We’ve got Taylor Swift’s song up in the Jukebox tomorrow night (check Tuesday’s Stylus), and this is a rare instance where the Jukebox introduces me to a track I really quite like. Usually the tracks I give high scores to are ones I am already familiar with; since we work on actual release and charting dates rather than Internet leaks, I’m usually already familiar with the song if it’s the sort of thing I’m likely to like. Of course, country is my blindspot, the one area of popular music that I’m always behind the times on, so it shouldn’t be surprising that if the Jukebox is going to be giving me something new to listen to, it’s going to be a country track.
This track is called “Tim McGraw,” but I don’t think he’s that vital lyrically to the song. The idea is that Swift’s favorite singer is Tim McGraw, so when the boy she’s had a fling with and moved on from hears a McGraw track, Swift hopes he thinks of her. Really, she could have substituted any artist with a three syllable name — “When you think Eminem”; “When you think Fall Out Boy”; “When you think John Coltrane” — etc.
However, she did choose Tim McGraw, which is something I kind of like. See, Swift is 16 years old (for lazy writers, Wikipedia counts as fact checking), so it makes a neat kind of sense that if she’s going to namedrop an artist she likes, it’ll be someone recent like Tim McGraw. Namedropping artists is a fairly common theme in pop music since pretty much forever, and if we’re not talking about dis tracks or humorous pop cultural references (Eminem, Adam Green, etc.), artists usually like to sing about artists who have meant a lot to them. And because an artist who you’ve spent much of your life listening to is the type to stick around in your mind for a long time, the artists who get namedropped tend to be a fair bit older than the artist doing the namedropping. Don McLean sung about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper; Biggie rapped about Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Heavy D; The Replacements shouted out Alex Chilton. It’s the same reason artists cover older songs more often than newer songs.
But when you’re only 16 years old, a current artist like Tim McGraw can have been part of your life long enough that it makes sense to sing about him in a song. It would make no sense for Swift to be singing about Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, or hell, even Garth Brooks. She would have been about two years old when Garth Brooks was at his biggest. So when McGraw is looking for a musical touchstone to color the experience of her summer night with a guy in a broke-down Chevy, she sings what she knows. She sings what was probably on the radio at the time.
The worst thing rock music ever got itself involved in was creating history and heroes to be reverent about. In today’s rock environment, you’re not allowed to contemplate the idea that you could be better than Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or the Beach Boys, or even Nirvana. Evan McGarvey said something similar about New York hip hop in his Stylus review of T.I.’s King, and suggested that the fertile creativity of the South is somewhat due to that region’s music community being not “as fascinated with the dead artists of yore.” (He’s right — why do you think the most interesting acts in New York are the man who said “if I’m not better than B.I.G., I’m the closest one,” and Dipset, who act like people who are better than them don’t exist?)
Rock acts are cripplingly fascinated with the dead artists of yore. And when the entire rock culture is built on this idea that there are a certain number of heroes (and there always are, no matter what type of rock you play — indie kids are not alllowed to think they could best the Pixies or Sonic Youth for instance), it’s going to shut down an artist’s ambition and creativity. That’s why I like hearing an artist like Swift, who operates in such a contemporary environment, that her number one historical reference is a guy on the radio right now. With no history to revere, she can do whatever she wants.