Another Taylor Swift Thinkpiece No One Asked For

As one of the most successful musicians ever, Taylor Swift doesn’t need this essay, but I do. Last week, she announced her re-recorded Fearless (Taylor’s Version) will be out April 9th, and offered a re-imagined version of her thirteen-year-old hit “Love Story”. This one song provides a nostalgia trip, a reclamation of her art from the people who sold her masters, and an opportunity to see the ways her singing and writing have evolved and matured beyond being a breathless teen first catapulted into the public eye in the mid-2000s.

Coupled with documentaries like the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears, this moment, watching Swift’s well-publicized fallout with Scooter Braun over the unauthorized sale of her masters and back catalogue, and the subsequent fight to control her own recordings, implicates us all in our attitudes towards female artists and the art they make.

When the original Fearless, Swift’s most successful album to date, was first released in 2008, I was eleven–too young to see the misogyny behind the press deriding and dismissing anything teen girls enjoyed, from Taylor Swift herself to One Direction to Twilight, a trend going all the way back to the Beatles. When her surprised expression at winning another Grammy became a punchline, I concluded she was probably fake and shallow. And “Love Story”–didn’t she know Romeo and Juliet died at the end? That’s not exactly a solid model to build a life around. Tabloids speculated she cycled through real-life romantic partners for song inspiration–decoding what lyric was about who became a national pastime–as if no man had ever received high acclaim for mining his personal life for creative material. A woman singing about relationships gone wrong was whining over a broken heart, her love songs about love gone right fluff, fantasy, frivolous, unworthy of being taken seriously, unworthy of being called art.

A man doing the exact same thing was a sensitive genius–a double standard she’s detailed herself on blunt songs like “The Man”.

Swift’s “Love Story” has always been an idyllic tale, a reminder of possibility, that we are all able to rewrite the traditional endings–its characters overcome the narrator’s controlling dad and their town’s disapproval to be together. Fast forward 13 years (which I’m sure is no accident), and her decision to re-release this first, of all her songs, shows our society that still romanticizes suffering as a consequence of art–that the more tragic, self-destructive, and minor key you are, the more significant your art becomes–that love and hope are perhaps what we need most of all.

WhileSwift has been routinely criticized for exploring new sounds–whether it was her initial crossover from country’s girl next door to mainstream pop radio with 2012’s Red, or the big synth sounds of 1989, or the darker, moodier, woodsy cabin roots of her quarantine record Folklore featuring collabs with Matt Berninger of the National and Bon Iver. Nothing is true, and we are constantly changing. Her rerecording effort demonstrates what any artist already knows–they know the intentions behind their work better than anyone.

As I’ve grown into my own art over the past few years, I approach creating from a similar place: start with myself, and make it universal. My words are what they are; I don’t need the approval of a man–a partner, an agent, a publisher, an editor, a reader–to make them work. I gained this confidence from filling my musical rotation with the work of women close to my own age and the female stars before them who paved the way. I sound dismissive when I say “I don’t listen to men”, but it’s true–I can count on one hand the male musicians or male-fronted bands I enjoy.

You don’t have to enjoy her music, but if one of the most popular musicians of all time, the artist of the decade, has to fight this hard to revisit and control her own work, her own expressions of her own life, how much harder is it for female artists without her power and privilege to be heard, played, and taken seriously–particularly for female and nonbinary artists of color? What art are we missing out on when the country radio stations that made Taylor Swift can still be fined for playing two female artists back to back? When these artists don’t feel supported or safe because at any moment, a powerful man could abuse that power? When we dismiss the thoughts and feelings of young girls instead of… I don’t know, listening?

Song Premiere: Flynn Tanner, “Save Me”

After releasing the sun-kissed “Let’s Talk About” and romantic ode “Nervous” in 2020, Toronto-based solo artist Flynn Tanner offers a darker, broodier single standing in tonal contrast to his earlier output. While many artists, myself included, hesitate to tackle modern life’s ongoing, seemingly cataclysmic struggles, like the pandemic, isolation, and various social justice movements–your favorite dystopian novel isn’t so fun when it’s real life, is it?–these subjects are exactly what Tanner embraces in “Save Me”, the latest track from an upcoming EP. Drenched in moody synths, flowing lines, and lyrics turning mundane then desperate for the tensions to end, the Toronto native reflects on isolation, describing a life “stuck inside my house” as one where the narrator is “waiting to be found.”

In the spring of 2020, Tanner had been splitting his time between Canada and Boston, where he is finishing his formal music education at Berklee. But like everyone else, he found himself at the mercy of increasing travel restrictions and unexpectedly moored in one place for longer than usual. No stranger to working solo–all his singles have been self-recorded and produced–Flynn turned that extra time and perhaps (lack of?) inspiration into “Save Me”, three minutes of chill pop that’s catchy enough to inspire sing-alongs, but moody enough to hint at the bigger tensions brewing underneath our everyday struggles, and represents a move towards tackling broader subjects than his past work. Lines like “it’s the Fourth of July / but I don’t know why”, perhaps in reference to last summer’s explosion of movements like Black Lives Matter that highlighted injustice, show steps forward from an artist to watch.

