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.

On Notable Nights

It is always quite the task to put one’s finger on just what it is that happens at Night of the Notables. Even as they have added up over the years, and the alumni that return to the event are now three and four years into university, I still come home struggling to contextualize and make meaning of just what I saw tonight.

I was involved in bringing the evening to fruition, sure; in some ways integrally. But in some ways, I feel as though the TALONS teachers might be more custodians and caretakers of these traditions and ritual rites of passage. I think this perspective is what the alumni come to share in, to some degree; there is a connection to the people on stage who might be five or six years younger, but have stepped through – or are stepping through – this doorway, and who know what it is to be transformed.

The new alumni, the grade elevens, sit behind the current grade ten notables, their former younger classmates, with their grade twelve TALONS classmates over their shoulders. There is an epicenter that radiates from the stage, where the grade tens on stage, or in the front row, and this year’s grade nines are in the second. And the MPR (our school’s multi-use, theater / cafeteria space) is changed during the speeches into a cradle for the grade tens whose turn it is this year to be great.

In the last two years, the (separate morning and afternoon) classes have each performed fourteen interwoven dramatic monologues in their characters as eminent people, an astonishing feat to behold, where one after another, they break free of tableaus and from seats in the audience (descending the stairs after beginning from the balcony), holding the audience in their palm of their hand for two minutes, and then passing the ball to the next.

They finish one another’s sentences, answer mimed cell phone calls between speakers, and pass one another letters as transitions, together creating something that is honest, magical, and their own. There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

To those TALONS this year: my hat is off to you. You rose so naturally to the challenge set before you, furnished with those you had wagered with yourselves, and looked us dead in the eyes from the stage, transformed before us. As I said to a group of notables a few years ago – some of whom were in the room tonight: “You will know success in this life for what tonight has taught you about the personal nature of success, the irrationality of fear, and the necessity of friendship.”

Looking back at the Bears Thirty Person Rock Band Project


You can check out the Storify tracking the Social Media progressions of the project here.

In what unconsciously turned out to be a culmination of the Fall’s Learning in Public project, guitar class this spring challenged a group of individuals to create and rally around a mutually agreed-upon idea for a new kind of class activity. Nothing overly complex, the Bears became an elemental symbol around which we were able to create a basic, guitar based rock and roll band that brought diverse classroom traits and talents to the forefront of our daily work.

Let me state here that I have little formal training as a music teacher, have never really played in a band (save a few student groups where I served much more an eager sponsor-teacher than bandmate), let alone led one, and had no idea throughout the process whether the endeavour would be successful, let alone what direction it might take on a given day.Initially, the class formed into small groups that functioned as committees responsible for various elements of the band’s life cycle: project management, branding, media, songwriting, arrangement. What the band became, every step of the way, would be built out of an individual and collective commitment to the cause: that of the continual creation of the band.

Not that these aren’t all things I was and am passionate to discover. This year my own musical growth has snowballed toward just such a learning opportunity, allowing me to frame my role as ‘teacher’ during the process as that of ‘lead learner,’ something we hear and talk about a lot as teachers, but which can be difficult to create deliberately. In this case, my purposeful treading of water mostly consisted of the necessity of keeping the project moving forward the only ways I knew how: creating opportunities for each of the committees, and the individuals composing them, to imagine a possible next step for the project, and then motivate and guide them in carrying it out.

This all being said, the success of the band was in the hands of the class as much as I could make it; I made an agreement with them – not unlike one that I feel like I make in most classes, but in this case it was explicit: so long as we all acknowledge that we can create something special here, I am going to hold you to the goals that you each set for yourselves to be a part of that process.

Whether we are successful or not has less to do with my expectations of the individuals in my class than my facilitation of the learning experience, where ideally each learner holds themselves to their own expectations.

What I’ve found that this ‘agreement’ helps bring about is an environment that is able to capitalize on the unique talents in the room. Once the band got going, people learned to arrange mic cables and amplifiers to maximize the effect of our sound; others wrote songs, led rehearsals, and created a logo for the newly minted Bears (that we eventually screened on T-shirts); various members of the band ran around with a videocamera, or various iPhones and iPads, to record and document the process, and on the second to last day of the year – following the chaos of locker-cleanout – we promoted and played a gig in the front entrance of the school that people had been alerted to by awesome hand-drawn fliers (complete with QR codes linking to the band’s Facebook page).

All of this happened in five weeks, during which I was away for a week on a TALONS class trip, and many members of the class were preparing to graduate high school. Like Ray Manzarek said of the year he and Jim Morrison formed the Doors, “we had a strange visitation of the energy,” an energy that is the intangible vibration of musical community and communication.

I start each guitar semester by telling my classes that humans evolved a wiring to participate in music; that our ability to stomp our feet, beat drums or chant in concert and unison literally set our ancestors apart from others who might not be so in tune (pardon the pun) with one another, and that communicating in music established the pathways and connections in our brains that eventually allowed us to develop language, and begin to know ourselves and one another in ways that would have been previously unimaginable.

On those first days of guitar every semester, we usually begin by snapping our fingers in time with one another, or passing bean bags through the air to a shared rhythm to learn one another’s names. I tell them that the ability to sync up like this is so innate that a person will be able to more exactly join in rhythm with another person than with a device like a metronome, and that when we make music with others, we are communicating in the oldest of ways, reaching back into the fabric of what makes us us, and creating something that is in ways universal, and at the same time deeply personal.

There is a momentum to performing live music that members of the group need to each be responsible for, the essence of musical connection that allows other players, and an audience to participate in the raw energy that the intersection of rhythm and melody is capable of creating.

This is a skill only learned by doing.

In the video of the Bears final performance, the band struggles to hear one another in the fray and excitement of the crowd and the moment, and the bass and drums are a bar ahead of the rest of the band until the first chorus. They/we work this out though, and as “We are the Bears” reaches its musical climax – in the moment between Sarah calmly saying, “Step away, bro,” and Kevin’s blistering guitar solo kicking in – the monthlong project’s goal is realized: the band has created a moment of visceral rock and roll, and brought it to their audience.

For the students in the band – not to mention their teacher – this is an incredible power to discover, and begin to wield, something I talked about with Brian Lamb and Giulia Forsythe after this year’s Northern Voice jam-after party in Vancouver: how to collectively keep the ball – the energy, the timing, the essence of a song – in the air between so many different hands, and how this is a visible skill when playing or watching music, but finds its way into so many different aspects of life, learning and the relationships we form with other people.

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Hopefully we all spend the next little while trying to put our finger on just what it was, and how we can each do it again.

The Bears in their Natural Habitat

In a year that has seen much public discussion of the teaching profession in British Columbia, it’s important to do a few things every day to remind ourselves that we are incredibly lucky to do this job. This spring’s Thirty Person Rock Band project has made for many such opportunities, and with four weeks of school left, it feels constantly like we’re just beginning. It’s a good place to be.

Do you know what this is?

Because your smartphone does, and can use it to bring you into our music classroom.

Hint: Download a QR Code reader for your phone/mobile device, and have it scan the above code.