Seroff: Swift’s wise-beyond-her-years high school elegy sounds like it should come from the pen of Paula Cole or Dolly Parton; this kind of rock-solid songwriting should be out of the range of anyone in their teens. “Fifteen” doesn’t overdo its lyrical pathos, overwhelm with production or overstay its welcome. It’s an expression of pure vulnerability, gentle, inclusive and surprisingly, honestly wistful. There’s a lovely attentiveness to silences, brief introspective pauses that give this song the body and soul that sets it apart from goopier, less creative fare. Swift’s ubiquitous critical praise never quite clicked for me before, but ‘Fifteen’ has me eying the bandwagon… I suppose I have to go get Fearless now?

70 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Fifteen”

  1. “If thousands of people like it, it must have some merit.”

    I think that this is pretty much true, but only when we’re discussing art. I’m saying this as someone who finds the Eagles abhorrent, but there we are.

    I think extrapolating this dictum into fifty million Nazis can’t be wrong is a red herring and suggests that moral absolutes are as open to personal wont, learned preference and impulse as aesthetic ones are. They aren’t.

    “Worthy” of artistic merit assumes that there are hard and fast rules that determine what artistic merit is and there simply aren’t. The question is whether or not you’re capable, willing or open to embracing the presupposed dormant merit residing within anything crafted by an intelligent hand. You may be in possession of facts or opinions that supersede that thing’s inherent merit but that really only impacts YOUR enjoyment. Knowledge of Daft Punk renders Kanye’s Stronger that much less impressive, but knowledge of Birdsong renders Daft Punk that much less impressive, ad infinitum. It doesn’t make any of those songs less enjoyable to a listener seduced by a catchy hook.

    Everything we’re listening to here would have been openly derided by the greatest critics of the time as unlistenable trash less than a century ago. Likely we’ll all reach a point where the day’s music no longer resonates. I want to celebrate the days while it still does.

    Very little of which probably speaks to the subject at hand, but I’m given to rambling.

  2. I don’t mind your rambling, since I’m hardly hostile to your attitude. With me, I can’t disentangle art and politics so easily; but in general I’d say as a working assumption it’s good to assume there’s some merit in what people work so hard at making and that a lot of people care about. And I doubt that, say, a totally incompetent and artless country song that was full of pandering xenophobia would become popular. But a competent country song that was full of pandering xenophobia might become more popular than it would without the pandering xenophobia. Which is to say that some songs may owe a good deal of their popularity to what’s bad about them, and I might want to work that into my working assumptions as well. Or also, if almost everyone including schmucks likes a song, maybe there’s something necessary that’s missing from the song (e.g., something that would offend the schmucks).

    At this point I’m just splitting hairs, since fundamentally I think your attitude is fine, at least provisionally.

  3. Well Christ man, I should hope so; it is (to at least some small degree) partially derived from your own writing!

  4. John, I feel like you’re this close to arguing for objectivity in criticism.

  5. [blush]

  6. As for whether Taylor’s wise beyond her years, well, she’s got craftsmanship and artistry beyond her years, and she must have a lot of wisdom because you don’t achieve such craft without knowing how to work with others and being able to hear criticism and show up for creative work even on days when the well seems empty. That said, there are plenty of kids at age 18 (her age when she released Fearless) who question and battle stereotypes even when the stereotypes run to their advantage, and who consider themselves as culpable and confused after breakups as the person they were dating, and understand that when people change their minds it’s because they don’t know what they’re about yet, and so forth.

    (Not a comment on this song in particular, which after all is called “Fifteen” not “Eighteen,” but I don’t think Taylor’s done nearly as much justice to eighteen as Ashlee Simpson did to nineteen.)

  7. Speaking of 15 vs. 18:

  8. I’m guessing the video to this will be incredibly literal. I hear Abigail the real life redhead was involved in shooting it.

  9. […] for This Love [6] Jason DeRule – Whatcha Say [7] Mumford and Sons – Little Lion Man [7] Taylor Swift – Fifteen [9] Delphic – This Momentary [5] Los Campesinos! – The Sea is a Good Place to Think of […]

  10. Beautiful video:

  11. That dress is crying out for Michael Kors to make a witticism about a bib.

  12. When Taylor tells you what it’s like “when you’re fifteen,” what she actually means is “When you’re fifteen and you’re an attractive blond girl.” I’m none of those things, so no senior boys hit on me when I was fifteen. I wish Taylor Swift had cut the crap and just said “When *I* was fifteen.”

    I really don’t get what you people are listening to here. We know absolutely nothing at all about what happens to that senior boy with the car that Taylor dates, just that it ended, but she feels free to tell us about how Abigail’s most painful secrets, because it’s sure easy to be honest and confessional about shit that happened to someone else. A cautionary tale about having to console a *friend* who screwed up does nothing for me.

