Yes, it’s true, you’ve found yourself in the midst of yet another RetroPop! Welcome again to the guest blog in which I take female-performed Top 40 pop songs and compare/contrast them with the artistic bits of great lady artists of the past for fun and for a smidge of pop culture perspective.
It’s been great fun muddling together the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen with Jane Austen and Adele with Mary Shelley, but today we’re going to take a bit of a different tack. Instead of riding our interweb-powered Delorean into the way past past to find the work of a female artist, we’re just going to turn our heads towards the sound of that delightful voice coming from somewhere near the Great Smoky Mountains…
See, I was staying up way too late last night and came across this exciting preview of Taylor Swift’s upcoming album on Rolling Stone. It seems like the everyone’s favorite guitar-toting girly girl is branching out a bit, goove-wise, on her new disc. (Although, some critics believe this is just a natural progression of the track she’s been on for years.) Either way, it made me all smooshily proud of Taylor for her success and ability to continually surprise and delight her listeners. I had a hankering to listen again to her new song, which, last time I checked, had just started getting play on the radio. But, BLAMMO, girl: She’s already in the number one spot on Billboard Hot 100 with this fantastically feisty (and realistic) breakup tune! And it’s nice to hear her calling out the jerks she dates and not you know, other women.
Here’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (video below, lyrics here).
Today, rather than trying to draw some connections among current artists and those from the past, I thought we’d give a salute to this great new break-up tune with another from one of Taylor’s iconic influences, a lady who is in her own right a great feminist artist of the past (though she’s still living and singing, much to my happiness), and composer/author of possibly the greatest break-up song of all time, Dolly Parton. Here’s a video of her singing “I Will Always Love You” with Porter Wagoner, lyrics here.
Dolly’s Southern charm, infectious laugh, big hair, and kind ways have led to many the joke about ditziness since she began her career. I like to imagine the look on the faces of those she encountered in her early days in showbiz. Folks probably had no idea what they were in for. But for anyone who’s ever really analyzed Dolly’s career, or spoken with her (I was once in the room when the host I worked with interviewed her via telephone and I wanted to cry with joy!), it’s clear that this concept of her as a silly little girl couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s also clear that such a conception doesn’t seem to bother Dolly too much. In fact, she uses it to her advantage. As she famously said, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blonde.”
We see in the lyrics of this tune, which was a goodbye to her long-time manager, an astounding maturity and confidence of purpose. It’s sweet, it’s tender, it’s considerate, but resolute. This is the heart of what I like to imagine as the real Dolly. The one beneath the titterings and the wigs (however amazing those wigs might be!).
Paired with Swift’s song, the youth and naivete that Taylor assumes as so much of her public persona, and echoes in the voice of the speaker in the tune seems SO much more juvenile. She uses casual colloquialisms (“Like, ever…”), seems to have the emotional sensibility of a teenager (knee-jerk sarcasm such as, “I’m really gonna miss you picking fights…”). The listener could easily write the character in Swift’s song off as a… silly little girl. Now, I haven’t gotten through this week’s edition of Life & Style yet so I’m not going to make any pronouncements on Taylor’s personal romantic choices and how they may compare to this scenario, but what I can say as a commentator on the music industry is that it’s this type of persona—the goofy, giggling girl—that’s invited so many listeners into her enormous fan base. It’s part of her business plan, and (like Dolly and the blonde jokes) something she uses to her advantage. That fans respond better to a vapid, giggling girl persona than to one of a confident woman is problematic, but Parton and Swift have both used (and are still using) it for professional gain.
So, while the lyrics from Dolly’s break-up tune reveal a more emotionally nuanced motivation for the end of the relationship—even as Dolly the woman let the world continue to lob blonde jokes in her direction—Taylor’s song is telling the story of a character who is a bit immature in the way she says things… but extremely confident and self-possessed in the way she’s ready to take control of her relationship.
Silly little girls, two ways, both to career advantages and great musical results.
Thanks so much for indulging me in a more biographical mashup than usual. It feels kind of exciting to RetroPop with a female iconic artist who’s actually been cited as influencing a modern pop lady, doesn’t it? Ooh, tingles! And maybe a few tears…