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Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince
Clare Coffey on Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen
Please enjoy this piece by my friend Clare.—BDM
Who is Taylor Swift? You’ll never know.
Unless you have spent a significant amount of time on a Christmas tree farm in Pennsylvania, in which case you have a mysterious psychic bond.1
But when people ask this question, they are not always asking about the inner nutmeat of personhood concealed behind the impenetrable husk of persona. They are trying to place her and make sense of her surely unforeseen career trajectory, with its steady, Napoleonic conquest of the music industry’s heights; its Cambrian moments of explosive growth; and above all, its remarkable staying power. Getting a handle on her means getting a handle on the last two decades. If she’s our X, that makes us the Y. And so it goes: Taylor Swift is Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift is Shania Twain, Taylor Swift is Olivia Newton John, Taylor Swift is Joni Mitchell.
These are all women, for obvious reasons: Taylor Swift writes girly songs for girly girls. People used to get so mad at her for writing girly songs for girly girls!2 She’s interested in women, different kinds of women, sometimes obsessed by them. And she’s been influenced by women, from legends like Carole King to contemporaries like Lana del Rey. But I think all this has made it hard to see the forest for the trees, because if there’s a single figure to which Taylor Swift is heir apparent, it’s not another woman. It’s Bruce Springsteen.
Hear me out.
Taylor and Bruce both do something incredibly well: write vividly detailed, very personal songs that connect with the feelings of an enormous swathe of people in a way that feels electric when you are on the receiving end. Bruce is singing to the man working too hard or not working enough, the guy who hates his dad and is starting to see him in the mirror, the young restless idiot feeling hemmed in by everything, the Friday night fighter who sees the whole world and everything in it as just one big obstacle between him and his girl (and what an endless potential wellspring of humiliation, hurt, failure lies there). He’s singing to the guy who’s going to make good this time, for real this time.
Taylor is singing to the little idiot who has her dream romance in cars and under porch lights choreographed like a movie she’s watching in her head; who never feels like the angel boy’s first choice; who’s always watching what’s happening around her and stores it all up; who is bored, restless, wants to get out. She’s singing to the girl learning that yes, people can screw you like that, and, a little wearily, that yes, you can survive it without getting over it; to the woman learning that your mother is actually not going to become less important than she was in your childhood, but that doesn't mean she’s not going to die. She’s singing to the private griefs, the desires that cannot replace each other; the realized strength that comes from work and time, and the time that brings painful knowledge; the heart-freezing moment when you can longer pretend your man will ever be your man.
Bruce’s songs tend to revolve around a moment of action, Taylor’s around a moment of recognition, but they’re both taking unremarkable, common emotional experiences—the grief or anger following a painful breakup, the sudden rush and freedom of a night out—and framing them in sustained narratives,3 narratives that thematize the kind of open-ended questions people are wrestling with to some degree more or less all of time: what kind of man am I, what kind of woman am I, can I be happy, will I ever be free of them, will I ever catch a break, what am I doing, is this worth it, what’s that light on the horizon. You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter. We’ve got one last chance to make it real.
Bruce is writing about being a man and Taylor is writing about being a woman, but this only contributes to their mirror image quality. They are the narrators of the American heart. That’s probably why there’s a pronounced strain of sadness running through all their work. (I think Taylor should cover this song.)
And it’s why they're both so basic.
Because Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen are incredibly, incredibly basic. They sing about feelings, without a hint of irony or diffidence. They do not “play with gender,” they wear princess dresses and muscle tees and write songs about getting married4 and songs about being tough. They’re working in bombastic, unsubtle musical registers and mass appeal genres–country and pop for Taylor, rock for Bruce.5 To be clear I’m not saying the E Street Band isn’t great—because they are—I’m saying that they’re basic.
Unless they’re part of the small but stalwart contingent of haters, people don’t always want to hear that Bruce Springsteen is basic, but he is. It’s harder to see now because he’s a legacy act and because he’s got some protest songs,6 but it was there from the beginning. Sources (my dad) have told me that back in the day, Bruce Springsteen was not cool. He was corny, hokey, square. The cool kids were not listening to Bruce. It wasn’t until “NPR type people” (The Band) started covering his songs that he started becoming cool.
The basicness is a feature, not a bug, I think. It’s what makes them different from, say, Aimee Mann—their shared ear for emotional narratives that runs in the opposite direction of any refined sensibility or delicate touch. Bruce and Taylor do not work in miniatures. Everything is urgent, everything on their Americana canvas is big. If, like a very large number of people, you’re a good old blue collar boy or a nice middle class girl without many obvious distinguishing marks, it’s music about you. And even if you’re not, because Americana is a kind of lingua franca, it can still be about you. Either way, it makes you big.
