It seems every generation of tween girls has a male musician or boy band whom they are compelled to idolize. It could be argued that it's a healthy part of growing up, and a less dangerous crush to fantasize about than the boys sitting next to these girls in math class are. My girlfriends and I had the Jonas Brothers—Nick was my favorite—and we taped posters from our favorite magazines on our bedroom walls accordingly. They sang pop and pop rock songs, of course, about high school days and having good, clean fun with their friends. For a few years, they were wholesome, wore purity rings, followed the rules of Hollywood Records, had great hair, and made all of our little-girl-hearts sing. And I'm sure the boys loved them too, but they typically didn't admit it, so I'll let them play it cool and won't reveal their secrets now. Now, I'm kind of old and no longer looking for a teenage boy to write fan fiction about. But I think I found one anyway, opening up for Taylor Swift on The 1989 World Tour.
Shawn Mendes is a seventeen-year-old kid from Canada who was discovered through the videos he posted on Vine. He's becoming the next generation heartthrob, and I'm happy about that. I heard my eleven-year-old cousin listening to him when I visited her house last month and it was comforting to know that he's around for her to obsess over. Mendes is easily marketable—he's attractive, young, and innocent—but he doesn't seem to have been pumped out of the marketing machine. He's writing his own music and he's playing guitar. When he opened for Swift this summer, he had no band, but nothing was lacking from his set—in fact, his solo acoustic strumming added to his Ed Sheeran-influenced charm. He wrote almost all of the tracks on his debut album Handwritten and his subject matter is diverse. His stories are told in unique and clever metaphors, although the content may be simple and elementary. But again, he's barely seventeen. Plus, he has an indisputably strong voice, unlike many Hollywood Records babies.
I believe Mendes is a genuine musician trying to write and arrange his work in a way that appeals to a large but niche demographic without selling out or compromising quality. He's worth watching, too—I would bet that he could transition seamlessly to an adult audience in a few years, without any Bieber-esque crises along the way. I'm not listening to Mendes' album every day or even every month, but when I hear "Stitches" or "Something Big" on the radio, I'm happy to sing along for the girls who called in to request it, and for the twelve-year-old girl I used to be.
Talking 'bout genres.
In 2007, I started listening to the debut album of a new girl in the music scene named Taylor Swift. I'll spare you the very long and emotional—albeit entertaining—story of how my love for Taylor Swift’s music began and rose to an obnoxious level; we can discuss that over a nice dinner one night. What matters most in this context is that in my life, Taylor Swift was, of course, a turning point in and of herself.
When I got Taylor Swift the album for Christmas that year, I hadn't yet discovered "Tim McGraw," her first single, because I wasn’t listening to country radio. But I remember unwrapping the blue and green album and immediately flipping it over to make sure it had “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Our Song” on it. I remember the feeling of fulfillment within me when I saw those two songs on the track list. It felt right. That moment is still tangible—I remember it being one of the only years we opened presents downstairs instead of up and one of the first years I wasn't completely convinced that elves had handcrafted all the presents under the tree. It was the first Christmas morning that lacked any trace of childhood magic. I remember the way that lack felt. But I also remember what it was like unwrapping mostly CDs—those thin, square packages—not yet aware that I’d never have another Christmas without at least a couple of gifts in that shape.
Long story short, my love for Taylor Swift was just like that corny John Green quote from The Fault In Our Stars about falling in love slowly and then all at once. The all-at-once part came in 2008, when Fearless was released.
Many aspects of my everyday life revolved around Taylor’s sophomore album, but most relevant to this piece is how Fearless exposed me to country music. I began to watch the CMT and GAC countdowns every Saturday morning just to see where Taylor's songs would land in the top 20. As I watched from week to week, always preferring CMT but switching between the two channels during commercial breaks, I fell in love with the other songs in the countdown. I'd write down the names of my favorite ones and buy them the next time I got an iTunes card (usually not until the next holiday or birthday came around). I'd watch every country music award show, originally just to support Taylor, but at some point I realized that I knew every song nominated in the major categories because I had seen them moving around on the countdown for weeks. I had opinions on them. I cared who won. I noticed trends in artists' styles and I learned to differentiate a good performance from a mediocre one. I remembered lyrics. These songs entered my life when I was young and impressionable and seeking escape. While studying Taylor’s career, I accidentally became a country music fan.
I deemed country music my favorite genre for several years. I loved the stories I heard on radio. I loved that it was different. I loved Keith Urban's guitar and Brad Paisley's love songs and Miranda Lambert's attitude and Zac Brown’s twang. In the beginning of high school, I was an outlier in this respect. I had only two friends (hey, Amber and Rei!) who loved country music the way I did and we went to local concerts together. Long Island got its own country station during these years, and we literally rejoiced at not having to tune into a fuzzy Connecticut station anymore.