    I mean, let’s face it, Taylor Swift is not ever going to write a song about how she gave it up at age fifteen. Taylor Swift lives in a Norman Rockwell world where she perpetually has just kissed a boy for the first time last week. For the first time, one of Taylor Swift’s songs strikes me as calculated and guarded, and for the first time her ridiculous adolescent naivete really grates at me. And while she has the perspective to admit that fifteen-year-olds sure are stupid, she doesn’t have the courage to admit that she or Abigail had sex not because they were tricked into thinking they were in love, but simply because they’re silly hormonal teenagers who wanted to have sex, and for that reason Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” strikes me, if not the more honest song, at the very least the more interesting one, and certainly the superior one. Taylor’s got potential, but seriously, call me when she goes through two divorces and starts hitting the booze and starts making some actual country music.

  13. You had some semblence of an argument before that dumbass last sentence.

  14. The last sentence was a joke, kind of. But my sentiment is that for a songwriter who mostly seems to draw on personal experiences, she hasn’t experienced enough life to write songs about things that actually matter, and she doesn’t seem willing to tap into the kind of teen angst that would elevate what experiences she has had into something more compelling. I don’t dislike this song, I don’t dislike any of her songs. And I really like at least a couple. But she’s so CUTE. All her songs are just so freaking CUTE. And because of that, a lot of her songs just don’t connect with me, the same way that Owl City doesn’t. I can’t connect to a girl who thinks guys don’t look twice at girls who wear icky *T-shirts*, or dreams about a love story scenario where her overprotective dad is won over by her high school boyfriend’s plans to *marry her* (?!).

  15. MBI, I like your analysis of the Swift track but disagree with you — for one thing, Taylor *has* sung (implied) “giving it up” when you’re fifteen (maybe thirteen!) from song one (“Tim McGraw”), and it’s a constant undercurrent of a lot of her songs, including “Fifteen.” Thing is, the “you” in “Fifteen” is *Taylor*; she’s conveying how she feels to be of an age when she’s so confident and (without her knowledge, which develops over the course of her album) about to be completely broken down and reformed. The foreboding is already there — Taylor is saying “this is what you want” and suggesting “it’s not going to play out this way.”

    Abigail’s “giving it all” is a lot vaguer than Taylor getting stuck on the back roads with a guy in “Tim McGraw” — sex is maybe impied, but it’s not clear at all that this is exactly what she’s talking about. The key line there, though, is not “giving it all,” but “we both cried” — the girls faced with dramatically re-configuring their assumptions and expectations for this period of their life — Taylor didn’t know who she was supposed to be, but each experience tells her something about who she *is*, whether she likes it or not.

    As for the cuteness — well, I just disagree completely. Taylor is fierce, angry, often bitter, but she rarely has much of a sense of levity or cuteness about what she’s talking about. Usually it’s the end of the (well, “a”) world!

  16. Taylor would have been 15 in “Tim McGraw”; turns out she was projecting into the future as to what it would be like three years later to look back on this. The guy with the pick-up truck that tended to get stuck on backroads late at night was a senior boy, and she knew they were going to break up come September. And Taylor and Liz Rose were creating a song, not doing explicit every-fact-actually-happened autobiography, whereas “Fifteen” is both song and explicit autobiography. And I’ll bet IRL it was actually a car on the backroad, the pick-up truck being a sop to the country audience but also a way to rhyme “truck” and “stuck.” Also, I’m 100% certain that the “gave everything she had” in “Fifteen” does mean intercourse – but it obv means a lot more than intercourse, too, since intercourse doesn’t always mean giving everything you have; but it did to Abigail in that situation. Whereas the stuck car late at night doesn’t necessarily take you beyond making out; but Dave’s right, Taylor wants her head on that guy’s chest.

    I don’t like MBI’s analysis, since she’s projecting ugliness onto Taylor that isn’t there, and reducing Taylor’s complexity to simplicity in order to feel superior to her and to feel that she has nothing to learn from Taylor. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’d dislike MBI herself, if she’d stop the scapegoating.

    I don’t like my own analysis, for that matter, where I say, “there are plenty of kids at age 18 (her age when she released Fearless) who question and battle stereotypes even when the stereotypes run to their advantage, and who consider themselves as culpable and confused after breakups as the person they were dating, and understand that when people change their minds it’s because they don’t know what they’re about yet, and so forth.” Well, in “Breathe,” which comes five songs after “Fifteen,” she does feel culpable and confused after the breakup and explicitly says that she understands that people change their minds. And three songs on in “The Way I Loved You” she’s turning “You Belong With Me” inside out, ’cause she’s leaving the sensitive nice boy in the lurch in favor of the wild boy who gets her mad and into screaming fights at 2 AM, and she loves him insanely. So her songs cover a range of experience and impulses, the experiences and impulses not melding into one set attitude.

