This post isn’t really about James McMurtry; it’s about Taylor Swift.
The first song off of the new Taylor Swift album came out when I was in Texas on vacation; I listened to it before I let the kids (who are huge, uncontrollable fans) hear it. I don’t like it; it’s whiny and mean and graceless. But I didn’t understand what was wrong with it until I listened to James McMurtry sing “Lights of Cheyenne” just now.
What McMurtry does here–what he’s best at–is creating a character. Here, you have a hard-bitten woman, working at a convenience store way out on the Wyoming prairie. Her husband is a layabout, a drunk, and he beats her, and she has to go to work after years spent raising two kids, just to keep them both in whiskey money. It is empathetic in that very particular McMurtry way of not seeming empathetic at all. The character only feels sorry for herself one time–when she tells us that she doesn’t have it in her to make one more stand–and it’s a heartbreaking admission.
Taylor Swift is singing about being Taylor Swift.
Well, of course she does, she’s been doing it for years, but before, there’s always been a touch of empathy for all you sad unfortunate people who have to live with the heartbreak of not being Taylor Swift. (This is addressed more directly, and a good deal more honestly, by Meghan Trainor, who sings “If I Was You, I’d Want To Be Me, Too.”) Taylor Swift had always before been able to sing about being on the bleachers and not being a cheer captain, and making it sound realistic.
In the new song, Taylor Swift is not just singing about what it’s like to be Taylor Swift, but how angry and hurt she is that Kanye West upstaged her at an awards ceremony. The audience here is asked to feel empathy for a platinum-selling pop princess whose precious feelings were hurt by a boor as she was picking up yet another piece of awards hardware. Sorry. Not buying it.
Which is fine, because Swift–like McMurtry–is asking for empathy by not asking for it. Swift tells us that she grew sharper, she grew harder, and is back from the virtual dead. She has it in her to make one more stand, and another, and another, until she wins whatever victory she is trying hard to win.
I know where my empathy lies here. It lies with the woman behind the counter on Saturday night, way the hell out on the Wyoming prairie, smoking a cigarette and staring at the city lights in the distance.
P.S. I am not here to give career advice to Taylor Swift, but if it were me, I would get in the car, drive to Nashville, go to Jack White’s studio, and ask him to produce an album of me doing Loretta Lynn covers.