Sunday, June 10, 2012

Taylor Swift Vs. John Mayer and All the Boys She's Loved Before: Is It Okay to Trash an Ex in Writing?

Been there, done that. Several times. Sometimes via email, sometimes via blog post, sometimes via both. For me, it's the best form of post-break-up catharsis, whether he reads it or not.

So yes, of course, it's okay, to trash an ex in writing.

But I can kind of see where John Mayer is coming from in Rolling Stone. The guy who wrote the song "Shadow Days" about Jennifer Aniston, one ex, for his current album, Born and Raised, is complaining about what Taylor Swift, another ex, had to sing about him on the track "Dear John," from her Speak Now album.

Swift: ''Dear John, I see it all now, it was wrong/ Don't you think 19's too young to be played by your dark twisted games when I loved you so?''

Mayer: ''I was really caught off guard, and it really humiliated me at a time when I'd already been dressed down. I mean, how would you feel if, at the lowest you've ever been, someone kicked you even lower?

''It made me feel terrible. Because I didn't deserve it. I'm pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do.''...

"I will say as a songwriter that I think it's kind of cheap songwriting.

''I know she's the biggest thing in the world, and I'm not trying to sink anybody's ship, but I think it's abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, 'Wait till he gets a load of this!' That's bullshit.''

Tell us how you really feel, John. If you're looking for sympathy, you might get some from Carrie Underwood, who once had this to say about her country-pop competition: "I’m not the kind of person that, if you make me mad, I’m going to write a song about you later."

As far as I'm concerned, it's not so much that Swift aired all of their dirty laundry for the world to hear. She does it all the time, though usually without naming names.

That's more than can be said for Mayer, who has been telling all about his flings with various fellow stars, names included -- in and out of song -- for years. This is, after all, the playboy who once compared Jessica Simpson to "sexual napalm." His confessional approach in song may be more diplomatic than Swift's, but he still has no right to expect a vow of silence from any of his exes. And right now I'm also going to overlook how disingenuous Swift seems citing her youth while sharpening her poison pen like an old pro at kissing and telling in song.

It's the clumsiness of her dressing down to which I object. Subtlety, apparently, is one songwriting gift that Swift has yet to unwrap. The biggest crime she commits with "Dear John" is a creative one. The lyrics are overwrought and over-the-top, too literal to be eloquent or artful. Over the course of the long-winded she-says, Swift comes across like a sullen girl holding a very big grudge.

Speaking of (former) sullen girls, Fiona Apple takes aim at her own ex named John (the author Jonathan Ames) on "Jonathan," a track on her upcoming The Idler Wheel... album (out June 19), but she recently called him "a great, great guy" in the New York Times, so while I haven't heard the song yet, it's probably pretty safe to assume that he won't end up feeling humiliated, and Apple won't come across like a vengeful, bitter woman scorned. But even when she does (see "Limp," from 1999's When the Pawn...), Apple is such a clever songwriter that she makes it look good.

Note to Swift: When aiming at an ex in song, which, I reiterate, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, sometimes it's all about what you leave to the imagination, what you don't reveal, like his name -- especially if he's famous, too. Swift would probably say that the title is a play on the "Dear John letter," but we all know what she's getting at. If Adele had a thing for dating famous guys and then writing about them, it might have cheapened the 21 listening experience. Everybody knows that 21 is all about some guy who broke Adele's heart, but the songs resonate because we don't really know who he is.

People still talk about Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" nearly 40 years later, and nobody but Simon and whomever she was singing about has a clue who the hell was walking into that party like he was walking onto a yacht. "Mick's So Vain" (for Mr. Jagger) or "Warren's So Vain" (for Mr. Beatty) would have nailed whomever pissed her off good, but to what long-term effect? In pop, there's no surer route to immortality in song than leaving every ex in your little black book guessing and wondering, "Who?"
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