Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Taylor Swift – Sparks Fly

An ambiguous song about nothing in particular…


[Video]
[6.75]

Dan Weiss: In which Taylor has sex, or at least obtains a very impressive hickey. Maybe those who think she’s the problem don’t know it exists. The female orgasm, I mean.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: Taylor Swift has written a song about either sex or, more likely, actually going up for a cup of coffee. Thousands of listeners are now trying to parse the exact state of her virginity with the same aggregate rancor in which they scoured the Web for her undergarments; thousands more will earnestly slot this — just the song they needed — into their good/bad feminist/Christian/role model rundowns. Me, I still doubt sparks, fireworks or alleviated pain were involved in Swift’s memory, or that she’s so enamored that her coalescing lust can form pulsing new descriptions instead of freezing into Nicholas Sparks cliches, or that you’ll ever be able to distinguish her songs on sound alone.
[5]

Brad Shoup: Do you realize that Swift has released at least ten songs with the word “rain” in them? She uses rain like Shania uses exclamation points. She uses rain like Ke$ha uses glitter. She uses rain like Train uses their pact with Satan to continue scoring chart hits. In “Sparks Fly,” a couple has sex the way Hollywood thinks people have sex: that is, during a rainstorm, after a hushed staircase ascension. Oh, and the girl’s kind of damaged, and the boy’s ragged but he’s right. The lead vocal is doubled to shore up Swift’s delivery, but maybe a second songwriter can be enlisted to draw a little fire out of her. We may have to park that crying fiddle figure, but sometimes growing up hurts.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: “Drop everything now,” Taylor insists, and Speak Now gets its first arresting moment of drama and bliss. It’s cinematic more than realistic, but you can draw a pretty straight line between the success of frothy pop songs like this to feel-good romcoms. Done right, they thrill the senses and touch the heart. Taylor knows how to do both, and because her tricks are cheap, she’s got plenty to throw around.
[9]

Alfred Soto: Swift aims this one at skeptics who still think she can’t sing; rushing through the jangle-happy verses, she slows down for a coquettish sing-song on the chorus. An album-track delight, but as a single, the rather pedestrian lyrics get an unflattering airing.
[7]

Jonathan Bradley: Taylor Swift has long had a fondness for Tuesdays, two in the morning, and kisses in the rain, but she’s found a new appeal in pyrotechnics. “I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town” is her kiss-off on “Dear John,” and here, she finds herself struck dumb when her relationship heads in a newer and more physical direction. “I’m captivated by you, baby, like a fireworks show,” she whispers to her beau when he gives her “something that’ll haunt” her when he’s not around. As is Swift’s habit, it’s a well-worn simile to which she’s adding her own twist. The spectacle, in this case, is not the point, and nor is the explosion; her awed response is the concern. “Sparks Fly” is about the antsy lead-up to this moment. Like Dashboard Confessional’s “Hands Down,” it narrates a romantic ideal (complete, yes, with a kiss in the rain), but Swift dispenses with Chris Carrabba’s demure chastity and replaces it with a fevered hunger. “You’re the kind of reckless that should send me running,” she sings, but the bell-clear guitars ring as bright and true as Swift’s blissful, transcendent surety. Brilliant.
[10]

Josh Love: It’s been several months since I last played Speak Now, but hearing this song again made me put on the album so fast I almost gave myself whiplash. The importance of “Sparks Fly” as a milestone in Swift’s burgeoning artistic sexuality has been acknowledged plenty, so I’ll just focus on some of my favorite details, like the love-drunk way she pronounces “full-on rainstorm” and “meet me in the pouring rain,” or the mixture of teenage giddiness and something more coyly self-assured in how she sings, “I’m even better than you imagined I would be.” Not to mention the song’s best line, “give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around,” the delivery of which might be Swift’s most sonically beguiling moment to date.
[9]

Andy Hutchins: Taylor does sexy sweetly; “give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around” is one of the hotter come-ons in radio pop of late, but it’s not nearly too explicit to trip parent radar. But “Sparks Fly” waits far too long to drop the busy production for a quieter moment that really fits the boudoir patter. There will be trips to cheap motels soundtracked by this song, though.
[6]

Michaela Drapes: The wall I hit when thinking about this is, is it okay that Taylor’s telling her huge fanbase of impressionable teenage girls that it’s okay to sleep with a guy you know is bad news, even if he is hot and if the chemistry is massive? Sure, people make mistakes about this kind of thing all the time, but she doesn’t exactly sound rueful about it. Would I forgive this message if “Sparks Fly” wasn’t one of the weakest tracks on Speak Now, if it wasn’t a velvet-draped sledgehammer devoid of subtlety and dynamics? Probably not.
[4]

