Taylor Swift, Teenage Angst, and Mass Market Appeal

As an ignoramus of pop culture, particularly music (ask anyone who has karaoke’d with me – I’m horribly dull because I don’t know any songs), I’m fairly new to the Taylor Swift phenomenon.  Aside from the now infamous Kanye VMA episode, I didn’t know much about TS until recently, and in fact had never listened to any of her songs.

The numbers don't lie. People love Taylor Swift's music.

The first time I actually heard one of her songs was in the Philippines – at a Mcdonalds nearby the Olive Grove Ministries office in Cebu.  Our team was having lunch there with almost 20 kids from Rick’s G1:27 Tutoring Program, and we were all surprisingly giddy to be enjoying big mac and fries with kids who weren’t used to the western taste of fast food.

Maybe it was the general ambiance, or perhaps the exquisite taste of the fries, but all I know is that when a particularly song hit the speakers in the dining room, the lunch turned into a sing-along bonanza, complete with squeals, head bobs, and Mike Favilla disoriented with what was happening.  The energy in the room increased at least 25% as every single kid (and female adult), started singing and squealing to Swift’s song You Belong With Me.  Rosy and Hannah led the singspiration from our end, and somehow the mcdonalds soon became a chorus of unified angst and hopefulness pre-packaged by Miss Swift.


Did I mention we were in the Philippines?

Since then, my wife has been playing the song non-stop.  She mimics Rosy’s dance moves.  She mouths the words like Lirio, Rejen, Lutche, and company.  She’s watched the video, and researched other songs by TS (she’s found one other song she likes – Love Story).  Someone, please give me back my wife.

Anyhow, we were having a discussion about the song You Belong with Me last night as we were listening to it for the 1,000,000th time.

I say to Tina, “What is it about this song that people are nuts over it?”

Tina responds, “You have to listen to the words, Drew.  Anyone who thought they were unpopular in high school can relate to the song.”

“Anyone, or just girls?”

Anyone,” she says.

I can’t even describe how thrilled she was when she watched the music video at home and saw that the protagonist in the song was in the marching band – /She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers/.  Wow again.  TS struck a cord in my wife.  Sidenote: If you’re unfamiliar with American teenage culture, the marching band is not seen as a popular or cool affiliation.  Well, in most instances (i.e. when your school is not known for its marching band. e.g. a school can be really really great at marching band, winning numerous competitions and such, whereby designating it a cool thing to do in high school).  What’s ironic about this as that when most teenagers grow older, they usual wished they had spent time to learn an instrument by participating in lesser esteemed activities such as marching band or orchestra. End of Sidenote.

I remember talking to a childhood friend of mine, a sweet and brilliant woman who’s accomplished in many respects.  She’s a previous Rhodes Scholar, one of the most prestigious honors given to college-graduates around the world.

Anyhow, she said something a few years ago that always stuck with me.  Keep in mind she’s met a couple of presidents, dignitaries, and some of the most distinguished people in the world.

She said, “Almost every interesting person I met was a loser in junior high school.”

For most of you reading this blog, I’m guessing there’s a sigh of relief.

“I was a loser, too!” you’re probably thinking.

I’m willing to bet that we all felt like losers growing up, at one point or another.

I’ve found that even the most talented, beautiful, athletic, and brilliant people know this feeling.

Angst is what binds us human beings, and no one feels it more than teenagers.  The feeling of being disconnected, misunderstood, or alienated.  These are some of the deepest longings of the human heart, and when someone like TS can express those feelings of being unloved and undervalued in such a catchy way, people are drawn to it.

I was not surprised that TS underwent her own sense of angst and abandonment that most teenagers feel.

And the numbers don’t lie.  The masses have spoken, and they love the song.

This is what music does (and other art forms for that matter) – it touches us to our core, expressing the netherworlds of our emotional worlds in ways that simple prose cannot.

And even if you say, “I can’t stand her!” or “I don’t like her musical style!”, I think when you’ve gone through the pits of unrequited love, you might just start to sing /If you could see that I’m the one who understands you/ Been here all along, so why can’t you see? / You belong with me.. /

Yes, I just wrote a post defending Taylor Swift.

Unrequited love.  Angst.  Someone who loves me despite my uncoolness.  Someone who will never leave me, who will love away my insecurities, my questions, my doubts.  Sounds familiar.  This Story has mass market appeal.


18 responses to “Taylor Swift, Teenage Angst, and Mass Market Appeal

  1. The first time I saw or heard of TS was watching the NYEve’s program in Times Square 2008/09. Then I promptly forgot about her until 11 months later, in that McDonald’s in Cebu 🙂 Other than the two songs Drew mentioned in this post, I haven’t liked any others thus far. sad.

  2. ❤ ittttttttt Drew!!! ❤ HER!!! White Horse is ONE of my top FAVS!!!

