But here’s the weird thing: the whole time I was watching Crossfire Hurricane, I couldn’t stop thinking about Taylor Swift. Q: Who can stop thinking about Taylor Swift? A: Point taken. Let me back up: I love her snarky single and video “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which has to be the year’s best pop song (as wonderful as “Gangnam Style” is, it’s more a thing than a song), but every time I heard Swift telling whichever ex of hers she’s referencing in the song to kiss off, I had this nagging feeling she reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite name or picture—like when you watch an actress in a film and can’t remember where you’ve seen her before, your inner search engine spinning in place. Maybe in that situation you can get on with your life, but I can’t—so what joy when it finally hit me, in the early going of Crossfire Hurricane, that Taylor Swift is the new Mick Jagger. (If you’ll forgive me such a blatant magazine-editor-ism.)
It’s not just the fetishization of her lips on the cover of her new album, Red, where they look like two pieces of candied sushi in an Irving Penn still-life—nor is it merely her recent social climbing in Hyannis Port, although that’s very Stones-y. (Crossfire Hurricane has some hilarious shots of the band backstage during their 1972 American tour, where you see the group hanging out with Lee Radziwill, Truman Capote, and Andy Warhol, with Annie Leibovitz documenting everything, and it all seems extremely glam and decadent, like a vintage Interview magazine come back to ghastly life, until the camera pans and you also see a long dressing-room table laden with ravaged Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets.)
Jagger and the Stones made their names in part with sneering put-down songs, snarly little anthems that occasionally, or often, reveled in misogyny—see: “Under My Thumb” and “Some Girls.” And if there’s anything Swift is famous for, it’s revenge songs. Her swipes at ex-boyfriends and other guys who tick her off don’t have quite the swagger of those Jagger-Richards compositions, and she’s never been accused of misandry, but unlike other “confessional” singer-songwriters from whom she’s supposedly descended, such as Alanis Morrissette or Lucinda Williams, or even the great Joni Mitchell, Swift seems increasingly reluctant to go full pity-party. She means to give as good as she gets.
Speaking of which, “Mean,” from Swift’s previous album, Speak Now, could serve as a decades-overdue answer song to Mick and Keith’s “Stupid Girl” or “Play with Fire.” “You have knocked me off my feet again, got me feeling like I’m nothing,” she sings in the first verse, sounding like a million and a half dorm-room poets, but a couple of choruses later she’s hitting back:
And I can see you years from now in a bar, talking over a football game
With that same big loud opinion but nobody’s listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing.
Not the greatest lyrics in the world, true, but then neither are …
The way she powders her nose
Her vanity shows and it shows
She’s the worst thing in this world
Well, look at that stupid girl
Sob sisters don’t have senses of humor, and you have to have at least a teeny sense of humor to sing a song about how an old drunk critic thinks you can’t sing. Swift pulls something similar in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” with a spoken aside about how that song’s object of scorn “would hide away and find your peace of mind with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Lyrical jujitsu: now Taylor’s the coolest! But what I love most, aside from the hooks and the insouciance, is the way Swift has let a bit of self-aware camp seep into her presentation—with bangs and hipster glasses replacing Pre-Raphaelite curls, gauzy dresses, and red cowboy boots, she’s a little less Nashville ingénue here, a little more Williamsburg brat. She’s hardly the only contemporary singer kicking bonehead boys to the curb, but she looks like she’s having more fun than most.
Camp, naturally, was always a huge part of the Rolling Stones’ arsenal and especially of Jagger’s strutting, leering stage persona. Swift will probably never do louche, but she and her producers and co-writers, Max Martin and Shellback, end “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with a sneering little exhale of breath, a kind of non-vocalized “whatever.” It’s the aural equivalent of a curled Jagger lip, and every bit as canny and knowing.
Will people still be listening in 50 years? Beats me. I wish Swift’s records were less same-y—to my ears, the bulk of her songs range from only mildly catchy to insipid—but who’s more interesting in pop right now? I’ll take Swift’s girly cockiness over a dozen meat dresses, or yet another phlegmy run through “Start Me Up.”