Despite Taylor Swift’s immense popularity, I’m no fan of the star, who’s viewed by many as an immensely talented songwriter of autobiographical pop songs. I’ve listened to a fair number of them and never found one that was memorable. The article below, by a New York Times music critic, links to several of her songs from her new album “Folklore”, to which he gives a mixed review.
I’ve listened to these new ones, too, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Swift is a fifth-rate Joni Mitchell, unable to craft memorable tunes and whose lyrics are not nearly as ingenious as Mitchell’s. Such is the debased pop music of our era. You can read Jon Caramanica’s review by clicking on the screenshot below. What you’ll find is an overwritten, overhyped, consciously “clever” piece loaded to the gunwales with superfluous adjectives. If the NYT ever needed an editor, it is for this piece.
What I did was to put Caramanica’s piece in a Word document, and then go through it, highlighting instances of bad writing. I reproduce these in yellow below, with my comments. It’s very clear that Caramanica has been spending too much time curled up with a thesaurus. Not only does he use too many adjectives, but some of them are unclear—a cardinal sin. But let us proceed. I reproduce only the most egregious examples of bad writing, not the entire piece.
Right off Caramanica telegraphs two things: he’s too cool for school (“phenom”), and the overuse of adjectives (“ecstatically saccharine”). He then proceeds to solidify his cred with the kids by using “sick burn”. (Do you know what that means? It’s of course Generation Y argot incomprehensible to many who might be reading the story.) He then lays on two adverb/adjective combinations, one of which “mopey interiority” is somewhat obscure, but nevertheless is tautly encapsulated (does he mean “tightly encapsulated”?)
The “well” in the paragraph below is superfluous: it’s okay for informal writing but not for the NYT. And what is a “definitive jolt”. How does that differ from a non-definitive jolt”. In the last sentence below, Caramanica deploys no fewer than eight adjectives (well, one is an adverb) to describe Swift’s musical style. “High gloss” is meaningless here, as is “style-fluid”.
And “made from scratch”? What music isn’t “made from scratch”? What is he talking about?
Below: “most felt moments”? I assume Caramanica isn’t referring her to the fabric, but to emotionality. In that case, why didn’t he say “emotional”?Below Caramanica is really running on all adjectival cylinders: “ethereally lustrous” and “sunburst syllables” that “freeze perpetrators.” I suspect it would be better if the author used more tangible descriptions. “Sunburst syllables” is a bit obscure, but is also part of a mixed metaphor, for how can “sunbursts” freeze anyone?
In the bit below Caramanica, who clearly thinks he’s summarized the music in five adjectives, lapses into both triteness (“hard-whiskey country”—is there such a thing as “soft whiskey country”?) and “black-box-theater” dialogue, which is meaningless to me. But is this prose supposed to even be comprehensible to those of a certain age, like me? I suspect that all NYT articles are supposed to be understandable to a reasonably sentient reader.
Below: “baked into Swift’s value proposition” should have been red-penciled at the outset, as well as the ridiculous metaphor of “lading songs with Easter eggs.” If Swift’s songs are autobiographical, which they are, and are admired by a young public that takes autobiography without analysis as a supreme virtue, then Caramanica should have said so. The difference between Swift and Joni Mitchell is that Joni looks at her life not only with a sharper lens, but with very clever lyrics (see “Coyote” or “Carey”, for instance).
“All writing is autobiography, after all” is a Deepity, but it’s simply not true. Yes, much music, and especially country music, is autobiographical, but Caramanica is saying “all writing”, and he’s wrong. To use just a few examples, “The Dutchman” by Steve Goodman, “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band seem to me not autobiographical at all, but imaginative.
As for Taylor staking a claim “not to be scrutinized”, what else is Caramanica doing here but scrutinizing it?
I’m not a Beyoncé fan, either, as I think she’s overrated, but regardless, what does it mean to “superserve their most ardent fans”? Is that like supersizing at McDonalds’s?
Oy, “Swiftiness”! As for the last paragraph with four adjectives and two metaphors (“thicket” and “wrestling”), it’s overwritten and could be stated more simply, and, by a better writer, more cleverly.
I’m appalled that this kind of breathy, purplish writing passes for good prose at the New York Times, especially when each piece is supposed to be scrutinized by editors. After I read this piece, I realized that, instead of learning much about Swift’s music, I had wasted my time reading a display of bad writing by an author who thinks he’s unspeakably clever.