The 23-year-old singer/songwriter who penned these lyrics was writing about the unraveling of a passionate and public love affair. Fans had followed the relationship, watched the couple strolling arm and arm down New York City streets, glimpsed the two, her head on his shoulder, stealing kisses in flashbulb glare. Known in part for snarky wit and lyrical take-downs of romantic partners, the singer/songwriter faced minor critical ire for this particular song. “A self-pitying, one-sided account,” one critic wrote. However, the singer/songwriter says,“behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain.”
Disney Princess lyrics, public East Coast strolls, a song based on a relationship gone wrong—you’re already sharpening your commenting talons aren’t you? Come on, another piece about Taylor Swift? Stay with me. This is the M Night Shymalan* of Taylor Swift pieces. No, you don’t find out she’s actually dead, but it does have a twist ending.
Notorious for her public dating life, the seven-time Grammy award winner has faced a growing backlash concerning her tendency to write about her relationships. From Tina Fey’s Golden Globes swipe (“Taylor Swift, you stay away from Michel J Fox’s son”), to countless snide journalistic asides (“You would think that Swift would have learned her lesson by now.”) public perception holds that when Swift compacts love’s pain and beauty into lyrical nuggets, she’s doing something laughable, even wrong.
In “Dear John,” for example, Swift channels pathos and confusion. More bitter bash than sophisticated reflection, the song is a wound-licking retort to an older lover who “changed the rules every day.” Though Swift has never overtly identified those depicted in any of her songs, “Dear John” is likely about former boyfriend, musician John Mayer. At least Mayer seems to think so.
When asked by Rolling Stone about his possible depiction, Mayer injected some bitterness of his own. “I know she’s the biggest thing in the world right now, but it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait till he gets a load of this!’ That’s bullshit.” Though he admitted the song “made me feel terrible,” Mayer focused on attacking Swift’s music cred rather than her moral compass. “I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting,” he said.
While a discussion about a writer’s choice to make more or less obvious the subject of a song can be relevant, Mayer’s implication that by writing about her life Swift undermines her credibility as a musician defies logic. It’s a singer/songwriter’s job to turn pain to poetry, life into art. Songwriting is not office romance. One has no obligation to keep it separate from work, rather, it is the work. We understand this when it comes to male artists but not to females.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s talk about Bob Dylan. That seems apropos of nothing, you might say, to which I reply (also in French, therefore beating you at your own game) Au contraire. Think back to the lyrics and description that opened this post. You pictured Taylor Swift and another former fling, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, didn’t you? Well, swing away, Merill, you should have been picturing Bob and Suze.
It’s hard to believe that Dylan, he of the social protest songs, the 11 Grammys, the 50-plus year career, compared the end of his relationship with girlfriend Suze Rotolo to a king and queen tumbling to pieces, but hey, he was twenty-three, let’s cut the kid some slack. In “Ballad in Plain D,” Dylan reveals his final fraught months with Rotolo, taking jabs at her family along the way. He writes:
Though he wishes Rotolo well:
Dylan’s one-sided, at times self-pitying account of the fight which led to their breakup casts Rotolo’s “parasitic” sister in an unflattering light.
On the subject of Dylan’s decision to use their relationship as fodder for his work, Rotolo said “art was his outlet, his exorcism. It was healthy. That was the way he wrote out his life, the loving songs, the cynical songs, the political songs, they are all part of the way he saw his world and lived his life, period.”
Obviously John Mayer and Suze Rotolo are different people weighing in at different times, but I’d venture to suggest that sexism plays a role in the tenure of their responses. Women are accustomed to being put into the passive role of muse. Men are not. As a society we accept even embrace the male artist’s desire to include his muse in his work. For example, when Dylan used a photo of himself and Rotolo as cover art for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the picture became iconic. Interestingly, critic Janet Maslin wrote that the image “inspired countless young men to hunch their shoulders, look distant, and let the girl do the clinging.”
Now imagine the backlash if Swift had chosen to stick a similar picture of herself and say, Jake Gyllenhaal on the cover of her recent release, Red? Would young women be inspired to throw an arm around their lover’s shoulder and gaze laughing to the horizon, or would society instead attack Swift’s musicianship, accuse her of an unseemly conflation of the private and the public?
Arguably, a comparison between Dylan and Swift can only go so far. Dylan’s protest songs fueled a cultural movement. His career has been built on a prescient ability to take creative chances which keep him several steps ahead of fan expectations. Swift’s career is only beginning (though it bears noting she’s already only four Grammys behind.) Still, before you jump on the Swift-mocking band wagon, think for a moment about what’s actually shaping your response. Do you personally find the relationship between Swift’s dating life and her writing abhorrent, or could it be that underlying sexism is at play?
*This article has been brought to you by someone who still really likes M Night Shyamalan.