And the basicness is related to the fact that, despite their different sad-sack reputations, they both really believe in love. Taylor and Bruce are both very much alive to the wonder and drama and danger of love: of a very ordinary (one might even say basic) kind of love, concerned with wedding rings and pregnancies and bills.7 They feel the romance of commitment. The stakes are high, the water’s rough. This gun’s for hire, even if we’re just dancing in the dark.8
Taylor and Bruce’s music and personas are also both deeply rooted in a sense of place—in specific mid-Atlantic east coast millieus. For Bruce, it’s Jersey: the grubby shore towns, the burnout bars, the swamps, the casinos, the gleaming headlights on the highway illuminating the rusted outlines of industrial works. For Taylor, it’s rolling hills and ridges, evergreens and apple orchards. It’s slap-up, ugly suburban developments—not quite grand enough to merit the name McMansions—springing up like mushrooms, then giving way just as abruptly to log cabins in deep woodlands and empty stone inns built in 1761. It’s red barns with hex signs painted against evil. It’s names like Monocacy, Kempton, Lenhartsville, Easton. She sings about Christmas tree farms, asks you to picture her with Pennsylvania under her. It’s the setting of her early hits: those little junior high schools, surrounded by cornfields; the football games and fires; boredom and drinking in fields; enough money in the area to fuel high school dramas of haves- and have-nots, but not enough to imbue them with significance in a wider world.
This could be anywhere, you might say. It could be, but it was Pennsylvania. And Taylor is Pennsylvania. When she’s writing about the desperate desire to hoard physical trivia against absence and vivid omnipresence of dead grandmothers, that’s Pennsylvania. When she’s refusing to let go of anything, at all, ever, that’s Pennsylvania. When she’s playing a guitar covered in sequins superglued by her parents to a sold out tour, that’s Pennsylvania. When she’s doggedly churning out albums after taking one on the chin in the press, when she’s locking horns with Spotify, when she’s through it all remaining a well-brought-up young woman who sends thank-you notes and loves her mom, that’s Pennsylvania.
Taylor Swift left Pennsylvania in her early teens to pursue a career in music. She wanted a bigger world and she got one. But it never left her: now it is taproot of the nostalgia curling through all her music. It is where she spent her best days. It is where she has memories of sprinkler splashes and old friends who don’t know what to say anymore. In this she’s different from Bruce, for whom New Jersey is not just a one-horse town, but potentially a death trap, a suicide rap—but also a place he never completely left. He just got a much nicer house. Nevertheless, both Taylor and Bruce made their names as hometown troubadours, singing about their dream-world versions of places where there’s not much to do except drive.
There are other similarities that have less to do with the content of the music: they both have a reputation for being stand-up guys, they’ve both ventured outside the sound that first made them famous in the course of churning out album after album, even while that early sound remains integral to their fandoms. They’ve both put out some really dumb music (I basically do not listen to 1989 or Reputation, which in my opinion pivot too much from what she’s great at to overproduced generic dance hits). But they both remain beloved, with a fervor and in numbers that show no sign of abating. The only question, to me, is when they’ll tour together.
As for myself, I have realized that the Taylor song I most want to hear from Bruce is:
Taylor I have received the coded messages you sent me in your latest 1989 teaser and will be acting on them soon.
We were all supposed to be Letting Young Women Speak Their Truth except when it turns out their truth was writing Mrs. Mikey Murphy in purple hearts and flowers during chemistry class because it turns out young women like young men have a lot of basically harmless pudding between their ears where their teachers are trying to shove in brains.
So while I’m not claiming that Bruce and Taylor invented musicians uh, writing about emotions, they are doing something different than say, this, which vividly captures an attitude, a dilemma, a moment, without contextualizing or connecting it to much else, and which I think is more typical.
I think this is why I still go hog wild when this song comes on. No distance, no wink, no restraint. Total commitment.
In my opinion the great error of the poptimists was in insisting pop was good rather than attacking the implication that rock was some kind of school of sacred geometries.
Hang in there Tay I believe you will find your Patti Scialfa someday but you need to start dating nice Pennsylvania boys
I think this is why even her petulant breakup songs hit: even if she’s not marrying her high school sweetheart like she might have imagined, she knows that every pledge you make and break matters. It’s an ongoing tension in her work imo. She’s the queen of everything’s temporary that don’t excuse nothing!