A lot of things are said about clear musical geniuses, like Kanye West, Jacob Collier, and Billie Eilish, including on this blog. But I would like to consider a less obvious choice for contender with established greats like Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, and J. S. Bach. This contender, usually seen as a pretender, is nonetheless true in their musical genius, which I have previously defined as a balance between art and technique. The name? Taylor Swift.
First things first, Ms. Swift writes her own songs. Mr. West masterfully sampled soul records in his early career, while Ms. Swift was jamming on a guitar, innovating lyrics and melodies and harmonies like Billie Eilish and her brother FINNEAS. The difference is that Ms. Swift does most of the songwriting on her own, with multiple albums (including Fearless and Speak Now) containing only one main composer: Taylor herself. Granted, unlike Kanye and Finneas, Taylor is not a producer — a sphere of the musical world to which the presiding ruler of pop has not entered. Furthermore, Taylor Swift’s dancing is not as free-flowing as that of Britney Spears, following in the footsteps of Michael Jackson, whose producer Quincy Jones is the teacher of another contemporary musical genius: Jacob Collier.
Mr. Collier is an outstandingly brilliant musical analyst and practitioner. His performance is as spontaneous as his composition is meticulous. What does Ms. Swift have that is distinctive in this deafening musical chorus of indubitable brilliance?
The key to Swift’s songwriting is not Collier’s sense of harmony, or Kanye’s sense of rhythm, nor Eilish’s visual artistry, but something altogether more fundamental to music as an art form: melody.
A recent song by Billie Eilish has been making waves. It’s called ‘Happier Than Ever’ (following the album of the same title), and follows hot on the heels of Taylor Swift’s elected protege Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour, whose song ‘Traitor’ was mashed up with Happier Than Ever on YouTube. The common inspiration is Avril Lavigne, whose early music bears much resemblance to Ms. Swift’s. But Taylor has an edge in this context of rock-inspired pop, too: Taylor knows how to instil a musical ear worm in you that will never leave.
The sign of a ‘catchy’ song is not usually associated with artistry, but with bare commercial technicality. And yet, when we consider classical music, the ‘themes’ of baroque fugues, like the intro to Beethoven’s 5th symphony, are always what we remember and emphasise in appreciating the brilliance of classical music. Perhaps this is a projection of contemporary low memory spans to a time when the whole was more important than the part. But as recent analyses of Plato have suggested, the ‘dominant part’ often determines the character of the whole. And the dominant part of a song is, no doubt, the melody, of which the most important part is, no doubt, the theme — or ‘hook’, in contemporary parlance.
Swift has been accused of watering down the other aspects of popular music in pursuit of the elixir of sonic life, the ‘hook’. But Swift does not lose other aspects of music — indeed, Swift’s music contains some of the most complex lyricism in popular music, or alternative music, for that matter. Kanye certainly read Bob Dylan’s lyrics in the run-up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but there is little resemblance between the two. Taylor Swift’s lyrics are the closest music gets to poetry, while not losing sight of the sonic foundation of the song’s words. These sounds and words combine to express ideas, as in the neatly elegant song ‘invisible string’ from the defining album of 2020: folklore.
Some critics felt folklore lost some of the heavier production elements of Swift’s earlier work, reputation, which echoed the Kanye West album Yeezus while anticipating the Billie Eilish breakthrough record WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? Employing Max Martin to produce half the album, with Jack Antonoff on the other half, constituted a move of musical genius by a songwriter intent on balancing popular breadth with artistic depth (Antonoff being the brains behind the production of Lorde’s Melodrama, lauded by critics as the defining pop record of the 2010s, the equivalent of Mr. West’s Dark Fantasy in the realm of hip hop).
Then there is the signal achievement of Taylor Swift’s career, the reputation stadium tour. After releasing the pop equivalent of Mr. West’s Graduation in 2015’s dazzling 1989, Ms. Swift was forced to rekindle the long-running dispute with Mr. West after the latter releasing a song claiming to have made the former ‘famous’. A year’s retreat compelled Ms. Swift to release reputation, whose title says it all.
It may seem like one was copying the other, but this is not strictly speaking the case. Moreover, the great flaw in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the short-sightedness of the tragedy at its core: Kanye feels emptied by his own elevated sense of self, and the loss of those closest to him. He is frustrated, in Machiavelli’s terms, by a lack of virtu and fortuna alike. Luck is out of our control. Loss is out our control. Are our own actions?
reputation wrestles with this problem by deepening the search for comfort behind the blinding lights of fame. The answer is found in confronting an opposite to oneself: someone who is everything we are not. When we find this, we have two choices: to runaway, or to embrace our fate. The rest, perhaps, is up to fate.