I Am ... Sasha Fierce
If you're going to run around with peacocks, which is what people generally do in the pop-music business, you could have no better training than Lucinda Williams had at the age of five. Her father, the poet Miller Williams, taught college in Macon, Georgia during the late 1950s, and every two or three weeks he would take his daughter on a short drive to visit Flannery O'Connor, who loved peacocks--she had a small flock of them in her backyard and another flock in her writing. O'Connor let the little girl chase the magnificent, noisy birds, and Lucinda Williams would for the rest of her life carry a child's memory of the writer lady and her bizarre pets. After all, to have played with the peacocks in O'Connor's yard is kind of like having swatted butterflies at Nabokov's house.
In her three decades as a singer and songwriter, Williams has lived among the preening, extravagantly colorful creatures of the pop world, and she has remained a species apart. She has never taken up the manic showing-off, the strutting and crowing and sexual baiting which have been standard practice for popular singers, male and female, for ages. She is famously smart and steel-willed, though she can seem, even after all her years of touring, a bit nervous on stage; and she has always been sexy, although her particular allure involves something more advanced and adult than baiting. Her music is profoundly womanly. Williams gives the impression that she would take you home in a blink, if she thought you wouldn't bore her, and that you would bore her if you haven't read Flannery O'Connor. Posing neither as hen nor as cock, Williams is a woman rare among pop stars for her unfeathered intelligence, untheatrical carnality, and uncompromising humanity.
Now fifty-five, more than twenty years older than O'Connor was on those afternoons in 1958, Williams is in the full bloom of her creative maturity. She recently released a new studio album, her ninth since 1979. Called Little Honey, it is a big-hearted record--buoyant but reflective, a statesmanlike work of rock-and-roll music appropriate to its artist's age. I have been playing it and enjoying it ever since I bought it early this winter, but I began fully to grasp how mature a work it is only after I uploaded the album onto my iPod, clicked "shuffle" while doing some puttering and heard one of the Little Honey tracks, "If Wishes Were Horses," play immediately after Taylor Swift's "Love Story," one of the hits from Swift's latest album, Fearless. Three or four songs after "If Wishes Were Horses," the iPod's random-choice logarithm served up a Beyoncé track. I clicked out of shuffle and sat down. Then I listened to the whole Swift album, and then to Little Honey, beginning to end, and then I played the latest Beyoncé release, the double-CD I Am ... Sasha Fierce. (I couldn't sit through all eighteen tracks of the Beyoncé project, which is a kind of testament to it, since the music is not intended for sitting.)
A bit of imposed randomness helps to put Williams and her new work in proper perspective. It shows that Little Honey is an object lesson in how to be a grown woman in popular music--not merely a big girl or a bad girl, but a grown-up female person. The lesson is one of considerable (if not precisely equal) value to performers in all the realms of pop. Taylor Swift, the country star, who was nineteen when she released her second album in November, will have to learn this lesson soon--ideally, tomorrow morning. She is just about on the verge of being too big, in terms of both age and fame, to be playing a girl. And she could find the challenges of her near future enacted in the tracks of I Am ... Sasha Fierce, in which we witness Beyoncé, at twenty-seven, going bipolar in an effort to establish a new "bad" image without abandoning a "good" one that, at her age, may no longer work so well.
Like Lucinda Williams in her fifties, Taylor Swift in her teens has made music that seems wholly suitable to her age--or, in Swift's case, her age as it is imagined, glorified, and diminished in the tradition of teen-oriented pop. Swift, who started playing guitar and singing before she reached her teens, released her first CD, a self-titled album of original songs, when she was sixteen. (One of the tunes, "The Outside," was a trunk piece that Swift had written when she was twelve.) The songs on both of her first two albums evoke a sweet and largely outdated dream vision, prettified and petrified, of teenage life. It is a world in which the fragile adolescent id lives and dies by the crush, a place where love is all and sex is trouble. Swift writes confessional pillow-book songs centered on the old-school high-school themes of romantic aspiration ("Forever & Always"), the fulfillment of that aspiration ("I'm Only Me When I'm with You"), inevitable broken-heartedness ("Teardrops on My Guitar"), and the cruelties of teen society ("The Outside," "Fifteen").