Zach Lyon: It’s good news that Taylor wrote a sex song, even if implications of sex in Taylor’s world are still massively subtle compared to those in everyone else’s. The song is way too colorless and desolate for me on a pure aural level, though, and it sinks any potential lyrical quality. And it still isn’t enough to get over how tired I am of her apparent inability to write less than 98% of her songs about the same damn thing.
[5]

Anthony Easton: So when exactly did critics go from loving the innocence of Swift to deciding that it was faux, and if it was faux, when did they decide they were tired of the schtick? I am genuinely curious. 
[4]

Ian Mathers: After liking Fearless quite a bit and then mostly ignoring Speak Now (fatigued by the various backlashes and thinkpieces, really, and slightly underwhelmed by some of the singles), it’s nice to hear a single from Swift that reminds me why I liked her in the first place. Sociopolitical issues aside, this is another wonderfully appealing, precision crafted piece of over-the-top pop romanticism, and it’s going to sound wonderful on the radio. I don’t begrudge other people thinking deeper thoughts about her, and many of them are doing important work, but I’m happy just to have the song.
[8]

34 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Sparks Fly”

  1. After reading everyone else’s blurbs, the stumbling block has been cleared: it’s the insistent hortative-ness of the “drop everything now” business that bugs me. Not that I’m against Taylor having (or endorsing) sexual agency — I’m definitely not. But being in possession of that power doesn’t just mean you use it to keep men at your beck and call, dear Taylor — no matter how sparky and electric they make you feel. Better get used to that idea sooner rather than later, I think.

  2. Wow, I disagree entirely with your interpretation. What musical or lyrical details suggest that the character keeps men at her beck and call? It’s a mutually rewarding relationship. Swift seeing sparks fly between her and the beloved gives the song is buoyancy.

  3. Huh, I read “Sparks Fly” as a totally unrequited crush — all the sex is in her imagination. The problem is, all her imagined details sound secondhand. But then, I really don’t want to continue the “did she? didn’t she?” debate, because I’m really fucking sick of it in aggregate.

  4. I’m inclined to agree it’s pretty imaginary.

    The bit that really sticks out for me is the “you touch me once and it’s really something/you find I’m even better than you imagined I would be …” line. The whole song reads like this, stage directions for an erotically sterile and cliched love scene repeated a million times over — which others noted, too. The faceless green-eyed poseable doll boy in question here is just something for Taylor to act upon; who he is or what he thinks or feels is inconsequential. Which, frankly, is not a particularly emotionally responsible message.

  5. “is it okay that Taylor’s telling her huge fanbase of impressionable teenage girls that it’s okay to sleep with a guy you know is bad news”

    Don’t these girls have parents? I don’t know why Swift is obliged to be mother of a nation.

  6. Also, just for the record, this is a Taylor Swift song About Sex, but so was her first single, so this is not exactly unexplored subject matter for her.

  7. Her singing’s the key. She sounds like she’s never seen sparks before.

  8. Man one of these days I will get my life in order enough to start showing up around here in a timely fashion. But in the meantime: this song encapsulates pretty well my problem with Taylor as a lyricist. She’s got some touches here I legitimately love – I like both “give me something that’ll haunt me later” and the better than you imagined line because they speak not just to the hotness of the moment but to the hotness of both anticipation and aftermath, making this not just a song about having sex (which… I don’t see a ton of ambiguity on that score) but a song about thinking about sex pretty intensely – but she sticks them in a song called, of all things, SPARKS FLY, with a number of lines in the same vein as that title. The result is the curious impression that the song was cowritten by a promising twentysomething songwriter and a twelve-year-old Twilight fan. Musically it’s pretty but dull (Katherine, Brad, and Zach all comment on this quite nicely), I probably would’ve given it a 6.

    Question for Michaela – didn’t you give Call Your Girlfriend a 9? I am sort of puzzled as to how to square those two scores? Is it because we assume Robyn’s fanbase skews a bit older?

  9. Michaela: Maybe Taylor’s a dom? I mean, she’s either talking about a fantasy or an actual instance of sex with one individual guy, not All Men, and it’s not like sexual relationships/fantasies don’t occasionally feature consensual power dynamics.

