The two musicians tell the same stories of America for different generations.
Taylor Swift is the millennial Bruce Springsteen.
If there were any doubts about this, they should have been dispelled by her latest release: the haunting Folklore, which filters the exact kinds of story-songs Springsteen excels at through Swift’s modern, orchestral-pop aesthetic. The album has been one of the best-received of her career, but then, the response to essentially everything she’s produced since her 2010 album Speak Now has involved critics grudgingly being dragged toward having respect for her skills.
The overlaps between millennial Swift (30 and born in 1989) and baby boomer Springsteen (70 and born in 1949) — both of whom are among the best songwriters alive right now — are considerable beyond their songwriting prowess. But comparisons, by necessity, must start there.
Both musicians love songs about a kind of white Americana that’s never really existed but that the central characters of which feel compelled to chase anyway. They use those songs to tell stories about those people and the places they live. They’re terrifically good at wordplay. Both are fascinated by the ways that adolescence and memories of adolescence continue to have incredible power for adults. Both are amazing at crafting bridges that take already good songs to another level. And both write songs featuring fictional people whose lives are sketched in via tiny, intimate details that stand in for their whole selves.
For example: The opening lines to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (“The screen door slams / Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch / as the radio plays”) tell you everything about that woman and the man observing her.
Similarly, the opening lines of Swift’s “All Too Well” (“I walked through the door with you, the air was cold / but something ‘bout it felt like home somehow and I / left my scarf there at your sister’s house / and you still got it in your drawer even now”) tell you everything about this doomed relationship and the nostalgia both people involved in it still feel, compressed into a tiny little stanza.
Springsteen released “Thunder Road” when he was 25; Swift released “All Too Well” when she was 22. Both songs continue to stand as touchstones for who the artists were at that point in their lives.
But leave this comparison aside for a moment. What’s most interesting about drawing this connection are the ways in which the overlap between Springsteen and Swift’s styles can tell us about how our culture treats art made by men versus art made by women — and art made by baby boomers versus art made by millennials.
The similarities between Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen go beyond songwriting prowess
Springsteen and Swift each entered the music industry as young wunderkinds with lots to prove. Springsteen’s first album — the loose and rambling Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. — was released when he was just 23. He had been playing in bands all around New Jersey for most of his teens, and signed a record deal with Columbia Records at 22.
He was expected to become an acoustic folk singer in the vein of Bob Dylan, at a time when the music industry was uniquely preoccupied with finding the “next” Bob Dylan. Springsteen quickly flaunted those expectations, assembling a group of musicians who would go on to be known as the E Street Band, in the name of creating a sound that captured a massive, orchestral blast of rock. Springsteen would finally perfect this sound on his third album, 1975’s Born to Run, and he’s been a global superstar ever since, even decades after reaching his pinnacle with 1984’s Born in the USA.
Swift’s rise was slightly more meteoric. She released her debut album, Taylor Swift, when she was just 16, and it featured songs that she had written as a freshman in high school. Swift broke into the industry via country music, and her country-ish second album, 2008’s Fearless, won her the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Just as Springsteen shirked folk in the name of rock, Swift’s sound quickly shifted away from the girl-with-a-guitar country archetype and more toward pop. By her fourth album, 2012’s Red, she had largely left country music behind.
(A fun game: If you line up Swift and Springsteen’s album releases roughly by how old they were when they recorded them, you’ll find surprisingly similar career trajectories. For instance, Born to Run and Swift’s 2014 album 1989 were released when their respective artists were 25. Both broke the artists through to even wider acclaim than they had before.)
Yet the two artists’ backgrounds are quite different, which may explain the different ways in which they’ve understood American political divides. Springsteen grew up in a blue-collar family in New Jersey, while Swift is the daughter of a former Merrill Lynch stockbroker who could afford to move the entire family to Nashville, Tennessee, when his daughter showed a talent for songwriting.
Springsteen’s songs have always reflected growing up in a world where poverty is just a lost paycheck away, even as he’s become incredibly rich. Swift has no such perspective. Her songs take place largely in a wistful world where money is rarely an object. And the artists came of age in very different political climates, too.
But the political divide has narrowed in recent years. Swift has taken a recent turn toward more political topics — particularly social justice issues involving the mistreatment of women and LGBTQ rights. That turn stems from her struggles to differentiate herself as an artist in an industry that routinely turns young, beautiful women into disposable products, wringing out of them a few years of hit singles and then tossing them aside. Her embrace of the ways her growing sense of (extremely white) feminism helped her attain more artistic control over her image has slowly but surely led to a greater understanding of the yawning disparities inherent to the US. She is more tapped into the ways that power is unequally distributed throughout American society and increasingly speaks out to that effect. (She’s still pretty lousy at confronting class issues, though.)
But even with all of their similarities as songwriters and increasing similarities as explicitly political artists — and even with all of the awards they have won and records they have sold — there’s still a knee-jerk insistence that Swift is either too self-obsessed or too much a creation of the music industry, while Springsteen went from being rock’s heir apparent to an elder statesman with only a few bumps along the way. And the reasons for that disparity go well beyond any artistic differences or similarities they might possess.
