Taylor Swift works within the well-worn cliché of phenomenon. At 23, the country music star turned global behemoth is a chart-conquering, CoverGirl-endorsing, one-woman cottage industry; a superstar so unavoidable that at times the Pennsylvania native seems like she is her own musical genre. And the T.S. genre - a bankable mix of perpetually heartbroken teen-aimed anthems, boy-crazy tabloid drama, and unbridled girl-power enthusiasm - is big business.
Swift also happens to be the lead cheerleader in pop music’s increasingly unsophisticated downward spiral that includes the likes of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and One Direction. But this dramatic lowering of the bar hasn’t always been the case.
For decades music acts that catered exclusively to a much younger demographic happily worked below the adult levels of popular visionaries that dared to go beyond formula or script. If Debbie Gibson was too playground for your liking, there was always Madonna - who was busy pissing off the Catholic Church by kissing a black Jesus (oh, the horror!) in the controversial video for her brilliant 1989 single Like A Prayer. If New Kids On The Block was more in your little sister’s lane, the sex-personified Prince was there to scare the living hell out of your parents while raising your musical IQ with an ingenious hybrid funk-rock-pop sound that rarely repeated itself. It was proof that popular music at its highest form could be fun, smart and dangerous.
Even during the late ‘90s when the likes of Britney Spears, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys dominated the charts - with their cult-like followings and publicity machine on full blast—the TRL show favourites were viewed within reasonable context. Sure they sold a shit load of albums, but the public didn’t look to them to be musical leaders. Sophisticated listeners demanded they evolve, and some indeed did just that (see: Britney, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake).
Taylor Swift is ruling her kingdom with as much emotional and artistic depth as a Goosebumps book. Yes, her latest single, Everything Has Changed, finds the talented artist moving into more mature realms (“All I know since yesterday is everything has changed/And all my walls stood tall painted blue/But I'll take them down, take them down and open up the door for you…”). And her overall cultural impact should not be dismissed. Swift’s latest effort, Red, has moved more than 5 million copies (and counting) internationally. According to a May 17 Billboard report, her Red Tour is leading the concert box office race with over $15 million in tickets sold. Swift, who has now graduated from arenas to that rare territory of football stadiums, is coming off a monster year in which she took in $57 million.
Yet Swift, who writes most of her own material - an aberration in today’s microwave music scene -has built her sizable fame on pubescent-tailored sing-alongs such as “You Belong To Me,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and “22.” When she cries, “Knew you were trouble when you walked in/So shame on me now” on the aptly-titled “I Knew You Were Trouble,” it’s as if Swift is channelling all the unfiltered heartbreak of 13-year-old girls everywhere. Indeed, for such a natural talent, it’s the kind of pedestrian line that leaves you wanting more from the older, guitar-strumming American doll.
However, Bieber, Gomez and One Direction makes Swift seem like the second-coming of Joni Mitchell.
When the 19-year-old Biebs isn’t being chased down by ex-NFL players for reckless driving or getting booed at an award show, he’s headlining a scream-inducing, sold-out world tour and extending his streak of platinum-plus releases. However, despite such immense success, Bieber is still struggling to be taken seriously as an artist. Believe has stumbled in its bid to garner the Canadian performer his own Justified. The kid seems light years away from the respectability that Timberlake finally achieved with his 2002 solo debut. Bieber’s on-again/off again girlfriend Gomez, 20, is picking from even lower hanging fruit with her faux Middle Eastern pop smash Come & Get It, a lifeless track that’s as sexy as a $55 light bill.
These baby acts would do well to study pop music history beyond copping a move or style. The most commercially successful star of the ‘80s era, the late Michael Jackson, coloured outside the big-boy lines despite his peerless appeal to younger fans. Forget Maury Povich. Grade-school kids were singing their little hearts out to 1982’s Billie Jean, a landmark single on which our glove-wearing protagonist protested that the kid was not his son!***
So how did today’s world-beating pop stars become so infantile? How have they at times eclipsed their more adventurous pop contemporaries like Bruno Mars, Rihanna or Pink? Follow the money. At a time when a sluggish music industry is steadily shrinking (2012 RIAA sales figures show a 0.9 percent drop in overall sales to $7.1 billion, a disappointing number compared to 2011 when sales actually rose to 0.2 percent), the recording biz will gladly take what it can get. That means more acts in the mode of One Direction, currently the biggest pop group on the planet. More than a decade ago, the rag-tag British outfit would have struggled to keep up with D-league boy band 98 Degrees. But in 2013, boasting millions of Twitter followers equals the new platinum. Within today’s social media-driven market, youth culture has not only completely taken over; it’s gotten decisively younger.
What you are left with is 19-year-old, shaggy-haired One Direction favourite Harry Styles going from teen magazine pinup to Cougar fodder. Bow to your new pop deity. God help us all.
*Keith Murray writes for Vibe.com.