Me, before seeing Beauty & the Beast: I love Emma Watson.
Me, after seeing Beauty & the Beast: I AM 100% HEAD OVER HEELS IN LOVE WITH EMMA WATSON. JFC SHE IS SO TALENTED. AND SMART. AND FUNNY. AND BEAUTIFUL. GIVE HER ALL THE AWARDS. GIVE HER THE MOON AND THE STARS. SHE DESERVES IT ALL.
Why Taylor Swift Is The Greatest Living Songwriter (Under 60) Taylor
I recently found myself at a BMI Awards dinner where the song publishing rights organization was handing out some career achievement awards, the first of which went to the classic ‘60s team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. And then they gave one to Taylor Swift, in one of those cases where they have to name the award to the person it’s being given to because it feels a little too uncomfortable to give the standard “lifetime” award to someone in her 20s. In her speech, Swift gave props to her elders: “I first wanted to say to Cynthia Weil, to Barry Mann, and to Carole King, you, the Brill Building, your legacy, are the reason we do what we do. Many of us in this room can’t dream of accomplishing what you guys have accomplished.”
Except she already has. And (heresy alert!) more. Swift is a rightful heir to the Brill Building tradition, with all the mastery of pop craftsmanship that entails, but she’s also the finest contemporary inheritor we have to the confessional singer/songwriter throne. She’s Barry Mann and Bruce Springsteen, together in one silver metallic mini dress-wearing package. That’s why I say Taylor Swift is our greatest living songwriter—under-60 division, just to be safe. But I digress.
I am glad I’m alive in the prime era of Taylor Swift the same way I felt glad to be alive in the half-century of Dylan and Springsteen and The Beatles and Costello. I’ve leaned forward into my first listens to 1989 and Red the same way I thirsted for the on-sale moments of The River and Nebraska and Imperial Bedroom and Time Out of Mind. These are the moments — all too infrequent in the 2010s, if you’re a recovering rock snob — that you live for as a music fan and especially singer/songwriter aficionado: the opening of a magazine you subscribe to, in which the editor-publisher has promised to bleed onto every page in some fashion. You look forward to admiring the craft and you want to know that you’ve been handed the next six months’ or year’s worth of earworms all at once. But most of all you want to feel you’re about to make that passionate connection with a deep-feeler who knows you better than your own best excuse for a best friend.
Where Swift is most like the great confessional rock writers, and least like the Brill Building set, is in her propensity to fill her songs with seemingly stray details. If you’re writing by the books, you learn early on not to include random asides that throw listeners out of the commonality of the lyric. But Springsteen, Dylan, Costello, et al. have faith that, whatever is lost in relatability by including something specifically autobiographical is a gain for fans who know that that weird minutiae confirms the rest of the emotions as authentic. When Swift interrupts Out of the Woods to mention “Twenty stitches in a hospital room/Remember when you hit the brakes too soon,” that’s about as un-Brill as Bruce talking about Crazy Janey and Greaser Lake. But the specificity of the bridge makes the universality of chorus more meaningful, even if the unstable relationship you’re being reminded of by the song didn’t involve a visit to the ER. It may seem peculiar to the 21st century that we can confirm who the significant others in Swift’s songs are by picking out lyrical details about eye colors or fire signs or scarves and checking them against her exes. But is finding out whether All Too Well was about Jake or Harry that terribly different than the thrill of figuring out whether Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe was about Suzi or Joan, but with Google taking the place of waiting years for a biography?
The position that Swift is Actually Quite Awesome is not nearly as controversial among the older white guy set than it would have been a few years ago. You only get a B for courage now, not the former A, if you speak up at a cocktail party and say, “No, I don’t mean it’s good for what it is, or she’s a positive role model for my daughter or a gateway drug to Courtney Barnett, I mean she is truly the shit.” (Crickets may still ensue, mind you, if no longer outright shaming.) You can attribute this in part to Ryan Adams, whose album-length cover version of '1989’ did a fairly excellent job of indie-splaining Swift to people who only needed to hear that her songs could be rearranged in the styles of The Smiths and Elliott Smith to sign off on her. As much as I enjoy Adams’ '1989’, it falls just a little short as reinvention, or revelation: You kind of sense him wanting to get credit for being the first to discover that Swift’s frothiest sounding songs all have minor chords and melancholy under the Max Martin-ization. The real problem with Adams’ interpretations—which is not a fatal problem, given how good Wildest Dreams sounds as an R.E.M. song—is that he doesn’t really have that much use for the words, given how uninterested he is in emphasizing particular words or phrases and how he throws away some of the best lines. (To be fair, this is pretty much Adams’ approach toward his own lyrics, too.) Not that with Swift the lyrics are everything, when she has such a gift for melodic delights and surprises… but, yeah, the words are kind of everything.
