Relatable, as it's employed by amateur and professional critics of novels, movies, and TV shows, may or may not be acceptable usage. To me, when someone says that Twilight is "relatable," it sounds as though he or she -- she, I hope -- is saying that she can relate it (i.e., recount its plot), when in fact she means that she can relate to it (i.e., identify with its characters). It's unorthodox to stick the suffix -able onto intransitive verbs, but in an article about this very issue, the New York Times cites reliable, laughable, dependable, and indispensable, all of which function in the same way as relatable: logic be damned, when we say that something is reliable, we mean that we can rely on it, not that we can "rely it."
So maybe we can't discard relatable from critical discourse on grammatical grounds. But we can safely disregard those critics who hold "relatability" as one of art's highest virtues. Their belief is that art should deal with subjects and situations that all of us have faced -- never mind that you haven't ever really faced what I've faced, and I've never really faced what you've faced -- and basically produce hazy replications of our experiences, generalized to the point where we can smoothly insert ourselves into the movie or book or song, whose sad moments then beget in us self-pity and whose happy moments beget self-congratulation. The opposite of "relatability" is "self-indulgence," which means that the artist isn't interested in what interests you; he's interested in what interests himself -- which may not have anything to do with you.
One of the most relatable artists on the music scene today is Taylor Swift, the pop/country singer-songwriter whose latest album, Speak Now, was released in October 2010, when she was 20 years old. She writes songs almost exclusively about young love and its aftereffects, and according even to some fairly serious critics, she does so with unusual acuity and candor. She admits that her songs are extremely personal (many of them are based on real relationships she's had with the likes of John Mayer, Taylor Lautner, and Joe Jonas) -- so personal, in fact, that the most common remark you'll hear about Swift's music is that "it's like listening to a real teenage girl's diary." I heard something akin to this just a few weeks ago from a very educated-sounding music critic on NPR, and he meant it is a compliment.
Right now, you may be asking the following: how can Taylor Swift's music be personal and relatable at the same time? Aren't diaries, by nature, self-indulgent and, therefore, the antithesis of relatibility? It's a good question, but it's probably not one that the critics praising Swift have ever examined, so I'll have to invent a response for them: Well, you see, teenage love is universal, which is why Romeo and Juliet still holds up after 400 years. Every kid, everywhere in the world, experiences the same boundless ecstasy and implacable heartache as he falls in love for the first time, experiences his first kiss, loses his virginity, gets dumped, etc. -- so, by describing accurately her own romantic joys and struggles, Swift captures the romantic joys and struggles of all her peers as well.
The only problem with that explanation is that it's kind of stupid. The world is weird; everything is different, in sometimes tiny but always crucial ways, for everyone, and the differences are what make it worthy of our attention. It remains true that a ton of young girls relate to Swift and that, yes, her songs do sound a lot like a young girl's diary -- I'd know because I used to read my friends' Xangas. The reason, however, isn't that average teenage girls and Taylor Swift have caught on to the same truth -- it's that they've caught on to the same mendacities. They've learned to misrepresent love and life in exactly the same way.
The fact is that, no matter how fiercely Taylor Swift believes in her music, no matter how earnestly she approaches it, no matter how deeply her fans connect to it, it really has very little to say about the life of anyone on Earth. Every song on Speak Now is built entirely from country-music cliches, fairytale bullshit, YA-fiction banalities, threadbare imagery, and predictable emotions -- which is to say, the very material that the critic who thinks that all young love is the same believes young love consists of in real life.
Over the past few years, her hit singles "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me" have been ubiquitous: the former tells the story of a young man and a young woman whose perfect love is jeopardized by her father's disapproval (for no reason at all, he changes his mind in the last verse, and love triumphs), while the latter describes a geeky chick's unrequited love for the boy next door, who has chosen to date a bitchy popular cheerleader instead of her (for no reason at all, he changes his mind at the end of the music video, and love triumphs). Although "Love Story," with its risibly wrongheaded allusions to Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter, probably best represents the meaningless muddle of secondhand romantic pap that occupies Taylor Swift's brain, it's really too incoherent to quote, so here are some lyrics from "You Belong With Me," which you probably already know but which maybe you have to see in print to appreciate their full banality:
[S]he wears short skirts; I wear T-shirts.
