Monday, November 29, 2010

One Teen To Rule Them All

The ability to have millions upon millions of Americans eating out of the palm of your hand is not as challenging as one might think. Sure, it’s practically impossible for a regular Joe Schmo like you or me to achieve this (apologies to any non-Joe Schmo readers …although the chances are slim), but if you have reached an echelon of fame or achievement equal-to-or-greater-than one of the girls on Teen Mom, you have a shot to own the country, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

Basically, if you are somewhat talented, at least semi-attractive, and not a complete and utter moron, you can have a good chunk of society in your back pocket. And the longer you sustain these qualities, the longer you get to wear the crown. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, Bruce Springsteen – every one of them is revered in this country. Yes, at varying moments their talent and appeal was undeniable. But they didn’t exactly have to maintain their peak of greatness to stay on top; they simply had to refrain from screwing anything up.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to sit among the American Pop Culture Kingdom. But the list of possibilities is a lot lengthier than you might imagine, and a candidate can sweep you off your feet without even realizing it.

Enter Taylor Swift, stage left.

Yes, the young Miss Swift is currently in the company of all-time pop culture greats like Clooney, Berry, and Springsteen. Whether you want to admit it or not, Swift has had America bowing at her feet for nearly half of a decade now. She wooed you without you even knowing it, just like Matthew McConaughey or Josh Duhamel would do in one of their crappy chick-flick movies…you know, where they start out as the sarcastic d-bag, who then turns out to have a troubled past or sensitive side, almost instantly forcing the girl to fall for them, before Matt or Josh inevitably screw something up, then apologize and talk about how the girl has completely changed their life in like a 32-hour span and that they can’t live without her, leaving the girl to give in to her romantic inhibitions while a cover of Cheap Trick plays in the background. Taylor Swift is McConaughey and Duhamel, while the rest of us are the B-list actress that almost subconsciously got swept off our feet.

And as is the case with most of those that find themselves in Swift’s position, she didn’t get their by accident. A series of smart decisions has allowed Swift to exploit her own blessings and talents in a way that makes her popularity and adoration practically a guarantee.

It started from the beginning. At a young age, I’m sure it became pretty obvious to those around her that Taylor Swift had talent. By about 14 or 15, a lot more people – more important people – began to notice the same thing. And while her talent and looks would have more than likely allowed her to shine and reach a prominent level of success in whatever path she chose, not every path was equal. In fact, the country-pop singer/songwriter path probably offered the highest ceiling, as long as Taylor was up for the job. So far, she’s nailed it.

Yes, Taylor Swift can sing, but she isn’t a top-tier melismatic singer like Alicia Keys or Mariah Carey; teen diva would not have been the best choice. And yes, Swift can play the guitar, but she isn’t an axe prodigy, which ruled out instrumental aplomb. And while she is certainly gorgeous, her look isn’t exactly that of a bombshell-pop-star look, like Brittany Spears had or Katy Perry perfected. And sure, she can write songs, but she isn’t Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, so she needed a trail where “obvious” and “cliché” would be embraced instead of abhorred. Plus, her young age (16 when she hit the scene) pretty much prevented her from going the slutty/crazy/kitschy route (see: Gaga, Lady), unless of course she wanted it to blow up in her face (see: Cyrus, Miley).

What Swift needed was a road that allowed for the perfect fusion of her young age, cute looks, promising but adolescent songwriting, and good-but-not-great singing and guitar-ing. Lo and behold, country music fit her like a glove.

Swift’s talents and appearance made country music the ideal avenue for her to pursue. Even her personality, which appears to genuinely be one of a sweet, nice, wholesome, “aw shucks” kind of girl, was exactly the type of persona that female country music stars shine with. Add all of that to the fact that her sound proved to be just “middle of the road” enough that she wasn’t too country not be mainstream (and vice versa), and her potential audience was bigger than normal. In seemingly no time at all, Taylor Swift grabbed that audience by the balls...which is of course a statement that Swift would immediately be taken aback and slightly disturbed by, before inevitably forgiving me with a kindhearted smile.