  10. Er, “consensual” doesn’t really refer to fantasy, I guess.

  11. Oh look people have commented since the above has been sitting on my phone half finished. The responses about to what extent the scenario is imaginary are interesting to me — perhaps not expecting much (read: anything) in the way of believability from Taylor, I am unintentionally grading her writing on a curve! Alternately my standards get lower when boning is involved (ALSO POSSIBLE). Though, I guess I don’t see a ton of difference between a song about boning and a song about thinking intensively about boning — at least, I file both of those under “sex songs” (sloppy thinking on my part, it could easily be argued).

  12. I’m not sure I have enough space to illuminate why “Call Your Girlfriend” is a [9] and this is a [4], but I will say that difference between the scores is due to more than just than perceived message and target audience.

    The sex/romance here is very Twilight/Mary Sue fanfic! It just smacks of inexperience: Put your hand here and you will feel [adverb] and I will feel [adverb] and then we’ll [verb] [article] [noun] and then the lights will fade out and I’ll remember everything with a frisson of [noun] tomorrow afternoon while [mundane daily activity].

  13. Fair enough — I have no investment in defending the song! It was more your comments on the emotional irresponsibility of the message that threw me, since that criticism in particular (not the score/overall opinion of the aong) seems not in keeping with your praise for CYG…I admit I am still curious but if you would rather not go into it I understand (and if you would rather not go into it here in particular isabelthespy at gmail is happy to receive communication on that or any other front) (hopefully this is implicit but I was interested as much because I tend to find your perspective interesting as much as anything else!)

  14. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be opaque — I just find the production behind “Call Your Girlfriend” to be much, much stronger — giving it the competitive edge.

    As a matter of fact, and this probably won’t surprise anyone reading my blurbs to date, I have a tendency to not focus on lyrics unless they stick out and catch me in an extraordinarily good or bad way — I’m just as inclined to call out a good lyric as a bad one, but most of the time (and I say this without giving away too much of my secret recipe), I count the words on equal footing with the vocal performance, dynamics, instrumentation, song structure, other miscellaneous production factors — and occasionally the video, if necessary.

    The first time I really got riled up over song lyrics was Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck (Without You)” which can sort of be forgiven because she didn’t write them, but she *did* select the song for her album. In the case of a highly-touted singer/songwriter, such as Swift, there’s naturally more emphasis placed on the (actual or perceived) message behind the lyrics. I think in the case of both (but, not in the case of Robyn) the needy earnestness with which both are sung makes the message really reprehensible. There are shades of grey with most of Robyn’s songs — not so much with Swift. But I can only assume that more narrative complexity might come with age — maybe. I forgive her a lot because she’s young and inexperienced, but there are times that maybe letting her questionable lyrics slide isn’t such a great idea. The best of Swift’s backcatalog focuses on empowerment and owning your decisions. And, as I mentioned in my blurb, this song doesn’t. Which, yes, can be forgiven — but should also be called out as subpar to her other songs and a little irresponsible to her listeners. Which is to say, I have nothing but tough love for T-Swift.

  15. <i.The first time I really got riled up over song lyrics was Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck (Without You)” which can sort of be forgiven because she didn’t write them, but she *did* select the song for her album. In the case of a highly-touted singer/songwriter, such as Swift, there’s naturally more emphasis placed on the (actual or perceived) message behind the lyrics.

    Why is there “naturally more emphasis” on Swift’s “messages”? Are you saying that a singer-songwriter’s product is more meaningful? I don’t understand why.

    Is this why we’re all concentrating on Swift’s lyrics and not enough on the musical touches: the radiance of the opening guitar lyrics, the way Swift’s vocal does that stop-start emphasis thing on the chorus, with the bass tugging at it?

  16. I can’t hear any musical touches at all. That’s the problem. Every Taylor Swift single sounds like every other Taylor Swift single, and they all sound utterly uninteresting.

  17. This does not sound like “Back to December” which does not sound like “Picture to Burn.”

  18. @alfred: This is all getting a little too cartesian for me. There’s too many levels of engagement between artist and audience to parse out. I can’t account for all variables of lyrics with “meaning” vs. lyrics that invoke a “feeling” vs. lyrics that make you want to dance vs. lyrics that teenage girls tattoo on their homework notebooks written by middle aged men specifically to appeal to teenage girls. But yes, I think if a song is being marketed as written by a teenage girl for an audience of teenage girls, I think critical and popular thinkers alike will, whether they mean to or not, inscribe more meaning on these more “personal” lyrics than, say, something written my Dr. Luke and Max Martin. This is the lynchpin of the TSwift marketing machine, and that most people have taken the bait.

    @katherine: Exactly. Which is why TSwift is a 4 and Robyn is a 9. Or part of the reason, anyway.

