Dear reader: I’m doing great. No one’s having a meltdown here. Mental health is at an all-time high.
These rankings are entirely subjective and absolutely correct.
I’m doing great.
Dear reader: I’m doing great. No one’s having a meltdown here. Mental health is at an all-time high.
These rankings are entirely subjective and absolutely correct.
I’m doing great.
On Sunday evening, news broke that Justin Townes Earle—singer, songwriter, and son of alt country legend and The Wire utility man Steve Earle—passed away at age 38.
There was worse news reported on Sunday. And you can’t really say that JTE’s passing was unexpected—the man was named for Townes Van Zandt after all. But the world is a little bit darker today because a man who made things a bit brighter with his music is gone too soon.
Mourning the death of an artist, especially one as untimely as JTE’s, often feels like an exercise in reflecting on what they meant to us. For me, Earle’s 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now was one of the most impactful records I’ve ever heard by someone in our generation.
In 2012, I was interning at Bloodshot Records, an alt-country record label with an otherworldly lineup of musicians who have come through its doors. This was not a company that expected to have interns, and I didn’t have much ambition for the job other than to say I got to do something cool and music adjacent (see the first sentence in this paragraph). So I ended up taking two trains and a bus every Tuesday afternoon in 2012 so that I could listen to Fresh Air and stuff media mail envelopes with records that would go out to buyers. That’s how I came across JTE: temporarily assuming title of a copy of Nothing’s Gonna Change from Bloodshot’s stack of CDs it sent out to college radio stations.
The album sideswiped me. It is deceptively simple: 10 songs clocking in at 30 minutes. There’s so much space between the instruments in the mix, which allows you to practically hear JTE’s fingerprints sliding over the strings of his guitar. The drums sit comfortably in the backbeat, and every song has these beautiful, subtle horn arrangements that come in as cool as a breeze off the river on a humid Memphis night. Earle’s lyrics were vague enough to feel applicable to my own life: songs about quick calls home and half-hearted, self-serving apologies. All this is to say that the album sounded particularly good walking around campus at night, sneaking furtive, self-destructive Marlboro drags and feeling things.
One of my pinnacle achievements in music (of which there are few) was playing with my band in the side lounge of the same venue where JTE was headlining. It was at a time when my performing dreams were still very much alive, and an artist like Earle made me think they were attainable. But it takes hard work to make simple songs sound as beautiful as he did. It’s easy for any asshole with a drinking problem to pick up a guitar. It’s so much harder to create something as emotionally resonant as Justin Townes Earle did.
It’s fucked up that he’s gone so soon. And it’s fucked up that my way of remembering him is to think of what he meant to me, purely in the context of myself, and not to think of what his life was like on its own.
It’s also notable how JTE shows just how much of our fathers we carry in ourselves. How our dads give us our name (“Townes” and “Earle” for Justin, as if one whiskey-and-cocaine-drenched chain wasn’t heavy enough to carry) and then give us the tools to deal with it, for better or for worse. How we take the good and bad from them in equal parts.
For Justin, he built on his dad’s approach to songwriting—one that fused a traditional guitar technique and country feel onto modern subject matter—in a way that developed his own reputation rather than sit in father’s shadow. I know I’d rather listen to just about any JTE album than a Steve Earle record. I mean, just listen to that percussive way he fingerpicks his guitar here (my all-time favorite Bruce Springsteen cover) in a manner that’s clothed in decades of tradition but also 100% original.
But he also got the bad side of his two namesakes. The cocaine, the pills, the drinking, and the questionable facial hair. You don’t need to live like the people JTE wrote about to write such melancholy and honest songs as he did. But he tried.
When you lay down to sleep that’s when it’ll hurt the most
When you wake up alone and still smell my smoke
Some stars are tragic, and we love them for it. JTE wore his tragedy in the tattoos on his forearm and in the grooves of his music. RIP to a real one.
Taylor Swift, folklor: CBD
The National, I Am Easy to Find: Marijuana
Sun Kil Moon, Benji: Heroin
Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz: Ecstasy
Father John Misty, Fear Fun: Cocaine
Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher: LSD purchased from your neighborhood feminist co-op
Counting Crows, August and Everything After: Ibuprofen and white wine
American Football, American Football: Weed dust that’s been emptied onto a Pavement CD while you sit in your mom’s Corolla.
Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else: Methadone
Elliott Smith, Either/Or: Ketamine
Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver: Mushrooms
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Revolution Anti-Hero IPA
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks: Sandalwood-scented incense candle
it’s ridiculous. preposterous. a miscarriage of justice? okay, not that far. but it’s pretty fucking bad. i’ll just say it: it is offensive that taylor swift, poet laureate and heiress to the stevie nicks’ throne of “forest fairy who also will wreck your life with a single song lyric”, had to release folklore, an obvious fall album, during the middle of this godforsaken summer.
let’s look at the facts:
now, i want to make one thing perfectly clear: i do not fault taylor swift for this, and not just because I fear her powers. taylor has managed to make us all feel a new flavor of sad during this hopeless summer, versus the standard lukewarm defeatist depression. no, i blame everyone who hasn’t worn their goddamn mask and every government official who decided that it would be supes cute to open businesses when we had “flattened the curve” at roughly one billion cases a day, because you created an atmosphere so devoid of anything to watch or do that our great cardigan goddess felt compelled to release this album now instead of waiting for a more appropriate season. she shouldn’t have had to do this. it is cruel, unusual, and seasonally inappropriate.
if there is any justice in the world, taylor swift will soon be releasing an album that, when played backwards, sends all of you back to the hell you crawled out of. for now, we’ll all just have to settle for knowing that, in the grand scheme of this hellpit summer, we’re all betty.
it is the summer of folklore and we are *feeling* things. t-swift has dropped an emotion bomb, and while our response has been to sob into a decaying oak tree, that may not be your vibe. however, there are certain reactions to this woodsy attack on the heartstrings that are more appropriate than others. here are the twenty-three definitively correct things to do after listening to folklore:
as taytay has amassed wealth, fame, power, and cats over the last decade, she has been unable to escape one non-kanye-related nemesis: the first song released from her own albums. even as she churned out albums packed with chart-topping, introspective bangers, she seemed incapable of releasing any of those songs in the buildup to her album release.
instead, she continually opted for songs that could generously be described as “sonically foul” and which were wildly out of step with her actual albums.
the most recent and galling example was a vile poptastrophe titled “me!” that inexplicably featured brendon urie, everyone’s third-favorite pop rock frontman. while lover itself was a delightful journey into the world of a young woman who feels it all coming together… “me!” was a terrifying descent into someone’s half-hearted and frankly reckless journey through the looking glass.
before that, there was the evil and wretched “look what you made me do,” a right said fred ripoff that would have been more at home in an off-broadway parody of the mean girls musical. reputation surely wasn’t as complete as her other pop albums, but from “getaway car” to “call it what you want” and “delicate,” there were plenty of more appropriate options.
and let’s not forget that the lead single for the world-altering, record-crushing, career-defining 1989 was, inexplicably, the entirely forgettable “shake it off.” this faux-empowerment anthem featured taylor claiming people said she stayed out too late (no one has ever thought you partied too hard, sorry tay) and ogling black women’s asses (take the video down, tay)—and was somehow selected from an album that featured, in no particular order: “style, “blank space,” “wildest dreams,” “style,” “new years day,” “clean,” “out of the woods,” “style,” “this love,” “style,” “how you get the girl,” “style,” and “style.”
but this time around, taylor managed not to fall into the same trap. so how’d she do it? she started by filling the album with only good songs, then didn’t release any as lead singles. she just released the dang album, let us vibe to it, and peaced out.
and we are truly grateful.
Taylor Swift is having a moment. If you’ve been anywhere near an electronic device in the last month, this is no news to you. Her album 1989 debuted to critical success she’s never seen before and commercial success no one’s seen since Britney’s hayday. But if there’s been one knock on our pop star du jour, it’s that she’s a relative lightweight.
While Beyoncé samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminist poetry, TayTay sings about mean boys and fun nights and how old she is. Right? WRONG.
Turns out, T-Swift is using her noted lyrical prowess to comment on the great Issues Of The Day with biting analysis—we just haven’t been looking hard enough. And the proof is in her latest smash-hit single, “Blank Space.”
“Blank Space” has been praised as many things: a self-aware take on her “boy crazy” reputation, a strong repudiation of the stereotypes placed on women, a pure-pop cakewalk that’s easy to listen to and hard to forget. But what we’ve largely ignored is Swift’s intriguing commentary on the recent climate deal struck by American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Right now you might be thinking, “What on EARTH is [name redacted for legal reasons] talking about, that makes no sense.” Or, you might be thinking, “Wow [name redacted for legal reasons] is so smart I’m glad I’m reading this.” If you’re thinking the second thing, you’re right. Let’s look at the lyrics to find out why:
Swift starts off with “Nice to meet you/ where you been?” as a way of politely chastising China’s absence from previous rounds of climate discussions. It’s as if she’s saying she’s happy to see China finally at the negotiating table, but there really is no excuse for their previous refusals to consider action on climate change.
In the next stanza she moves on to “New money/ suit and tie/ I can read you like a magazine.” Here she acknowledges that it has only been in the last half century or so that China has fully industrialized, and in the process has become an economic powerhouse able to rival and likely surpass the other richest countries. Plus—and this is really getting a bit weird—if you look at the attire both men wore while speaking to the press during Obama’s visit… it’s actually a suit and tie! Spooky!
“Ain’t it funny/ rumors fly/ and I know you’ve heard about me” is an interesting take on President Obama’s known hatred for leaked information coming out of his administration. She wryly calls such leaks “funny” while pointing out that China’s vast intelligence operation has likely already heard plenty.
When she sings “So hey/ let’s be friends,” I’m 99% sure she’s actually just quoting President Obama’s opening line in the most recent round of negotiations.
