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.