The Rules Of The Game No. 29: I Start A Fight Because I Need To Feel Something

Frank Kogan

Starting off with Taylor Swift again. She’s got a live cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” available on iTunes, but actually I way prefer this other version Taylor does on YouTube, Taylor in concert in Alabama, a fan’s low-quality cellphone video []. She’s having uncharacteristic problems with pitch, but they don’t bother me at all, in fact may help the song: Taylor makes it sound sad and fragile and slightly desperate, as if she’s the one caught in the rain, and she needs the guy to come to her as much as he needs her protection. But then, Rihanna’s own delivery of the original also has a sadness, so that the invitation “come into me” doesn’t forget the rain that was used as the pretext for the invitation in the first place. And Taylor Swift sounding sad, fragile, and desperate still has some sort of ... not sure what the word is, “aggression” being too aggressive and “moxie” too plucky… but an energy, so even when she’s immersed in sadness, somewhere inside she’s on fire. There’s assertion and even spite in “Christmases When You Were Mine,” for instance, and in “Tim McGraw” she’s not just wondering plaintively whether she left a mark on the boy, but rather, to make sure there’s a mark, she’s putting on his doorstep the letter she wrote three years ago -- a letter that presumably contains the same combination of bitter and sweet that the song does.

At the end of the iTunes “Umbrella” Taylor tells the audience, “Just tryin’ to get your attention,” as if she had to apologize for the song, take it back. Of course, “get your attention” can mean a couple of different things: get you to pay attention to her (rather than to someone else) and get you to pay attention to what she’s really like (rather than to what you think she’s like) -- like, she’s someone whom you’ve stereotyped as a country girl, and here she’s doing an R&B sex track.

Or, another thing, she’s a guitar player, performing this song solo, gets a variety of different beats out of her strumming, a one-woman band. In the Alabama version, when she’s done, she raises her guitar in triumph.

*   *   *

Year-end music poll results have been appearing over the last few weeks. This is often an ambivalent experience for me -- I get smacked hard with alienation, partly because there’s all this music cited, some of which I’ve never even heard of, with people going on about it in language I can’t always understand. This ought to be intriguing as much as it’s alienating, of course (unknown sounds, unknown ideas, unknown diction, whole other subworlds being referenced by people whom I’d expect to be as close to my interests as anyone in the universe), and I can’t say what’s wrong, really, except that there’s a discontent out there, people looking for a fight -- me as much as anyone, probably -- but beyond this, in the voter’s comments that come along with these poll results, there’s something off -- people speaking loudly or amusedly or authoritatively but still losing their voice in music-writer mannerisms and false tones of knowingness. It’s not been so bad this year, from the little I’ve sampled. And here’s a voter’s comment I really like, from a fellow unknown to me named Stephen Deusner, writing about “Umbrella”:

“It’s not just Rihanna singing ‘come into me,’ but more convincingly it’s the way she sings the word umbrella, deconstructing it to ella ella and then to its essential Canadian syllable—eh eh eh—a linguistic striptease. It’s the most sexually intimate moment in music this year.”

In Taylor’s version, the Alabama one, she does the eh-eh-eh more as a sigh and a gasp (of wonder as much as of yearning) than a striptease, using her frailty as strength, a skinny, wavering voice that nonetheless can fly in any wind.

*   *   *

Rihanna’s “Umbrella” won the Poptimists and Idolator polls overwhelmingly, but was edged out in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll by Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” a result that has me shaking my head. Winehouse does deep lounge-soul singing with dusky slow-speed mannerisms reminiscent of Billie Holiday, except Amy goes way too far into the mannerisms, so it’s like hearing odd exaggerated method-acting, as she sings through a haze. Which isn’t to say that Amy is ineffective. “Rehab” is a funny song, among other things, not just in the lyrics themselves but the way she pronounces them, “They tried to make me go to rehab, I say ‘no no no’,” the “no no no” bolstered by horns as if you’re hearing a classic girl-group celebrant, except Amy pulls this trick of making the celebration sound as if she’s barely able to get it out through her numb lips. I’m really interested in what she’ll do next, with her style. But I simply can’t make sense of how this mannered genre exercise beats “Umbrella” (which, truth be told, didn’t get my vote either, was 14th on my list of 10, but we had a great year in singles, and of the ones that were getting massive talk, “Umbrella” was my clear favorite).

