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Just Kidding, Love Sucks

Notes on Taylor Swift
by Tavi Gevinson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Just Kidding, Love Sucks

Tavi Gevinson
26 Snaps

The general public has managed to make Taylor Swift’s greatest strength seem like her greatest weakness, and it makes me feel sad and angry and like people are really missing out on something great. By “general public” I mean email-hosting sites and sometimes Fancier Publications, and by her “greatest strength” I mean Taylor’s unique ability to focus in on one detail or exchange and magnify it completely in this way that makes it feel at once universal and deeply personal. I don’t want to devote too much of this holy ink and paper to haterz, but I do want to free your mind from any reservations about the Swift Power in order to fully prepare you for a MAGIC-CARPET ROLLER-COASTER RIDE across this CANDY LAND BOARD of a DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE from BRITAIN(= NOT LIKING TAYLOR SWIFT).

Swifties see the characteristic at hand for what it is: writing. Her songs are her point of view, making it her job to blow up the most minor event into something that more accurately represents the way she experienced it. As Tay quoted Neruda in her Red liner notes, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” This is basic Nabokov shit, right? Everything hits harder in memory. Everything changes color. Her first album will tell you she is a natural crusher, daydreamer, hopeless romantic. Obsessing over the briefest of encounters is what we do. She was just born to translate it for millions of people. And I don’t think her commercial responsibilities detract from her genuine passion for her craft. Have you ever watched her in interviews when she gets asked about her actual songwriting? She becomes that kid who’s really into the science fair. Her hands go crazy and she explains all the different categories she breaks emotions into and how they all have their own individual sounds. Then the interviewer totally doesn’t get it because it’s 60 Minutes and they were hoping for a pleasant little soundbite instead of, like, an Andrew Kuo–style verbalization of the human psyche. And Taylor smiles, perfectly aware she just weirded them out, perfectly aware it’s the same weirdness from which she pulls all these beautiful songs.

So the fact that people think they’re, like, Nancy Drew for claiming that none of her relationships have lasted long enough for her to be able to write a song about them really proves only that she has this uncanny talent for dressing up an experience until what happened matches how it felt. I don’t care that her relationships aren’t long-term—she’s a little busy running a goddamn empire! I don’t care if she only dates guys to write songs about them, like people say—she dates people, she writes songs about her life, naturally many of these songs are about people she’s dated, and many of them aren’t, as well. Mostly, basically: I DON’T CARE, I LOVE IT.

These are some of my favorites, severely edited down for word count. I almost didn’t want to publish it, because her music is so close to my heart, but I also really wanted to publish it because her music is so close to my heart. Please handle with care.

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Album: Taylor Swift

“Our Song”

Somewhere in the dark depths of deleted YouTube videos is a circa-sixth-grade recording of my childhood best friend and me singing this while I play guitar. Taylor’s one of the reasons I learned guitar (along with some vague image I had of ROCK STARS and PEOPLE IN COOL HATS), and I was very serious about imitating her country twang. While Taylor is not technically an exceptional vocalist on this first album, she knows exactly how to make each word sound on an emotional level. Her instincts are just right, her cadence is so her. Like, it’s not just that her ­lyrics perfectly match up with the music and together they accurately capture a certain emotion—you can also just hear it when she’s smiling, or looking up, or thinking. This, I would argue, is more important than technically good vocals, and it’s also very rare.

“Picture to Burn”

So much sass! Pickup trucks! Dads who are gonna beat up ex-boyfriends! I’LL TAKE IT.

“Stay Beautiful”

This song KILLS me because I only ever listened to it a few times way back when, which means rediscovering it was like seeing someone you didn’t even know you missed but you’re suddenly so grateful they’re in your life. The lyrics totally apply to young Taylor: “Don’t you know, you’re really gonna be someone. / Ask anyone.” UGHHH. I think I get so emotional listening to her first album because it’s just so heartening to think about where she was when she wrote these songs (lonely, bullied, awkward phase, bad at boys, country-music nerd) and where she is now (BFF to PLANET EARTH). She’s a prime example of how you can turn a middle-school-rooted inferiority complex into beautiful, relatable art. She’s like Chris Ware, except not, except totally.

