Bad writing in a review of Taylor Swift’s new album: a petulant deconstruction of purple prose

July 27, 2020 • 8:45 am

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.

“Hazy wheaty” folk duo? What does that mean? Descriptions are supposed to convey an image, and ideally one that’s both clear and engaging.  This is neither.

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.

51 thoughts on “Bad writing in a review of Taylor Swift’s new album: a petulant deconstruction of purple prose

  1. Nice piece! You should do more reviews of bad writing like this. It’s all around us and passes without comment. If it’s in the NYT, it must be good, right?

    1. I second this request! Made my day! I was smiling all the way through it. Maybe this can be a regular feature? Thank you.

      1. Oh please! Hasn’t PCC(E) got enough to put up with as it is? Dissecting and flaying bad writing would be a never-ending, Sisyphean task. Give our host a break!

  2. Sheesh! You’re right, Professor, this writing cries out (screams) for proper editing – but the NYT has been killing its editors, hasn’t it? Also, maybe it’s so desperate for lines to fill the space that anything goes.
    Remember seeing Taylor Swift on VH1 – she can sing, but her greatest appeal is visual.

    1. Speaking as a theatre geek, I’m guessing that the reference is to the type of material that is typically performed in a “black box theatre”, which can be more experimental in nature and therefore may include less traditional forms of dialogue.

  3. I’ve seen writing that bad even in the context of classical music. Writing coherently about music seems very hard to do.

    Boss, if you ever want to take a deep dive into completely absurd art-related writing, pick up a copy of ArtForum magazine sometime.

      1. Part of the problem is that the author is trying to write about music without using any technical music terminology (either because he doesn’t know any, or the audience doesn’t), so he has to resort to weird metaphors to describe his subjective impressions of the music, which don’t really mean anything to the reader. It’s like listening to someone describe a dream to you—it’s very vivid to the person telling the story, but it’s just nonsensical to you the listener.

  4. I’m not familiar with the history of art criticism at the NYT, but this example, which is definitely bad, fits right in with the majority of art criticism I’m familiar with. The field has always been rife with this sort of wanna-be-clever, criminal misuse of language sort of prose, IMO. Such articles always seem to be more about the author building or maintaining the image they wish to portray to their audience rather than actually being informative about the art. The former is okay, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus.

  5. What you’ll find is an overwritten, overhyped, consciously “clever” piece loaded to the gunwales with superfluous adjectives.

    Caramanica’s piece is as noisy and staticky as an old AM car radio stuck between competing 50,000 watt “boarder blaster” stations that broadcast rock’n’roll from Mexico back in the Sixties.

    1. This is tangential, but there are also USian border blasters. The most notorious was a 100kw station in Point Roberts, a little US enclave along the border of British Columbia, which blasted into the Canadian market.

      1. Thanks, I didn’t know that.

        I didn’t mean my comment as any knock on Mexico. US stations were forced to locate their towers just over the border then, since 50,000 watt broadcasts weren’t allowed inside the contiguous 48. I was glad to have ’em, since I’ve always suffered from occasional bouts of insomnia, and sometimes back in the day that was the only place to find rock’n’roll in the middle of the night on your radio dial.

        1. As I remember–and of course this may be mistaken–certain ‘clear channel’ am stations could broadcast with 50k power at night. All stations with the same frequency were required to reduce power at ‘sunset’ in order that these ‘blowtorches’ could reach far into American rurality.

          That’s probably the reason we kids in Kansas could listen to Chicago’s WLS’ (860 am)top-ten pop music programming from about 7pm on, every night.

          ‘Teen Angel, can you hear me?’

          1. ‘Teen Angel, can you hear me?’

            “Johnny Angel, how I love him . . . .”

            “Got an angel on my shoulder,
            Got a penny in my pocket . . . .”

  6. Well, (wink wink), that certainly was dreadful enough to be worth your in exposing it. Thanks, it made me smile!

    I have just finished Gene Weingarten’s One Day and I am in the middle of his The Fiddler in the Subway.

    Weingarten is a wonderful storyteller. (Pretty much the polar opposite of the writing by Caramanica, that you have exposed here.) I highly recommend Weingarten’s work (which I have just discovered).

  7. I like this new kind of post! in this esteemed commneter’s opinion, the old Simpsons meme of “Old Man Yells At Cloud” is not always an insult; in fact, I’d say it’s often a compliment these days. There are many clouds that deserve a good drubbing by our older and wiser folk!

  8. I enjoyed this post! It motivated me to read the Caramanica article and listen to my first Taylor Swift song. I agree with your analysis of Caramanica’s writing, and it strikes me as one of the many articles I might click on to start reading but then give up on after a paragraph or two because of the poor writing. As for Taylor Swift, she has a very nice voice.

  9. Thanks for this article!

    Three comments:

    Personally, I’m not offended by this overblown, kitschy style of writing, as it suits Swift’s music just fine.