When I started college, I stopped listening to the radio mostly because I stopped driving. By the end of my first semester, I had fallen behind on what was going on in Nashville. I felt guilty about it. I felt like something was missing. I wanted to catch up, and I could've done so easily because the substantiality of good country music allows relatively slow turnover, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it. In the spring of that year, I turned completely to artists like Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, and Ben Rector. I found a new kind of storytelling in these artists. I found songs that didn’t follow the typical verse-chorus-bridge structure that I’d come to memorize. I learned the difference between authentic pop and bubblegum pop. The void in my iPod that country music had left behind was filled by something else. I accidentally stopped loving country music.
Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson are considered indie pop, Sara Bareilles often charts as adult contemporary, and Ben Rector is pop rock. My favorite Elle King just got nominated for the Best Rock Song Grammy (yay!). Ed Sheeran is literally a rapper. I think Drake's "Hotline Bling" is fun enough to sing at a karaoke bar in Italy (true story) but is also a great sample of his writing. I generally don’t lean toward unapologetic pop, but Taylor Swift is the queen of it this year. I'll rap anything written by Lin-Manuel Miranda with more passion than is healthy. I've followed Megan & Liz's career from webcam videos with only an acoustic guitar to the big LA production of "Bad For Me" to the Nashville-made Simple Life EP and now back to the subtlest of melodies on their new tracks like "That Ghost." And what are we calling Vance Joy now? I don't know his genre but I know he's excellent. I'll listen to all of these artists all the time, and I'm still loyal to my few country favorites like Kacey Musgraves and Hunter Hayes. On paper, my genre preferences are all over the map. But there is one thing that all of these artists have in common: they are singer-songwriters.
If I’m asked in passing what my favorite genre of music is, I'll say singer-songwriter, even though all of the artists I listen to most regularly are technically singer-songwriters only by profession and not by genre. But it's conflicting—when it comes down to it, I'll listen to anything with good lyrics. Anything authentic. Anything true. Of course I still have preferences, though. I can't handle anything too pop or too hip-hop for too long; instead I lean toward acoustic guitars and piano ballads that (I'm looking at you, Sara Bareilles) rip my heart right out of my chest.
And after reading that last sentence, just imagine how dramatic my Taylor Swift story must be.
My love for country music came first, and had I not loved country then it's likely I wouldn't have fallen in love with music in general. Country music has a terrible reputation in New York, and sometimes I understand why. I've heard disappointing bro-country songs composed of equal parts misogyny and alcoholism. I've also heard country songs that tell beautiful, emotional stories in a way that is rarely matched in any other genre. But there’s a reason why country music is always the butt of the joke. Good country music isn't particularly easy to find, but it does exist. It isn't fair to stereotype all people who listen to country as southern, redneck, ignorant beer-drunks, riding around in pickup trucks, radio blasting and windows down, hanging Confederate flags out their windows and rosaries from their rear view mirrors. Nevertheless, I’ve witnessed this even in my own high school and I don't deny the correlation of this behavior with the music that made me love music, unfortunately. It isn't fair to stereotype country fans in the same way it isn't fair to stereotype any other group of people. I am able to hate cliché, sexist, cookie-cutter country songs while still being loyal to the genre as a whole because of its loyalty to me when I needed it most.
Yet there are weeks when I listen to nothing but '70s singer-songwriter music. I picture myself sitting at open mic nights in the future, listening to the next-generation Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon. This often makes me dream about moving to Nashville and starting a record label that embraces all of the elements of country music that made me love it for so many years. I want to incorporate all of the most valuable elements of country—good songwriting, true stories, raw emotion, organic instruments, vulnerable lyrics—but shed the parts that are tired and worn out. I want to work with artists who are able to make mainstream music with a Nashville influence. I want a new wave of artists who write like Joni Mitchell and play guitar like Keith Urban and sing like Elle King. I want Dan Huff to produce and Liz Rose to co-write. The genre isn't damned, but I'm not proud of some representations of it. I want to be part of a rebirth of country music. In honor of the rebirth, perhaps I’ll call it my label "Renaissance Nashville," and I'm not just saying that because I'm writing this on a flight home from Florence, the actual Renaissance city. Picture it: the new album under Renaissance Nashville: coming soon to your local Target. And you'll get to say you knew me when.
I'm sitting here listening to James Taylor, thinking about the fact that Taylor Swift's parents got her name from his. I'm thinking about the similarities between them. How could I possibly compare "Fire and Rain" to "Blank Space" without requiring leaps and bounds of leeway and flexible imagination? The comparison seems absurd, and yet it makes complete sense to me. Good writing transcends all genres. I look for good lyrics. Sometimes I find that in country. Sometimes in pop. Or folk. Americana. Often in '70s singer-songwriter. Or rock. Indie. Alternative—you get the idea. But the songs with the best lyrics are created by singer-songwriters who turn their experiences into poetry with a melody. When someone asks me what my favorite genre is, I assume they don't want to hear all of these thoughts, which is why I just say singer-songwriter. But you know the whole story.
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month