Thursday, January 14th, 2010

The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009, Round 2: “Zero” vs. “Fifteen”

If The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009 was televised, this would be the match that got moved to Sunday afternoon for live coverage. ”Zero topped our regular season list for literally ages, until ”You Belong With Me” came along and de-perched its ass. ”Fifteen” wound up scoring not far behind the pair of them. These two songs sit at #3 and #4 in our top 10 of the year, and they’ve come to monopolise the upper end of our scoring this year. We’ll avoid mentioning that Boys Like Girls collaboration, and that thing off the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack, and simply say – let battle commence…

Edward Okulicz: Lesser lights on fine records that play to others’ ideas of their strengths, but not mine. “Fifteen” wins on the basis of its narrative force; it goes somewhere and takes you on an emotional journey. “Zero” repeats itself too much and though it has flashes of brilliance — the shimmer of the chorus, the evocative (but too sparse) lyrics and Karen O’s new-found poise in synths and washes that complement her surprisingly well — it’s just too leaden to really fly in the end.

Briony Edwards: Unlucky for Taylor that she’s up against a decidedly more “fierce” female front woman. Unfortunately for her, she just doesn’t cut it against the big girls. Probably because she’s generally quite boring.

Rodney J. Greene: For the Yeahs’ Blondie move, Ms. O shows herself completely capable of enlarging to towering Amazon size if necessary to avoid getting overshadowed by a mammoth climax. In contrast to Karen’s glammed-out swag, Swift whines out her chorus, sounding for all the world like what she is, a grown (if not quite grown-ass) woman playing at being a child.

Tal Rosenberg: Taylor sits in the corner. Nobody puts Karen in the corner.

Jonathan Bradley: Hearing Karen O wailing her high notes on “crying, crying, crying,” is even more spine-tingling than Taylor and BFF Abigail tearing up over the no-good boys at school, but overall, “Fifteen” is warm, lovingly-crafted, and possessed with a stronger hook than the nonetheless inspired “Zero.”

Erika Villani: These are essentially the same song: the world is cold, and you’re gonna get hurt. But the high school archetypes and everyday details that worked so well when Taylor played the role of the lovestruck teen in “You Belong with Me” fail her here — now that she’s a grown woman looking back, they’re nothing but cloying, condescending cliches.

Matt Cibula: It’s pretty safe to say that Taylor’s 15th birthday was pretty different from mine, sounds slightly boring considering its bold statements. The waves of “Zero” wash me clean.

Martin Skidmore: Two great tracks, but “Zero” is my favourite rock number of the year, and I miss finding lots of rock to love.

John M. Cunningham: I’ll be honest: I initially thought I’d go with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ smart, visceral brand of synth-rock in this match-up, but then I actually sat down and paid attention to the words of “Fifteen,” and damn if I didn’t get choked up. Ever since “Tim McGraw,” I’ve admired Taylor Swift’s economical songwriting, but the fact that “Fifteen” not only weaves multiple perspectives (first-person, second-person, past, present) with grace but also vividly captures a specific set of adolescent emotions puts me in awe.

Chuck Eddy: Simple arithmetic. Taylor’s song truly and movingly gets to the heart of being in the second semester of ninth grade and having sad pregnant friends. The best thing you can say about “Zero” is that at least it’s not as boring as “Maps.”

Cecily Nowell-Smith: “When you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re going to believe them.” The great thing about this is that it isn’t true. At least, it wasn’t true of me. Maybe I was the only person who spent age fifteen being alternately cynical and terrified, I don’t know. What I know is that I am not, and doubt I’ve ever been, the kind of girl Taylor Swift sketches out in her songs. The emotional-social world she describes is familiar to me only in as much as I’ve seen it on television, and heard it from other people, and recognise it instantly and intimately as a series of conventional images. So many of those images anger and frustrate me (teenage girls bowled over by dating a boy who’s got a car, e.g.) but I won’t and can’t believe that people’s feelings are any less sincere and powerful for being conventional. What Taylor Swift does, in this song and in others, is create the world of the conventional girly-girl with such tenderness and kindness that I don’t feel the need to resent or suspect it—that I am charmed, and delighted, and fondly sad, thinking of this fictional adolescence.

Martin Kavka: In the contest between approaches to self-empowerment, Taylor is the nihilist who states that the only thing that can make you stronger is the passing of time, while Karen O beseeches her audience to make their own reality. I couldn’t bear to live in a world that proved Taylor right time and again, and when that fuzzed guitar comes in 2:19 of “Zero,” I know that she’s wrong.

Michaelangelo Matos: Throttle beats mope every time (though I like the mope just fine).

Alfred Soto: Both are ostensibly about the same: feeling like an outcast despite thinking and feeling at a level that would make the snobbiest senior in high school glance at you more than once. On the other hand, Karen O’s squeals would flatten said senior if the sequencers didn’t already.

Doug Robertson: This isn’t even a contest, is it? It’s like putting an egg into a crusher and wondering who’s going to come out on top.

Frank Kogan: I’ve heard all of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ albums without ever making sense of Karen O’s far-too-rigid Chrissie Hyndisms; reading Anthony E. in the last round I gathered that there was a whole journey here I could notice if I were to worm my way into the lyrics. Too late for this round, where Karen’s start from zero can’t match Taylor’s story at fifteen. Taylor overplays the fragility here, a little, but the details just keeping adding up while anticipation and events pile into small adventures and big sadness, always some sadness.

Anthony Easton: The erotic awakening of a teenage queen made chaste and pure by Nashville’s holy touch might actually be kinkier then O’s black leather growl.

