Taylor Swift collage

The Swift entity | A.PAES

  1. In this brief document, I propose that Taylor Swift should perform a note-for-note live cover of “Morning Dew,” the folk-song-turned-Grateful-Dead standard, apparently written by Bonnie Dobson (though later claimed, spuriously, to be the work of one Tim Rose). 
  2. My proposal is further that Taylor Swift should cover not just any version of “Morning Dew.” Rather I suggest that she cover the Grateful Dead version from the celebrated Barton Hall gig, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 5/8/77. 
  3. The urgent necessity for this proposal is to be found in that fact that by covering “Morning Dew” Swift, whose surname always reminds me of banking codes, will be repelling, once and for all, any and all suggestions that she, the Taylor Swift entity, is a simulacrum, a hologram, an artificial intelligence program, or a hybrid of these. These are clearly unwarranted assertions, calumnies, and it is a kindness to use a philosophically reliable technique to repel them. 
  4. This performance would, in all likelihood, prove “fleshy” the Swift entity’s being-status by resolutely non-legal means, according to the rigors of old-fashioned, not to say quaint, humanism.
  5. That is, the Swift entity could put to rest any doubts about her personhood through art-making, in a medium allegedly practiced by the Taylor Swift entity, viz., musical performance.
  6. Let me now speak briefly to the appropriateness of “Morning Dew” as vehicle for this performance by the Swift entity.
  7. First, Swift alleges to play guitar and has been filmed playing it (the technical term is, I think, “strumming”), on multiple occasions, in documentaries and feature films, and during a “Tiny Desk Concert” performance. Naturally, virtually every recording of “Morning Dew” requires manipulation of this particular instrument.
  8. And: the live performance would to some extent contraindicate software interface, or auto-tuning or radical compression or other digital interventions, all of which exacerbate the notion that Swift is a simulacrum or other AI project. The performance would self-select for analogue systems. It would, to a useful degree, authenticate.
  9. (Bonnie Dobson’s original, which I believe was recorded at Folk City in 1962, is just singer and fingerpicked acoustic guitar.) 
  10. By covering the Barton Hall document, Swift will allude, metonymically, to her own conversion from “country” singer to singer of rock/pop material, just as when Dobson’s fingerpicked version became the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic rave-up on their first album and in the years subsequent, up to and including during the Barton Hall gig. This should come “naturally” to the Swift entity. 
  11. It should be noted: I don’t really like anything by the Grateful Dead after Pigpen died (circa 1973).
  12. And yet: despite their obscure aleatory qualities and their inability to groove, one thing the various members of the Grateful Dead have done with stunning humanness is deal with the complexity of what is called in certain philosophical circles finitude. 
  13. Indeed, this idea of finitude is expressed in the very name of the band, the Grateful Dead, likewise in their famous skull and roses image, and in the various albums all adorned with skeletons, skulls, etc.
  14. To their horror, they arrived at this band name, the Grateful Dead, according to chance operations, and then, thereafter, they were stuck with it, wherein their own finitude was henceforth built into their every performance, their every gesture, and intricated into the biography of the band, too. In, e.g., their inability to keep keyboard players alive. 
  15. Pigpen, dying of complications from alcoholism in 1973; Keith Godchaux in a car accident in 1980; Brent Mydland from an overdose in 1990; Vince Welnick of depression in 2006. 
  16. And of course, in retrospect, there is the imminent and implacable death of Jerry Garcia that was a fact of the Grateful Dead, arguably, from about 1975 or so, a thing almost happening, a thing coming to pass, a dark curtain always threatening to fall unceremoniously over the good times rock and roll.
  17. Everything about the Grateful Dead, all of their best compositions and performance, were either about the foreknowledge of their finitude, or so bad, so dismal and half-hearted and lackluster as to be an example of their finitude in medias res. 
  18. Take the 9/18/1987 recording of “Morning Dew” from Madison Square Garden. Garcia is, more or less, back from the coma of 1986, and although his playing is good, better than it was, there’s a mordant tempo and an utter despondency to the singing. It’s probably half the speed at which it used to be played.
  19. He sounds like he could go at any time. 
  20. The Barton Hall show gives ample evidence of all of these Dead tendencies, the lively, the despondent, the death-obsessed, the affirmational.
  21. And so the working hypothesis of this proposal is: that only art with an awareness of finitude constitutes meaningful composition. We need not get bogged down in the specific evidentiary stream for my argument: yes, “Feelin’ Groovy” is pretty good, though it seems to have no orientation at all in the direction of finitude. 
  22. Or: everything by Cannibal Corpse is about finitude but it is all meaningless anyhow. This is undeniable. 
  23. We need not get bogged down, because High Fidelity–style musical debate distracts from finitude; it is a narcotizing force in any discussion of finitude. 