Going back to Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut now, it sounds a little primitive, in retrospect. Which is fine: “primitivist” is exactly what you’d expect or hope for from a girl who released at 16 an album of songs she’d mostly written at 14 and 15. No one should sound 30 as a teenager, unless she’s Fiona Apple. (Hearing Apple’s eloquent teen jadedness when she was a freshman artist felt as impressive and spooky as Captain Howdy’s voice coming out of Regan MacNeil’s mouth.) At the time, it was a widely held assumption that co-writer Liz Rose was the brains of the operation. But you couldn’t help but notice that the best song on the album, Our Song, was a solo Swift composition, penned before she had access to the best song editors Music Row could offer. It sounded utterly conversational , establishing Swift’s knack for writing in complete sentences in a way that sounds completely diaristic and completely musical. It embraced both metaphor (“Our song is the slamming screen door”) and the meta (being one of those songs that is self-conscious about how it is, in fact, a song). It was winsome, guileless, and juvenile—in the best way—on top of being freakily expert for a song written by an underclassman for a school talent show.
Two years later (Swift’s follow-up albums have always been two years later, up until now), she came up with Fearless, which was so much more accomplished that it won her the Grammy for Album of Year, the first time that’d been accomplished by a record made by a teenager. But looking back at it now, you can see it was the only time she ever really marked time, stylistically, as a record-maker. The breakthrough that mattered was 2010’s Speak Now, which was her first real “pop album” (at least for those of us who pay attention to content and not the officially mandated tropes that insisted that honor belongs to '1989’). Just this once, she wrote the entire album by herself, in a rather deliberate F-you to everyone who figured she’d been propped up by Nashville pros. Similar auteurist turns by pop and country artists with points to prove have not always gone so spectacularly but Swift used the opportunity not just to defend but to diversify, as great writers and investors will. This DIY show of tour-de-force ran the gauntlet of effervescent girl-group pop (the title song), Evanescence goth-rock (Haunted), cheerful neo-bluegrass (Mean), girl-on-mean-girl pop-punk (Better Than Revenge), and even a token transitional single in the country-folk style of the first two albums (Mine).
'1989’ is the masterpiece of her career so far
'Speak Now’ also incidentally included the most searing, stark, boldly confessional song by a major artist since John Lennon’s Cold Turkey. (Hyperbole intended.) This was Dear John, a slow, epic-length missive to a love-'em-young-and-leave-'em type that was jaw-dropping in its vulnerability and rage. Never mind the lucky stroke that apparently had the rock star who used and discarded Swift being a guy really named John; Swift does like her literalism, so she probably wouldn’t written a public dear-John letter to a Tom, Dick, or (even) Harry. It’s a ballad that creates the illusion of the artist having vomited onto the page—for those of us who like that sort of thing—but actually belies a severe level of craft beneath the bile. The song rises to an emotional victory, as Swift goes from paying witness to “all the girls that you’ve run dry (that) have tired, lifeless eyes 'cause you’ve burned them out” to being the one who “took your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now: I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town.” Compare this to the other great fireworks song of 2010, Katy Perry’s, and there is simply no pyromaniacal contest.
With 'Red’ another couple of years later, she bid a fond F-you to her own previous F-you and reintroduced co-writers to her stable, now adding Max Martin and Shellback as collaborators on a choice trio of songs, as if to say: I dare you to knock this block off. Aside from the handful of tracks with those guys, though, 'Red’ felt more like a classic singer/songwriter album than anything she’d done before or certainly since. It was all about lost love, and hardly for the first time, but now Swift was jettisoning her “better than revenge” approach to achieving payback in song and taking equal responsibility for relational failures, and it was all very sensitive and self-examining and enlightened. So when I got my first listen to the determinedly frothier '1989’ a couple of years still later, I lamented the loss of the previous album’s hard-fought breakthroughs in songwriting maturity.
Lamented it for about two minutes, that is. '1989’ is the masterpiece of her career, so far, and that’s not withstanding the thick gloss of candy coating that covered the whole endeavor now that Martin was fully on board as guiding executive producer as well as hands-on guy on about half the tracks. The meme favored by some critics, that Swift had sold out on us with all this interference by the reigning kings of the pop machinery—and after all we’d done to defend her as an artiste!—was misguided even by the usual standards of stick-up-one’s-ass bias and entitlement. It may seem counter-intuitive, for those of us who usually live and die by singer/songwriter yardsticks, to say that '1989’ is Swift’s most mature album, when there is barely a guitar anywhere in earshot for the singer’s tears to fall upon. But as it turns out, it is possible to talk intelligently, walk in rhythm, and chew bubblegum at the same time.