*   *   *

Back in early 2005, I idly put into my CD player a promo country album by some cute little Miss Who-Knows-Who and promptly got knocked right out of my socks. It was the title track to Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene, this maniacally compulsive stomp that was pounding and pounding without letup, concise blues-country riffs from mouth harp and guitar but the whole thing played with the propulsion and violence of something like the Who’s “My Generation.” “Life ain’t hard but it’s too long, livin’ like some country song.” Miranda traded truth in for lies and told us she was going to burn the world to a crisp. This was one of my great musical moments of the decade.

It wasn’t life transformative, however; it might have been if I’d heard it in 1964, but now, for someone like me, it’s familiar and reassuring. I make a point of saying so because in last week’s Nashville Scene, Geoffrey Himes accompanied the Country Music Critics poll results -- landslide victory for Miranda Lambert’s latest album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which also got my own vote for country album of the year -- with an essay in which he claimed we critics who voted in Miranda did so because we’re the sorts who like our assumptions challenged and want to hear something we don’t already know, this in contrast to the mainstream of country listeners, the sorts who make Carrie Underwood records go six-times platinum, who, according to Himes, opt for reassurance in art, who want to believe that what they already know is true.

Geoff’s heart is in the right place, but the essay was breathtaking in its illogic, self-delusion, and inarticulateness. I won’t go into my reasons for saying this, since I’ll just be repeating arguments I’ve been making for years; and also, none of the country critics I hobnob with -- all of whom voted for the album or at least one Miranda Lambert song – were buying Geoff’s line either. (If you’re interested, I’ve linked the essay below.) Suffice it to say that I found Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel” more challenging than anything I’ve heard from Miranda (and better than anything of Miranda’s except “Kerosene”), that Carrie’s “Before He Cheats” was my number two single back in 2006’s country poll (so maybe I suffer from multiple personality disorder, though “Before He Cheats” seems pretty Miranda-ish to me, actually, being narrated by a crazy ex-girlfriend and all), and that I voted the Taylor Swift album my number one of 2006, and I like it more than the Miranda. Taylor is also someone whom people who think they like to challenge themselves think of as being some kind of opposite to Miranda. Preston Jones, in the voter comments, listed Taylor among the glammed-out and puffed-up personalities he said were destroying country music, contrasting this with artists like Miranda who “dig deep and find something worth saying.”

I’d say that it’s Taylor Swift who digs deeper, though I don’t mean that as a criticism of Miranda; just that Taylor’s album is working out the nuances of being a not-always-happy sixteen, while Miranda is having a blast shooting holes and setting off bombs. Look at the title, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Not only is Miranda self-consciously playing a stock character, she’s signaling to us that that’s what she’s doing. And she’s having a good ol’ time playing the role, subtracting the guilt and pushing it to gleeful extremes, crazy(ex)gf being someone who takes relish in the f--ked-up destructive things she -- the character -- is doing in and after a relationship. The relish doesn’t necessarily mean the f--ked-up destructiveness is being presented as a right thing—it’s presented as potentially over the edge, or very over the edge—but it’s presented as exuberant, alive. But there’s a distance here; she’s not doing an Eminem, playing an outsized, dangerous character while daring you to believe that it crosses over into real life.

So I get more of an emotional wallop when some guy’s sane but sad ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift sings, “I start a fight because I need to feel something,” in explaining the chill that overtook their love affair, than when Miranda Lambert promises to plug a boyfriend or burn down his house. But each of them draws from the same well of experience. Taylor and Miranda are complementary, not opposites. My guess is that Miranda is a pretty sane ex-girlfriend in real life, but that she’s found an expressionistic fictitious way to embrace the feelings that remain as leftovers, where the sanity leaves off, that she wouldn’t normally get to display. Whereas Taylor is detailing real-life stresses, the sorts that lead one to imagine losing control and letting rip, to fear going crazy and to wish it. Much like in actual life: the madness that creeps around our edges and in our fantasies stays dormant, but throw in an addiction and eliminate stability, and suddenly we’re featured in Cops.

Link to “Blonde Ambition” by Geoffrey Himes:

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