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Microwaving a tragedy: The marriage of romance and romanticism in ’00s pop

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Taylor Swift
Frank Kogan

The Rihanna album had just leaked, and we were trying to figure out the second line of the second verse of “Fire Bomb.” That’s the song where her car gets shot up and the spilled gas catches fire, so Rihanna turns the car and her in it into a suicide bomb (“best way to make lemonade of the situation,” said my friend Dave), aiming it towards the residence of an unnamed “you”—presumably the shooter, whom listeners, for convenience, referred to as “Chris.”

Someone heard the line as “Like the way that I’m at a tragedy”; another preferred “Microwave and a metal tragedy”; I was leaning towards “I echo within a metal tragedy,” though my heart was with “microwave”; meanwhile it was asserted that freshman-year experiments with microwaves and metal objects (e.g., CDs) linked “microwave” to the next line’s description of flame, “it’s beautiful and it’s blue/and it’s pitiful” (my friend Erika: “They do burn blue, and it is pretty pitiful when it’s over”); others irrelevantly suggested further experiments with sodium and phosphorus; and finally someone came up with “microwaving a metal tragedy,” which clinched it. (Turned out to be “microwaving our metal tragedy”; even better, Rihanna turning up the heat on the two of them.)

According to Rihanna, interviewed on 20/20, she’d caught Chris in a lie about a girl, and she wouldn’t let up about it, and he snapped and began hitting and choking her, trying to bat away words with fists. (If Chris were serious about changing, he’d have called his comeback single “Weak Man,” not “Changed Man.”)

My friends’ convo about “microwaving our metal tragedy” took place online; the significance of this isn’t just that it connected people in different locations (seven people, five cities, two continents), but that the conversation was immediately visible to anyone who stumbled upon it.

Nowadays, any song that travels widely is attended by a swarm of words. But online, where these words flourish, the world is perilous. Words come like ghosts, separated from the world that produced them, and this gets vicious: The readers are willing to project clinical material from their own psyche onto those ghosts, lightning quick imaginings of meanings and intent, projecting wrong bodies onto words, and slashing back at old enemies with new names.

But words that are sung thrive online too, words with music. There’s the subliminal persuasiveness of beats and rhymes and cadence and chord changes—music gives you the illusion of deep speech, commits you in your mood to what a good song’s saying even before you’ve noticed what the words are saying.

Ashlee Simpson sings “I’m the one who’s crawling on the ground, when you say love makes the world go ’round,” a lyric she wrote without frequent collaborator Kara DioGuardi. Kara, without Ashlee in the credits, sings “My greatest gift is falling down and taking it” for her own group Platinum Weird, though the two women seem to have photocopied each other’s brain. In “Better Off” (a collaboration), Ashlee starts by implying that her bad days are as good as her good days (“I spilled my coffee/It went all over your clothes/I gotta wear mine now”; she’s in love, an easy sharing, including the sharing of mishaps), but then a few deceptively confident lines later she’s confidentially informing us that she’s hiding the boy from her friends, doesn’t want to lose so soon what she’s got now. That’s Ashlee: a pensive, exuberant live-wire with a bomb of pain and uncertainty inside.

In the ’00s, teenpop married romance to romanticism. One meaning of “romantic” is, e.g., a candlelight dinner, more generally a quest for love and commitment but also for risk and excitement: a love you’ll put yourself on the line for, that can take you where you wouldn’t go otherwise. Another meaning, though, is the Romantic Spirit; Byron, Rousseau and such: the world we’ve got isn’t the world we want, let’s glimpse something else, let’s be something else (“Different doesn’t feel so different,” sings teen Disney TV star Hilary Duff, and then in the chorus, “Let the rain fall down and wake my dreams/Let it wash away my sanity,” the kiddie-pop version of the Romantic Sublime, co-written by former Duke poli sci major Kara DioGuardi), either go back to when the world was really real, or go forward to the world we invent.

But in pop songs, the romantic quest is a quest forself, it being a quest because the self isn’t simply there; it’s attained through an overthrow of previous selves, consecutive startings over. “Cuz I wanna feel the thunder, I wanna scream/Let the rain fall down I’m coming clean.” You’re thrown out of your self, you begin anew.