A step forward from an artist to watch, “Save Me” is available now wherever you stream music.

Song Premiere: Flynn Tanner Gets “Nervous”

As social distancing continues with no end to the COVID-19 crisis in sight, it only makes sense to slow down. Toronto-based songwriter and instrumentalist Flynn Tanner is following up his energetic, sun-drenched “Let’s Talk About” (June 26, premiered here) with a second single, the reflective ballad “Nervous”. When so much in the world is wrong and unsettling, this song provides a sweet reminder of the romantic kind of jitters with someone who makes even the smallest moments magical.

“Nervous” single cover art.

The track opens with a simple bluesy guitar lick and a verse painting a quiet moment with broad strokes: All I want to see / when I open my eyes / is you lying next to me / you give me butterflies / holding my breath when you walk through my door / the feeling you get when you enter my car

A strengthening drumbeat carries the song to a chorus whose words put forth their own futility: I can’t explain it but you make me nervous / oh, I can’t describe how you still make me nervous.

Though we don’t know much about the object of the narrator’s affection or the specifics of their power, and more concrete language might have deepened the connection, the Berklee-educated Tanner uses quiet, universal moments to bring the listener into the relationship:

Flynn Tanner, 10/11/2020.

The way that I feel / even now that you’re mine / still feels like I’m seeing you for the first time / yeah you’re on my mind / my hands are shaking, no I can’t control / the feeling I get when your head’s on my pillow

Smooth synths and soaring background vocal echoes fill the second chorus and outro, a minute that leaves the listener to imagine what Tanner might be doing with those emotions. But overall, for a young artist eager to grow his audience, develop his solo projects, and find his footing in the modern space of indie rock-infused pop, “Nervous” will make a relatable ode to how even a seasoned love can feel new and exciting.

“Nervous”, Flynn Tanner’s second single off his forthcoming solo EP (releasing sometime in 2021), premieres today on SoundCloud and Spotify. Follow Flynn on Instagram and learn more about his next moves at his website.

Book Review: K.M. Weiland Illuminates Theme

Full disclosure: I received a free advance copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

K.M. Weiland is a rock star of writing craft, and with this latest release she shows us once again what thousands of authors gain from her blog, podcast, and books.

I’ve studied her writing craft books for years now, since I was a baby wannabe writer with no idea what went into a novel. More than any of my formal writing education (which has still been valuable!) her explanations of story structure have helped me write two novels.

Writing Your Story’s Theme is perhaps her most comprehensive, layered volume yet, and breaks down one of the most abstract, amorphous, and downright tricky elements of craft: theme. Because we all want our stories to have powerful impacts, to say something about the human condition. But how do you accomplish such a daunting task without preaching to readers in a way that will have them throwing your book across the room?

In this book, Weiland ties together her previous analyses of compelling story structure and character arc to show writers how they can use each plot point, each moment, each word, to tie together these once-disparate elements into stories with even greater resonance. Once woven together, they will transform your theme from an abstract principle or moralistic message into the complex, living, breathing heart of your story.

Writers unfamiliar with Weiland and her terminology may need to refer to some of her other books or her blog for context; seasoned writers may only need to skim or check a few points as references. No matter your place along your writing journey or ultimate publishing goals, this book will help you organically build a more powerful story from the heart out.

Writing Your Story’s Theme is available for purchase at Amazon and Kobo.

Books, Books, and more Books (AKA, Update from Quarantine Day ???)

So, it’s been a minute. With transitioning to taking my graduate classes online, interning via Zoom, learning about the power of stories from my elementary school students (that could be a whole other post) and reflecting on my various privileges, I’ve been trying to take as much offline time as possible. That’s meant this blog has fallen by the wayside.

I’m currently reading Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water. It’s a powerful story of a Black teen siren navigating a world bent on suppressing her voice, and the parallels to our real world are striking. And of course, the push for diverse voices in books is inspiring some thoughts.

In these times, it’s been easy for some white authors to think that their voices are being silenced in favor of authors of color, that a Black person’s book is taking their spot. I quickly realized there’s no point in thinking this way, because there are many reasons why any book could get rejected at any given time, and most of them don’t have to do with merit or the actual quality of the work. Publishers consider their own tastes, the market, and current events.

But that brings me to another point that is actually problematic for many writers and allows myths like “that book is taking my chance” to proliferate: the lack of transparency in the publishing industry. No, often times authors won’t know why we get rejected. We make our own closure after vague, subjective responses from agents and editors. It’s not their fault–you can’t quantify exactly why you didn’t connect with something.

But beyond making it near impossible to know how many books authors actually sell, what actually happens when you’re on submission, what goes into a book deal, what’s a typical book deal, what a healthy author-agent relationship is supposed to look like, the culture of “I have big news and I can’t talk about it yet”, as exciting as it is, is shrouded in mystery and power dynamics that make it all too easy for predators and narcissists to take advantage of less experienced writers who don’t have a network.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen so many authors and agents come forward with stories of abuse and grooming and generally gross behavior. I want to thank them for their bravery, and I hope this does a little bit to help querying authors like me as we start our journeys.