Yes, '1989’ is a less outrightly emotional album than any of its predecessors. Swift herself has said it’s the first time she wasn’t writing in the wake of a heartache. And that’s part of what makes the album so seasoned and smart. If all the previous albums were her “breakup album,” '1989’ is her maybe-we-are-ever-getting-back-together album. It’s about being just a little bit rueful about past relationships—in a less world-ending, drama queen-y fashion than the take-no-prisoners approach that admittedly made a lot of us fall for her in the first place – and largely about that impulse to reconnect, even as you sit by the phone and consider what a terrible idea that would be. She’s thinking back on a breakup that wasn’t that traumatic (possibly one with Harry Styles, if we’re to take the cheeky title of Style literally), and considering every negative and possible angle to rekindling an old flame. As a result, a lot of the songs on '1989’ are about mixed emotions, which are by and large the hardest kind to write.
She understands more brilliantly the power of dynamics — that even the most grandiose song can benefit by suddenly getting completely naked for 40 seconds.
And here is where we quote another great pop writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Swift is showing us that first-rate intelligence when she encapsulates the divisions we all experience as we find the good and bad in people, lovers and otherwise: “You always knew how to push my buttons/You give me everything and nothing.” “Ten months sober, I must admit/Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it.” “This love is good, this love is bad/This love is alive, back from the dead.” As the CEO of her own corporation, Swift has had a lot of time to think about risk/reward ratios. Grappling with that in matters of love is part of her giftedness and increasing talent as a writer.
I think again of the congratulations Ryan Adams got for bringing out the sadder emotional undercurrents in '1989’’s material. He deserves some of it, but it’s not as if Swift didn’t make that a fairly easy discovery. Bad Blood is the most blatantly confectionary song on '1989,’ with a sing-song-y quality of the chorus makes you think Avril Lavigne, if you’re making comparisons. But would Avril, or any other pop star you can bring to mind, have interrupted the beats and chants for a lengthy, virtually a cappella bridge that brings the mood down with its warnings about bullet holes and living with ghosts? It’s akin to the hyper-produced song on her previous album, I Knew You Were Trouble, where Swift puts an end to all the dubstep to very quietly wonder, almost sotto voce, whether the object of her affections ever loved her, the other girl, “or anyone.” In the big beat era, she understands more brilliantly the power of dynamics—that even the most grandiose song can benefit by suddenly getting completely naked for 40 seconds.
Blank Space, meanwhile, shows Swift to have under-heralded skills as maybe the greatest comedy writer since Eminem. As probably everyone who wasn’t completely divorced from pop culture in 2015 knows, Swift wrote it as a sort of spoof of her own image as a serial romancer (which is to say, a girl known for dating about half as many partners as a typical guy her age). When she says she’s got a blank space “and I’ll write your name,” it’s understood that she means she’ll write an excoriating song about the dude later on—she’s in on that joke. But amid the nearly Randy Newman-esque humor and exaggeration, there’s a real undercurrent of pain and possible self-knowledge. The time limits that come up in lines like “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend” and “Find out what you want/Be that girl for a month” don’t sound like they’re being played strictly for ironic laughs.
She is maybe the greatest comedy writer since Eminem.
Is she a spokeswoman for a generation? You might be on thin ice using that kind of phraseology for someone who spends so little time writing outside of the relational realm. But Swift does have an understanding of impermanence that seems uniquely millennial. She’s talked about how she looks at the length of her parents’ marriage and no longer takes it as a given she’ll find a lifetime partnership, which would probably come as a surprise to the younger Swift who wrote Love Story. But she finds a haunting beauty in what we might call planned obsolescence. “Wildest Dreams” pulls off the particularly tricky time-traveling feat of looking ahead to a future in which you’re looking back to the past… and of being intensely sexy and rueful at the same time. “You’ll see me in hindsight, tangled up with you all night, burning it down,” she sings. “Someday when you leave me, I bet these memories follow you around.” That moment when you’re in the heat of passion, leaving your body just long enough to realize you’ll be nostalgic for it someday? If you’ve ever experienced it, you probably never thought somebody would nail it in a song.