“I’m dying to see/ how this one ends,” is one of the more macabre lines in the song and the lyric that makes clear where Swift stands on the issue of climate change. Always one to turn a phrase, she points out that we’ll all be “dying”—in flooded cities, burning hillsides and drought-ravaged plains—to see how HUMANITY ends if we fail to act.
One of her least subtle lines comes next: “Grab your passport/ and my hand.” Yes, Taylor, we understand that this agreement was hashed out on President Obama’s overseas trip last month, and that Obama and Jinping like holding hands.
But she’s right back at it with “I can make the bad boys good for a weekend.” China has long been the proverbial “bad boy” of climate change discussions, but over just a few days of intense negotiations, President Obama was able to make them “good.”
“So it’s gonna be forever/ or it’s gonna go down in flames” is a dire warning once again. Either both nations stick to this hugely important pact for the long run, or the planet literally runs the risk of being consumed by flames fanned by higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and increased lightning strikes.
When Swift sings “You can tell me when it’s over/ if the high was worth the pain” there are actually two reasonable interpretations. Either she’s acknowledging that reducing carbon emissions will be a painful process for an industrializing economy like China’s—and that there’s no guarantee it will be worth it—or she’s pointing out that for decades China’s carbon levels have been too high and that we are all now due for the pain that is sure to come as a result. I’m inclined to believe it’s the former, but you can form your own opinion on this one.
You can’t, however, form your own opinion on the next line: “Got a long list of ex-lovers/ they’ll tell you I’m insane.” That’s because there’s no doubt that Swift is using “ex-lovers” to mean allies, of which the U.S. certainly has a long list. Yet would any of us be surprised if allies like Germany, Brazil, or Israel would refer to America as “insane” in light of recent NSA revelations? In fact, perhaps only Great Britain among our allies would be willing to stick up for us at this point; but in Swift-parlance, that special relationship is more likely to be considered a “soul-mate” than an “ex-lover.”
With “Cause you know I love the players/ And you love the game” Swift offers perhaps her biggest critique of Obama. While he tried to lead through the sheer force of personality and likability, Jinping has successfully mastered the “game” and led China to economic strength and international acceptance that no other communist nation with such a frightening human rights record has achieved.
“Cause we’re young and we’re reckless/ we’ll take this way too far” references the knee-jerk reaction from many American conservatives who said that Obama—despite a term and a half in the White House—is an inexperienced negotiator who made a poorly-thought-out deal with China.
“It’ll leave you breathless/ or with a nasty scar” is actually a little bit rude. Referencing China’s devastating pollution and smog issues (which have been known to leave residents with asthma literally breathless) in a song about their new efforts to reduce emissions just seems like a low blow. The kind of blow that could leave a nasty scar, actually.
After referencing America’s “long list” of allies once more, she goes to the crucial line: “But I’ve got a blank space, baby/ and I’ll write your name.” If there has been one nation missing from climate negotiations in the last few decades, it has undoubtedly been China. Each time an agreement is drawn up, their space remains blank and the pledge remains unsigned. Finally, after years of trying, President Obama is ready to write in China as a partner in the fight against climate change.
“Cherry lips/ crystal skies” is a quick paean to the literally brighter environmental future the two nations share—though I would argue that “cherry lips” is rather offensive if it’s intended to describe Chinese traditional white-face-red-lips makeup, but hey, this wouldn’t be the first time Taylor’s been accused of cultural insensitivity.
At the end of the stanza she dives into a bit more of a realistic take: “Wait the worst/ is yet to come, oh no.” And she’s right. Even with this historic climate pact and a renewed worldwide effort to reduce carbon emissions, we have already done too much damage. We can do our best to mitigate the effects, but things are bound to get worse before they get better.
“Screaming/ crying/ perfect storms” seems to acknowledge this further in startling imagery. Is this the future we want? Death? Destruction? Massive hurricanes wreaking havoc?
Yet just a few lines later she’s back to describing the negotiations, with a line sure to please both Obama critics and his supporters: “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” To fans of the president, this line encapsulates the success of Obama’s trip to China. He smiled for the cameras. He wore Chinese garb. He glad-handed the elites. But behind closed doors he took it to China, getting them to agree to a deal that could limit their economic expansion in order to secure a better future for us all. The president’s detractors are sure to read the line as an indictment of Obama’s attempts to use his charismatic personality to cover up a failed presidency.
After this, she repeats the chorus a few times for emphasis (as if to say, “Do you hear what I’m saying, America? THIS IS ABOUT INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE NEGOTIATIONS!”), then Swift has one more line of interest: “Boys only want love if it’s torture/ don’t say I didn’t/ say I didn’t warn ya.” Here, she tees up what we can expect from her next album: a scathing critique of the ‘enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by the United States during the War on Terror and the flimsy legal justification used to permit such practices.
I think we’re all looking forward to listening to that, but for now we’ll just have to make do with what we have: a catchy ear-worm of a pop-hit that doubles as a well-researched take on the U.S.-China climate agreement.
LoR has obtained the tracklist for Sufjan Stevens’ upcoming album, Etsy Handkerchiefs. Check out these surefire bangers: