Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Taylor Swift Experiment

Don't be put off by the title. This story has a happy ending.

Because of my job, I'm usually pretty aware of what's going on in pop culture and the entertainment industry. So I knew about Taylor Swift before she got completely huge; but it was a while before I actually heard any of her music. I'm not much of a country music fan, but I'm always interested in at least sampling the phenomenon du jour. So many people rail against that sort of thing on general principles, which I guess I understand, but I like to actually inform my opinions. And hey, occasionally you come across something that's genuinely worth the hype.

At any rate, after hearing so much about her, I was looking forward to hearing for myself what the fuss was all about. My first chance to do so came with a televised live performance, which was stunning in its dreadfulness. I mean, it was just awe-inspiringly terrible. And I don't mean I just didn't like the music; I mean she was incapable of performing it. I think the phrase "couldn't carry a tune in a bucket" would be applicable here. She couldn't hit the right note to save her life. I saw little choice but to chalk it up to a bad performance and give her another chance. When that second chance rolled around, though, it was the same story: brutally bad.

I was totally flabbergasted. It was inconceivable that this person had a record deal and was allowed to perform in front of crowds, let alone how popular she was becoming. Any rational person would have just come to the conclusion "she's terrible and people have bad taste" and gone on with their lives, but I was still interested in trying to figure out what the hell was going on. It kind of lingered in the back of my mind for a while, until eventually I came up with a solution: I went to my local public library and checked out her albums (at this point there were two).

The conclusion: she's much, much better in the studio than she is live. Still nothing to get terribly excited about, in terms of her singing voice, but on disc she's at least competent. Freed from the burden of such havoc being wreaked upon your eardrums, you can actually focus on what she's singing, rather than how. She's not Bob Dylan, but her songs, lyrically, are kind of charming. Thinking back to my teenage years, I can identify with them, even being the wrong gender. And that, finally, let me understand how she became a sensation, even with bland, middle-of-the-road country-pop and no ability to perform live.

Which is all fine and good...but the real revelation in all of this was the ability to check music CDs out of the library. Of course, I was well aware that you could do this; I just had never really thought about why you might want to. I'm not sure why it had never occurred to me as a great way to check out music you're interested in, for whatever reason, but don't know much about.

I love music, but I grew up in a largely music-free household, so my exposure and knowledge was limited mostly to whatever was big on the radio at a given time. That started with the pop and hair metal of the '80s and transitioned to grunge and alternative in the '90s. I'd pick up bits and pieces of other stuff here and there, but it was pretty slim. Now I'm exploring classic rock pretty thoroughly, checking out artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, and Santana, as well as lesser-known contemporary artists like Ray LaMontagne and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (and if you aren't listening to those two, you should be). Next up I'll probably dive into some David Bowie...and maybe some Elvis. Who knows?

And then there are the Beatles. The lingering devotion to them always kind of baffled me, so I checked out a few of their discs (Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, and the White Album) pretty early on, and now I'm on board wholeheartedly. My wife Brandi gave me the box set (all their CDs, digitally remastered) for Christmas, and I've been geeking out on those ever since. And, seeking to understand their cultural significance as well as their music, I've also checked out a couple of books (yep, the library still does those too) about them. The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz is what I'm reading now, which basically just tells the chronological story of how they got together and eventually broke up. I also checked out Can't Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould, which deals more specifically with the music and the impact it had.

It's amazing where a little curiosity can lead, even when it seems totally innocuous and even a little goofy at the time.

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