Monthly Archives: November 2011

Taylor Swift — “You Belong With Me”

Released: 4.21.09       

Peak: #2

The problem with romantic comedies isn’t their rote hewing to a hackneyed plot. You could bitch the same about Dickens — handled right, predictability can be part of the fun. What rankles is the romcom refusal to acknowledge that genre cliché is a privilege, not a right. Rather than earning our sympathies, the modern boy-meets-girl hopes to buy them off with celebrity — negotiable back when Meg Ryan retained enough of her original face to still charm, downright insulting in the Katherine Heigl era.

Taylor Swift is an American girl, raised on these clichés. Her big pop breakthrough, “Love Story,” may pretend to find precedent for her infatuation in literature, but Swift gets The Scarlet Letter even wronger than she gets Romeo and Juliet because her real inspiration is far lower-brow — her climactic “Baby just say yes” is the sort of exhilarating affirmation most Hollywood product flails hopelessly toward. Swift balanced off that happy ending with the sour “White Horse” — “I’m not a princess/ This ain’t a fairy tale” reflects the bitterness that an adolescence of immersion in romantic happily-ever-afters sets you up for. (And whatever Swift’s live problems with pitch, the woman who attacks “someone who might actually treat me well” is a mighty convincing singer.)

But if its predecessors hint at their romcom heritage, “You Belong With Me,” aided by the rare video that supplements its song’s storytelling, is a full-on homage, right down to the  removal of those beauty-obscuring nerd glasses. Though concerned adult feminists heard the song as pitting girl against girl, that’s barely half the story — Swift’s unworthy competitor is a plot device. Just as the music’s nuanced power-country rocks more flexibly than much of the Nashville competition, the lyric distills the sap of Hollywood fable down to its humane essentials — that friendship should be the cornerstone of romantic love. Nothing too fairy-tale-ish about that.

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Kelly Clarkson — “I Do Not Hook Up”

Released: 4.14.08       

Peak:#20

There’s plenty to admire about Kelly Clarkson, from her unfussy good looks and normally proportioned body to her non-self-aggrandizing attempts to steer her own career. As for her music, well, we all love “Since U Been Gone.” But though no one who tells Clive Davis to shove it can be all bad, the purity and strength of Clarkson’s voice, an integral part of the attraction for her fans, sacrifices personality in the name of force, an aesthetic choice that’s always struck me as not only unempowering but uninteresting. Pat Benatar may have had her moments, but she was never Joan Jett.

After the RCA-riling personal statement My December, Clarkson surrendered to outside songwriters for All I Ever Wanted, with a noteworthy decrease in melodrama. I even warmed to its monster ballad, “Already Gone,” once So You Think You Can Dance adopted it as exit music, which is more than I can say for “Halo,” the carbon copy that two-timing hack Ryan Tedder peddled to Beyoncé. But though fun, that album’s biggest hit, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” was typical Dr. Luke blammo, its guitar too obviously replicated from “Since U Been Gone,” the entirety of the joke crammed into the title. Clarkson sounds far too proud to be half of one of those couples whose on-and-off antics annoy the rest of us. (And if you’re gonna use “dysfunctional” in a song, come up with a better rhyme than “can’t let you go.”)

“I Do Not Hook Up” was a Katy Perry leftover produced by a radio-rock dreckmeister – and, against those formidable odds, the most emotionally nuanced of Clarkson’s hits. Rather than over-relying on technique and firepower, Clarkson permits her voice to flicker alternately with pride, with flirtiness, with confusion, and with regret. She squints to see a decent man underneath the smooth mack with whom she pleads to “give up the game,” persuading herself of his worth more successfully than she persuades herself that she’s not going to bed with him. What initially presents itself as a boast of sexual autonomy reveals itself as a fight between desire and reason.