A while back there was a posting on CatholicVote.org comparing the music and lyrics of two prominent female pop stars: Adele and Taylor Swift. It caught my eye partly because the topic is somewhat atypical for CatholicVote but also because, like the article’s author, I am the father of teen girls and my ears are regularly drenched in the sounds of those two artists in particular.
The article focused on how the lyrical themes in the music reflected their respective families and countries of origin (England and America) and how this played out in their different takes on relationships. It was an interesting observation and gave me pause for thought. But I was a bit taken aback by a couple of comments on the article which expressed complete disdain for all things pop culture and pop lyrics in particular.
While I can sympathize with the view that there is much to be avoided in our popular culture I would offer that an honest assessment of the music of the two artists in question would, at the very least, acknowledge some tremendous songwriting and spectacularly gifted performances.
I should state at the outset that I would never be accused of unqualified praise of the world of pop culture. No doubt there are many who have been irritated by my perhaps inflated expectations for even the simplest works of self-expression. Yet it is clear that we live in a time where the three-minute pop anthem is commonplace and appeals to a broad, if generally younger, audience. The best of this music is certainly worth considering and reflecting upon the appeal and the artistry involved in its creation.
My first encounter with Adele’s voice was a bit of a surprise. A few years ago a bride requested that I play her version of “Make You Feel My Love” as a part of her wedding.
I gave it a cursory listen and agreed to do it, but after several more listens working out an instrumental version of the melody I was really taken by the lyrics and particularly the vocal delivery the young singer. With a bit of searching I was not terribly surprised to find that the words and the tune were from the well-seasoned pen of Bob Dylan.
What did surprise me was that the original song was from an album of his that had been in my collection for years but had received very few listens. Unlike his earlier work, I simply didn’t find the songs that moving. (Dylan fans—Fr. Robert Barron?—might be appalled but while I can recognize the genius in Dylan’s songwriting, I find his voice to be a distraction from his work of the last twenty years. A voice with character is one thing; a drunken murmur is quite another.) And yet his song, in this new setting, sounded so fresh that I hadn’t even made the connection. Adele’s performance is easy, effortless and filled with the emotional power that comes with such an honest delivery. There is an immediacy in her tone, unaffected and raw, but not tortured. It rings true.
The maturity in Adele’s instrument is no accident—she’s been working on it for years. In an interview for Westword.com she credits Ella Fitzgerald as a vocal influence, “She’s like an acrobat with her voice.” Classic and contemporary American music has more generally colored her sound. Critics may wring their hands over whether Adele is “pop” or “soul” or “R&B” but no matter—her work reveals a young woman with a gifted voice capable of tapping into often painful realms of emotion. Though sometimes dark, she doesn’t stoop to mawkish self-loathing or calculated diatribes.
Adele’s more recent work offers an adventurous style, from the odd rock grooves in “Rumour Has It” to the quirky cross-measured phrases in “Turning Tables.” And she is wise enough to team with other songwriters and to turn to production veterans such as Rick Rubin for capturing convincing studio performances.
It has been suggested that her voice outshines her songwriting but she’s no slouch as a wordsmith either, evidenced by her inventive and evocative titles. At first glance they seem common enough, typical pop song fare. But upon closer inspection the images are arresting. What exactly does it mean to “set fire to the rain” or to be “rolling in the deep”? The pictures are strange and yet the meaning is engagingly clear. This is poetry. Presented with her extraordinary voice, the words are powerful and yes, even at times transcendent—not in the way of a Bach Cantata, but in a way that connects to a soul struggling through the modernity.
While Adele channels her British R&B style through a Nashville muse, her contemporary Taylor Swift started her career in that “Music City.” The Swift family’s now-famous move to Nashville for the possibilities it might offer their now-famous daughter is enshrined in pop culture legend. But proximity to the business is hardly a guarantee to success.
Beginning her work as a professional songwriter at the tender age of fourteen, Swift writes with the consummate craftsmanship of a songwriter twice her age. She has a gift for the turn of phrase and catchy, musical hooks. And while she worked with co-writers for her sophomore release Fearless, on her follow-up album, Speak Now, she flew solo. Both contain nary a weak song between them and the sales and avalanche of accolades are a testament to that fact. Songwriters who know how difficult the craft can be are quick to recognize the talent of the young girl from Pennsylvania. She knows how to tell a story and to intrigue you to sing along as she does.
Taylor Swift also has a remarkably down-to-earth public image and a seemingly generous spirit both in her praise for her contemporaries and in charitable work. If her autobiographical entries are to be believed she seems to genuinely like her family and friends. No parent could deny the poignancy of lyrics so lovingly penned to her mother in “The Best Day.” It’s true that occasionally Swift’s lyrics reveal her age and a still-maturing moral perspective. And, like Adele’s work, failed relationships make up the bulk of her lyrical focus, but this is hardly unusual for a writer of any time or place. Is it possible to write honestly or movingly without examining this constant of human history?
Perhaps her most unintended praise come from some liberal feminists who, oddly enough, find her interest in innocence and chivalry offensive to the “modern woman.”
In response to Taylor Swift fans being slighted in a Salon magazine article, National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez opined, “What many of her songs embody is something Salon doesn’t understand: a rooted goodness, and higher expectations than instant gratification, both for herself and for those she loves.”
None of this is to say that these two artists are somehow perfect role models for our youth. Being still quite young themselves they have both, not surprisingly, stumbled along the path of fame and all of the difficulties it brings. But they are both gifted storytellers and it is good to recognize the power of good storytelling because it is through these stories that we better understand ourselves and our human condition.
There is much working against us in this age, not least of which is popular culture—film, television, music and internet. Parents have an obligation to be cognizant of the music their children are listening to and even that which they are listening to themselves. We will most certainly find moments when we have to sort out the bad apples. But we also have an obligation to acknowledge the good and the beautiful—especially when they appear in unexpected places.
• “Despite four Grammy nominations, Adele is figuring out how to be herself” by Michael Roberts (Jan 22 2009)
• “Swift Teens Speak Now: Girl Scouts go rogue” by Kathryn Jean Lopez, (National Review Online, May 23, 2011)