Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Taylor Swift

  • Taylor Swift [Big Machine, 2006] Choice Cuts
  • Fearless [Big Machine, 2008] A-
  • Fearless: Platinum Edition [Big Machine, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Speak Now [Big Machine, 2010] A-
  • Red [Big Machine, 2012] A-
  • 1989 [Big Machine, 2014] A-
  • Reputation [Big Machine, 2017] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Taylor Swift [Big Machine, 2006]
"Tim McGraw," "Picture to Burn" Choice Cuts

Fearless [Big Machine, 2008]
"You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," declares the 18-year-old Nashville careerist. You can tell me that's worse than icky if you like; I believe in two of the three (prince charmings, no), and I think it's kind of icky myself. But I'm moved nevertheless by what can pass for a concept album about the romantic life of an uncommonly-to-impossibly strong and gifted teenage girl, starting on the first day of high school and gradually shedding naiveté without approaching misery or neurosis. Partly it's the tunes. Partly it's the musical restraint of a strain of Nashville bigpop that avoids muscle-flexing rockism. Partly it's the diaristic realism she imparts to her idealized tales. And partly it's how much she loves her mom. Swift sets the bar too high. But as role models go, she's pretty sweet. A-

Fearless: Platinum Edition [Big Machine, 2009]
"Jump Then Fall" Choice Cuts

Speak Now [Big Machine, 2010]
The 14 songs last upwards of 67 minutes, some 4:45 apiece; they're overlong and overworked. And I believe what I read about their origins in the romantic and other feelings of America's Ingenue for identifiable major and minor celebrities, which may thrill her fanbase but means approximately nothing to me. Even in their overwork, however, they evince an effort that bears a remarkable resemblance to care--that is, to caring in the best, broadest, and most emotional sense. I even like the one about Kanye West--including when I remember that it's about Kanye West, which usually I don't. A-

Red [Big Machine, 2012]
So if Stephin Merritt can make a big deal out of 69 love songs, why can't Taylor Swift make a fairly big deal out of 16? His being formally savvy in his pop-polymath way and hers being formally voracious in her pop-bestseller way? Need either deal be autobiographical? One hopes not in both cases, although verisimilitude has its formal aspects for bestsellers. Swift hits the mark less often than Merritt--65 or 70 percent, I'd say. But one could argue that the verisimilitude requirement forces her to aim higher. I like the feisty ones, as I generally do. But "Begin Again" and especially "Stay Stay Stay" stay happy and hit just as hard. That's hard. A-

1989 [Big Machine, 2014]
The NYC tourist jingle everybody hates on to prove they're not her shills is my favorite thing here. Having emigrated to Manhattan myself, albeit from Queens, I think it's silly to demand sociology from someone who can't stroll Central Park without bodyguards. I note that even from a limo you can tell that the "everyone" here who "was someone else before" includes many immigrants of color. And I credit its gay-curious moment even if she ends up with a banker like her dad. All that said, however, there's a big difference between Swift's Manhattan and the one I can afford only due to real estate laws as vestigial as the family grocery that just closed up across the street, and you can hear that difference in the music. In principle I'm down with the treated hooks and doctored vocals with which Swift makes herself at home. Freed of Nashville's myth of the natural, she echoes and double-tracks and backs herself up, confides with soft-edged subtlety and fuses the breathy with the guttural. But I have less use for the cyborg with feelings she's playing now than for the gawky 15-year-old she created on Fearless--the one who was a hundredth as talented and a tenth as self-possessed as the 18-year-old who imagined her, the one who gathered an audience of country fangirls Nashville didn't know existed. That fifteen-year-old obviously isn't much like me. But she's more like I was when I got here than the cyborg will ever be, or most bankers either. A-

Reputation [Big Machine, 2017]
It isn't that she completely sounds like a pop star, it's that she completely identifies as one ("This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," "Call It What You Want") ***