“Should’ve Said No”

PERFECT for singalongs. There’s a great live performance where she starts out seated, wearing a black hoodie, angstily banging it out on a guitar and looking at the ground, and by the end she’s become this beautiful butterfly, like a really emotional deodorant commercial.

“Tied Together with a Smile”

Whenever people are like, “Ugh, ew, Taylor Swift, stop acting like you know pain when you are beautiful/famous/etc.,” I want to play them this song. It reminds me of really bad school hallway art of girls looking in mirrors and feeling sad but in a way that makes me love everyone and want everyone to love themselves.

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Album: Fearless

“Fearless”

This song is made for daydreaming; when I listen to it, it’s OK that I’m alone in my room and not with some boy, because I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. There’s a great liner note in this album where she says fearlessness isn’t being totally fearless, it’s owning up to having fears and being flawed and being OK with life anyway, which is sort of just like very basic Fiona Apple theory for twelve-year-olds.

“Fifteen”

I’m not going to touch on the feminist argument as it applies here (in short: girls who have sex “early” with people who don’t love them will feel broken afterward), because this album came out five years ago and since then she’s put out two albums that give a total seal of approval to sexytimes. Plus, I mean, these lines: “In your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team.” “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday but I’ve realized some bigger dreams of mine.” That blew my mind when I first heard it!

But I will touch on the feminism debate in general, because I am both a feminist and a seventeen-year-old girl who feels empowered by Taylor. I think the “fairy-tale-obsessed” and “slut-shaming” criticisms just aren’t relevant anymore, since there’s no hint of either on the latest album. As for her writing so much about boys, that’s just a lazy summary of her body of work. And, frankly, I would love for every girl to aspire to be Patti Smith, but for the ones who don’t relate to that, let them still have a role model who displays her own version of strength and does dole out some sage advice. As for her supposedly acting all weak and self-victimizing, I don’t think she acts that way at all. She’s just a gracious interviewee, a paranoid hard-worker, and a cautious prodigy. If you watched any of her tour movies (Journey to Fearless; Speak Now World Tour Live), you would see that she makes it pretty clear that she thinks she’s awesome and wants you to think you are also awesome. If you looked at any Swifty tumblrs, you would see that her young female fans admire her not because she seems weak and submissive, but because they admire her wit, her sense of humor, how much control she still has over what she does, and her passion for her fans and for making good music. From the Kathleen Hanna school of thought:

Some of the themes she writes about are stuff I wish was there for me when I was in high school, and I’m so happy she really cares about her female fans. She’s not catering to a male audience and is writing music for other girls. I don’t care if she calls herself a feminist or not. There is something that she’s doing that feels feminist to me in that she really seems to have a lot of control over what her career is doing.

“Love Story”

Taylor’s parents wouldn’t let her date some guy, so she stomped into her room and wrote this in twenty minutes. The intro sounds like footsteps and whispers and secrets in the woods. 

“White Horse”

Seriously important to this album as her moment of being like, “Maybe the fairy-tale Romeo and Juliet shit doesn’t always happen and maybe other things will make me happy?” (Paraphrasing.) The whole song swings between her blaming herself and her wild heart to her being like, “Wait, maybe I can go have my own life now.” Essential counter to the songs of hers that are just total fairy-tale lovefests.

“Forever and Always”

This was introduced on her Fear­less tour with a video of her giving an interview, and the interviewer asking her, “Why do you think any guy is going to date you?” and Taylor saying, “If guys don’t want me to write bad songs about them, then they shouldn’t do bad things.” Then she and the interviewer rise from below the stage on a platform, and Taylor says, “No more questions!” and THROWS A FUCKING GIANT RED CENTRAL PERK ARMCHAIR OFF THE PLATFORM. Then the phrase “They shouldn’t do bad things” shows up, like, eighty times on each Jumbotron.

“You Belong with Me”

I once listened to this song on repeat while driving to Michigan with my family and it was the kind of melancholy that you’re secretly so into despite fully committing to the vignette of an angry teen wearing headphones in the backseat of a minivan.

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Album: Speak Now

“Sparks Fly”

If Britney or anyone who we think of as damaged by pop-star sexytimes-repression had just been allowed one song with the hormonal power of “Sparks Fly,” they might have turned out OK.  “Drop everything now. / Meet me in the pouring rain.” “Give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around.” Staaahhhhhp! (Sidenote: recently I’ve been writing out, color-coding, and diagramming Stevie Nicks lyrics, and there are a LOT of similar motifs between hers and Taylor’s.)

