Is Taylor Swift such a great songwriter?
At 20, Taylor Swift already seems to have done it all. If she has an early draft of her bucket list, I can’t imagine what would be on it — at least as far as her career is concerned.
Score hit singles? Done. Record multiplatinum albums? Done. Crossover to movies? Done. (Though Valentine’s Day is no Lady Sings the Blues, or Moonstruck.) Host Saturday Night Live? Done. (Hey, it only took Betty White 88 years!) Share a stage with Kanye West? Done. Be romantically linked to John Mayer, Taylor Lautner and a Jonas Brother and get tons of free publicity for it. Done, done and done. Earlier this year, she even won the Album of the Year Grammy Award for Fearless, her second album. That’s a prize many legends wait a lifetime to earn (see 2009’s co-winner, Robert Plant) – and often never do (see Bruce Springsteen). To Swift’s credit, she seemed to totally grasp the gravity of the situation, the enormity of the moment, during her acceptance speech.
Now this. Last night the Songwriters Hall of Fame paid tribute to Paul Simon and Phil Collins, while inducting Leonard Cohen, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro and Jackie DeShannon, among others. All are completely deserving honorees, give or take a Phil Collins, who is already in the Hall of Fame and was further accoladed with the Johnny Mercer Award. As much as I love “Take Me Home” and “I Missed Again,” I’m not sure if either Collins hit, or any Collins hit, has been as timeless and/or influential as Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (recipient of the Towering Song Award), Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming” or DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes,” but they were well crafted — and they were huge. Swift, meanwhile, was given the Hal David Starlight Award, which honors promising young writers.
Think about this for a moment. Not only does Swift get to share an evening with Simon and Cohen, but she gets an award named after the man who wrote a string of classic pop singles, including “I Say a Little Prayer,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” and the Oscar-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” with Burt Bacharach. Does she deserve it? Consider this:
She wears high heels, I wear sneakers/She’s Cheer Captain, and I’m on the bleachers/Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find/That what you’re looking for has been here the whole time.”
That’s a snippet from Swift’s signature song (so far), “You Belong With Me.” To these ears, it’s not exactly “The Sounds of Silence,” a Simon & Garfunkel classic that became a hit when Simon was only about four years older than Swift is now, but as an example of modern songwriting, those lyrics are significant for two reasons. First, not only do they speak to girls of a certain age, the ones who hold Swift up as a role model, someone to admire and aspire to, but for older folks like myself, they contain eloquent and universal enough sentiments to make us go, “Oh, yeah. I’ve been there, too.” Well said.
The other reason is because in a genre where few of the biggest stars, especially the women, write their own material, it’s nice to see a rising superstar who doesn’t have to depend on the kindness — and talent — of strangers for her biggest hits. Whether anything Swift has done will have the staying power of “Jolene” or “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (to name one of the few trailblazing female singer-songwriters in country), or even Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” remains to be seen. But at least now she has something else to work toward.