  24. There can and must be a sort of Turing Test that can be employed with musical performers, through which we can properly evaluate whether the products they offer us (and by “products” I’m using the preferred terminology of late-stage capitalism) are made primarily through artificial intelligence, or by interacting with artificial intelligence, and thus do not constitute acts of human composition, but rather, examples of military-industrial social control. 
  25. While none of the original Turing questions deal expressly with finitude, at least two of them deal with time, which, naturally, is the scaffolding through which the dread of finitude is brought near, viz.:
  26. “Describe why time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana.”
  27. And: “What historical event changed you the most and where were you when it happened?”
  28. Songs that grapple with this same problematic of time and in which finitude figures in some way are some of the truly important songs, notwithstanding the outliers, and in the performance, while some musical artists can simulate appallingly well, and/or these artists imagine that virtuosity somehow is relevant to a discussion of finitude—Clay Aiken singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” say—the attractive power of the message of finitude somehow extracts from even the most mediocre performance the electrifying recognition, the blinding epiphanic majesty, that is an art form perfectly calibrated in the direction of human experience. 
  29. As in, e.g.: the “Liebestod” of Wagner. 
  30. It’s just almost impossible to sing a bad version of the Liebestod (unless you are a rank opera snob) because the thing-in-itself is so striking and important. It’s so magnificent, in fact, that you don’t even have to sing the words. You can simply imply them.
  31. Or, e.g., the “wide, quiet peace” of Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” its impact apparently unignorable. Therein lies the recognition of finitude. In the wide, quiet peace of impending non-being.
  32. Or: in Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” in the utterly desolate and deeply humane moment when Hendrix, improvising over the menacing groove of the song speaks the language of finitude plainly, while temporarily free from instrumental soloing, “I’m the one that’s going to have to die when it’s time for me to die … so let me live my life the way I … want … to.”
  33. “Morning Dew,” as you, dear reader, will now recollect, is in the form of a conversation, a dialogue in song, between persons taking place after the, uh, nuclear annihilation of the Western civilization of the late sixties, the annihilation of all that is sweet and good in the pseudo-agrarian, prelapsarian world of the late sixties. 
  34. That’s what Jerry Garcia is singing about. That’s what Bonnie Dobson was singing about. 
  35. “Morning dew” in this metaphorical construct refers to fallout from the aforementioned nuclear annihilation spread widely on the soon-to-be-vanquished vegetation, such of it as remains.
  36. The dramatic acme of “Morning Dew,” to further summarize, is when the two protagonists elect to walk out in the titular morning, into the proximity of the “morning dew,” because “it doesn’t really matter anyway,” thus exposing themselves to the lethal dose of millirems from which recovery is unlikely.
  37. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway” is, in this context, a finis of stunning resignation that could only be delivered, in truth, by a band like the Grateful Dead, with their manifest conceptual orientation toward finitude
  38. “It doesn’t matter,” in such a formulation, is a complete thought about the world and its seductions, when faced with the enormity of finitude, an essential existentialist construct (if I can be forgiven for invoking a somewhat disgraced moment in philosophy) in a world of dire oppressions, inequity, violence, war, autocracy, pandemic, death by fentanyl overdose, and so on.
  39. (And here perhaps it’s worth mentioning a wonderful simulacrum of this very notion, the early recording by the Chemical Brothers that consists entirely of a machined repetition of the phrase “It doesn’t matter”.)
  40. In truth, it must be said, I cannot claim to know all of the compositions by the Swift entity, because, as has been noted in earlier discussions on this subject, I am not able to listen to all of them, and not owing to any abreaction, but by reason of insubstantial enthusiasm, and because of the frequent sameness of tone, melody, subject, idiom, purpose.
  41. I know some of the “hits.” 
  42. But if we assume for a moment the critical commonplace that most of the products released by the Swift entity are, primarily, grief-inflected performances of post-hoc heterosexual coupling, with an emphasis on clever derisions and tasteful bitterness, then it is fair to say that the vast majority of productions of the Swift entity are:
  43. Devoid of finitude. 
  44. I did, believing there was an art-critical purpose in doing so, listen to most, perhaps all of an album by the Swift entity known as Folklore. My supposition was that this album, which was a sort of an “indie rock” album, produced among and around that rock and roll equivalent of high-end wallpaper, the band known as the National. This album is much like those simulacra who are really adept at fooling you in the matter of the Turing Questions. Folklore sounds very nearly like what it purports to sound like. 
  45. Folklore was supposed to be: what the Swift entity would do if the Swift entity were forced to make music for adults. 
  46. But not. 
  47. Having done this, having attempted to sound “adult,” on one further album, soon after, I believe, the Swift entity resorted to a more focus-grouped approach. This Swift combined with a strategic reappropriation of her own catalogue for capitalist reasons, whereupon she ascended to such singular heights that the QAnon crowd believes … well, who knows, whatever it is they believe, whatever calumnies. 
