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Taylor Swift: What it means to be 'Mean'


"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

Comments () | Archives (10)

Sometimes mean is someone not doing what you want, or doing something that you don't want them to do. It looks as if Miss Swift conceders "mean" to be a negative review. Living a privalged life must be nice.

Ignorance is bliss ..

Whatever happened to pop music?

Self-deception: An ugly mixture of distorted reality and willed ignorance. It is "...a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth, and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite" (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be).

Isn't it a bit self-important to assume her song is specifically about you and other critics in the media who have said she can't sing? If her lyrics can be taken completely literally, this song seems to be about a person who needlessly criticized her and pointed out her flaws simply to be vindictive. Obviously, in the case of media critics, they were simply doing their job by offering an opinion of her musical abilities. Maybe Swift can't tell the difference, but to me, it seems more likely that the song is aimed at the random bloggers and individuals who go out of there way to make hate-websites or leave nasty comments on articles about her etc. Everyone is allowed an opinion, but I can understand why she might find some of the stuff needlessly vindictive and hurtful. Therefore, she wrote a song saying how she felt about it.

mebbe it's just me... (but) i find taylor swift less than irrelevant

Kanye did her a favor.... She's talentless

Who is Miss Swift to judge the people in her life in front of the whole world? Especially when you're only hearing HER side of the story. She claims that if you don't want to be written about, you should be nice to her. In other words, play by her rules. I don't find that 'sassy', I find that mean, vindictive and using your power for evil. Judge not, lest ye be judged and all that. Bottom line, Taylor's mother obviously never taught her daughter that 2 wrongs do not make a right.

Taylor Swift is an enormous talent, a superstar who is still quite young and thus, has many years ahead of her to grow her talent.

It's not easy to write songs, let alone a string of hits, and to keep cranking them out. Her fans adore her, and the adulation is not just among the very young, but all ages, including older women.

There is, of course, a lot of jealousy out there, since Taylor Swift is also beautiful, very sweet, and appears to be very grounded. She is worth upwards of $50 million, so you can see that this would spawn a great deal of jealousy.

There are many aspiring singers, but few make it to the top. People without talent do not make it to the top, and if, by some strange fluke, they do, they don't stay there.

Oh Miss Taylor Swift, you say if you do not want to be written about, we should be nice to you. In other words, play be you rules! "Mean" is simply an act of whining that not everyone is in utter, complete adoration of you! Look's like someone didn't get what they want!


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