She's cheer captain, and I'm on the bleachers,
Dreaming 'bout the day when you wake up and find
That what you're lookin' for has been here the whole time.
If you could see that I'm the one who understands you!
Been here all along, so why can't you see?
You belong with me.
Since her first album in 2006, the record industry has marketed Taylor Swift's honesty: here, they said, was a beautiful blond teenage girl whose songs weren't written by middle-aged men, whose persona wasn't a corporate creation calculated to appeal to the male sexual imagination -- here was a real teenager who was telling it as she really saw it, who was pouring her heart out on wax. After all, she wrote her own songs. Why, then, does "You Belong With Me" sound eerily as though it came from the pen of R. Lee Fleming Jr., the man who wrote She's All That -- or perhaps Mark Schwahn, the middle-aged scribe behind Whatever It Takes?
As it turns out, "honesty" is more complicated than it seems. It requires more than the absence of a desire to lie. To describe something honestly requires analysis and creativity -- one has to see the world not in the trite, degrading terms of Hollywood, of pop music, of hackneyed novels. Life is idiosyncratic, but one has to use one's imagination to open it up and find its strangeness. Taylor Swift and a hundred million teenage diarists each encounter different stories and then all proceed to write the same thing. Most of these girls probably aren't very smart, and that likely has something to do with it. Most of them, probably, have also consumed a lot of the same shoddy mainstream American entertainment. The terrible thing about banal art, perhaps, is that it causes people to believe that their own lives are equally banal.
Speak Now is Taylor Swift's adult debut. Instead of writing about adolescent crushes, she writes about grown-up sexual relationships, yet she trots out the same stock emotions. People fall in love, and it's always electric; people break up, and it's always somebody's fault. You know what you're in for when you notice that four of the 14 song titles borrow their names from cheesy chick flicks: Dear John, The Story of Us, Enchanted, and The Last Kiss. Most of its images are cribbed from Nicholas Sparks movies ("Meet me in the pouring rain; / Kiss me on the sidewalk; / Take away the pain!") and Disney princess cartoons ("All the kingdom lights shined for me and you . . . / I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you"). Some lines are so vapid -- "You're all I wanted," and "'Cause my heart is beating fast / And you are beautiful," and "You told me you loved me, so why did you go away?" and so on and so on -- that you'll wince with as much pain as you would at any other love ballad on Z100. The "observant" details for which Swift is always lauded are totally standard: "I do recall now the smell of the rain / Fresh on the pavement." She uses some cliches correctly ("You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard . . ."), misuses a few ("I see sparks fly whenever you smile" -- maybe she means that she sees stars, since sparks typically fly during heated arguments, a metaphorical result of the violent friction), and debases others, as when she reduces Kris Kristofferson's old "Me and Bobby McGee" chestnut to "freedom ain't nothing but missing you."
Sometimes Swift's writing is bad enough to fuck with your mind. Consider the opening line of "Mean": "You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me." To compare words to knives is trite; to compare them to swords is equally trite and certainly unnecessary if you've just compared them to knives. To go on then and compare them to weapons -- as though knives and swords weren't weapons -- is just astonishing. On "Long Live," an ode to her youth, Swift several times declares, "Long live the walls we crashed through," except that walls aren't alive, and if you've crashed through them, then those ones especially aren't alive.
On the title track, I had to fight off the impression that she actually was deliberately making the song as uninteresting as possible -- it concerns a wedding at which Swift arrives, Benjamin Braddock-like, to convince the groom to run away with her because "you are not the kind of boy who should be marrying the wrong girl" (as though there were a boy somewhere who would be doing the right thing by marrying the wrong girl). She stands up in the middle of the ceremony and objects, and immediately he ditches his fiancee and takes up Swift's offer. There are some intriguing questions that might be asked here. How does Swift know that the other girl is wrong? If she is wrong, why was this guy nevertheless willing to marry her? Why is he now willing to abandon her suddenly, and what, if anything, does that say about him? How does Swift know that she herself is the right girl for him? And if she is the right girl, why wasn't she with him in the place? This is a four-minute song, not a 10,000-word story, so we can't expect a fully sketched scene, but it's telling that, having created this strange situation, Swift refuses to address a single aspect of its strangeness; all she can do is make petty remarks about the bride's dress and "her snotty little family." Why should the groom run away with Taylor? Well, because of love, of course. Duh. Why else?
