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Tonight the double Grammy Award-winning song will be featured in the series finale of “Glee” on Fox. In 2011, and over the last 18 month period, more people have come to Saving Country Music trying to find out who Taylor Swift’s “Mean” is about than have come here for any other topic, partly because of the outside chance the song is about me, The Triggerman, writer for Saving Country Music, and partly because some are dissatisfied with the answer of Bob Lefsetz, the far and away frontrunner in pop culture for the subject of “Mean”.
Since the song has become an international anti-bullying rallying cry, thousands of students have come here looking to research the song on mandatory school assignments. College students have written theses on the song. It has created its own cultural phenomenon and environment and mythos intermixed with our society’s most intimate struggles with criticism and bullying, as the almost daily stories of suicides and assaults remind us the significance and seriousness of the issue.
Since Saving Country Music’s coverage of the song has been limited to the context of criticism and conjecture, I though I would lay out all the facts about the song once and for all to see if we can discern who “Mean” is about. Please feel free to leave your feelings on how this is a fruitless, egotistical endeavor below, punctuated by your best Carly Simon jokes.
The Two Top Candidates:
This music lawyer turned critic/guru is by far the most recognized inspiration for “Mean” by popular culture. Bob was a big proponent of Taylor Swift over the years, specifically for her savvyness with social media, and her ability to connect with her fans, and her willingness to give free songs away to entice new fans and created loyalty throughout her fan base. Bob Lefsetz has been around for many years, and is most famous for publishing The Lefsetz Letter, an industry periodical that talks about the music business and trends. He came into more notable, public prominence for being on the right side of the issue dealing with the digitization of music and MP3′s. For years he warned the industry that digitization was the direction music was going, and the industry’s slow response and subsequent revenue losses made him look like a genius.
In February of 2010, after Taylor Swift famously bombed a performance on The Grammy’s with Steve Nicks, Bob Lefsetz came out against Taylor, saying:
…did Taylor Swift kill her career overnight? I’ll argue she did…In one fell swoop, Taylor Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms.
In many ways, Bob Lefsetz took the point for the post-2010 Grammy criticism of Taylor. When confronted with whether “Mean” was about him, Lefsetz seemed dismissive and not committal when analyzing the lyrics:
Doesn’t sound like me. Then again, didn’t I ultimately lead the charge about her vocal flaws after her Grammy appearance? …Well “Mean” isn’t quite “You’re So Vain” and I’m not quite Warren Beatty, not by a long shot… And only insiders would know who I am.
The Triggerman of Saving Country Music:
(And yes, admittedly it’s dumb I’m writing this about myself. Get over it.)
The very distant runner up to Bob Lefsetz in the public consciousness, the sole proprietor of Saving Country Music has challenged Taylor Swift very hard over the years, writing many negative reviews about the up and-coming country star for not being country, and not being able to sing. After the CMA Awards in 2009, he declared that country music was dead at the hands of Taylor Swift, and that “She won Female Vocalist of the Year, and she can’t even sing.”
This opinion was backed up after Taylor’s 2010 Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks in an article entitled “I Told You Taylor Swift Can’t Sing”.
In November of 2011, right before the CMA Awards, The Triggerman publicly reversed course on Taylor Swift, saying “We Were Wrong About Taylor Swift” partially from the success of “Mean” and her resiliency for taking criticism:
We were wrong about Taylor Swift. I was wrong about Taylor Swift. We were blinded by our prejudices. When Taylor Swift first came on to the scene, she sang cheesy teenage pop songs, and we chastised her for it, when in truth, she was doing what all the great songwriters did over the years: write what they knew about, what inspired them.
He continues to assert that Taylor Swift is not country and continues to have pitch issues, but recognizes her impact on music, and her role as a positive role model.
What We Know:
The lyrics to “Mean” seem to leave one very inconclusive on whom the song might be about. At times it seems to be about me, at other times about Bob Lefsetz, but as Bob Lefsetz points out, the lyrics seem to jump all over the place, to possibly talk about high school bullies or love interests. The same could be said for the “Mean” video (see bottom). In all likelihood, though the song may have a singular inspiration, it was written to touch on the bullying and criticism issue in general, and like many songs, may have lyrics written to flow with the pentameter and rhyming of the song instead of to be hints to its target.
The two most in-depth interviews with Taylor about the song dispel many of the rumors and urban myths that “Mean” is about a high school bully, a friend or family member, or some other close associate of Taylor’s, or Kanye West who famously interrupted her MTV Awards speech. In the EPK preview for the song, she clearly lays out that it is about a critic, and specifically a male critic, and specifically one that “crossed the line over and over again.”
…there is a line that you cross when you start to attack everything about a person. And there’s one guy man, who just crossed the line over and over again, and just being mean, and just saying things that would ruin my day.
