Hint: It has everything to do with pop-punk!
When I was in college, a good friend of mine loved to put on the video for “You Belong With Me” in his room when he had visitors. It was almost like a prank: everyone would be sitting around, jabbering about the male gaze or how much they loved/hated MGMT and all of the sudden my friend would have a huge grin on his face and Taylor Swift would be pantomiming around in front of us in big glasses and a high school band uniform. It was all fun and games, of course, until he pulled this stunt for the sixth time within a month, upon which I realized, with some shock, that he actually enjoyed it: the video, the song, everything.
Four years after that song was big, his interaction with Taylor involves far less winking and many more watery eyes. I recently bought this same guy a vinyl copy of Speak Now for Christmahanukah (Word to religion being a social construct word to Wesleyan word to destroying the patriarchy) and the only reason I didn’t buy him a copy of Red is that I had recently bought one for myself. We are not alone: these days my Twitter and Facebook timelines are peppered with thirsty twenty-something straight dudes making casual jokes about Taylor Swift’s new album or some deep cut they just discovered on Spotify. What on Earth is going on?
Well, fortunately, we can blame at least the initial stages of this recent indie embrace on identity politics and ingenious sex marketing. For one thing, Swift’s public/artistic persona is essentially an attempt to make the “manic pixie dream girl” as general and timeless as possible, sort of like if Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State had The Shins surgically removed. While it was a persona originally intended to be relatable to awkward tween girls who needed anthems and a role model, it turns out that skewing hard to the right on the short skirts/t-shirts spectrum is very appealing to nerdy, awkward, Romantic twenty-sometime straight men as well.
I’m sorry to have to use this word, but irony is the biggest of the multiple elephants in this room. In a world where indie style is becoming increasingly ubiquitous with the mainstream and commercial, one of the easiest ways to surprise and intimidate people with your music taste is to begin exploring the wildly unexpected. Ever wonder why a lot more white dudes you know are really interested in trap rap? Bingo. What Taylor Swift has that rap music mostly does not, however, is cuteness. That undeniably warm feeling that you get with a flourish of Facebook likes or Twitter favorites can be as addictive as caffeine and there’s no faster and more reliable way to get them than a well-placed post about how much you like “I Knew You Were Trouble” when people thought you only listened to shit like The Disintegration Loops.
Fortunately for the music lovers of the world, boners and retweets do not translate directly into true fandom. One of the things they don’t tell you about irony in all of those think pieces is that while, yes, it is a very pervasive element of the culture of our generation, it’s not nearly as powerful as its haters want to believe. It certainly will never compete with direct, sincere enjoyment. I admit that I have been a little bit over-enthusiastic about my love of Taylor Swift at various social functions, but telling somebody you like and relate to Red is one thing, buying the vinyl copy from Amazon and giddily tearing the box open while you hide in your bedroom is another. Fandom may begin tangentially, but hard iTunes play counts cannot lie.
Taylor Swift is in many ways, offering many music nerds get-out-of-jail-free card. Her music exists in the relatively modest span between pop-country and pop-rock. White suburban millennial youth grew up in an era of pervasive pop-rock, roughly bounded between 2001 and 2007. From Jimmy Eat World to My Chemical Romance to Brand New, most of the bands that came within my frame of musical reference shared a few key characteristics: heightened emotion, fiery choruses, and taut instrumentation. As the high-minded teenager that I was, my band of choice was prog-pop outfit Coheed and Cambria, well-known for singing extensively about robot comics, but the pop-mechanics of their music are largely an augmented version of the same well-oiled musical gears.
While many of us may have rejected the full-frontal simplicity of pop-rock once we discovered the full-frontal depth that bands like Radiohead offered to validate our newfound sense of self-importance, pop-rock has remained almost completely unmolested, parthenon-like in its lucid integrity, the young Taylor Swift gallantly holding one of its many column’s aloft. Listening now to 2010’s “The Story of Us” the connection to the Coheed of my youth is remarkably clear, from the near-identical guitar tone, the flamboyantly stuttery drums, and the climactic instrumental dropouts.
So why didn’t we glom onto this poor woman the last time she put out an album (arguably her best) or even earlier, when she initially became an internationally famous millionaire at the age of 18? Some have blamed the album’s vague indie shading as the major culprit: fedoras, fashionably filtered album photography, slightly more adventurous musical styles, the use of the word “record.” I, however, tend to blame this on the rise of indie as an unavoidable cultural force, rather than an attempt to absorb what is actually a very small core demographic. For one thing, she defensively throws shade at hipsters both in interviews as well as in multiple songs (her ex Jake Gyllenhaal is one apparently). More importantly, she simply doesn’t have the time for our fickle tastes. It's telling that the two guests on the album are Ed Sheeran and the dude from Snow Patrol, two guys from the UK that you definitely don’t care about. While someone like Big Boi might have the time for pandering to music nerds with guys like Wavves on his album, Taylor has longer money to chase.
It's really just kind of a happy coincidence that so many twenty-something dudes have turned to Taylor Swift. Having come out of college into an economy that impresses upon us a rash of harsh realities our time sequestered in the ivory tower didn't prepare us for, many of us have found ourselves re-evaluating what we actually enjoy and why we enjoy it. At the same time, Taylor has been maturing and reevaluating in her own parallel universe. Now a twenty-something herself, she has delivered what, without exaggeration, can be called a mature pop album. It just so happens that by doing so she has managed to meet our demographic in the middle on our way down and let large segments of country and pop music loose into the once pure world of indie music nerdery. All we really need now is a Pitchfork cosign. Seriously guys, help us out.
Want more Taylor Swift? Fear not, poptimists!
Colin Small is a Men's Rights Activist (JUST KIDDING HE WENT TO WESLEYAN) and is on Twitter - @ColinSSmall