YEAR IN MUSIC Hot blonde hits the spot when it comes to those super-chilled depression doldrums. Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell were the fair-haired girls during the 20th century's major downtown. As for 2010, it kicked off with the comic train wreck of party girl Ke$ha — plying us with tartly delivered, tarted-up hip-hop-ified electro and a bona fide pop classic in her chart-topping "Tik Tok." It ended with the entertainment press hanging on every syllable from rom-commie good girl Taylor Swift, the pretty prodigy with a country storyteller's set of close-for-comfort tales to tell.
In the meantime, that other over-saturated blonde, Lady Gaga, consolidated her grip on an enthralled mainstream, hammering out Monster's Ball performances and releasing little apart from her Pussywagon-fueled "Telephone" music video, delightfully overstuffed with killer-lesbionic antics and girlfriend-in-arms Beyonce. Shape-shifters and wig-changers like M.I.A. and Peaches worked the edges of pop, while Gwen and Britney sat out the year of the solo blonde. Plenty of other babes in Popland were fully prepared to serve up sensation, even as Swift worried for mothers everywhere (and perhaps herself), "Oh, darling, don't you ever grow up, don't you ever grow up/ It could stay this simple."
Nothing was ever quite as simple as that song, "Never Grow Up," in a game-changing yet politically conservative 2010. America's girls were riveted by Swift, the million-plus-selling teen queen who could sing (depending whether you liked her Grammy coupling with Stevie Nicks or chalked it up to an off night) and write, judging from her recent Speak Now (Big Machine). Swift's chief critic Kanye West may have put out a more musically exciting album, but in the battle to see who can artfully reveal the most and still remain compelling, Swift might be K-Whoa's match. You must love a high-profile 20-year-old who tells us how she really feels about, say, alleged ex John Mayer, singing, "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" and "I'll look back and regret how I ignored when they said, 'Run as fast as you can,'" in the appropriately soggy "Dear John."
Mocking rocker "Better Than Revenge" is better, despite the cheesy megaphone-like vocal effects, as Swift takes her poison pen to perceived romantic rival Camille Belle (for former flame Joe Jonas' affections) and cleverly, self-consciously complains, "She thinks I'm psycho/ Because I like to rhyme her name with things/ But sophistication isn't what you wear, or who you know/ Or pushing people down to get you where you wanna go."
Jonas ("Last Kiss"), West ("Innocent," yawn), Taylor Lautner ("Back to December"), and even industry insider-newsletter scribe Bob Lefsetz ("Mean") all supposedly enter Swift's sights. But the real tribute to her skills lie with infectious story songs like Speak Now's title track, and its opener, "Mine," songs that would be an asset on any country-pop performer's recording — and not at all beholding to Behind the Music speculation or tabloid gossip. Now if only she could hook up with one talented, directional producer with a musical opinion — when it comes to country-pop, Daniel Lanois comes to mind, but why not Rick Rubin or even Jack White? To be as memorable as country music's singer-songwriter greats, Swift needs to find challenging sounds to pair with her provocative lyrics.