The below write-up is stolen directly from the Top 40 tracks of 2017 countdown I’m currently doing with my boy Tim Maytom over on our new site, Tim + Alex dot com. I’d encourage you to read the whole list – I promise, most of the write-ups are much snappier than this – but I went a bit renegade on this entry and felt like it probably deserved its own space.
We all have a favourite Christmas/New Year tradition. Maybe it’s a Christmas Eve drinking session with people you don’t see as often as you like, or a Boxing Day family walk. For me, it’s Tim Maytom‘s Person of the Year. We’ve recognised five Persons of the Year on this blog, given a boost by the fact that Tim’s a dirty cheat, and last year picked both Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. This year, I’ve managed to keep his rulebreaking to a minimum. So who will wear the Alex-Spencer.co.uk Sponsored by Tim Maytom Person of the Year crown for the next twelve months? Let’s find out. Taylor Swift is by far the most famous person I have awarded the much-coveted title of Person of the Year to. The previous four entries were far from unknown, but to one degree or another, you had to be interested in them to know who they were. Even Amy Poehler, 2012’s PotY, has a tendency to disappear into her characters, and certainly has a lower profile here in the UK than she does in the States, where SNL put her on more people’s radars. Those kinds of qualifiers don’t apply to Taylor Swift. Even if they’ve never heard her songs, the vast majority of people will have heard of her, thanks to the tabloid machine. And the number of people who haven’t heard at least one of her songs must now be a considerably thinner wedge of the pie chart, thanks to 1989. Swift’s fifth studio album wasn’t the catapult that sent her into the mainstream consciousness (that was 2012’s Red, with its peerless “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, and the press at the height of their ‘who’s Taylor Swift dating?’ mania) but it is the one that cements her position as a global pop sensation. Much has been made of 1989 as her first true pop album, and while there’s elements of truth to that, with guitars swapped for drums and synths and a sound steeped in the legacy of acts from its title year, Swift has always been a pop star, it’s just now she’s embracing that. In the liner notes that accompany 1989, Swift writes about change and coming into her own, addressing the foreword from “the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love”. For all the effort people put into working out which ex-boyfriend every given song is about (answer: all of them, none of them) that seems to be the true theme of the album – Swift realising that she has changed and that she enjoys her new status quo in the spotlight. In “You Belong With Me”, from her second album Fearless, Swift pines for a boyfriend from afar, criticising his current girlfriend and singing that “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers”. Now, Swift is the one in short skirts and high heels, happy to add a few more inches to her 5’10” frame so she towers over others. It’s worth noting, though, that even back in 2009, Swift played both her ‘self’ and the girlfriend in the video and cover art for “You Belong With Me”. 1989 is a record about confidence and comfort. That’s reflected in the masterful video for “Blank Space”, satirising those who would accuse her of being a vengeful ex. It’s reflected in the absence of duets with artists who can’t compare with her, two of which dragged down Red (fuck off, Ed Sheeran). It’s reflected in the final three bonus tracks on the deluxe version, demonstrating her song-writing process to all of those who complain she’s a manufactured star. And it’s reflected in the build-up to the album’s release.‘Authenticity’ is one of those ridiculous terms that crops up in music criticism with a cyclic regularity, and Taylor Swift manages to carve through that with impressive assurance. Are her Instagram and Tumblr accounts cynical ploys to engage with the teen girls who form the core of her audience? Was inviting fans to a sleepover at her house and listen to the album ahead of time a marketing strategy?Whether Taylor Swift is actually the global megastar who still manages to be the cool girl next door, or if it’s just an act, does it really matter? 1989 and everything that surrounds it is a resounding “hell no” to that question. So often, our artists arrive fully formed, aesthetic and style set in place from the word go. Watching Swift evolve from country singer to true pop sensation hasn’t been an evolution, it’s been a camera coming into focus, refining what was always there until it shines through clearly. It’s been the act of a young woman embracing her power, her status and her agency, and showing the world exactly who she’s become. It is customary to begin this biog of Tim Maytom by pointing out that he is always my Person of the Year, but that has been aggressively true in 2014. As well as setting up a joint blog about The Wicked + The Divine, we now work together. As a result, I am treated to his witticisms daily – watch out for future bestseller Maytom/Spencer: The Skype Conversations (2013-15) – as well as Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally his own blog. Jealous? You damn well should be.
[Now with a handy Spotify playlist] If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I’ve probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven’t clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend’s sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should’ve given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I’d dig.There’s been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course. Notable exceptions Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They’re sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you’re in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song’s “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she’s talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows. It’s all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it’s about. There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it’s trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that’ll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor’s voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song’s end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor’s voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one. By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It’s confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does. For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks. And if we’re talking about outros, listen to the way the song’s close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River. It knows it’s a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it’s also a big ‘Game Over’ screen. PLAY AGAIN? That’s pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never…‘s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn’t this one? It’s interesting because the pop archetype it’s tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes. Here, the consummation isn’t a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen’s hands. She’s a force of sexy nature. Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it’s an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video’s ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there’s no shame here, no debasement. Ultimately, I think it’s telling that there’s no question mark at the end of the song’s title. There’s only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D’YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, BABY? Dancing like a mutha I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it’s just another embarrassment I’ve learned to slough off. The most formative musical experiences I’ve had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes’ Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis’ wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds. At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they’d played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant. But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you’d never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor. Especially, I’m thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all […]