Of the 14 songs on Speak Now, 12 are about love in some stage -- initial attraction, full-blown romance, denouement, subsequent anger/regret. And because Swift's purview is so small, she can't place the love she depicts within an interesting context or achieve an intelligent perspective on it. When a romance goes sour in "The Story of Us," she chronicles it in absurdly grandiose terms: "I don't what to say since the twist of fate when it all broke down, / And the story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now." This is not life; this is the vapid daydream of a girl who's watched too many tearjerkers. Artists have to dream better.
I'm not going to talk about Swift's thin, breathy voice or her repetive, chorus-heavy music -- I'm not a music critic, so I'll leave that to someone else. What's interesting to me is that the lyrics are so completely uninteresting, when her lyrics are so frequently cited as her strong suit. The professional critics who try to intellectualize Swift's juvenilia must, deep down, know better -- my guess is that a lot of them are fortysomething men who enjoy feeling that they have access to the innermost thoughts of a sensitive, barely legal bombshell -- but what can we make of the rest of Taylor Swift's fanbase? Why do they respond with such emotion to songs mired so totally in bathos?
Some people, I think, are sentimental about cliches themselves. The ideas and images of love that they've absorbed from entertainment virtually since birth have embedded themselves so deeply as to occupy more space in their emotional lives than life itself does. This doesn't apply just to lovey-dovey junk. Think of people who cry during the national anthem. Think of people who cry at Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar mythology. If you tell people often enough that some notion is deeply important to them, they may eventually believe it, whether it has any validity or not. In order to move them profoundly, it's enough just to invoke it -- oh, the land of the free, love conquers all, and God is great.
Then, surely, there are listeners -- adolescent girls, mostly -- who use Taylor Swift's music as a substitute for introspection. When I was a teenager, girls used Vanessa Carlton or Ashlee Simpson for this same purpose. All of us are preoccupied by the dramas in our lives: we can choose to examine them thoughtfully, or we can turn to someone like Taylor Swift. And so it's because Swift's songs are cobbled together from cliches that they work so well for this group of fans -- cliches are general, not specific, so the girl to which they're applied in a song may be Taylor Swift, or she may be one of Swift's fans. Narrating her breakup with John Mayer, Swift zooms out to "The girl in the dress cried the whole way home," a dreamily cinematic image -- the "girl in the dress" could be anybody, and who hasn't cried all the way home for one reason or another (Swift doesn't specify)? I have; you have; the Little Piggy has. The listener becomes a participant in a kind of shadow play in which her problems are resolved for her, tragically or triumphantly.
When I talk about this, I'm really thinking (though I hesitate to say this) about all pop music, or nearly all of it, which has a peculiar way of seeming at first to address life and then dissolving in a melodic, sentimental, word-soup fog, allowing our thoughts to dissolve with it. And maybe this is a worthy purpose, but it's the same one that alcohol serves, and if I'm right about it, then probably every pop music critic should be fired, because pop music isn't art. Here's what Rolling Stone had to say in its review of Speak Now: "People like to fixate on Taylor Swift's youth, as if to say, yeah, she's pretty good for her age. But that just begs a question: Where are all the older people who are supposedly making better pop records than Taylor Swift? There aren't any." This is untrue, but it's probably not as untrue as you or I would like. In any case, there's a famous Bob Marley line -- "One good thing about music is, when it hits, you feel no pain." This may be why I prefer books. I'd rather keep the pain.
Of course, books employ cliches, too, for the same reassuring effect that music does (cliches are always reassuring because, even when they're sad, they're still familiar). In the novel The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini says, "I always thought cliches got a bum rap. Because, often, they're dead-on." This is wrong, because, in language, cliches are always wrong. Language can't just state truth; it has to capture truth, and cliches don't capture anything. With a joke, you have to get the wording just right, or else the humor vanishes: descriptions are the same way -- if you don't get them just right, then the truth disappears. The Kite Runner, which describes everything in the puerile terms of a B-movie, is pablum, just like Speak Now.