Sex, in the songs of Taylor Swift, is a secondary, though hardly incidental, effect of amorous attachment. It is neither the be-all that it is in most pop music nor the commonplace that it is in the rec rooms and cars where that music is played. The kids in Swift's songs don't hook up, like real young people; they dream about going out on dates together and becoming couples, and they fear breaking up, like Stephanie Meyer's characters but without the fangs. It is evident from her music that Swift was home-schooled. She doesn't seem to know what is going on in the junior highs of America--or, perhaps, she has a special understanding of some need on the part of her young audience to counterbalance the hyper-sexualization in contemporary teen life with a kind of hyper-romanticization in teen culture.
The latest hit from Fearless is a marvel of toothlessness called "Love Story, " in which Swift retells Romeo and Juliet truly fearlessly, changing all the stuff about dying that the morbid original writer had in there. "I wrote this song because I could relate to the whole Romeo and Juliet thing," she explained to an interviewer. "I was really inspired by that story. Except for the ending. I feel like they had such promise, and they were so crazy for each other, and if that had just gone a little bit differently, it could have been the best love story ever told."
If positivity were a paramount measure of value, as Swift suggests it is, she would be the greatest American musical artist since Hannah Montana. Swift's music is uncommonly, irresistibly catchy--pop very much like soda, fizzy and bracing and so sweet that it makes you lightheaded and thirsty for more. I can enjoy what Swift does, the way I like a Pepsi in the afternoon. Her music can be faulted on multiple grounds--for its frivolity, its essential archaism, its denial of the coldly erotic, and of the tragic, in adolescent experience--but not on the grounds for which it is most frequently derided: for not being real country music. Both of Swift's full-length albums (she also released a Christmas EP better left unmentioned) qualify as country for reasons unrelated to their ritual, and largely gestural, use of Nashville musical cliches--a bit of bluegrassy fiddle, a dose of steel guitar near the bottom of the mix, and so on--the ingredients mandatory for the music to merit a country hekhsher. (Swift, who was born near Reading, Pennsylvania, and lived there until her early teens, when her parents moved to Tennessee for her career, has a hint of untraceable Southern color in her voice; and because Swift has actually lived in the South, her soft accent is considerably more convincing than the sketch-comedy twang that Bruce Springsteen somehow picked up on the Jersey Shore.)
The music that Swift makes is indisputably country in a Danto-ish way: it is music that country-music listeners listen to. It is pop, of course--but country music is, by tradition, pop. It is the popular music of audiences in rural and Southern communities, as well as in cities in the North, where radio listeners in the 1950s would pull in megawatt stations such as WWVA (out of Wheeling, West Virginia), and would, in their urban parochialism, mistake the country hits of the day for something ancient and primitive. Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were pop stars in their time and place; and Williams adjusted his music, drawing more freely from Tin Pan Alley song structures and expanding his instrumentation, in a conscious effort to attract a broad national following. (On a recently issued boxed set of rare Williams radio broadcasts, The Unreleased Recordings, we can hear him playing western favorites with spare instrumentation for rural audiences at milking time, and the relative slickness of his better-known studio releases is striking by comparison.)
The unapologetic commercialism of Taylor Swift's music has roots as least as deep as the ostensible classicism of the Americana music movement that began to take form in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Lucinda Williams was beginning to emerge as a singer and songwriter. By recategorizing music made in the vein of old-style country, the marketers of Americana sought to dissociate the work from Nashville and position it for a younger, broader audience, much as, a generation earlier, the record industry had replaced the established term "hillbilly music" with "country and western" to escape a set of limiting associations. Williams never fit the Americana label. While the recordings of her first decade were arranged and produced with an old-timey feel, Williams's best songs have always had the cryptic, anti-linear unconventionality of mid-'60s Dylan, and she has always sung with a rocker's bite. Over the years Williams's music has steadily moved further and further from the anachronistic, faux-natural artifice of the Americana scene. She has created a category of her own, as original artists tend to do.
Swift may well know that she, too, has to grow up. She is already wrestling publicly with the meaning of that proposition. In concerts, Swift sometimes breaks from her original material and sings what may seem an unlikely choice for a cover selection: a song by Beyoncé (and a team of five of Beyoncé's songwriting collaborators) called "Irreplaceable." The tune, from Beyoncé's second solo album, B'Day, is a taunt to a soon-to-be-ex, a reminder of a once-favored's disposability. Swift strums the tune's chunky rhythm on her acoustic guitar, and she barks, in full voice, "I could have another you by tomorrow/ Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable."