Renato Pagnani: Probably the toughest match-up to decide on, and for me it’s really a toss-up. Give it to Swift because the range of emotions she’s able to cram into “Fifteen” is astounding, and it’s hard to do a Here’s Some Advice About Being A Teenager song—especially directed toward fifteen-year-old girls—without sounding condescending. Taylor just sounds like their big sister.

Mallory O\’Donnell: Taylor Swift should stick to exultations of adolescent love rather than wallow in the kind of moralizing upon its consequences so typical of today’s right-of-center young people. Karen O, who probably could hand out a life lesson or too about youth and time, has sensibly realized that acting your age is for assholes.

Ian Mathers: I think “Fifteen” works, despite my initial doubts about the narrative. And I admit maybe part of why I pick “Zero” is because I’m pretty sure Swift’s other song is going all the way. But that just makes it easier to kick “Fifteen” out, something I’d have to do anyway since “Zero” is the finest let’s-go-out-tonight song I’ve heard in years, and one I’ll be listening to early on Saturday nights for some time to come.

Alex Ostroff: Taylor’s “Fifteen” is understated and was the only track on the album besides “Breathe” that didn’t hook me on first listen. But is it ever a grower. I’ve said my piece (and then some) in my initial review, but my final words still apply. The rest of Fearless makes me exuberant or wistful or conflicted, but nothing else moves me in the same way.

Jordan Sargent: “Fifteen” is a pretty appropriate follow up to “You Belong With Me.” Its sweet cooing and gentle moralizing contrast nicely with the latter’s relative bombast and longing, and I like its melody better.

Andrew Casillas: This matchup leaves me a bit disheartened, because there are very few songs as exquisitely-written as “Fifteen” that get considerable airplay, but I’m going to go with “Zero.” Sure, Karen O’s lyrics don’t make a lick of sense, but this is one of the year’s best party starters.

Tom Ewing: Initially I was with the “poor single choice” camp on “Zero” but my god it’s got legs. I’ve listened to it almost as much as Fat Machine. Who would have thought in 2009 I’d have been so sold on a song which goes “Put your leather on”? How Uncut of me. “Fifteen” I was a little harsh on in its group, but it’s nowhere near as good.

Pete Baran: Whilst the Swift track at first instance looks pretty identikit county pop ballad, the storytelling is exemplary and the chorus hook is an absolute killer. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs would probably have beaten nearly anything else in this round (even Taylor’s other number), but that’s not what’s being judged.

Al Shipley: Not her best tune, but I think “Fifteen” still has growing on me to do and, well, fuck the YYYs.

David Moore: “Fifteen” sounds better in the context of Taylor’s album as a kind of opening “wandering the halls of my high school” montage (recommended: Mike Barthel on the album’s relatively linear high school narrative), while YYY’s sound better out of the context of the album but I don’t really want to give this song the extra help.

Iain Mew: Two lesser singles against each other, but “Fifteen” is not defined by not being “You Belong With Me” to quite the same extent as “Zero” is by not being “Heads Will Roll”.

Anthony Miccio: Fifteen year olds are more tolerable when they’re dancing.


“Zero” – 16 (Martin Skidmore, Mallory O’Donnell, Chris Boeckmann, Martin Kavka, Andrew Casillas, Ian Mathers, Tom Ewing, Doug Robertson, Alfred Soto, Anthony Miccio, Erika Villani, Rodney J Greene, Briony Edwards, Matt Cibula, Tal Rosenberg, Michaelangelo Matos)

“Fifteen” – 17 (Iain Mew, Chuck Eddy, Frank Kogan, Alex Macpherson, Cecily Nowell-Smith, Anthony Easton, Jessica Popper, Pete Baran, Al Shipley, Edward Okulicz, John Seroff, John M Cunningham, David Moore, Jordan Sargent, Renato Pagnani, Alex Ostroff, Jonathan Bradley)

And so “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” was trumped by “It’s got a good melody and you can empathise to it”, and joy reigned throughout the kingdom. But who shall be next to be crushed under the big acoustic wheels? Well, it’s either gonna be Phoenix or Pill, since their tie’s up next…

14 Responses to “The Singles Jukebox End-of-Year Best-Off 2009, Round 2: “Zero” vs. “Fifteen””

  1. pretty sure matos voted for “zero,” judging from his quote

  2. bob carlisle over belinda carlisle, bound to happen when you have this many wallflowers voting

  3. Was going to say.

  4. Hm I think I was thinking of Abby McDonald’s analysis in a clapclap thread. Woops! Today I’d be tempted to give my point over to YYYs to put them past Taylor. Maybe.

  5. No offence to anyone else here (including myself), but is Cecily Nowell-Smith the best writer on the Singles Jukebox or what?

  6. Yeah, her blurb is fantastic. Good job, Cecily!

  7. I voted for “Zero,” not “Fifteen.”

  8. haha posted that before I saw Anthony and Rodney’s responses, obv.

  9. Nobody is actually pregnant in “Fifteen,” right? Not sure where that came from. (And the “simple arithmetic”, if it wasn’t clear, was just 15 > 0.)

  10. Ha, Chuck, I thought you were just projecting from your own memories, upping the ante a little bit (not like it’s unheard of ofr 15 y/o’s). But yeah, not in the song at all, unless that’s what Taylor meant by saying Abigail gave “everything she had” (probably not).

  11. All my favorites are losing in this round :(

  12. Cis’s writing makes me feel as good as the best pop does. Every time I read this blurb, I think that she’s about to dismiss Taylor as completely fabricated, as someone transformed into predictability by too many _Dawson’s Creek_ episodes. And then her empathy unexpectedly comes in at the end, producing a rush of joy.

  13. I wish the powers that be would hurry up and finish this sideshow, I miss my Jukebox.

  14. […] people, and recognise it instantly and intimately as a series of conventional images.” –Cecily Nowell-Smith on Taylor Swift, over at The Singles […]