Here, I think, is "relatability" -- it's stuff that makes you feel good because it makes you feel comfortable. This is why our televisions and bookshelves are full of shows and novels that go to great lenghts to replicate the exteriors of real life and then deliberately refuse to let anything live in them, instead sending faceless automatons through storylines so bland and anonymous that we're able to believe that the stories are our own. What is unrelatable? The strange, the individual -- the real life of everyone on the planet. The best works of art don't reach out for us, hoping to be adopted; they exist on their own terms. The best characters aren't you, but you know that they're real, and ultimately, that offers a deeper reassurance: the reassurance that there is, in fact, life on earth. So, Taylor, please stop telling me that I'm the best thing that's ever been yours. That shit sounds like death.
But wait, you're urging me, just wait one moment. Surely you're not advocating that every song, every movie, every novel should be an isolated, unidentifiable unit of weirdness, wholly removed from life as you and I know it, and as it's been depicted in art for centuries! People do fall in love, they do get their hearts broken: why can't people write about it? Why must art be "unfamiliar" to be good?
It's another good question, and it brings me to the next item on my list: Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, which was released two months before Swift's Speak Now. Freedom, the long-awaited followup to Franzen's wildly successful Midwestern family saga The Corrections, is the 576-page tale of another Midwestern family. The New York Times called it "a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life." The New York Times also called it "a masterpiece of American fiction."
Its main characters are Walter Berglund, a bird-loving, Prius-driving, bespectacled lawyer, and Patty Berglund, a pretty, attentive homemaker who spends her time coddling her "goldenhaired" son Joey and wondering about things like whether cloth diapers are "worth the trouble," how "elaborate" a kitchen water filter needs to be, whether the boy scouts are "OK politically," and "how to respond" when poor people of color accuse her of ruining their neighborhood. Patty and Walter are married, even though, in college, Patty secretly was in love with Walter's cooler, better-looking roommate, a cynical and unstable musician named Richard. Years later, Joey, the aforementioned son, rebels against his overbearing parents and takes up with the detested redneck couple next door, who have a daughter his age. This throws the family into a turmoil that is only exacerbated when Richard, now a rock star, reappears in their lives and, soon after, Walter hires a beautiful, young assistant named Lalitha, who worships him.
If you haven't read the book, I'm going to let you guess: Does Patty now have an affair with Richard? Does Walter have sex with Lalitha? Do Walter and Patty break up and then, in the end, reconnect? Do they reconcile with Joey?
Um, well, I don't want to spoil it, but if you really can't guess, Wikipedia has a plot summary. Anyway, I've described the book in such a way that it sounds as hokey as it possibly can, but the truth is that, in its broad outlines, Freedom is extraordinarily unoriginal. I can't count how many characters come straight from central casting. There are Patty's parents, the hypocritical, high-society New Yorkers who you know are lousy parents because, like the lousy parents in every Hollywood movie, they never attended any of Patty's sporting events during her childhood. There is Patty's ridiculous bohemian sister. There is the trashy single mom who lives next door to the Berglunds, and there is her beer-swilling, pickup-driving boyfriend. There is Richard himself, the aloof, cigarette-smooking, broodingly dreamy artist.
Here's the twist: Freedom is very good. It's knowing and perceptive and addictive and affecting. But how can that be, when it's all so familiar?
I should point out here that the familiarness is, on Franzen's part, deliberate. The book begins, in fact, with a sketch of the Berglunds as seen from the outside, by their neighbors, who view them as "the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven." For this reason, we meet our protagonists first as the "sort" of people who do this or that, not as individuals. And this, of course, is no accident: we're supposed to accept them as common, as representative, because Franzen's mission is to find out what's really happening within the typical family of well-meaning, educated, middle-class, white Americans -- and, by extension, within America itself.