  3. I think she is also popular because the tunes are very simple (three notes) and easily-get-stuck-in-your-head-able (I’m aware that head-able is not a word).

    Interestingly, did you know that she has a song about a guy named Drew? And something about tears on her guitar. 🙂

  4. You should tell Tina to listen to “You’re Not Sorry” and “Fifteen”. Those are a pretty angsty reminder of HS.

  5. First of all, I need to set the record straight that even if your high school has an award/competition winning marching band, it’s still very very uncool. We had our quarterback, who was homecoming king while playing for a team that never ever won any games, say one time after extensively making fun of the band geeks, “Why do we make fun of band people though? They’re the only ones who ever win anything in this school. Them and the science guys.” 😀 So it’s just a universal rule that band people are just… well band people.

    Second, I agree with Esther. Her songs are so simple. Although I also didn’t understand the whole phenomenon with her, I definitely liked her better than Miley cause she just seemed to have poise and a sweetness about her. Her songs are just catchy. But it wasn’t until “You Belong with Me” that I bothered to know a song of hers. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still an awful singer and I’m horrified that the Grammys awarded her Album of the Year when she was up against actual musicians and artists. But hey, sometimes we all just want a little brainless fun and I agree with you – if it’s about the underdog then why the heck not smile a little bit. 😀

  6. Oddly enough, I’ve had this same conversation TWICE today already. In a period where the music industry is suffering, people have found something that gets people to BUY albums — it’s all about the relatability you talk about, Drew. She sound THE MOST albums of 2009 – and it’s not for her great singing voice. It’s for her ability to tap into the small experiences we all had at 14 or 15 that somehow contributed immensely to the people we develop into. I know lots of people that don’t get her music style, but you absolutely can not deny her (intentionally or unintentionally) smart decision of writing songs that come from the not just her own, but everyone’s heart.

    I’ll admit I’m a fan of her stuff. I’ve had to defend it for a few years now, but a lot of people come over to my side. Her crossover appeal is pretty intense. That, and her ability to squash an ENTIRE high school rom-com (i.e. She’s All That, Sixteen Candles, or whatever) into the 3min 45 sec You Belong With Me music video. taps into the high school experience we all won’t admit we wish we had.

  7. Orchestra uncool? Someone never gave us the memo. Same thing with marching band. Oh well, ignorance is bliss, I suppose.

  8. Drew. Last night watching the Grammys Carl said, What is the deal with her? (He’s a total music snob.) Thanks for articulating her appeal (and corroborating my attempt at an explanation for her popularity). Obviously he never experienced teen angst. I’m not personally a TS fan but I do admire her work ethic and honest songwriting. Love the Gospel tie in at the end of your post…

  9. Drew!

    I salute this post!! I really appreciate Taylor Swift because she writes all of her own music AND it’s age appropriate. She’s only 19–and her music lyrics and style reflect that. Too many other “artists” her age are trying to appear much older and market themselves as sex symbols. I think Taylor is a breath of fresh air and I’m glad her efforts are being recognized.

  10. This is a hilarious post. I was first introduced to Taylor Swift b/c of the Kanye incident too! Love that a dude just defended a teenage pop star. Haha 🙂 – Veronica

  11. Thanks for sharing this interesting post, Drew! I used be one of those people who say, “Who’s this TS?! What’s so great about her?” at one point…and that was before I heard You Belong with Me!
    I was the girl in the band (from 7th – 12th grade)! Thank goodness my school is located in the middle of Manhattan and we never had to march in uniforms in front of a crowd. To be honest, I’m not sure if I would stay with the band if that was the requirement. 🙂
    Anyway, thanks for introducing a new perspective on this song to me. I hope more and more people will see the appeal of this Story through our NLF community and the numbers of attendees will reflect that! 🙂

  12. Her generation decided:

    1) Her music is danceable
    2) Her melodies are sing-alongable
    3) Her lyrics express my feelings… See More
    4) She’s fun & flirty without being overtly sexual
    5) She’s tall, good looking and has a great smile
    6) She’s unafraid to be seen in pajamas (SNL)
    7) How she appears is how she’s perceived to be
    8) She’s been bullied by Kanye and so have I been bullied
    9) She possesses and is possessed by her own music
    10) She’s not a bitch; we have plenty of them
    11) She becomes genuinely embarrassed and blushes when asked during interviews about boys
    12) She has a girl-next-door je ne sais quoi
    13) She’s having fun and so do I
    14) Girls want to be her
    15) Guys want to be with her

    Where’s the mystery?

  13. Pingback: Reflections on Lausanne Conversation in NYC « while waiting

  14. Pingback: TechFan.org » SmallWorlds Releases First Web-Accessible, Virtual World With Mass Market Appeal

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