It didn’t take long for people to get hooked. Swift’s first single, entitled “Tim McGraw” (which was also genius), was an autobiographical song about a 16-year-old girl that is in love with her older boyfriend, but knows that he will soon have to move away and leave her behind – or in other words, the cocaine of teenage female country songs. When she followed that single with an album filled with songs about love, heartbreak, and feeling overmatched or misunderstood, she was a luminary. Every girl in the age range of 13-29 immediately took to Swift, feeling like her songs were written exactly for them. Every mother saw a little bit of their daughters in Swift, while at the same time reminiscing about their own lives and feelings at that age. Every father saw a potential role model that their daughters could look up to, and one that wouldn’t wind up making a sex tape or booting black tar heroin. And Taylor’s songs were just catchy and upbeat enough that every boy in the age range of 13-29 would crank up the radio and sing along while riding alone in their car or hide her songs on their iPod under a playlist titled "Gangsta Rap", and then of course never admit to it. She was a hit across the board.

Taylor Swift kept true to form even as the fame began to build. Despite millions of teenage boys drooling over her and millions of teenage girls wishing they could be her (or even just be friends with her), Swift was still able to churn out songs about being in love with guys that didn’t feel the same way, or being in a relationship that no one else could understand. And whenever there was even a hint of controversy or scandal, she was out in front of it so fast, it was nearly impossible for any backlash to get close to her.

When her (relatively) high-profile relationship with (somewhat) celebrity Joe Jonas began to crumble, she pumped out a song (“Forever & Always”) about how he had torn their relationship apart and left her heartbroken. She immediately became the victim, preventing any chance at a smear campaign in Tiger Beat or on Disney message boards. We’ve seen her repeat similar patterns with Taylor Lautner and John Mayer, always either playing the victim, getting out in front of the story, or some combination of the two. And never was she at the top of her game more so than at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards; the Kanye West incident became her masterpiece.

The story is well known: Swift wins an award for one of her music videos, Kanye crashes the stage during her acceptance speech and talks about how Beyonce should have won, and Taylor is left there on stage, the victim of Kayne’s heinous drive-by mic robbery. Swift never lashed out or said anything derogatory about West, but rather embraced the role of the wounded. People immediately leapt to the defense of Taylor, from Beyonce to the mainstream media. Did we make too big of a deal out of it? With most people, yeah, it probably would have been. But when notorious douche Kanye West embarrassed sweet and loveable Taylor Swift, America reacted like Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor again. In the months following the event, Swift went on every talk show, wrote a song about what happened, and accepted Kanye’s eventual apology. She couldn’t have played the situation any better than she did. She was golden.

This is essentially the way Taylor Swift has played out her whole career. She broke on to the scene as an adorable sweetheart; she handled fame by remaining an adorable sweetheart, avoiding any type of public scandal, and never saying anything stupid, insensitive, or offensive. It’s almost impossible for people to dislike her. Her target fan base (females of a mainly conservative middle-America) has eaten her up with a spoon, allowing her to spread that popularity to other demographics of the world. Her talents and brilliant choice of career path made her a star. Her subsequent behavior and decision making have kept things that way. She’s too sweet, too genuine, and (most importantly) too smart to screw things up. As D’Angelo Barksdale would say, “The King stay the King.”

People have become so enchanted with Taylor Swift that her fans immediately identify with her, embracing that her lyrics and songs speak the truth. It was the same thing that endeared people to Dylan, just now in a more upbeat and less sophisticated package. When Swift writes a song about a breakup or about being in love, we immediately associate that song with honesty. When she writes a song titled “Mean” about a journalist that was cruel and malicious, we side with Taylor, despite the fact that the majority of us have no clue how or why this journalist was being so mean. We have no evidence that her songs and lyrics are true or accurate or that her sweet personality is completely genuine, but we believe her anyway. She’s yet to give us a reason to assume otherwise.

It is popular in this country – in this society – to say that we hate predictability, hate playing it safe, and hate the politically correct, when in fact this is inherently false. We revere and worship those that are publically perfect and thrive on bashing and crucifying those that stumble and screw up. People like Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, Phil Mickelson, and Will Smith are all evidence of this. There is a reason why Swift became the youngest to ever win a Grammy for Album of the Year (Fearless), and why she might be the only artist on the planet that can still sell a million albums in one week (Speak Now). Every decision she has made has been smart. Play it safe, and you get to wear the crown. Taylor Swift is living proof.

Swift will turn 21 in December of this year, only a few weeks away. Her young age makes her ascension into the Pop Culture Kingdom an amazing feat, while at the same time serving as a curse and a blessing. A curse, because she still has plenty of time to screw up, and a blessing, because she still has plenty of time to redeem herself if she does screw up. And if there is anything America loves more than a fairytale, it’s a redemption story. Either way, it certainly works in favor of Taylor Swift.

The King stay the King.

Thanks for reading

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