How can a popular artist avoid being replaced, discarded, or forgotten, when popularity is essentially ephemeral? How can a girl singer not merely prevail, but also endure to do woman's work? Lucinda Williams could have been celebrating Taylor Swift's impenitent commercialism when she told an interviewer, in October of last year, that "I didn't want to make a video when everybody else was making videos. I didn't want to sell out. I was horrified at that. Over the years, I've gotten more confident. I'm not so worried about fans thinking I've sold out if I make a video or, God forbid, if I get on the cover of Rolling Stone." And Swift could have been describing the absurd repositioning strategy of Beyoncé's latest album when she said, last November, that "I think when people make a record with a goal in mind like taking it to the next level or making them seem more mature, that gets in the way of writing great songs."
At a career crossroads, Beyoncé has chosen to go both ways, splitting herself into two musical personalities: the good-girl sexpot we have come to know as Beyoncé, and a newly revealed alternate identity, a bad-girl sexpot called Sasha Fierce. I have not checked this, but I presume the latter name is licensed from a drag queen. The persona that Beyoncé has constructed for Sasha Fierce--a slithery, dolled-up parody of a club girl--would certainly make a fine drag act if it had a glimmer of self-awareness or irony. It has none. As Sasha Fierce, Beyoncé offers her body parts--she has always relied upon them-- but barely flirts, and when she flirts, she never winks.
As Beyoncé explained in press materials for I Am ... Sasha Fierce, the album is "about who I am underneath all the makeup, underneath the lights, and underneath all the exciting star drama." Fierce "takes over when it's time for me to work and when I'm on stage, this alter ego that I've created that kind of protects me and who I really am." Fierce is "the party girl, she's bootylicious. She is, but I'm not. She's my alter ego. I'm finally revealing who I am."
The music provides little in the way of further clarity. While the album is packaged to present two sides of Beyoncé, one on each of two discs (or sets of files for downloading), the songs are largely interchangeable. There are more ballads on the first half of the album, the Beyoncé part, though most of them are danceable; and there are more out-and-out dance tunes on the Sasha Fierce half, though Beyoncé sings them and the would-be ballads with the same lusty bravura. Lavish and proficient, sleek but utterly cynical, I Am ... Sasha Fierce is a jittery expression of careerism passing for complexity, a dumb show of sex play posing as adult business, a lurching attempt at professional advancement in the name of growing up.
Among the themes of Lucinda Williams's recent songs are the vagaries of the pop-music industry and the daunting odds of survival in it. She has watched the peacocks come and go, dazzle and fold up their feathers. Three of the songs on Little Honey ("Little Rock Star," "Rarity," and "It's a Long Way to the Top," a cover of the AC/DC song) deal explicitly with musicians and the music business, and at least one more could easily be about a fallen singer ("Jailhouse Tears," a tune about self-destruction in the mode of Williams's earlier "Drunken Angel, " which was about the Texas songwriter Blaze Foley). The surprise among them is the AC/DC number, a blustering anthem that Williams sings straight, without self-glorification or self-pity. The treasure is "Rarity," an aching eight-minute message to a young woman with a musical gift, perhaps the singer's younger self. "They'll call you little honey," Williams sings in a dry hush.
And write you a check
Seduce you with money
And fuck your respect
'Cause you, you're a rarity
Your eyes say wisdom
Your skin says frailty
Your mouth says listen
Much of what Williams brings to bear on Little Honey speaks of wisdom, and little of it suggests frailty. Williams's voice, worn from hard use on the road (and abuse off-road), is a jagged instrument, not a weak one, and Williams wields it with casual surety.
After writing hundreds of tunes (and singing many more by other songwriters), Williams knows well how to work within the conventions of American vernacular music without slavish obedience to those conventions. The twelve original songs on Little Honey are precisely original enough to sound familiar and surprising. For instance, "Honey Bee," with its salty-sweet lyrics--"Oh, little honey bee, I'm so glad you stung me/Now I've got your honey all over my tummy"--has the retro sass of a Big Mama Thornton song, along with an almost punkish capacity to kick the listener's ass. One can only hope the song pops up on Taylor Swift's and Beyoncé's iPods.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.
By David Hajdu