    Second, the “Easter eggs” is probably a reference to the practice of putting hidden messages into lyrics. The term “Easter egg” describes unexpected things to uncover in software such as video games. So, I suspect the reviewer isn’t using “Easter eggs” as a metaphor as much as saying that Swift is hiding secret messages to her fans in her lyrics.

    Along those lines, while looking for the lyrics to the songs on “Folklore,” I found this interesting breakdown of terms used in her lyrics:

    And so we learn that when she writes about Peter and Wendy that Swift is referring to Peter Pan. Good to know.

    Finally, to compare Swift to Joni Mitchell (and I know you weren’t) in any way is like comparing Highlights magazine to George Eliot. Joni’s autobiographical style is laden with arresting images and sly observations about real human emotions. Swift is a child, but Joni, at Swift’s age, was an adult. Any lesser-known song by Mitchell – songs like “Just Like This Train” or “This Flight Tonight” come to mind – is chock-full of descriptions that give great color and foundation to Mitchell’s real messages of love lost and possibly rekindled. Just this one line:

    “I used to count lovers like railroad cars
    I counted them on my side
    Lately I don’t count on nothin’
    I just let things slide”

    Is in turns wistful, erotic, and resigned. Would that Swift is ever able to produce anything approaching this in her career. I hope that she can, but few ever do.


    1. I haven’t heard much of Taylor Swift, but I agree with you about Joni Mitchell. I have been relistening to the many CDs of hers that I own. Her talent with melody and, especially, lyric is staggering. She is also pretty decent on guitar and piano. Her singing generally shows off the songs well, although I’m not always keen on her vocal flourishes. If I was asked to name the best songwriter of the past 50 years or so, I might well say Joni Mitchell.

  10. I found some of the quotes to be quite poetic, alas, at the end of the article I found I learned nothing I did not already know about Swift’s music only that I was listening to the inner thoughts of another music critic.

    Geedy Lee always said music critics are almost always bad. They either hate everything they hear or they absolutely lionize it. In which case, the artists and fans learn nothing. A truly gifted critic will provide new insight this sits like a mirror that shows the truth of what is in the music. And that is nearly impossible to capture.

    1. “Geedy Lee always said music critics are almost always bad.”

      Mel Brooks: “Critics can’t even make music rubbing their hind legs together.”

  11. Hmmm, let me see…

    “sick burn” = insult the author thinks was really good or effective

    “definitive jolt” = abrupt change (in musical style, I guess) that everyone agrees is abrupt

    “High gloss” = happy pop music

    “style-fluid” = author things Swift writes music that combines country, pop, other influences

    “made from scratch” = [I’m guessing on this one, but…] lots of songs and album ideas sit on the shelf for a while before a band or artist gets around to recording them. I’m guessing “made from scratch” means this is not the case here; all the songs and the album concept were developed recently, i.e. since the coronavirus hit. [I’m skeptical this is the case, but I digress.]

    “hazy wheaty” = breathy and wholesome/folky/hippy-like

  12. It is surely unnecessary to look in the NYT, even its pop-music pages, for an example of bad writing. One need only stick a pin into one of many scholarly journals to hit
    examples that make Mr. Caramanica’s kitschy prose seem like Tolstoi. As an example, my pin just hit the following in the journal “Gender, Place, & Culture”.

    The paper outlines the potential queerness of a ‘non-reproductive’ life, exploring the alternative temporalities and spatialities this produces. In what ways does the non-reproductive challenge normative ideals of the way a life should unfold? How do ‘procreational norms’ shape the landscape? By answering such questions, the paper contributes an empirically grounded reflection on the queer potentialities of non-reproduction, challenging certain queer theorizations that equate non-reproduction with anti-futurity.

  13. Could be that the writing style suits the music and its audience.
    Could it be editors are afraid of editing or redlining in today’s woke climate?
    (English isn’t my 1st language :))

  14. I’ve often found that poor reviewers are more likely to signal how unspeakably clever they are rather than let me know what I might expect to gain from what they are reviewing.

    Or perhaps Jon Caramanica is really the pen name of an AI program with its parameters set to ‘purple’?

  15. Listen to NPR’a “Morning Edition.” These people seem constantly to devote airtime to breathy pop-music “reviews” of this very sort. I guess

    1. Like the breathy pop music these days.

      It’s either hip-hop or heavy breathing with no vocal power and no melody.

      We have a local station that plays 50s, 60s, and 70s. I am struck by the great singing and the melodies in the songs (generally). Things of the past, it seems.

    2. “Listen to NPR’a “Morning Edition.”

      That (and sometimes “All Things Considered”) is a program to listen to if one is in need of a good dose of cloying, quasi-histrionic, breathless, “edgy” logorrhea (to prime the irritation pump while drinking ones coffee).

      That’s what NPR executives wanted early 2004 when they were bound and determined to “freshen” the program by insisting that Bob Edwards (strictly a solo act) team up with someone. He refused and they wished him all the best in his future endeavors. I guess he was too “dated.” I miss him and others of the old guard – Carl Kassel, Linda Wertheimer, Noah Adams, Robert Siegel. Nina Totenberg endures.

