I went to a Taylor Swift concert yesterday. Her trajectory is something I've followed occasionally, though not as observant as my other friends who have tracked her every move.
She's no longer the underdog. She's America's sweet-heart. Blonde, blue-eyed. There was a point where her songwriting was about being the underdog, her rejected feelings - see "Romeo and Juliet", "You Belong With Me." These songs were clever, ingenious bits of songwriting, and the lyrics stuck with me - these songs were articulate and precise about the hopes and disappointments of growing up. But the hooks never did - the songs felt "twee", monodimensional with the same chords.
With the new Max Martin songs (post 2012 "Red), the hits took on a different quality. The tunes became extremely polished - "We are never ever getting back together" and "Trouble" melded rock and dubstep into her sound. But her lyrics became a lot more generic. "Shake it Off" is a very generic song - that could be sung by any reigning queen of Pop. There's something homogenizing about the Max Martin touch - his fin de siecle songs "Baby One more time", "I want it that way", "It's my life" feature the same brand of melodic arena-rock anthems with heavy distortion. That is the strength of Max Martin songs.
But the lyrics are secondary to the Swedish working method:
- "But, while knowing English is clearly an advantage to songwriters and producers seeking success in the U.S. and the U.K., a lack of facility with the finer points of the language is equally important. Swedish writers are not partial to wit, metaphor, or double entendre, songwriting staples from Tin Pan Alley through the Brill Building era. They are more inclined to fit the syllables to the sounds—a working method that Martin calls “melodic math”—and not worry too much about whether the resulting lines make sense. (The verses in “I Want It That Way,” for example, completely contradict the meaning of the chorus lines.) Fans of Cole Porter may see this development in roughly in the same spirit that “Downton Abbey” fans might view “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”—with horror—but one can argue that this very freedom from having to make sense lyrically has allowed the Swedes to soar to such melodic heights." - http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/blank-space-what-kind-of-genius-is-max-martin
The emphasis on melody over syllables doesn't play to Swift's strengths. To date I haven't heard a convincing synthesis of pre-2012 Taylor Swift lyrics with the Max Martin sound. Rather, it's been an either-or.
- 2015 Article on Max Martin - http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/blank-space-what-kind-of-genius-is-max-martin
- Lefsetz on Max Martin - http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/index.php/archives/2015/08/05/taylor-swift-in-vanity-fair/
- Lefsetz on Taylor Swift - http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/index.php/archives/2014/08/19/shake/?curator=MediaREDEF