As fun as it is to burn all your bridges senior year, I’d like to end my KO News Opinions tenure with an apology. It’s one that has been weighing on my conscious for the past few months. I want to apologize to Taylor Swift. For the past several years I have done her music wrong, and I feel bad. But I have had my Come-To-Jesus moment with Swift’s music, and my failures and redemptions start and end with her 2012 album Red.
Red is now seven years old, a.k.a. old enough to conjure up the nostalgia and sweetness of 2012, a time when Obama was president and white people assumed we’d defeated racism for good. When looking at how this album fits into Swift’s career, it can be reasonably called her turning point. Years from now, when the dust of the past two decades has settled and we all have children of our own, they will ask us, “Mommy, Daddy, how did Taylor Swift seamlessly maneuver from country darling to pop icon?” And the answer will be found in Red, which is the album when Swift most evenly rode that line, and the last one before she would return with 1989 to claim the pop star title she always deserved. But Red represents so much more, because its popularity and success also marked the moment when Taylor Swift became an unavoidable cultural force amongst my generation and a rife target for boys looking to put women down and feel superior.
In elementary school my classmates and I, newly exposed to the internet and its many forms of misogyny, spent our lunchtimes calling Justin Bieber gay and slut-shaming Taylor Swift, always crossing the lines towards more and more inappropriate and derogatory comments. We were way too young to know what ‘slut’ and other slurs meant and did not understand that these words are not harmless (That isn’t a valid excuse for this behavior, it is the truth). By middle school I was proudly calling myself a straight ally, but I was not yet over Taylor Swift, still wondering, “why does this chick keep singing about these boys that broke her heart? Who cares? Can she please shut up and stop whining?” In middle school, the cosmos of music revolved around the album Save Rock and Roll by Fall Out Boy. Swift was a satellite that crashed in my backyard every few years with a new hairstyle and sound. Over the years I developed strong attachments to artists like Kanye West whom I could never betray by liking a Taylor Swift song, and gravitated toward cool, underground, little-known indie bands like Radiohead and Neutral Milk Hotel whom were making what I referred to as “real music.” I even wrote an article last year about why I thought “Look What You Made Me Do” is a bad song (Though the song is clunky and awkward, the article mostly argues that it’s because she chose to diss Kanye West, an artist to whom I have more loyalty than I do to some of my close friends. Over the years I have followed Swift and West’s complicated relationship and have tried to understand her side of the story, but my empathy only extends so far).
Red deals specifically with Swift’s own history. The album contributes experiences from her real (and public) relationships to songs about heartbreak (“I Knew You Were Trouble”, All Too Well”, “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, “Red”), songs about volatile relationships careening toward heartbreak (“Treacherous”, “Stay Stay Stay”, “The Last Time”), and songs where she pretends she isn’t upset about her heartbreak (“22”, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). All things that involved vulnerability and I didn’t care for a few years ago.
The song “I Knew You Were Trouble” covers those first two categories well. When working in conjunction with the music video it becomes a microcosm for the rest of the album. The video finds Swift in a teenage fantasy of contemporary Bonnie & Clyde and classic Americana—bar fights with bikers, striking out West, and muscle cars leaving dry heat in their wake. But before the viewer can fully revel in the fleeting glory of her fantasy, she cuts these scenes between a rave (the site of their breakup) and the morning after the rave. She wanders through the literal wreckage of their relationship the morning after. Head down, clothes ripped, dirty and tired, this is Taylor Swift how we have never seen her before. But it’s hard to get a grip on any of this because these scenes, these memories, cut back and forth right when you get comfortable. In this kaleidoscope of memory, lust, love, fear, regret, and anger are a package deal. As we watch Swift stumble through the desert and listen to her wail through the electric guitars and wobbling bass, it begs a question that Swift attempts to answer throughout the album: Once you’ve been hurt on the inside, how do you stop hurting and heal? And will it ever stop? Middle school me did not care about questions like these, but high school me did.
In my last two years of high school I learned that relationships and emotions can be a big deal. Of course, that wasn’t all I learned. I learned about the the hunger for another body, and how it can consume your own, and how easy it is to come undone when the sun goes down, and about the mornings when sleep’s gossamer sticks to your brain and you can wrap your dreams in your arms and squeeze them into a shape resembling a person. I learned about the cycles your brain can get stuck in, and the weights you can feel trapped under, and the holes that you can dig for yourself. And Radiohead is cool, but they capture a more existential sadness, and don’t scratch the itch you get while crying in your car about a girl. So one night, while coming down from one of these episodes, I listened to Red.
Red started to make more sense as a piece of pop mythology: a collection of stories in the saga of who Swift dated, when, and why they’re no longer together. But like myths, pop songs can be instilled with lessons, promises of how to do better, and directions for how to get there. In Red, the listener must wait until the end for these things.
“Begin Again” is Red’s closer, and it’s a stark contrast from an album full of songs about passion that burns until it explodes. “Begin Again” is a piece of gentle folk pop about new love and the possibilities that come with it. While songs like “Red” and “Treacherous” find Swift falling into dangerous, fiery love affairs and ignoring the consequences, “Begin Again” finds her on a proper date. She and her date eat, talk about their favorite music, make each other laugh, and take things slow. In the music video, she wanders Paris on a spring morning before locking eyes with a boy across a cafe. The song ends with her starting anew, singing, “I’ve been spending the last eight months/Thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end/But on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again.” If the question that Red is leading us towards is “how do you salve heartbreak?” then she comes to us with an answer in this song: sometimes all you need is a quiet morning, the kind where you don’t regret what you said last night, or you can at least forgive yourself for what you did and didn’t do. Sometimes the only thing needed is a day when you can feel the cool morning air on your skin and your old lovers fading from your mind. All some of us need is the hope that there are kinder days coming. There are gentler people up the road. There are calmer days on the horizon.
So now I come with armfuls of apologies for so many things, but first for how I talked about Taylor Swift. Because for years I didn’t understand how Swift could write songs and entire albums about love and boys and other dangerous and painful things. But now I come to you now with a mouth full of praises, for I see the beauty in that. In keeping records of all the times you crashed like a muscle car against a wall, but picked yourself up in time for the last chorus. Of all times you were crying and screaming in the dirty aftermath you saw coming from the start. Of all the times you were young and thrashing against any standards or expectations. Of all the times you held onto a stranger and flew towards the sun despite knowing it would destroy you both. All this just to feel any kind of heat.
Remembering all this, because if in the end we are all just skin and blood and the stories others tell about us, then there is mercy in being able to hold in your hands everything you are, everything you were, and everything you can be.