The Girl in the Dress: Taylor Swift's Endless Reign

by Daniel D’Addario

2011 will be a great year for fans of Taylor Swift and her music, I have the feeling — as every year since, say, 2008 has been. She’ll keep releasing singles off of her album, so that anyone who hasn’t torrented or bought the full “Speak Now” can join the speculation as to whether that’s what Joe Jonas, John Mayer and Taylor Lautner are really like. She’ll tour and perform, and probably Us Weekly will catch Jake Gyllenhaal with her at Starbuckses across the continental U.S. and Canada. Probably she will perform at awards shows.

2011 will be a dire one for fans (fan?) of Lindsay Lohan and her music. Her third album, to be titled “Spirit in the Dark,” was meant to have been released in 2008. I remember eagerly sending high school friends links to People articles about the album’s progress, my sophomore year of college. I have since graduated. This is “Chinese Democracy” or “Detox” minus anticipation. But if Taylor Swift is to be the queen of a certain breed of pop for however long it takes before Lourdes Leon cuts a record deal or the ourobourous swallows us — or both at once! — we need Lindsay Lohan as a corrective.

Let us define the genre within which we are working. Swift and Lohan are not pop qua pop: Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro,” for instance, is straightforwardly within the pop genre and is as incoherent about its heroine’s experiences as a Djuna Barnes novel; Katy Perry’s “Firework” and its stabs at personal appeal are marred by mixed-metaphor-itis: “do you ever feel like a plastic bag?,” Perry asks, as Wes Bentley, alone, nods along to the radio. Gaga and Perry are too android and chilly to describe their experiences to the heroic degree Swift and Lohan attempt.

Swift’s purloining from life has by now been well-documented. If her songs were collected on a Tumblr, and not three albums, I’d say “I’m not going to bother linking to it.” But her records raise questions of which I’m not sure even she is aware. Take, for instance, “Dear John.” A “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”-length kiss-off to John Mayer, with whom she had a, I guess, super-brief affair (I read Oh No They Didn’t and wasn’t sure I even remembered it happening), “Dear John” is harsh, caustic. It’s a great song, but even as someone who gives Swift more credit for her agency than most (the general attitude this twenty-year-old fosters about her age is reminiscent of Abigail Breslin bringing dolls with her to awards shows in the Little Miss Sunshine era to remind the Oscar voters she was young and precious), I wonder whether it’s incredibly calculated manipulation of the public perception of Mayer as a… calculated manipulator reflects a jadedness more befitting a wizened veteran.

Which, of course, she is by now, so.

The ad campaign for Swift’s album featured Swift saying “This time, I’m naming names.” I’ve not listened to the whole album, but to my knowledge she only actually names Mayer, though the references to Lautner, Jonas and his sometime girlfriend Camilla Belle, Kanye West, etc., are not artfully veiled. They don’t need to be. “Speak Now” functions as a Pale Fire-like revision in the margins of Us Weekly, Swift giving her perceptions of the incredibly specific circumstances in which she finds herself. That’s fine, and it fuels interest as well as a persona of super-real truth-teller, the kind of girl each girl wants to be.

No one wants to be Lohan, nor did they even at her peak, which lasted between, let’s say, 2004 and 2006. While she was perhaps the most human of all of the decade’s celebrities — messily saying too much in interviews, indulging herself grotesquely ravenous appetites, constantly seeking yet more praise — the interest in a talented actress with pathologies has to end sometime. In the midst of it all, she released “Speak” (2004) and “A Little More Personal (Raw)” in 2005, naked money-grabs requiring little vocal exertion.

And yet, despite their titles, both albums are thrillingly anonymous. Lohan, in those years, lived a legitimately interesting life, as such lives go, backed by scads of money and yet constantly messing up, dealing with the depressants Michael and Dina Lohan. Who she dated (Wilmer Valderrama, mainly — wow, huh!) was maybe the least interesting thing about her. (Taylor Swift makes her dating resume her selling point, which is depressing in its own way.)

Nothing on either album gives you any notion of who Lohan is. It was assembled, naturally, by a team of writers and producers of whom Lohan was the least important component. Or it’s personal, but to every conceivable listener in the world. The songs are vaguely about yearning for human connection, or about falling in love, but nowhere does a listener pause and say “Oh, right, that was when she was falling in love with Wilmer. She got so disillusioned.” In “Black Hole,” Lohan refers to a “box of letters lying on the ground,” and it’s a surprisingly sharp image. Rightly, the return address remains blurry.

It’s somewhat perverse that Swift’s ascendancy can give a listener appreciation for Lohan’s discretion, but even on first single “Rumors,” she doesn’t discuss her celebrity beyond the repeated line “I’m tired of rumors startin’.” Rumors about what? This could be about an office or a family or, more pertinently, a seventh-grade dance.

Contrast with the Swift track “Mean,” which is painfully specific about bloggers describing Swift’s weak singing voice. “Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city, and all you’ll ever be is mean,” Swift sings, which is maybe cold comfort to her listeners who lack the breadth of experience to convert into fame as their idol has done, and who for that matter don’t already have fame and wealth beyond measure, as Swift does. We already know Swift wants to be famous, because she tried to garner fame both through a music career and high-profile couplings, and succeeded. Does she need to keep pressing the point?

“A Little More Personal,” too, avoids much mention of celebrity (“Fastlane,” e.g., is “about” how “lonely” the “fastlane” can be, but is so studiously vague that one forgets just how lonely Lohan must have been). It goes into family issues, but “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father)”’s big confession is that she is frustrated by her family’s “crisis that only grows older.” Michael Lohan’s specificities are left aside, as no one wants to know what they are, or as Lindsay knows the right place for airing specific grievances is to allow her mother to do an interview on TV. Pop music is for the lowest common denominator, or the common touch. “Spirit in the Dark” was, finally, the right idea for a title (if a little too melodramatic to really work); Lohan was but the ghost in the machine. She would have been, unseen, animating her listener’s notions of themselves, not Speaking Now in anything resembling her own voice.

Lohan’s celebrity, I suspect, has torpedoed her music career as it did her film career — both involve the playing of roles (either everygirl car-radio chanteuse or, you know, an acting role) in which the audience can’t envision the well-known Lohan. The jokes about Swift’s eventual single about Jake Gyllenhaal write themselves, but her work’s authenticity begins to wane as, secure in her own celebrity, Swift’s incredible specificity blooms. It is possible to extrapolate from one’s experience emotions that are universal, but Swift, at least in “Dear John” and its subgenre within her work of celebrity-revenge tracks, seems to want her audience to do the work for her.

Those friends from high school, with some of whom I’ve fallen out of touch, were excited about Lohan’s new record, though we all watched with befuddlement through l’affaire Ronson and the arrests and such. It wasn’t clear then that it would all make another Lohan album impossible, not merely because of her lack of focus but also because her experience had become so specific that there was no way to convey it. I burned “A Little More Personal” off a friend back when it was a new record, and — I was the only one with a car — used to drive around, school to Starbucks to Borders pumping the cheesy pop music, which did exactly what pop music is supposed to, really: describe how you were feeling, or make you feel it vicariously. Lohan was ours, because she let herself be.

Daniel D’Addario knows you can’t look back while everyone in Sodom is getting blinded.