I’ve been reviewing new music, working on my books, stressing about schools reopening, taking time to care for my garden, being absolutely befuddled at people who refuse to wear masks, and doing a lot of reflecting, both on my own and with friends and family, trying to be a better citizen and thinker. In the next few months, I’ll have a poem in I’m Not Crazy, She Will Speak’s mental health-themed anthology, and my first ever fiction publication in a real lit mag, The Blue Mountain Review. I’ll be sharing details as soon as I have them.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’re able to take time and space for what you need to do.

PREMIERE: Flynn Tanner Offers Bright New Single “Let’s Talk About”

Toronto-based singer-songwriter Flynn Tanner has a lot to talk about. After a decade of building a following in his hometown by opening for The National, Iggy Pop, and Shaggy, the twenty-year-old singer-songwriter and Berklee student is stepping out with his own guitar-based solo project.

The first fruit of this work, single “Let’s Talk About” (June 5th), showcases Tanner’s range as a singer, instrumentalist, and producer, as he has done everything on this track himself. It opens with a slick guitar lick and lyrics that recall lazy summer memories: “Red hot and sunny sky / laying down in the heat of July / done playing with the other guys / we talk a little and we close our eyes“. As the drums pick up, the chorus shifts to lyrics that are particularly poignant during this time of quarantine, where memories of face-to-face interactions with loved ones might be all we have: let’s talk about where we used to go / we would drive around and listen to the radio / let’s talk about what we used to be / you said you never needed anybody else but me. The last minute of the track expands and dissolves into fuzzy surf rock with energetic electronic elements, evoking both nostalgia and excitement for a return to something resembling normal.

“Let’s Talk About” is perfect for your next beach party, if it’s only in your mind. Available on all streaming platforms, listen here.

For fans of: Morningbird, Vampire Weekend, John Mayer

New Poem at iO Literary!

It seems odd to be celebrating something as minute as a poetry publication in the middle of the largest civil rights movement in history. As a white woman, over the past few weeks, I’ve been challenging myself to do more and be better to promote justice, particularly challenging others.

But if you want to read a poem I wrote in like two minutes about a year ago, check out “All You’ll (Never) Know” in io’s Refractions here.

5 Things I Learned From Entering #RevPit

Folks, the #RevPit announcements went out today! (If you have no idea what that means, learn more about the annual contest here). As you may have guessed, I ultimately wasn’t chosen as a mentee this year, but it was really fun to haunt that hashtag the last few weeks. While I’m super excited for those authors who are working with editors to overhaul their manuscripts in the next eight weeks, as in similar publishing-related Twitter-based events, it’s not really about winning. Keep reading to know five things I learned (or re-learned) from submitting my book this year.

1. We’re all winners.

It sounds cheesy–and I don’t even have cars to give away to everyone because I’m not Oprah–but it’s true. Writing a book is something so many people dream of doing, but relatively few accomplish. Even if you’re not chosen, submitting the book you’ve spent months or even years on to virtual strangers is a risky leap forward.

Beyond the huge amount of courage involved in that first step, the editors who run #RevPit are all extremely generous, and most of them will give some form of feedback to all entrants (though you might have to ask for it). Whether you get this in an email, a #10Queries tweet, or even form a critique group with other authors, getting feedback is a key part in leveling up as a writer, and something I always appreciate in the often heartbreaking world of publishing where silence means no.

2. Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.

Okay, I’m done speaking in time-worn tropes, I promise. But even though only a handful of writers win the ultimate grand prize in events like #RevPit, the rest of us can still benefit from making connections, both with the editors and with one another. The community is incredibly kind and has been offering positivity passes, critique, and general fun threads to follow. We all need a relatively light-hearted place to go, especially given the current state of our world.

3. Get it in ASAP… and then let go of all expectations.

I set an alarm on the Saturday morning the submission window opened so I would be sure my submission would go to my top two editors (one of whom was a last minute switch that worked out really nicely, but that’s another story). Given my track record in previous #RevPit years, in which I had gotten not a single request, I wasn’t too hopeful that it would pan out. I mean, there are so many great writers out there, and most of these events lean very heavily on YA authors anyway. So I kept my expectations low.

A few days later, I was absolutely thrilled to receive a request for my full manuscript from one of the editors. Proof that the best surprises happen when you stop obsessing over them.

4. How to determine whether a #10Queries tweet was about me… rationally.

Okay, I mean, it’s hard not to think every last tweet was about my book, even from the editors I hadn’t submitted to, even the ones about YA fantasy, when I clearly don’t write YA fantasy. It highlights how common different issues are, across genres, and how much all writing has in common. But as I engaged in some reflection, it became easier to compare what the editors were noting in their tweets to what I knew was going on with my first five pages.

5. It’s really not about you.

Like I alluded to above, editors in these types of events have to be very selective about their one winner. They have to have a vision for the book that will resonate with the author, and they have to know they can pull it off within eight weeks. They also have to be confident that the author needs their help at all. The quality of your writing is just one factor in this decision.

These are all important lessons as I continue on my journey as a writer, and I hope that you might benefit from them too. Thanks for reading, and stay well!