In an interview with Jay Leno in January, she re-iterated these points, and went on further to make the very important point that she came in contact with this critic through “Google Alerts.”
A lot of people think that I wrote it about being bullied in high school, and when the song went out in the world it kind of became that. But I actually wrote the song about a critic that kept giving me really bad reviews…And then there’s like the scathing review, that’s kind of past constructive criticism and is more into “I hate you” territory.
…and I don’t read any of my Google alerts any more.
For those that may not know, Google Alerts emails users when a certain list of keywords comes up on the internet. For example, many artists and their publicists will tag their names in Google Alerts to monitor for new reviews and news. Taylor is notorious for being a tech savvy, socially engaged artist.
From its inception, Saving Country Music has been dedicated, if not obsessed with optimizing its Google exposure as a way to find new readers. We don’t know for sure if the negative reviews Saving Country Music was publishing were the ones crossing the line “over and over again”, but make no mistake, if Taylor had Google Alerts activated, SCM’s Taylor Swift articles would have shown up prominently in her inbox. And up to this date, no other critic has been found that consistently criticized Taylor enough to be characterized as “over and over”, or one that behaved in a manner to be characterized as “crossing the line” consistently.
The information in these interviews seems to significantly discredit Bob Lefsetz as the inspiration for “Mean”. First, Bob did not criticize Taylor Swift over and over. He only criticized her heavily once after the 2010 Grammy’s and in subsequent follow up, and then it is questionable to characterized that he “crossed the line” at any point. Also, since Bob Lefsetz lets his thoughts be known through an email mailing list (though now there is a WordPress outlet as well), and since Taylor and Bob did have somewhat of a professional relationship beforehand, it is very difficult to see how Taylor would be alerted to Bob’s criticism through Google Alerts.
“I Thought You Got Me”
Supposedly most or all of Taylor Swift’s songs are about somebody, and in the liner notes of her album Speak Now she highlighted certain letters in the song lyrics to gives clues about who her songs were about. The hint for “Mean” spells out “I Thought You Got Me.” This, along with the line “with your switching sides” from the song itself seem to point squarely at Bob Lefsetz as the “Mean” muse with little or now wiggle room, and contrary to the information Taylor has conveyed in interviews.
Since Bob Lefsetz had been a big proponent of Taylor Swift for years and then switched to a harsh critic after the Grammy debacle, only he is in the unique position to “switch sides.” The “switch sides” lyric could be explained away as simply word play to put together a rhyming lyric, but “I thought you got me” is pretty definitive.
“But the cycle ends right now.”
When Taylor Swift bombed her vocal performances on the 2010 Grammys, I wrote the article“I Told You Taylor Swift Can’t Sing”. If any one SCM article inspired “Mean”, it was this one, but instead of just being outright mean, the intention of the article was to humanize Taylor and offer sympathy. The article was about what I characterized as the “vicious pop cycle,” where average talents are built up by the pop industry, only to be torn down:
People across the board are now tearing down Taylor because she can’t sing, but this is the same public that made her the biggest artist in country this year, and now in ALL of music with her “Album of the Year” Grammy win. This is the vicious pop cycle, and sorry, but FUCK YOU, I won’t participate.
…the mass public overly glorifies an otherwise average talent to make themselves feel “inspired,” and then when the fall starts for their starlet, it is meteoric, and fueled by the jealous, narcissistic hunger of the pop public, tearing that person down with all their spite, sinking their nails into their flesh and feeding like animals off their destruction to fill their vacuous egos. It is a sick, pathetic, and all too predictable cycle that I will not participate in.
Well the pop cycle has started, and soon the words “Taylor Swift” will be a punch line to jokes, uttered by those same “fans,” while Taylor the person is onset with personal demons.
The line in “Mean” that goes “But the cycle ends right now” sticks out in the thematic pentameter of the song, and seems to fit more as an answer to my post-Grammy article.
About Both Bob Lefsetz and The Triggerman?
In the end, both Bob Lefsetz and I were wrong about Taylor Swift. Bob opined that Taylor Swift’s career was over after the 2010 Grammy’s, and after reading Bob Lefsetz’s prognosis, I concurred. Since then Taylor has gone to become one of the biggest things in music in the last decade.
As for “Mean”, in my heart of hearts, after stepping back and looking at all the evidence, I truly believe it is about both Bob Lefsetz and I. That is the only way the conflicting evidence can be resolved. It is Bob’s “switching sides” and my “crossing the line over and over again” that combined to inspire the song.
Of course, since Carly Simon once wrote a song about how thinking a song was written about you is being vain, (whether doing this is truly vain or not, especially if it is true), it is always a difficult slope to walk when trying to convince yourself or others that a song is or is not about you. I will admit, there is a little egotistical part of me that is somewhat proud that something I did potentially went to inspire a song that has made a massive cultural impact and won two Grammys.