The great romantics of my adolescence—Dylan, Lou, Iggy—were plenty adolescent in their glorification of freak-outs and drugs and self-destruction, but that’s not a criticism. They made their suicide watch vivid and funny, while underlying the show-off agony was young men’s faith that alienation was more an opportunity than a catastrophe. Bob Dylan stripped his heroine Miss Lonely of everything—scorched earth, but a new beginning.

In “Like A Rolling Stone” Dylan had made the romantic hero—a stand-in for himself, really—a female. David Bowie and the New York Dolls dressed up as her, and maybe Grace Slick and Patti Smith were her. But it took people like Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks to move her into mainstream femininity, to give her lace and frills and menstrual cycles and moods, a girl’s past with unicorns on the wall and teen years of acoustic guitars and flowing hair and hidden poetry in secret diaries, the romantic quest becoming the search for the female self by way of a series of busted love affairs. This is carried into the ’90s by Sheryl, Tori, Alanis, et al., with Courtney Love combining the mood girl and the punk girl—and finally in the early ’00s this hero takes over teenpop: Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” and Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and Pink’s “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” hitting in succession.

One of the decade’s great stories is country going hard rock and funk, fierce rhythmic music from Brooks & Dunn and Montgomery Gentry and Miranda Lambert and Big & Rich among many others. Though cowboys are still invoked, the frontier has long since moved indoors, to bars and motels and diners. But country’s also gone girly, folkie, with singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch and Jewel moving in from pop, and teen Taylor Swift becoming the genre’s breakout commercial success. For Taylor the wild frontier is high schools and English classes, her adventure being to survive teasing and to avoid going numb when the boys inevitably let her down. She’s a virtuoso of the thin, naked nasal quaver, and she chooses words with pinpoint precision. Critic Jonathan Bradley points out that “You Belong With Me” starts on a typical Tuesday night (and what night is more typical than Tuesday?). And “we both cried” in “Fifteen” nails exactly how that sort of friendship feels, one girl’s heartbreak directly transmitted to another.

Today on the Web: My friend Lex is aghast at a critique of Taylor Swift where girls in a comment thread claim that, when Taylor sings “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried,” Taylor is slut-shaming Abigail. I steel myself not to click the link; I’m curious if the commenters can really be so ugly as to say this, but I know they can and that I’ll get upset if I look.

Unlike the rock heroes of the ’60s, the great angst girls of the ’00s—Pink, Kelly C., Ashlee, Lindsay—are desperate for reconciliation. So liberation never feels liberating, even if it’s what’s longed for. Ashlee’s romanticism is eight times more complex than anyone else’s because it exists within an embrace of mundanity and a resort to half-measures. As Dave Moore says about “Shadow,” it’s about “everything being okay now. Y’know. Better than it used to be. Every day isn’t worse than the last, thank god.”

Neither Taylor nor Rihanna are natural born romantics (in the Byron sense) in the way that an Ashlee or a Dylan is. But each absorbs romanticism simply by breathing the air of the culture. In Taylor there’s the singer-songwriter’s insistence that the story be her story. But almost all her songs are love stories, good love and bad love, the latter predominating. That can’t be her story forever, even if pop music insists it be. So, what stories exist beyond these?

For Rihanna—accidental angst girl—I’d think this question would be urgent. She had a predilection and talent for darkness even before Chris hit her, and not surprisingly the darkness of her new album comes across as way more than cliché. But it’s still very much the aftermath of Chris.

A friend of mine once said, “Frank, if it’s all about the other guy, you’re dead.” He didn’t mean that literally, but I got the point. Of course, song and life don’t have to match, but Rihanna is someone with a powerful reason to be estranged from the romance cycle that dominates pop songwriting, to make alienation an opportunity and decide that the world of love and romance can’t be accepted as given.

But sometimes if it’s not about the other guy, you’re also dead. The web isn’t just a ghost version of our world. It’s also the invention of new worlds, people creating web monikers, alter egos, role-playing, fanfic, styles, new shapes and bodies and characters. But it’s also a world of incomprehension and scapegoating, and not just from bullies and trolls, but from people with ideas to discharge like weapons, looking for someone to work them on, projecting stupid thoughts onto others and then mocking them for their stupidity. This is a kind of death, too, because it puts the world at bay—conversations and ideas as bulwarks against life, isolation that doesn’t understand itself as such.

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