He doesn't lazily exploit cliches; he invokes commonplaces in order to deepen and explain them -- which, of course, is exactly what Taylor Swift doesn't do. And what he does is sort of amazing: Walter looks at first like an average bleeding heart, but Franzen writes more extensively, more intelligently, and more passionately about Walter's concerns (overpopulation, the housecat-inflicted genocide of songbirds) than any other novelist would, and as Walter slowly crumbles "under the pressure of thinking in too much detail about the fuckedness of the world," the pain that Franzen conveys is staggering. At the same time, while the friendship between Walter and Richard has, superficially, a pretty run-of-the-mill dynamic -- worshipful geek and cool dude who takes advantage of him -- Franzen's analysis of the jealousy, love, competition, and protectiveness within their bond is fantastic. And Patty's inevitable adultery isn't just an easy plot device -- the author meticulously traces, over decades, every event and action leading up to it. He sketches her dilemma so fully that even the story of this slightly airheaded, slightly annoying woman becomes important to the reader.
Freedom's strength is analytical, not creative. In a not very good essay, B.R. Myers argues that because the novel tells the story of contemporary, commonplace people in contemporary, commonplace language, it isn't art, and it isn't worth your time, but no unprejudiced reader could miss the brains in this book, and the sheer intelligence behind it (which Myers never acknowledges) has to be worth something. And it's a lot of fun to read.
On some other level, though, Freedom is either "correct" or "incorrect" in a way that hinges on a few questions: Is the Berglunds' story, on the surface, a cliche because it really is representative of America, or is it a cliche because it employs the sort of irrelevant ideas, stereotypes, and formulas that exist only to help stupid people feel like they have an understanding of America, just as the cliches within Taylor Swift's music exist in order to help stupid people feel like they understand love? Are the characters and situations and feelings we encounter in Freedom also the ones we encounter in life, or has Jonathan Franzen wasted his time by adding color to mannequins and meaningless TV plots? And let's go further: if Freedom is "correct" in this way, is it after all a novelists' job to be so studiously correct, like a (great) reporter, or is it his job to bend reality in such a way as to bring it more vividly to life than it can be at a supermarket or an airport or a Holiday Inn, no matter how attentively and analytically we look at these places?
At several points, Freedom makes self-aggrandizing references to War and Peace, the point being to spur comparison between the two works. And, indeed, like Freedom, War and Peace is a massive social portrait taking place over many years, stuffed with events large and small, all described more thoroughly than you could describe them if you'd been there, and myriad characters whom, by the end of the book, you'll know better than your next-door neighbors. For a certain kind of verisimilitude, you really can't beat War and Peace. According to many intelligent readers, Tolstoy's masterpiece is the world.
If you're at all like me, though, what you'll find when you read War and Peace is that all its minutely chronicled events and realistically drawn characters are very, very boring. And it's not that any of it is wrong or cheesy, but in all the battles and balls and courtships and marriages and deaths and births, there's a lack of strangeness -- there's nothing really unfamiliar. In one of my very first entries on this site, in just my second day of blogging, I compared Tolstoy to the movie directors behind Hollywood's bland classic epics (such as the 1956 adaptation of War and Peace):
The filmmakers dealt with big, important themes in a glossy, superficial manner, and one senses that their movies would be much more interesting if there were some of the anguished, malformed weirdness of, for example, the crime pictures that were made at the same time on Poverty Row. Tolstoy sketched his characters with what a critic might call "impeccable art," and even when he writes awkwardly, there's something very finished about his prose. He describes each character and each theme sufficiently and sensibly; then he moves on to the next with the professional poise of a traveling salesman.
There's something so standard about all of it, so correct -- not so odd, not so brilliant, but so correct. Which I suppose is why Tolstoy's biggest enthusiasts are always such boring people: they have so little oddness of their own that, to them, the world looks and feels like War and Peace -- it's relatable. Of course, the way they see the world may be the way the world is, but not to me.
So I return here to the fundamental dichotomy in fiction: on one side you have Tolstoy, and on the other side you have Dostoevsky. (On one side you have Taylor Swift, and on the other side you have David Byrne, maybe.) Dostoevsky's heroes were larger than life, more bizarre than life; his dramas were darker, more violent. Like Tolstoy, he wrote large-scale social portraits, but his were charged with his unique psychosis: he was decoding prophecies that were truer, on some level, than Tolstoy's most accomplished realism.
So, in a hundred years, when Freedom's cliches have been replaced by new ones or (as you prefer) its reality-based material has detached in some immediate way from our ever-changing reality, will it be as boring as War and Peace? Maybe it doesn't matter, but let's think about it for a moment.
Yes, yes, I can see it now . . .