However that is countered in great measure by the realization that if it is true, I am a de-facto poster boy for the modern American bully, am blamed by proxy whenever bully incidents and suicides get brought up in the news, am a cultural pariah for being an antagonistic asshole, and the asshole millions of little girls envision when they sing “Mean”into their shampoo bottles in front of their full-length mirrors in the morning. These are things no right-minded person who be proud of or willing to embrace.
It is especially unnerving since I feel my take on Taylor Swift was completely mischaracterized. I never called Taylor Swift a “bitch”, I never crossed a line of calling her out on a personal level, though admittedly, everybody’s lines are in a different place. And specific to my post 2010 Grammy blog, I was invoking the very first principle of Saving Country Music, “People First, Then Music,” in an honest concern for Taylor Swift as a person, anticipating a downward cycle that never occurred.
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This all speaks to the greater dialogue in society about bullies. Laws are being passed, schools are being put on lock down, children are killing themselves and each other because of the perceived actions of bullies in modern culture. However the lesson from Taylor Swift’s “Mean” is how criticism, pain, bullying, bad days and bad feelings can be the inspiration for some of mankind’s greatest achievements. Criticism and bulling can motivate us, and make us better people. It may not be the bullying that is causing the problems, but how we are willing for that bullying to be perceived. Can anyone truly say a world without bullying would be a better place?
If you are being criticized or bullied, take that criticism and learn from it, be inspired from it and make something good out of it. That is the lesson of Taylor Swift’s “Mean”, regardless of whom it is about.
It would be the utmost of conceit to think that the Turnpike Troubadours are regular readers of this lowly internet outpost, and even if they were, that they’d heed any advice thrown their way by its overly-opinionated, obsessive proprietor. But I’ll be damned if many of the things I was hoping to hear from them that I iterated in my review of their last album materialized in this their third release, Goodbye Normal Street.
Call it a maturing or a coming into their own, but this album marks the most solid offering from this Oklahoma-based band yet, and a defining of their sound, their place in the music world, and as a band that music world should pay more serious attention to.
Goodbye Normal Street starts off a little deceptively, with two heavy, hard country songs that may hint this is the new direction they’re going in when in truth they’re just getting your attention. “Gin, Smoke & Lies” with its Queen-esque “We Will Rock You” opening beat and banjo lead-in let you have fair warning not to expect your usual sweet and safe mainstream fare from this release. “Before The Devil Knows Were Dead” builds out from the sharp wit of the title line to become a tribute to mortality with an approach that waxes towards an almost Hank3, Johnny Hiland-style heavy handed guitar solo.
After two soldier-themed songs “Southeastern Son” and “Blue Star”, the album settles in with the style of material you might more be expecting from the Troubadours, yet Goodbye Normal Street is more consistently boss throughout, devoid of some of the valleys of their previous offerings.
When you sit down and try to define it, one of the big differences between mainstream and independent music, or music that people listen to actively, and music people listen to just because it is there, is the presence of a love dialogue. Mainstream music usually works with very catchy, very transparent love themes that are easy to pick up on and identify with, while independent music tends to work more with internal dialogues, struggles and personal experiences, and worldly observations. Love songs can come across as so sacharrine to advanced music listeners, while traditional heartbreak songs about being “oh so lonesome” can be so cliche.
This has left a void for the love song in much of independent music, and this is where the Turnpike Truboadours and songwriter Evan Felker have found their niche. Sharp wit, self-reflection, specific references to characters and situations in an almost Townes or Robert Earl Keen-like storytelling approach imbibes this music with a freshness and engaging nature, revitalizing the old-fashioned love and heartbreak songs in the modern, independent context. “Good Lord Lorrie” gives us all a situation and characters to relate to. So does “Wrecked” and “Empty As A Drum.” The slow, heart-wrenching “Gone, Gone, Gone” may very well be a Song of the Year candidate. “Good Lord Lorrie” may be a runner up.
The Turnpike Troubadours make songs about love cool to listen to again. This is also their ace-in-the-hole, what makes them a band that could break out. They were also very patient with this release, waiting well over 2 years since their last album to let the songs come to them and the groove to materialize before heading into the studio. This band has such good momentum, there no need risking it for some arbitrary desire to present new music on an annual basis.
I’m not sure why I want to be so hard on the Turnpike Troubadours, especially since I like them so much. But as much as this album gives, I still feel like their best music is still ahead. As they get older, they’ll have to rely on even stronger songwriting and even a more defined style as opposed to the energy their live shows are punctuated with today, and this will likely be reflected in their studio work. Even with the strides Goodbye Normal Street takes to defining their sound, I still hear some searching for what the true Turnpike Troubadour sound is.
But I think you’d bee a fool if your a fan of good country music to pass this one up.
Goodbye Normal Street says goodbye to the silly love and heartbreak song formulas that saddle corporate FM, and says hello to how love songs and sad stories in country music should be.
Two guns up!
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