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Taylor Swift: What it means to be 'Mean'

October 22, 2010 | 12:34 pm

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"Mean" is a word that often comes up in my house. As the mother of a first-grader, I'm constantly acting as an interpreter of scenes only partially witnessed: playground wars and lunchtime sessions of the silent treatment, enacted between kids who, five minutes earlier, seemed bonded for life.

"Lila was so mean," declares my Bebe, and then it's half an hour deconstructing exactly what that state of being encompasses. Did Lila commit an act of aggression -- did she pull her hair? Was another law violated, perhaps involving the stealing of Silly Bandz?  Or, perhaps, do we need to refine our language? For a parent, the utterance of that word creates a teaching opportunity combined with a sleuthing exercise.

 "Mean" can mean many things: indifference ("she wouldn't play with me!"), carelessness ("I gave her a bite of my Oreo, and she ate half!"), the expression of prejudice ("She said my curly hair was ugly!"). It might also refer to a friend's stubborn adherence to a different point of view. Lila preferring blue over orange is not technically mean. But to a kid, it can feel that way.

To a pop star too, apparently. Taylor Swift's new song, "Mean" smacks down critics who say she can't sing (I stand accused) by declaring that someday she'll be "livin' in a great big city" and they'll be drunk in some dive bar, bloviating into the void. "The cycle ends right now," drawls Swift as a banjo plays in the background, signifying country gumption. Playing the populist underdog, she imagines the obliteration of different points of view (about her particular gifts, at least) as a moral victory.

Never mind that this is pretty much already the situation. Massively popular and completely uncontroversial, unlike other megastars who press the hot buttons of race, gender or sexuality, Swift receives very little meaningful negative media attention, while critics ... well, let's just say that the profession, always disdained, is now drenched in the blue Slushie of its own irrelevance. Swift is hardly the first musician to snap back at detractors -- but she might be the most powerful and universally lauded artist to bother to notice the few voices who question her perfection.

Is Swift really that insecure? Perhaps not. "Mean" isn't just a song title on "Speak Now," it's the key operative term. This is a concept album through which Swift sends specific messages, one per song, to significant players in her young life -- an interesting twist on the confessional songwriting model in which she filters memory through the lens of moral judgment. An anthem crafter with her young hand firmly on the pulse of the zeitgeist, Swift is finding a place for herself at the center of the moment's most intense public dialogues: about bullying; about the ethics of love and sex; about what is private and what belongs to the social network.

How might a bunch of songs about failed romance and other sources of anguish, written by a 20-year-old woman living within a highly privileged upper-middle-class world, connect with the more expansive cultural mood of this moment?

I think it has to do with how uncertain we are, now, about what that word "mean" does mean. On the one hand, random or at least careless cruelty is so much easier to enact now: Set up a webcam in your dorm room, for example, and push a button to ruin your schoolmate's life. On the other, especially within the discourses surrounding this election season, too much is being cast within the realm of the personal, from sex scandals to accusations of witchery, while the larger economic and structural issues in society are downplayed.

At a time when mean girls and boys are seemingly everywhere, throwing "tea parties" and launching online hate sites and dousing our television heroes with syrupy 7-Eleven drinks, Swift embodies the impeccable dignity of moral certitude. Her feistiness reminds me of Sandra Bullock playing Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side -- another can-do blond using her vast reserves of sass to solve intractable problems. These role models, so resonant now, stand for being better than the world around us. Whether that's feasible, or whether imagining so is healthy, is a matter of debate. But it feels good to entertain the possibility.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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