Not that you have to be a millennial to be capable of considering how things are likely to end even in the midst of everything going right. I was trying to remember what song the future-nostalgia of “Wildest Dreams” reminded me of, in some weird, roundabout way, and then it came to me: Dylan’s You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. It’s maybe heretical to compare the bard with this girl from the north country, but not so heretical to say: Great minds wistfully think alike. And we should all feel a little lonely if either of them ditched us.
The cool metal met her skin causing her heart to beat even faster than it already was. She was always so brave through it all, she walked into a suicide mission without a second glance, why now was she more afraid now than she’d ever been? Her eyes scattered wildly across the crowd searching for a focus creating a blur of colors that made her head turn..
White. The spinning stopped and Princess Leia stood there wearing a beautiful white gown,smiling at her.
"Congratulations. Welcome home."
Jyns eyes welled with tears. For the first time, she had a place where she belonged.
An overwhelming sense of pride swallowed him whole. Standing in this position was all he had dreamed of since he was a little boy. Now here he was, receiving a medal from the princess herself. Cassian held in his smile. He couldn’t allow himself to be too happy, he didn’t feel as if he deserved it in the fear of becoming complacent. The Captain bowed his head to Leia.
Cassians slowly glanced up at the princess.What?
Leia squeezed his shoulder.
Cassian beamed, he couldn’t help it. He stood straight, accepting his joy. This wasn’t the end, because he didn’t want it to be.
Chirrut who is usually so open and free, felt truly humbled standing in front of that crowd. He focused, trying to tell how many there must have been, but the noise was far louder than numbers. Chirrut switched his attention to the medal he held in his hand. He felt the engraving of his name etched into its side to praise him. So much had been given to him his life, this reward, these people. Never was he so inspired to give back. He was one with the force, but he was also one with his team.
As if standing behind the rest of the rogue ones leaders could hide him from the hundreds of people staring, Baze still tried it. His head lowered, he was ashamed. All of these people dead, and still he was getting a reward? The work wasn’t over! Why were people still cheering when the Empire was still standing and ready? It just didn’t feel right. He wanted to fight.
Princess Leia called him forward to receive his medal. He complied begrudgingly and hurt. The medal felt like 1000 pounds around his neck. The Princess leaned over to him inconspicuously.
“Is there something wrong?”
“The war isn’t over.”
Leia laughed. Baze’s eyes widened, appalled at this unexpected reaction.
“Yes.” She said. “But we need the inspiration. I’m looking to you to inspire us to fight.” Princess Leia looked at him expectantly. “Can you do that Baze?”
His heart paused a moment while looking at the princess’ knowing eyes. He had to push himself more than he did anyone else and he was ready to start. Baze gulped.
Bodhi giggled, he felt like he was leaping through the air out of excitement for his new friends. The Rogue One team were standing in a line onstage in front of him while he watched from the audience as they . Each of them had worked so hard and sacrificed so much, they truly deserved this recognition. He clapped giddily as Baze was given the last medal of the ceremony. He couldn’t wait to congratulate them all himself and most of all thank them. It was because of them he has a place to call home. Taking in the scene, Bodhi noticed a glimmer in the princess’ hand.
Who’s giving Leia her medal?
The left over award must have been for her, she was the only other one of importance who had helped in the situation. Leia turned to the line of rogue one members and looked over them. It looked like she was counting them, but found nothing she needed. She turned back around to face the crowd.
He choked. What did she just say?
“Would Bodhi Rook please step forward?”
The people that were around Bodhi parted like the Red Sea leaving him alone in the spotlight. “M-Me?” He sputtered, fumbling with his hair. Leia chuckled and rolled her eyes. “You.”
Shakily, he came up onto the stage, taking a place next to Baze at the end of their line. Leia approached him. She seemed to think it was cute how truly shocked he was. She laid the medal around his neck. “Congratulations Pilot.”
Bodhi couldn’t even wait for the applause to die, he wasn’t listening. He grasped the gold tightly in his palm and brought it to his face. It shone in the sun making him think of the stars. He smiled.
It was pure amazement. Amazement that he could actually change what he had been before. This medal represented that for him.
This was a great challenge!! It was hard and needs some tweaks but I liked it because it felt very personal to each character. It’s truly amazing what they did out there dude and it must’ve been (would’ve been) a lot to process. Dang y’all. Hitting me with the deep requests.
You have a daughter. Brianna. Named after your father, just as I promised. Jamie, I was angry at you for such a long time. You made me go and live a life that I didn’t want to live. But you were right, damn you. Brianna was safe and loved and raised well. But sometimes, oh, when she turns and the light catches her red hair or I see her smile in her sleep It takes my breath away because I see you.