    1. Very true! I used to read a lot of Rolling Stone album reviews when I was young, and I recognized the style instantly. The Rolling Stone critics are writing for people who don’t really care about music theory or technique, so they end up writing more about the musician than the music — just biographical criticism, really. Plus, the style is so full of hyperbole that you start distrusting the critic because he makes mountains out of molehills by waxing poetic about mediocre albums. (Peter Travers was a big offender in that regard.)

      The worst music criticism of all time is exemplified by Pitchfork, a kind of hipster blog/magazine that specializes in obscure indie music. The reviews are full of strained metaphors and unnecessary references to other obscure bands. Pitchfork once wrote a negative review of a comedy album by David Cross, and he responded with a snide, funny parody of a Pitchfork review that perfectly captured their pretentious style.

      1. I read a few Rolling Stone articles way back in the day and found them bizarre, but I own a couple of editions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and find a lot of the writing in the reviews they contain really good. One of my favourites is a pan of singer Gino Vannelli. An except:

        ‘For this shlockmeister, “nadir” is a relative term. Virtually his entire career has been a progression from valley to gulley, and he qualifies as an absolute Il Duce of bad taste. Vannelli concocted pap arias that combined pretensions to classical music, the worst of jazz-fusion posturing and an operatic singing style that conveyed bogus sensitivity and all the sexiness of an obscene phone call. Flashing his chest hair and the bulge in his pants, Vannelli was a Tom Jones for the ‘70s—-although completely lacking in Tom’s sense of fun.

        Improvements in studio and synthesizer technology marked the textural clotting that increased from album to album—-by the time of “Gist of the Gemini”, Vannelli was strangling in lushness—-but all of his first half-dozen records sound alike. Again and again, he whispers and bellows; all his songs are crescendos going nowhere. Interchangeable, “The Best of” and “Classics” capture this period—and they are music that is deeply offensive’.

        1. Some of the older writers like David Fricke were pretty good. The younger crop is a bit dismal.

          I am tempted to get a Gino Vannelli now, just out of curiosity.

          1. The guide was published in 1992, and the review itself may be older, so we’re going back a way. And I should have given credit to the reviewer: Paul Evans, described as an Atlanta-based freelance writer.

            As for Gino Vannelli, I’ll just say that I agree with the reviewer. He (Vannelli) was well-known up here in Canada at one time, but I’ve no idea how available his stuff would be now (of course there’s a lot of stuff on the Internet). For all I know, Vannelli’s still at it. Go for it!

        2. “One of my favourites is a pan of singer Gino Vannelli.”

          I remember in the late 80’s reading a newspaper interview with Huey Lewis. He remarked on a critic giving him grief because he did not pepper his songs’ lyrics with sufficiently off-color words.

  16. I’d rather read the review than to hear Taylor Swift!

    Every song in Blue is miles ahead(¹) of the entire catalog of Taylor Swift!

    I’d rather spend my life hearing just one song by Sandy Denny!

    (¹) yeah, I know what I did here!

  17. Prof. Coyne, you have write a similar analysis of Hilton Als, the theater critic for the New Yorker! He’s written some of the weirdest, stream-of-consciousness prose I’ve ever read in that magazine. The music critic Sasha Frere-Jones is pretty bad, too. Maybe weird writing is an occupational hazard of being a critic.

  18. Taylor Swift – and Beyoncé! – puts out some dance music and dance videos. Listening to the lyrics is not part of my experience of music.

    Music reviews are also performance art that I don’t care for. Luckily we have hit lists and other displays of popular music, and we now know crowd intelligence tend to be better than individual such.

    1. I should add that there are now computer assisted tests that show people has a hard time understand the lyrics anyway – we are not meant to. [Though I don’t like to dance to racist et cetera music. Just because I can chose not to.]

  19. In my experience, this is typical of writing — especially reviews — about music. I don’t excuse it, but I do try to explain it. I think it exists because music is, by definition, nonverbal. You can talk about it in terms of melody and tempo; you can say it sounds like some other piece of music; but beyond that, it’s hard to describe in words. Reviewers therefore reach out for metaphors, and once they do, the metaphors just pile up.

    I think food reviews can be somewhat the same, because it’s hard to describe a taste, except by reference to another taste.

  20. In the 90’s there used to be a magazine in Britain called NME (New Musical Express. I think it still exists in online form, at least.

    All of their reviews were pretentious unreadable nonsense like this. At the time, I formed the theory that the critics were all desperate to prove that they were part of the musical elite but were really bitter that they lacked the talent to be actual musicians.

    1. I remember that the Manic Street Preachers once complained that someone at the New Musical Express reviewed an entire album of theirs without mentioning even a single song title.

      The NME reviews were crap, but the magazine was still a useful way to get music-related news in a single package. (Dido for Melody Maker and the rest of that genre. I kind of miss them.)

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