  19. I can’t account for all variables of lyrics with “meaning” vs. lyrics that invoke a “feeling” vs. lyrics that make you want to dance vs. lyrics that teenage girls tattoo on their homework notebooks written by middle aged men specifically to appeal to teenage girls. But yes, I think if a song is being marketed as written by a teenage girl for an audience of teenage girls, I think critical and popular thinkers alike will, whether they mean to or not, inscribe more meaning on these more “personal” lyrics than, say, something written my Dr. Luke and Max Martin.

    Have you evidence of this alleged bias? To be honest, I don’t know what “personal” means. Songs are performances, which Swift herself acknowledges in her shows (costume changes, props, etc).

    The many fans of Ashlee Simpson and Demi Lovato on this board aren’t victims of teen marketing machines.

  20. Neither Ashlee nor Demi are as successful as Swift; they don’t have “moved the whole family to Nashville at age 13 to pursue a dream of being a songwriter” backstory either.

    What I’m getting at here is no matter how much Swift may or may not declaim that her songs are about herself or other real people (which she does variously, without consistency, I think), I would say that ok, anecdotally because I can’t ask them all, that most of her fans are heavily invested in the “personal” angle — just look at the video for this song. Yes, it’s a performance — a performance of TAYLOR SWIFT, REAL GIRL, as performed by Taylor Swift, real girl.

  21. If “Back to December” was sped up or this slowed down, they’d sound indistinguishable.

  22. most of her fans are heavily invested in the “personal” angle — just look at the video for this song. Yes, it’s a performance — a performance of TAYLOR SWIFT, REAL GIRL, as performed by Taylor Swift, real girl.

    Yeah, but so what? That’s their problem. How does knowing the degree to which the material is autobiographical enhance or detract from the song’s effectiveness?

  23. Normally I can see that, but when Taylor Swift’s so heavily invested in being personal and relatable, and when each song on Speak Now practically comes with its own dossier entry on which famous ex it’s about, I’d say it’s valid for her.

  24. This is such an interesting conversation! Musically I am with Michaela and Katherine re: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, and I truly wish I could add something to the conversation about the lyrics or the place of the lyrics in wherever or how we should judge the lyrics given the context the song is coming out in, but man, every time I try to make some headway on this matter I get totally stuck in not at all knowing how I feel or what I want to say. But I will say the short version of a strain of thought (not the only strain of thought) in my head right now is that with more interesting wording this could be an Ani Difranco song, which is maybe food for thought, or maybe just interesting to me.

    yay you all are so smart and interesting though <3

  25. Girls vs boys!

  26. I have to admit that I love love love Taylor Swift but I don’t don’t don’t _care_ about the specifics of her storytelling or biography. That said, even tho I was sure this was my favourite off the album, I’m now pretty much exclusively about the second half of the album and the singles — relatively — bore me. As a story, “Sparks Fly” is dull. As a moment, it hits.

  27. That photo’s from the time she fronted Whitesnake, right?

  28. If Taylor ever plays Middlesborough, she MUST cover “Here I Go Again”.

  29. “I have to admit that I love love love Taylor Swift but I don’t don’t don’t _care_ about the specifics of her storytelling or biography.

    As a story, “Sparks Fly” is dull. As a moment, it hits.”

    This, this, a million times this. The conversation taking place here is interesting, but I have to admit that my primary reaction to this song is sort of absent-mindedly humming the chorus to myself.

  30. I think Ed’s point about it being “cinematic more than realistic” is important. It’s difficult to read this as autobiography, and though people like to make much of Swift’s supposed predilection for diarizing, I tend to think her continual reference to personal experience is her way of staking a claim for being a songwriter as well a performer. But she is a performer as well, and though there is the tabloid obsession with Speak Now coming, as Katherine “with its own dossier entry on which famous ex it’s about,” I don’t see how anyone can ignore that these are highly stylized songs before they’re journal entries.

    Theon Weber got this exactly right:

    “You’ve probably heard that this song’s about that guy, and that song’s about this one, and “Innocent” is about Kanye West. Which is fine, but being told What Songs Mean is like having a really pushy professor. And it imperils a true appreciation of Swift’s talent, which is not confessional, but dramatic: Like a procession of country songwriters before her, she creates characters and situations—some from life—and finds potent ways to describe them.”

  31. Also, @Michaela: ” I think if a song is being marketed as written by a teenage girl for an audience of teenage girls…”

    Swift was a 20 year old woman when this song came out.

  32. Wikipedia says it was written in 2007.

  33. I mean, if we’re being picky.

  34. It’s Dawson’s Creek music, in essence.