Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taylor Swift: Artist?

Needless to say, I am not a Taylor Swift fan by any measure. I can tolerate what I do hear of her music when I have no ability to stop it: When shopping for groceries or cheap clothes, mostly. But, I do not knock anyone who is a fan. Everyone's tastes are different and I would not expect everyone to like all the music I do (though I do love suggesting). With that in mind, I was a bit surprised but also intrigued and slightly happy that folks took an opportunity to critique her recent performance on the Grammy Show this past Sunday. I was surprised because I did not think that, in the spectrum of Pop music these days (And Taylor Swift is a POP act, NOT a country act. C'mon people!), it was a prerequisite that you actually have the ability to sing well. I thought the Pop Music World had moved beyond that notion in recent years (Auto Tune anyone?). I am happy because while people point out the flaws in Swift's performance, which I too think was lacking in raw vocal talent, I see a glimmer of hope: Hope that we have not completely thrown out a want for musical acts to deliver a nice sounding vocal performance. If you are not going to "blow the audience away", at least sound "OK". During her performance, Swift was a few notches below OK. To put it one way: If she had been a performer in a talent show at my former High School, I don't think she would have won. Perhaps the performance was a fluke. A one off bad showing. Whatever the case, what is fascinating about the entire ordeal is that she is being crticized and what the criticism says about the level of talent that we might expect from a "musical artist."

Great singing talent does, indeed, exist in today's Pop music. Despite its tackyness, American Idol does showcase singers with good voices (for the most part). But not just from American Idol (I only use it as an example). Talented "artists" are making their way to the forefront and have made their way without the help of TV shows. There were a few good examples of such artists during the Grammy Show on Sunday. But, the idea that Taylor Swift is a really great singer, is not believable. However, many people argue that this fact is beside the point. The CEO of Taylor Swifts record company (Big Machine), Scott Borchetta, commented in Swifts defense (of course), "This is not `American Idol.' This is not a competition of getting up and seeing who can sing the highest note. This is about a true artist and writer and communicator. It's not about that technically perfect performance" (AP). I think that this quote points out key factors in the career of a successful artist. But isn't another key factor in the art of song and performance the ability to please the "ears" of listeners? The only time this may not hold true would be in cases when the point of the art is to cause displeasure and audible discomfort purposely (Maybe something avant garde, etc.). But Taylor Swift is in the business of "pleasing." While communicating a message and aesthetic to your audience is important, I do not feel that these aspects of performance should ever trump the most important "act" of all. That is, the act of delivering musically pleasing art. Remember, we are talking about a musical performance, not a speech, painting, novel et al. It should sound good. If you do not believe that it should sound good or that one should even go about the critiquing of a singer's vocal instrument, then maybe this says more about what you consider to be "art" and who you consider to be "artists." To a music company, Taylor Swift is a commodity, a product. What matters to the company's bottom line is how effectively their product is "communicated" to a targeted "audience." Music companies need to remember that while an "artist" may "speak" to their audience on several important levels, if you are going to call someone a "musical artist," you cannot neglect the level of musicality. Many have called Taylor Swift, "the voice of her generation." Whoa! Big words, right? What a message. But if this is truly the case (I know millions would beg to differ, but if it is) it means that the messenger seems to be communicating with an audience pretty well (biggest selling album of 2009). But the message and the story are louder and placed in greater importance than the music itself. With Taylor Swift's poor performance being called into question, maybe there is hope that in the Pop Music World an artists talent will need to match all the hype. Otherwise, in my opinion, we need to refrain from a labeling a Product as an Artist.

AP story HERE
Photo by Reina Ltd.

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