    I love Deana Carter and gave Story Of My Life a rave review, but “Tim McGraw” delivers the bittersweet a lot more effectively than “Strawberry Wine” did.

  17. So chastened, I gave “Tim McGraw” a re-listen, and though I certainly liked it at the time, maybe I still underestimated it. I’m honestly not sure if I still think “Strawberry Wine” is better, but at the same time, I think I still stand by my assertion that “Fifteen” doesn’t measure up in any real way. “Fifteen’ is supposed to be super-personal, all the reviewers and Taylor Swift herself have said so, but I just don’t feel it — it feels distant and vague and guarded to me, not heartfelt. I don’t care that “we both cried” — I’m getting this grief third-hand here. It’s been passed on too many times, it’s diluted. I really don’t think I’m projecting any ugliness on it — I certainly don’t think there’s any ugliness in it — but it strikes me as very much a sheltered eighteen-year-old’s take on an even more sheltered fifteen-year-old’s life, and I really don’t think there’s much complexity to be found. And to expose my own ignorance here, I haven’t listened to her albums, just the singles. But all her previous singles (minus “Tim McGraw,” and I guess “White Horse”) sound pretty goddamn silly to me. The dream guy fucking proposes in “Love Story” — maybe I’m just too far past fifteen myself, but I cannot plug into that. At all.

  18. Really? I know very few teenagers who haven’t fantasized about the perfect marriage. ‘The Princess Diaries’ weren’t popular because of their wit. And that’s exactly what Taylor presents it as, a fantasy, a romantisized fairytale. She’s making the rules, so let’s get married, and ‘just say yes’. Since you’ve heard White Horse you should be aware of the interplay between the two, the meeting of a teenage fantasy world and reality, no more princess. Yes, Love Story is silly, unrealistic love, and that’s the point.

  19. yeah mbi – listen to these men, they know what they’re talking about: the most profound experience a teenaged girl can expect to have is being dumped by a boy and the ultimate goal of every teenage girl is (or should be) to get married and have her father’s approval, and art that acknowledges this truth is going to be as good as it gets in 2009 no matter how cliched, banal, blandly sung, or midtempo. DUH.

  20. I’ll agree that “Love Story” is silly, but there’s a context for it — one problem with judging Taylor by singles alone is that they don’t really present the full picture (judging Taylor on “Love Story” alone is like judging Ashlee Simpson on “La La” alone — both are songs that gain resonance — which isn’t to say they lose their silliness — in context). Mike Barthel wrote a good piece about “Love Story,” btw:

    I like the idea that “Fifteen” is “distant and vague and guarded” — it seems to me to be a song about thinking you have everything figured out and slowly starting to understand how much you have yet to learn. Which describes me pretty well at 15, certainly; there’s something almost didactic about the song, Taylor almost overplaying her naivete because she’s a little embarrassed by it. When you’re fifteen you don’t know who you’re supposed to be, sure, but you still are someone; lots of people would love to disown themselves at this age, or pretend they acted differently than they did, and Taylor does that a little in the song. It’s like looking through your old photographs and overreacting negatively to a picture of yourself; maybe you can’t really see yourself in that picture anymore, and maybe to your friends the resemblance is obvious, which can be unnerving to the (let’s say) twentysomething taking the look back. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that the Zone of Overreacting Regret has increased in age, too — I’m perfectly comfortable taking a somewhat harder look at myself at 15 than I am taking a harder look at myself at 19, at which time I couldn’t stand to think of myself at 15.

    It’s true that Taylor could sing about non-relationship angst (Ashlee certainly does), but her subject matter doesn’t change the depth of how her characters feel — boys are a muse, not an end in and of themselves. It’s a common enough confessional trope — boys as stand-in for the mess that is life; I don’t think the politics of this stand-in are self-evident (or self-evidently bad), just depends on what you do with it. The fact that Taylor is getting dad’s approval to be married doesn’t tell us much about what the song is doing — but whatever it’s doing, Taylor isn’t talking about the “ultimate goal of every teenage girl” (and neither are we men, who like it or not have actually listened to enough Taylor Swift to have an idea of what she is saying) — she’s singing about a fantasy, one that’s quickly second-guessed and dismantled a couple songs later. (Not my fault that others, e.g. movie trailer makers, like to use complex songs simplistically to strip away less-obvious readings — see also “Born in the USA” as Republican presidential anthem.)