August 11, 2010
Where do you go from the top of the world? It’s a question all kinds of music icons have had to answer, but it’s hard to imagine most of them facing Taylor Swift’s level of pressure. Consider her standing: an American Sweetheart adored by young people and respected by their parents, staple of multiple radio formats, winner of commercial music’s very biggest awards, but facing sharp backlash for embarrassing live vocals, for a narrow songwriting perspective, and all in the most scrutinizing media climate ever, a fame minefield where one bad move can mean national embarrassment - and all, of course, before she turns twenty-one.
It’s a staggering context for a young person just trying to make some art, and equally importantly, it’s a staggering context for any critic or fan trying to listen to the resultant art. Swift’s biggest hits – “Teardrops on My Guitar”, “Our Song”, “Love Story”, “You Belong With Me” – are a part of our cultural memory now; how can anyone hear the new stuff with truly open ears?
That dilemma looms – perhaps unfairly – over the experience of Swift’s new single, the first from her forthcoming third set. It’s not a bad effort by any stretch; it just manages to sound a great deal like her earlier work without bringing anything especially interesting of its own to the table.
Sonically speaking, most of what’s here is diminished returns: the hooks aren’t quite as tight, the production has less personality, and the vocals are the most grating they’ve ever been in a Swift studio recording. It sounds like a rough outtake meant to be slapped onto future reissues of Fearless, not a smash-in-waiting meant to lay the foundation for a strong new era of Taylor-Nation-alism.
The lyrics, for their part, do offer a sort of evolution: the characters in “Mine” are young adults instead of teenagers, and they’re wrestling with relationships and concerns appropriate for their older age. But even those changes seem a bit superficial in view of the whole, which still frames and develops its story in much the same way as its forerunners – “Love Story” in particular. As in that hit, Swift and her guy meet, Swift gets bubbly with romantic excitement in the chorus, then conflict builds, leading Swift to lose faith in love, but Happy Ending comes when the guy rephrases the bubbly-romantic chorus back to her. Sure, ”Mine” has a different story, and it’s a pretty good story in its own right. But we’re hearing it told essentially the same way, so it can’t help but sound like a something of a retread.
Heck, “Mine” even repeats one of “Love Story”‘s littler mistakes by including a line that sounds cool but that doesn’t really develop or make sense. In the earlier song’s case, it was “I was a scarlet letter”; now we get “you made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter.” It’s not a major point off for either song, of course, but it does cue an important, easy-to-forget observation: Taylor Swift is still growing as an artist and songwriter, her early world domination notwithstanding.
And in the end, that’s kind of where “Mine” leaves the listener. It’s not a brilliant single, nor is it a horrible one; it seems like just a quirky little holding pattern for Swift until she gathers her bearings and figures what better, fresher ideas she might be able to pull off with her various world-conquering powers. But hey – no pressure or anything.
Written by Taylor Swift