Track of the Week: Taylor Swift, "Today Was a Fairytale"

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Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 28 2010 1:40 PM

Track of the Week: Taylor Swift, "Today Was a Fairytale"


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Jody Rosen : Hey, Jonah. Our Track of the Week is Taylor Swift's "Today Was a Fairytale," from the soundtrack of the forthcoming Valentine's Day . Last week, "Today Was a Fairytale" was downloaded 325,000 times, a new record for weekly paid download sales by a female artist. The song will debut on the Billboard Hot 100 at No.2, just one notch behind " Tik Tok ," the megahit by that anti-Taylor Swift, Ke$ha. (Goody Two Shoes in this corner, Bad Girl in that corner ... fight!)

Someday Swift's vision of romance may move beyond costume drama. (Maybe when she turns 21?) For now, though—she's strictly Merchant-Ivory. Her great 2008 hit "Love Story" was a Romeo and Juliet tale ; the video found Swift in Regency-era togs, batting her eyes at a pretty frat boy stuffed into a Fitzwilliam Darcy outfit. The new song begins like this: "Today was a fairytale/ You were the prince/ I used to be a damsel in distress." This is a girl who likes playing dress-up.

But in Swift's songs all the ball gowns and unicorns have a different effect than you'd expect. They make her songs more emotionally vivid—they sharpen the focus instead of softening it. It's a cliché to describe Swift's lyrics as journal entries, but that's what they feel like; the period-dress scenes are her dreamy little drawings in the diary margins. And in the new single, the fairy-princess talk gets thrown into relief by everyday 21 st -century details:

Today was a fairytale
I wore a dress?
You wore a dark gray t-shirt?
You told me I was pretty when I looked like a mess
Today was a fairytale

Where she really excels is in the tunes. Am I wrong, Jonah, or is "Today Was a Fairytale" one of the catchiest Taylor Swift songs yet? I love the way the melody climbs in the chorus, especially over that one brooding minor chord: "It must have been the way you kissed me ."

Also noteworthy: With the possible exception of that woodsy acoustic guitar picking in the song's opening bars, I don't hear any country gestures here. No fiddle, no lap steel, nothing. Taylor's vowels have gotten flattened and Yankee-ified. (Compare her accent in "Today Was a Fairytale" with the twangful "Our Song," from 2007.) See ya, Nashville!

Jonah Weiner : Hi Jody. There's the faintest trace of countryish fingerpicking here, but yes, one of the first things that struck me about "Today Was a Fairytale" is how nominal-to-the-point-of-nonexistent its claims to Nashville citizenship are. But we've seen this coming for a while now, right? Haven't the country gestures always been largely nominal with Taylor Swift? Isn't a large part of her success and savvy that she can take a Kelly Clarkson-esque power ballad, smear just a bit of lap steel on the margins, and thereby court audiences north and south of the Mason-Dixon without alienating either?

Music-wise, this is one of my favorite Swift songs. And you're right, that "kissed meeee " scythes through you like a warm pink laser beam. This is a marvel of pop-craft—we've heard the song's anxious pre-chorus, swooning/pining hook, and eleventh-hour drop-everything-but-the-sighing-vocals-and-acoustic-guitar parlor trick a thousand times before, and yet it all thrills.

Taylor Swift seems like the kind of girl you go over the moon for (unless you're one of the unfortunate BFs legendarily disemboweled on her debut). But I'm not so over the moon that I quite buy your case for the lyrics here. They're OK. The hook is my biggest problem: The fairytale refrain strikes me as so blandly corny that it snaps me out of the fantasy. Swift is capable of the sharp detail you credit her with—the image (and unheard squeak and slam) of the "screen door" on "Our Song" sticks with you as much as anything in the melody—but I don't see that at work here. The gray T-shirt doesn't do much of anything for me, nor does the generous compliment that the hottie wearing it offers our insecure Goldilocks. It's an overly familiar Mr. Right trope that he will find us beautiful when we are suffering a bad-hair day/have morning breath/haven't yet been attended to by our team of stylists. Swift doesn't do much but invoke the cliché and hope it does her heavy lifting for her. (Ditto "Everything you say is right," "Time slows down whenever you're around," etc.) I do like "you picked me up at six"—it's a nice intrusion of the quotidian into the enchanted forest, and also, what a chaste time to start a date!—but I feel that Taylor is being a little disingenuous: She's not wishing for ponies and pixie dust, exactly, but there's a whiff of her reinforcing a brand on this song: selling a product (The Taylor Swift Princess Castle by Hasbro®, Recommended Ages: 8-15, maybe?) rather than painting a picture. And I don't mind pop selling me product, but I need a better pitch than this. In the case of this song, it's the tunes doing the hustling. 

J.R. : Jonah, you're right: The lyrics here are just so-so. The song's a bit lazy, really. In "Love Story," Swift has that neat third-verse narrative twist, which puts the final chorus in the voice of her beau. That's classic high Nashville craftsmanship. Here she's complacent; you're right that on its own the "fairytale" business doesn't do much.

But I'm impressed by what Swift gets away with. Her tunes are so strong they elevate her doggerel, or render it irrelevant: I can feel the emotions even when they're insipidly expressed. (Of course, in Swift's best stuff—" Our Song ," " Fifteen ," " You Belong with Me "—the lyric writing is pretty tight.) Also, Taylor Swift songs have this weird, ineffable, intimate quality; the clichés just seem personal. The combination of ninja-like melodic craft and gauche lyrics give songs like "Today Was a Fairytale" a rough-hewn quality that sets them apart from, for instance, Kelly Clarkson. This song is sonically airbrushed and pitch-corrected and buffed to a hi-gloss shine—and yet it feels handmade. It's Etsy -pop.

J.W. : If Taylor Swift were an Etsy product, would she be these " Let's Make Out/Let's Be Friends " throw pillows? I could see two characters holding these babies aloft in a Swift video, communicating their adolescent longing/ambivalence between adjacent suburban bedroom windows. 

Anyway, this song is a funny mix: some of her tightest songwriting to date, but some of her laziest lyrics. I'll reserve final judgment until I see it in the context of Valentine's Day —the scene in which her beau turns into a werewolf and passionately humps Topher Grace's leg is supposed to be a real heartbreaker.

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.

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