  48. And thus we come through the machinations of history, depressing as usual, to find ourselves now in this taxonomical no-man’s-land. Does the Swift entity have personhood? Is personhood a meaningful requirement? Is the recent single by the Beatles materially different from a fully digital, artificial, Swift-entity musical simulation? Do we really need music to be made by humans? Or is the answer that “it doesn’t really matter anyway.” 
  49. Recently, the Swift entity needed to sue over AI–constructed “nude” photographs, and the word that swirls around this particular narrative is the word deepfake, as if to repel this galloping forward into the deepfake, but my supposition is that everything having to do with the Swift entity is deepfake, because: no finitude. Thus, all is deepfake, beginning with the narrative of a stolen 2020 election, and in this the Swift entity is like unto other brand-oriented, ideologically freighted simulations of our time, if adjudged on the superficial basis, from Ice Spice, BLACKPINK (sic), Kiss (hologram edition), Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, or Grimes, the Tesla-financed cyborg.
  50. What I want in this world, and from its music, is either a set of principles as to how to stay alive, in the presence of a deep wish to do otherwise, or else an artistic document that so well observes what is actually happening here and what exactly it feels like that the only conclusion can be that the artist knew she would be gone soon, such that her art was constructed of sheer unadulterated wisdom about this inexplicable and frail being, into which we are thrown, for which the only logical feeling is a weary and bereaved gratitude. 
  51. I am aware that there is, in surplus, a feminist argument that casts aside this my modest proposal from the outset, perhaps voiced by the Swift entity herself, in which she makes clear her disdain for the aggregation of male rock crit tendencies, alleging to make herself impervious to such things right from the outset, by rendering immaterial any complaint lodged by a male-presenting critical voice, especially if that male rock crit tendency comes from, say, before the year zero of 2000. This line of reasoning has been very successful, and it is reasonably lodged. 
  52. And/or the argument that holds that there is such a dearth of successful women artists on which to imprint oneself that it is the ultimate betrayal of the feminist project to knock on the most successful one, especially when men have controlled the music business for decades.
  53. Yes, agreed. 
  54. And that is why I have chosen, for my challenge, here in my modest proposal, a song by a woman. A folk song. 
  55. Anyway, if “Morning Dew” is not adequate enough for authentication, with respect to the feminist arguments, how about “Wild Is the Wind,” as made famous by Nina Simone, or how about “Little Green,” by Joni Mitchell, or how about “Katie Cruel,” by Karen Dalton, or how about “Gotham Lullaby,” by Meredith Monk? Or “The Greatest,” by Chan Marshall. Or “Everybody Dies,” by Billie Eilish. 
  56. Why not some other song that feels what there is to feel about our improbable being in the face of our onrushing of non-being. Why not record one of these? Simply because the Swift entity will not control the publishing on it? 
  57. Oh, before I conclude, it seems I have yet to say why the Barton Hall gig was important. (The gig from which the 1977 recording of “Morning Dew” is excised. Widely considered to be the “best” ever Grateful Dead show.) 
  58. The lore, you know, goes that they stopped playing live for quite a while, beginning in 1975, while Jerry Garcia was editing their film, and when they reassembled they were mainly working in the studio (on two really good records from the period, Blues for Allah and Terrapin Station), and so when it came to pass that they went on tour in May 1977 they had, because they were being put through their paces by a certain record producer, gone and done something they rarely did. They rehearsed.
  59. So: the particular success of the performance is to be found in the confidence of its articulation. A sense of knowing how to cause music to transmit the compassion, the premonitory clarity about finitude, the knowing acceptance thereof. All over this concert Garcia, frequently a slowpoke in the department of lead guitar (more interested in his bends and blue notes), is literally aflame with lightning-fast runs, as if proving something, and by the time they get to “Morning Dew,” a sixties song, a song from the band’s first album, having taken a detour through a couple of other songs from the past, “St. Stephen” and “Not Fade Away,” they dig into this parable about nuclear annihilation like their lives depended on it, or like life itself depends on it, and this preposterously dramatic take feels, at various points, especially around 11:00, like the band is one human, a single being, so unanimous is the crescendo, all the beings one being aflame, as though the flame is the one thing, destined, nonetheless, to go out. 
  60. The finitude of the Dead contained this paradoxical quality, an ingathering, an ephemerality, a Dionysian conflagration, an abandon, a resignation with a fiery purpose, indicates that occasionally they got it right. In May 1977, in fact, it was pretty often. 
  61. Also: this all took place on Mother’s Day. 
  62. If the Swift entity performs this song, I promise to attend, and to, in part, change my tune on this subject, one I have excessively belabored. Either she can perform the song or she can instead answer the question: “What historical event changed you the most and where were you when it happened?”
  63. For me it was the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, and I was at summer camp, in New Hampshire, and they made an announcement at dinner that night. The political life of the country was never the same. 

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, and three works of nonfiction, including, most recently, The Long Accomplishment, a memoir. He writes a column on music at Salmagundi and teaches at Tufts University.

This essay is part of a Public Seminar symposium on the Taylor Swift phenomenon—from fandom to philosophy.