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.

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

Even as we might strive to discuss Herstory and the silencing of minority voices in our curriculum, it is startlingly easy to perpetuate and recreate the same inequalities we strive to combat in our work as educators. While we may have the best of intentions in our explicit messages about the nature of equality and justice in our classrooms, each of us brings myriad complexities of unconscious privilege and inequality into our work with young people just by way of inhabiting a culture which is composed of them.

For instance, I am a thirty three year old, caucasian, Canadian male, living in an affluent suburb of one of the world’s most livable cities. I work with gifted youngsters in a program that gets them out of doors and into the curriculum in ways that are intended to engage their voice and agency in a responsive and authentic learning community. And I was even in a similar program back in my own highschool days before riding an athletic scholarship to the states, where I competed in the NCAA.

All of which is to say that I can acknowledge that nearly everything about my life presents a near perfect model of white male privilege.

My whole life has offered a continual reassurance that my voice and contributions were worthwhile and valued by others; that my opinion and interpretation of events can be offered with authority and will be respectfully received has been reinforced at nearly every juncture in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make me a self-centered egomaniac, but  does remind me to be aware that not everyone has been on the receiving end of a lifetime of attaboys for a range of choices and behaviours that have vacillated between the stellar and foolhardy as much as anyone.

Such an acknowledgement is a first step in addressing the myriad inequalities from which I have (and continue to) benefit, but then only begins an exploration of the ways in which I reproduce and witness the perpetuation of these inequalities in my countless daily interactions with students, teachers, and the culture beyond my school.In my travels

As when the hands that invariably leap up to offer opinions in class discussions are those that are white / upper-class / extroverted / etc…

As when a colleague asks an administrator why they haven’t hired any young goodlookin’ contract teachers this year or last…

As when an established teacher monopolizes the agenda at a union or staff meeting with their interpretation of “What’s in our interest” without seeking to represent the views of younger teachers or colleagues from minority populations…

That we are swimming in layers of unrecognized privilege and yet exist as the stewards of a system which organizes itself around meritocratic principles presents a contradiction our public schools ought confront in an effort to prepare young people to better realize the values of multicultural democracy that truly

“promote[s] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Moving beyond the acknowledgement of this contradiction, however, is where such affluent experiences and classrooms such as mine struggle to create more equal and democratic experiences. Observing and reacting to overt manifestations of discrimination is something that comforts us, as do signs of solidarity such as awareness campaigns like the Anti-Bullying Day or Me to We Fundraising initiatives.

But these efforts are largely organized by privileged kids in privileged schools: do they really bring us any closer to creating a truly inclusive society?

Or do they further alienate and separate the haves from the have nots (whatever those possessions may be)?

Leveraging our collective privilege to ‘rescue’ those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression is a hollow aim unless our gaze is fixed upon a critical view of the sources of our own advantages, and we seek and strive to make these advantages visible to others who would unknowingly perpetuate them to the detriment of others.

What this means is difficult for many of us who enjoy various privilege to envision; but what it does not mean is retreating into silence.

It doesn’t mean that the kids whose hands shoot up at the beginning of a class discussion need to sit on them.

It doesn’t mean the principal isn’t allowed to share a joke with a colleague.

And it doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t mind speaking our minds at staff or union meetings ought not take those opportunities to cultivate dialogue with our peers.

But it does mean recognizing that some of these activities and modes of participation – by which success and membership in our communities are judged – are easier for some of us than others, and that this ease has little or nothing to do with any of our respective effort or merit. By extension this means that the ability to include marginalized voices in our collective discussions demands that we employ these privileges in the greater inclusion of others in them, and toward the elimination of barriers that keep others from that “full and equitable participation.”

Which in the very first place involves listening, rather than speaking. Hearing what life is like, and how the existence of our privileges effects others.

But we need not take what we hear as personal idictments: after all, if we did nothing to earn the privileges that have led to our successes and power, we likely are not conscious participants in the oppression of others.

However, we become agents of injustice if in gaining an awareness of our own privilege and good fortune, we do nothing to increase the justice and opportunity afforded others.