10 Years, 100 Songs: #97. “The Only Thing Who Keeps Me Wishin’ On a Wishin’ Star”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
Over the decade, the mainstream crit world was pitched on a number of supposed crossover country acts–the kind of modern, genre-twisting acts that were supposed to make those of us Yanks who had nothing against the genre per se, but found no way to relate personally or musically to artists like Brad Paisley or Rascal Flatts, stand up and take notice. But I didn’t really but any of ’em. The Muzik Mafia players–Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy–were all unbearably obnoxious, and none of ’em were even as funny as Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Miranda Lambert I wasn’t all that into either–maybe a little more interesting, but the songs weren’t really there. And Carrie Underwood…well, I’ve definitely said my piece about her biggest crossover hit, and that was about as good as she got.
No, my primary (and outside of a couple isolated singles, only real long-lasting) connection to mainstream country in this decade was through Taylor Swift–perhaps the biggest crossover country artist of the decade, and one of the biggest pop stars in the country going into the 2010s. Even before I knew anything about her, even before I knew what she looked like, I remember hearing first hit “Tim McGraw” and being able to sense that there was something different about Taylor. Her voice had an everygirl innocence and sweetness to it that, while certainly southern-inflected, sounded almost in a singer/songwriter vein–more Jewel than Reba. But more importantly, the songwriting was unbelievably on point–the lyrics were vivid and evocative, the rhymes were clever, and the way of approaching the subject matter sounded amazingly fresh. It was everything I liked about mainstream country–the feeling, the directness, the verve for storytelling–written with incredible pop songcraft. Yes, please.
“Teardrops on My Guitar” proved that it was no fluke, and then some. The title alone had that timeless classic feel to it, the kind of title so striking that it has the power to become instantly iconic for the emotions it represents. And then the song was a total heartbreaker, an unrequited-love ballad that managed to be huge in emotion while feeling intimate in presentation. Of course by then we were starting to learn a little bit more about Taylor herself, and everything we learned about her just made her more impressive. Here was this Pennsylvania-bred, unspeakably gorgeous teenage girl singing songs about having bad crushes in English class, but doing so with the skill and depth of feeling of a Faith Hill or even a Dolly Parton. Meanwhile, she could also pass the Morality and Authenticity tests of purebred rock fans by virtue of her writing her own lyrics and playing her own guitar–a rarity for chanteuses in just about any genre these days. But all of her cross-marketing potential wouldn’t have meant anything if she didn’t release great songs, and that she did in spades–none, of course, better than “Teardrops.”
The maturity of the thing is astounding. Just the little lyrical flourishes that Swift uses–things like starting each verse the same way, waiting until the end of the second verse to introduce the chorus, repeating the opening lines as the closing lines–they’re all total vet moves, the kind that pros should be getting millions to write for her, not the kind she should be writing herself as an eighteen-year-old on her debut album. “Teardrops” even deploys one of my all-time favorite lyrical tics, and it’s something I’ve actually noticed in a number of her hits–it changes a line in the chorus the last time out. For the majority of the song, the main chorus lyric is “He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar / The only thing that keeps me wishin’ on a wishin’ star.” But just before the song ends, that second line morphs into “The only one who’s got enough of me to break my heart.” It’s actually a much better line than the relatively fluffy “wishin’ star” one, but it’s so much more powerful for having been saved for that final chorus, when you think you know what’s coming and she hits you with that more revealing, desparate lyric, sung so much more intensely. It’s a very underused tactic.
The truly stunning thing about Swift in general, and in this song in specific, though, is how she manages to cultivate an almost outsider persona–singing about her heartache over a boy not seeming to know that she’s alive, she puts herself in that classic “why can’t I be pretty and talented like all the popular girls?” mold that frumpy, bookish young girls have been singing about since diaries and unicorns were invented. Except that at the time, Taylor was an obscenely talented megastar-to-be that also happened to be maybe one of the ten best-looking females on the planet. By all logic, it should have come off as patronizing and eye-roll-inducing as Tyra Banks putting on a fat suit and claiming to know the plight of the obese.
But amazingly, somehow–it was all true! “Teardrops” was actually written about some guy in her high school that apparently had no taste for musically gifted blondes, and she lets you know it by not only including the small lyrical details that should only come from real-life experience, but by including the damn dude’s name in each of the verses. “I never told him that I liked him,” said Swift, “but I did write a song with his name on it – so I think he knows now.” Yes, Taylor, and he now has absolutely bragging rights over all of his college friends for all-time that the most talented, most popular and hottest chick in country–hell, maybe in all of popular music–wrote a fucking megahit torch song about him. That is, of course, if anyone believes him–there are probably impostors named Drew all up and down western Pennsylvania now trying to take credit for it.
After “Teardrops on My Guitar,” Swift released the far more upbeat and jovial “Our Song,” showing that she could do non-ballads with the best of ’em as well, and demonstrating that there should be virtually no commercial ceiling to her career going forward. She quickly proved that with the release of Fearless, the best selling album to date in 2009, which stayed on top of the charts for eleven weeks and has already spawned a half-dozen top 20 hits, several of ’em based on digital sales alone. It’ll be interesting to see what directions her career takes moving into the next decade, but I’ll always love her for “Teardrops,” and for giving me the best reason to watch CMT that I could find in the 00s.