I’m 28 years old, I can hold a perfectly coherent conversation about Chinese currency inflation or whatever, and my music taste usually runs toward distortion, loops and shouting. And Taylor Swift is the only thing that’s keeping me from going insane right now.
Yes, I’m 100% aware of how ridiculous that sounds.
I got told late this summer that I had a long-term illness, which is making me a bit loopy anyway. The same week I broke up someone that I maybe shouldn’t have, and now, when not being able to find the TV remote triggers a full-on meltdown, the only thing that will stop me crying is going for a walk in the drizzle around my grotty neighbourhood and listening to Taylor’s latest album, "Red."
Taylor Swift’s love songs are great, but her breakup songs are the best breakup songs I’ve ever heard. They make your pain seem epic and noble -– like you’re the last person with a heart of gold left in a world of unbelievable idiots and just being yourself is an awe-inspiring achievement on a par with the discovery of the Higgs boson.
They suggest that guts, ethics and hard work will always win out in the end, and that any boy who makes you sad is likely going to end up a friendless, alcoholic, empty shell of a loser. Either that or your love is tragic and doomed and it’s the whole damn universe that's to blame.
You, the listener and Taylor Swift, are always going to be in the right, and perfection is always around the next corner. It sounds like a lot to buy into, but the writing’s so full of sharp, relatable details that you just end up being like, “Yeah…. YEAH!!!” the whole time. Or I do, anyway.
And it’s not like it was even a breakup that got me into her. I generally have a reputation for being an indie snob, at least among my non-fellow-indie-snob friends, who make fun of me for only liking stuff they haven’t heard of.
When I was a bit younger, being discriminating about music helped me sketch out an identity: I’d feel a sense of kinship with a stranger in a "Life Without Buildings" T-shirt, as if we were members of a secret club. But I fell in love with Taylor Swift four years ago, when she was still singing about princesses and cheerleaders and squeezing tens of million dollars out of her tween fan base, and I had to seriously reassess my idea of what my tastes said about me.
Taylor Swift may have sung about being an eccentric outsider, and more recently she’s gotten praise from cast-iron members of the indie elite like Neil Young and Lena Dunham, but she’s about as far from countercultural as it’s possible to get. I could be any girl in any English-speaking country in the world right now, listening to the fastest-selling album of the decade and getting shivers.
Let’s get this out of the way, so you don’t just think I’m blinded by her wholesome smile and the way she scrawls a different song lyric down her arm in marker pen for each show. She’s aggressively marketed, she’s as perfectly, unthreateningly styled as a secretary in "Mad Men," and I don’t think I’ve ever heard her utter a challenging opinion. But Taylor Swift’s just really, really good at writing songs.
With her earnest optimism, pop hooks and eye for a crisp detail, she reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, not Miley Cyrus or whatever apple-cheeked starlet you might associate her with. She’s not ashamed of explaining exactly how she feels, whether it’s desire or feeling small and stupid.
And I think that she’s genuinely weird in a deep-down way that’s could be the photographic negative of someone like Katy Perry. If Taylor Swift wrote a song about kissing a girl, it would be sooo romantic.
If denial is the first stage of Taylor Swift fandom, and equivocation is the second (“But see, the way I feel about this music is actually much more nuanced than the children in cowboy boots can possibly understand.”), the third is anger.
What stupid macho idea of authenticity ever made me feel like it was a joke to be a Taylor Swift fan in the first place? If she wasn’t female, blonde, tiny, gorgeous and polite, isn’t it possible that we’d all be throwing around the world “genius” and filing her somewhere between Johnny Cash and Elton John?
Let’s not forget that she started writing songs at 12 and got signed at 14. When Bob Dylan was the age she is now -- 22 -- he’d only just switched from covers and Woody Guthrie impressions to his own stuff. Just saying.
I don’t buy the idea that the new album plants a flag in more sophisticated, grown-up territory, though. Much as I adore new songs like "All Too Well" and "The Lucky One" -– which uses the old Taylor Swift trick of using the same words in the chorus to mean different things at different points in the song –- she’s been using self-reference and shifting perspectives and nested time frames since she was 16, at least.
My favourite song on her first record, "Picture To Burn," starts, “State the obvious/ I didn’t get my perfect fantasy,” and you could argue that she’s been elaborating on that theme ever since. The only thing that’s different is the shift away from balladry and towards hard-edged dance music, and the fact that some of the songs are about Jake Gyllenhaal (if you know which ones, please let tell me!).
The last phase of the cycle is acceptance. I’m glad that Taylor Swift is the wealthiest celebrity under 30 in the world. She says that she wants to spend it on the football team-sized gaggle of kids she wants, which is typically adorable, and she’s the only person on that list who seems more interested in documenting her flaws than selling a fabrication.
I’m glad that there’s something that links me to both dreamy teenagers and Radio 2 listeners, and I’m glad that the latest round of album reviews have been giving her the kudos she deserves.
As I finish typing this, I’m in a city called Sharjah. It’s the first time I’ve been to the Middle East, it’s a work trip so I’m on my own and I had an overnight flight last night, which means I’m so tired I keep thinking I’m on a boat and the floor is moving (really, it’s happened like three times in an hour).
I’m not sure whether or not it’s OK to show my ankles and I kind of feel homesick, but not exactly for my actual home; I can’t work it out. Basically, everything is unfamiliar and my brain feels like it’s about to explode.
So, after I get done with this I’m going to listen to Taylor Swift singing "22" –- the one that goes “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time” -– once through. Then I’m going to leave my iPhone in my room, and explore.
Hey, look: I made the Ultimate Taylor Swift Breakup Playlist in case you’re interested. You're welcome.