Singing Taylor Swift Songs

Introductions, Gender, and Amplification

Every year in #introguitar (an open online guitar class I teach at my school, and which you should totally enrol in as a non-credit participant) I ask my students and our open learners to introduce themselves and their intentions to the group in a brief video. And rather than rehash a template video of my own from ages ago, I appreciate the opportunity as a student of music to focus my learning about guitar from semester to semester in new video introductions.

In past years I’ve worked to learn skills and techniques around lead playing, band-leading, and performing, documenting my growth in subsequent videos and reflections throughout the year.

This year, I’m taking my work in guitar in a direction slightly away from the guitar itself, and toward the conversation about gender, inequality, and diversity in the wider culture of popular music; I’ve resolved to only play songs written by women.

A while back I read about journalist Anil Dash’s experiment to only ReTweet women for a year, an experience that made him more mindful of the voices he amplified on social media:

Based on my experiences, my recommendation to others is simple: Give it a try. If you’re inclined, try being mindful of whose voices you share, amplify, validate and promote to others. For me, it was giving a platform to women where I wasn’t able to mansplain the things they were already saying, but instead just sharing out their own thoughts in their own words. It may be by issue, or by identity, or by community, or some other consideration.

Troubadours and Teen Idols

Caption courtesy of RadioTexasLive.com

Along with inspiring the mournful western aesthetic of my university days, Ryan Adams wrote some of the first songs I learned on guitar (he also inspired the bad versions of Wonderwall I still play around campfires), and has been an artist that I’ve grown alongside for more than ten years as we’ve each experimented with bands, folk music, and life beyond our devil-may-care early twenties. His work of late has been especially sharp, I think, too; “Gimme Something Good,” and the rest of his self-titled album last year contain layers of guitar excellence and timeless hooks that are among his best.

Last year, word began to spread that Adams had set to recording a cover of Taylor Swift’s recent blockbuster, 1989; my worlds were colliding.

As a guitar teacher in a high school the last six years, I’ve been no stranger to the evolving songwriting career of Ms. Swift. Seldom in my tenure in #introguitar have I walked past an interesting turn of phrase, guitar riff, or chord progression to not be told upon inquiring, “That’s Taylor Swift.” Around campfires and in the park behind my parents house during the summer, the choruses of “Love Story,” and “You Belong with Me” have become generational anthems that are tattooed on suburban boys and girls alike.

There is doubtless something there.

Exhibit A in why I want to start calling #introguitar “Campfire Practice”

A video posted by Bryan Jackson (@bryanjack) on

Pronouns and Performing Gender

As long as I’ve enjoyed Taylor Swift’s tunes – and I have quite earnestly enjoyed them, making them a staple of class guitar playing and pieces to deconstruct as exemplars of composition – I’ve never truly played or performed any on my own. There have always been reasons for this, but I can’t say as though very many are very good.

Sometimes the key is too high, or the melody too…something. Sometimes the dance beat is too difficult to recreate on a single guitar. Sometimes they’re written too explicitly from a female or feminine perspective. None of which in itself is a big deal, but contributes to enough awkwardness that I don’t wind up learning the songs to a degree where I play them for other people.

Historically this has been true nearly across the board, with a few pop songs by female artists making ironic appearances alongside Notorious BIG covers once it’s late enough into the night or the jam. The list of songs written by women that are part of my repertoire is pretty weak, if not non-existant.

On a certain level, this is a matter of taste, sure. Why shouldn’t I play what I like to play? What’s easy to play? That feels like me? However, on another, I share the songs I play with a lot of people; I teach young people about the culture of musicianship, songwriting, and developing one’s own voice, both as an interpreter of other people’s songs, and a writer of originals. To present only my own perspective, or one which makes me comfortable, seems unfair to the myriad ways my students perceive and approach the world, and their music.

This is why I’ve decided to spend my time playing music for school this semester playing and performing songs written by women. I’m not play it ironically, insulating myself from whatever vulnerabilities arise in the performances with humour or distance.

And I’m going to leave the pronouns the same, because if it makes me uncomfortable to sing about Taylor’s “Stephen,” or about “his hands [being] in my hair,” I do enjoy the ability (one might say privilege) of challenging that discomfort so that it’s more acceptable for young men who know all the words to Taylor Swift, or Beyonce, or Lady Gaga’s songs to take the stage and belt it out.

Because these songs weren’t written as larks, or trivial, or silly: they were and are manifestations of tone,  character, and theme. They are expressions of an aesthetic in the tradition of songsmiths, where male voices have been disproportionately taken seriously as a matter of course by virtue of arising from male mouths.

Even Taylor Swift’s own songs became more highly regarded by critics once Mr. Adams had sung them. Ian Crouch at the New Yorker (which reviewed Adams’ record, but not Swift’s) wrote:

If anything, Adams’s version of “1989” is more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original.

There are a bunch of men’s songs I’ve shared and performed and taught the class in the past, and no doubt there will be in future semesters. But not because they’re any more sincere, authentic, or otherwise superior to any woman’s music.

And if that’s the case, I’d like to work to balance my catalogue of songs accordingly.

Comments are closed