Millennial art versus baby boomer art
The most obvious difference between the reception of Springsteen and Swift is also the most obvious difference between the two of them as people: He is a man, and she is a woman.
Swift didn’t exactly discourage listeners from constantly parsing her lyrics to figure out which of her famous exes she was singing about early in her career; she even hid hints in her liner notes to help fans decode her clues. But the degree to which she was written off, for years, as a fundamentally unserious and self-involved artist reflects the ways in which domestic and romantic concerns are written off as unimportant when women talk about them.
By comparison, Springsteen has so many songs about teenage boys crushing on teenage girls, but few people try to figure out who he’s talking about when he mentions the almost mythical “Mary” in songs throughout his career. Perhaps it’s because he wasn’t dating famous people as a teenager, and perhaps because it’s sadly still too common to think a man singing about an adolescent crush has more artistic merit than a woman doing the same thing.
Even in the wake of Folklore’s release, many corners of the music-discussing internet insist upon talking about the album more in terms of Swift’s male collaborators — namely Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver), both indie-rock royalty — than in terms of her own talents, even when, say, Dessner does a whole interview with Pitchfork talking extensively about Swift’s preternatural songwriting talents. The idea that Taylor Swift has somehow been “created” by someone is one that seems to persist, regardless of how much control she has over her own image.
But the ways in which people doubt Swift’s talent, or her control over her image, reflect larger questions about how baby boomers remade pop culture in their image versus how millennials continue to do.
Baby boomers were born into the era of radio’s dominance over American airwaves, and television entered their lives during their childhoods. The presence of these mass media influenced how much pop culture boomers could be exposed to, pushing into hyperdrive the artistic loop of influence becoming creation. American popular art exploded and proliferated as a result.
Whether that explosion led to the rise of rock and pop music or the invention of the cinematic blockbuster, baby boomers took the popular forms their parents adored and accelerated them toward something more raucous and purely entertaining.
The dominant new medium of millennials’ lives was the internet, which arrived when we were still very young. And a major element of internet culture is remix culture. From the earliest days of the “information superhighway,” jokes that mashed up disparate elements of pop culture — now we’d call them memes — were incredibly common, because the central idea of the internet has always been many people iterating on an idea rather than one person releasing that idea into the world.
Inherent to this kind of remixing is the idea of transforming something, often something disreputable, into something else. Thus, many of the greatest millennial artists work in forms that have previously been written off as unworthy — like, say, pop music — because the gatekeepers in those areas weren’t as likely to be aging baby boomers whose taste was ossifying. (This progression is not all that dissimilar from what the boomers did to the popular culture they were born into.)
Millennial artists grew up amid the splintering of the monoculture and, therefore, feel less of an obligation toward it than older generations might. When all you’ve known are niches, it’s better to try to find a niche that appeals to you and explore it as much as possible, then hope enough people come along for the ride.
Swift’s eagerness to collaborate with other artists who really excite her isn’t a uniquely millennial trait: Artists have been doing this since artists have existed. That she is only too happy to spread that credit around (even as her increasingly well-known “voice memos” that show her coming up with the central ideas behind her songs center her authorship first and foremost) is a testament to how millennial artists feel comfortable with both celebrating their influences and revealing how their art gets built, brick by brick, often thanks to the work of other people.
This is not to say that all baby boomer or millennial artists operate exactly the same way as Springsteen or Swift. Both artists write music that is equal parts heartbreaking and fun, evocative, and ephemeral. They’re constantly searching for their version of an America that does not exist, while not forgetting to make sure that we all have some fun in the one that does.
The impulse they share to tell stories about average Americans searching for meaning amid a crumbling world is a natural one for artists in the US. Yet Springsteen has so often been celebrated for doing just that, his rugged vision of a fading nation and talent for making national crises deeply personal treated as authentic and brilliant.
By comparison, Swift is often derided for how she digs into the ways personal apocalypses visit themselves onto the rest of reality, making her something like Springsteen’s inverse. The struggles she faces are deeply rooted in biases against women, the genre of music she operates in, and her generation. It’s worth reexamining the notions that drive this disparity in the two artists’ reception, if nothing else.
Perhaps we take Springsteen more seriously than Swift because he’s a man, or because all the great rockers of his generation have been venerated by time and nostalgia, or because his influences were men like Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie instead of Shania Twain, Patsy Cline, and a litany of contemporary collaborators. But one of art’s great pleasures is finding the ways in which artists of different generations talk about the same topics across the span of years.
Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift craft their impeccable story-songs utilizing the tropes of very different musical genres. But they’re equally good at crafting songs built to both sing loudly on the freeway and accompany a flood of tears in the wake of some new heartache. Different as they might be, Springsteen and Swift are always talking about the same thing — all of the ways that every new day, no matter how promising, carries within it the potential to bring about the end of the world all over again. Until then, though, let’s sing about it.
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Author: Emily VanDerWerff