Taylor, Sit Down Somewhere!
We tried, we really, really did.
As much as we tried to resist, as much as we tried to convince ourselves that her jabs at exes and those pop-y hooks didn’t get us bouncing around, we failed. Though we may not have admitted it, there were at least a few (if not a lot) of Taylor Swift’s anthems that found their way on to our phones, in our cars or on our laptops.
And we were even willing to look past her questionable “Shake It Off” video and its clear cultural appropriation, because “Bad Blood” had us feeling some kind of way. But that all came to a screeching halt when Taylor Swift made Friday the 13th even more of a horrific, frightful day with her misguided and truly atrocious cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.”
If somehow you spared your ears a truly scarring experience, I’m sorry to do this, but you really need to hear this mess:
We’ll give you a second to compose yourself.
OK, now on to serious business: Here comes a passionate explanation as to why Taylor Swift and other pop personalities need to take a step back and sit on down. We are certainly not hopping on our musical high-horse here. There are plenty of artists who choose to remake songs in their particular style and genre. They don’t want to release a carbon copy of a song that was probably pretty exceptional to begin with. They want to put their mark on it, and transform that work into something different, something special and something emblematic of bringing together two varying perspectives on music together in an innovative way. But what Taylor Swift, in her infinite wisdom or that of some middle-aged executive, decided to do to a classic had no rhyme, no reason and sure as hell no purpose.
Swift’s cover of “September” transforms a song that has become a mainstay in the African-American cannon of music and a song we all love, into a sugar-y pile of nothing that doesn’t elevate, transform or even make us think. It wreaks of the sort of ill-advised idea that a drunken group of college girls would dream up during a weekend hitting the frats and boozing themselves silly. It feels like that scene in “Mean Girls” when the Plastics decide to pointlessly sex up “Jingle Bell Rock,” only at least their rendition was a little more entertaining and a little less infuriating than Swift’s nonsense.
That is certainly not to paint a picture that Swift is the first or only artist to ever take a beloved song by an African-American artist and unequivocally downgrade it. It’s also not to insinuate that a white artist can’t ever consider remaking a song by a Black artist. Cultural appropriation is a problem present throughout music, however it doesn’t mean that good music has to fall along color lines. But it is saying that Swift has always had a degree of arrogance to her and her cover of “September” was no exception.
There are a lot of things about Taylor Swift that can grind people’s gears. Though sometimes she reads as this genuine, small-town girl who made it big, other times she comes off with a self-absorbed, pretentious attitude that can really drive listeners nuts. She built a healthy portion of her career on writing musical daggers at her famous exes. And while we’d be lying if we said some of these anthems didn’t strike a chord with us, it also didn’t really fill us with admiration and respect for Swift’s music or her overall approach to her artistry. She made millions running around shaming friends, ex-beaus and really anyone who seemed to get on her nerves. We admire strong women who aren’t afraid to rain a little hellfire down on those who have wronged them; what we don’t admire is the arrogance of always painting foes or former flames as the ones at fault.
There’s no denying there’s considerable talent required to be a singer and songwriter. Neither of those skills are easy to come by and many successful musicians fall short in one of those categories. However, the arrogance that Swift can often exude in some of her songs speaks to the heart of what is wrong with her decision to cover “September” in the way she did. She took a song with depth and feeling and denigrated it to a shell of itself. She had the arrogance to do that without ever second-guessing her decision. We don’t presume to know exactly what she was thinking when she made the decision to tackle Earth, Wind and Fire, but we have to imagine that thought-process didn’t last very long. She knows she’s Taylor Swift, she likes to do what she wants and whether she heard the song in passing or someone mentioned it to her, she ran with it and never looked back.
The conversation regarding young, white, millennial musicians tackling classic songs by African-American artists is a challenging and nuanced one. The impression that can often be given is that the renditions performed by our artists somehow isn’t good enough thus warranting the remake or that white audiences need a white face to accompany the songs that they bop their heads to. And I don’t doubt that this contributed somewhat to Taylor’s misstep. I would like to think it wasn’t the driving force, but in our cultural climate today, musicians also need to understand the larger picture that can be painted when these kind of decisions are made.
At the end of the day, whatever Taylor Swift’s motivations were they were poorly thought-out. To take such a classic and do absolutely nothing to honor or enhance it was just pointless. As we said earlier, she’s certainly not the first artist to remake a song and fall on her face in the process. She isn’t even the only artist to tackle “September” (yeah, we’re looking at you Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick). But just the sheer terrible-ness of her rendition pushes us over the edge of being done with her and ultimately leaves us wanting her to sit down and leave the grown folks music to the grown folks. She can have her bubble gum pop anthems, leave the funk and soul to someone who can actually handle it.