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Press and Pop Culture

“Rigor” or …?

In “Taylor Swift Is Bringing Us Back to Nature,” an opinion piece it the NY Times by the conservation scientist Jeff Opperman, reflects on the ways that Taylor Swift’s lyrics are foregrounding nature. In her two recent albums, we are told, Swift uses “nature-themed words” seven times more frequently than artists from a sampling of other popular songs. Her preference for these expressions is, for Opperman, noteworthy because it’s a change from the on-going decline in words about nature in music. He worries that the loss of nature-themed words is having deleterious effects on our society — kids can’t identify local flora and fauna, they spend too much time in front of screens and too little outside, they are too good at distinguishing corporate logos. The consequence, Opperman and other conservationists worry, is a loss of awareness of and concern for nature, a loss that is causing real damage to actual nature.

Opperman’s opinion piece on Taylor Swift’s use of “nature-themed words.”

Opperman’s worries, seem to me, plausible and valid (though his examples about screen time, insufficient outdoor time, loss of ability to identify plants and animals are a bit tired now, and sound more like an old guy complaining about “the kids these days.” These laments have been expressed much more eloquently by others, recently, e.g., Michael Chabon).

What doesn’t seem plausible or valid, however, is Opperman’s implication that he, as a “conservation scientist,” has some special access to rigor and, moreover, that lowly music critics are denied such access. He says:

As I’m a conservation scientist, not a music critic, I had to apply some rigor to this claim about the nature of Ms. Swift’s writing.

Opperman implies he as a scientist has special access to rigor.

A few thoughts: First, to suggest that music critics (and perhaps all non-scientists) don’t apply rigor and standards to their work is ignorant and condescending. Second, if you are going to claim you “had to apply some rigor,” maybe that should be more than a superficial comparison of Swifts song and an equal number of other “popular” songs (or at least some justification for why you are comparing two different categories of songs, those by Swift and those that are “popular” — while some of Swift’s songs will be popular and thus will complicate things by being in both groups, not all of her songs will be equally and sufficiently popular and so risk comparing different things). Third, maybe apply some rigor to your analysis of language in an effort to understand how Swift and other artists are using their “nature-themed” words, metaphorically, literally, sarcastically, ironically, because of rhythm and rhyme. Fourth, maybe a comparison across time would have been interesting. If the claim is that we are losing “nature-themed words” in pop songs, maybe look at pop songs over some period (the reference to the “2017 scientific paper” that noted a decline doesn’t indicate if that was in all music or in particular genres of music, and doesn’t give us any idea what might have happened in the last three or 4 years).

I am sympathetic with Opperman’s worry about nature and the environment. And I would love to see us all work harder to do less damage to the world we live in (though I am perfectly happy being alone while I am in nature, so if lots of people continue to sit inside rather than come out and crowd my natural world, I won’t be upset). Maybe next time he can avoid the language that undermines his point. Perhaps he can recognize that his area of expertise does not, in fact, give him some universal expertise. Imagine how good this opinion piece would have been if he had co-written it with an expert with experience and knowledge in analyzing music, e.g., a music critic.