And the records are beautiful. Unlike her earlier releases, which were more produced, these are stripped down and raw. The instrumentation is sparse, allowing Swift’s voice a greater prominence and presence. And in that space, Swift’s singing is less sung and more spoken. More honest.
The same is true of the album’s artwork. On the cover of Folklore, Swift is standing in a forest, herself a background to the gorgeous natural scene. In Evermore, her flannel-clad back is turned, her hair in a casual braid. Both look like they were taken with an iPhone of an older generation.
Like her, the pictures are relaxed. Less flashy and showy.
I can’t pretend to know Swift’s intentions in her art or in the production of her songs. But I do know the powerful effect her choices are having on many of her listeners, and on our culture. Including the permission she has given us all to also relax, to speak, and to be.
For singers specifically, the laid-back treatment of these records flies in the face of the industry’s longstanding requirement to sing high and hard in order to be a success. To hit those money notes everyone claps for on American Idol and The Voice. Those notes are stunning, for sure. But we’ve come to expect and demand them, particularly of women. And to define vocal greatness by their presence. No matter the cost. No matter the strain. No matter the pain.
The same way our culture says a woman needs to wear high heels to be sexy. To suffer for a beauty too often enjoyed by others more than herself.
Well, not anymore. Like Joni Mitchell before her, who traded the vocal stratosphere for down to earth in her “Both Sides Now” record, Swift sounds like she’s sitting in front of a microphone wrapped up in a cardigan and telling us her truth. Both of them boldly, brazenly showing off their choices of comfort for all of the world to see.
Brandi Carlile made a similar statement with her song The Joke. And while I can’t claim to know her intent either, by giving herself permission to not scream out the highest note—to make a creative choice separate of what she ‘should’ and would be expected to do—Brandi gave other female vocalists, and women, the same opportunity.
And then, in her own time, on her own terms, and for her own reasons, she chose to wail the other night on Saturday Night Live.
We singers don’t need to push and strain our voices any more than we need to walk on our tippy toes to be sexy. We can be raw and real. We can speak our truth. We can whisper instead of shout. We can be proud without needing to preen.
We can do whatever we damn well please.
Thank you, ladies.