“Back to December”

I used to listen to this song ALL THE TIMEEEE. Sad and powerful and guhhhhh. Also a good example of her taking the blame for a relationship ending even though the common misconception is that she always blames the guy.

“Speak Now”

Next time you are stressed out just listen to this stoned and you will be OK because there have been times when listening to Taylor Swift stoned was the only thing keeping me from becoming a combination of Vincent Gallo and both Edie Beales. P.S.: don’t do drugs. P.P.S.: you are probably older than me and can do whatever you want and thank you for reading this article.

“Dear John”

Has there ever been a revenge love song that cuts this deeply? It has the equal parts classy and witchy SECRET BITE I love so much about her. I mean, come ON: “All of the girls that you’ve run dry / have tired, lifeless eyes / ’cause you’ve burned them out. / But I stole your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now, / I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town.” The imagery! The metaphor she draws out as long as possible before it just explodes in a moment of triumph! This song is one of her absolute best, lyrically. Another ingenious layer to this one: John Mayer–esque guitar farts in the background. (It is about John Mayer.) 

Oh, and she said this is the one where, when she looks out during her tour, girls are crying the most. How did she write a song that’s both such a GIANT BURN to her ex AND a victory bonding moment for girls who have been in toxic relationships?

“Mean”

Famously wrote this after a critic turned his back on her and people get mad that she seems to victimize herself in it but HER ART IS HER TRUTH, MAN, JUST LAY OFF.

“The Story of Us”

Listening to this song is the only time I can ever see myself fist-pumping.

“Enchanted”

The very beginning shows how aware she is about the bullshit parts of her job, though she never sounds like she’s whining about how hard it is to be famuzz. “There I was again tonight, / forcing laughter, faking smiles. / Same old tired, lonely place.” Then, what’s this? A fixation on a flirtation as a creative way to distract from the mundanity of the Kids’ Choice Awards or whatever toilet flush of stupidity was going down at the time? “Your eyes whispered, ‘Have we met?’ / Across the room, your silhouette / starts to make its way to me.” At last, the chorus just SLAYS ME: “This night is sparkling, / don’t you let it go. / I’m wonderstruck, / blushing all the way home. / I’ll spend forever / wondering if you knew / I was enchanted to meet you.” God, just typing it out makes me remember hearing it for the first time and feeling like absolutely nothing else in the world existed or mattered. SO jealous if it’s new for you.

“Long Live”

This was my number one before Red. The way you can hear her smiling when she says, “You traded your baseball cap for a crown.” The simultaneous football homecoming victory/fairy-tale king-and-queen imagery. The joy that must exist in the world when she plays this live, as she wrote it for her band and fans.

“If This Was a Movie”

Another cathartic moment of her sort of questioning her own daydreams.

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Album: Red

“State of Grace”

“We are alone, just you and me, / up in your room and our slates are clean. /
Just twin fire signs, / four blue eyes.” By the end of this album you will have a complete visualization of her world.

“Treacherous”

The hopeful and in-love energy is at “Sparks Fly” levels of intensity. Almost too much for me to handle. “Put your lips close to mine /as long as they don’t touch. / Out of focus, eye-to-eye, / till the gravity’s too much.” Every time I hear this line I just shake my head repeatedly until I feel I know what it’s like to be a .gif.

“I Knew You Were Trouble.”

Like “Forever and Always,” begins with the lyric “Once upon a time” and goes on to be like “JUST KIDDING, LOVE SUCKS,” only this one is in 4-D and with dubstep.

“All Too Well”

“You call me up again just to break me like a promise. / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” Aiiiieeee! The song’s structure, the visuals, EVERYTHING IS PERFECT. She revives a Stevie-esque “Did I scare you with my FEELINGS and my HONESTY?” kind of haunting (daunting? taunting? all of them?) challenge that makes me feel less bad about my bad feelings. From her recent Vanity Fair interview:

For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.

“22”

OMG OMG OMG. Perfect “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”–type jam about going out with your friends and dancing and flirting haaaaay.
I wanna jump around to it all the time. Also: “It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters.” WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? Whatever,
I totally get it on a cosmic level.

“I Almost Do”

Classic cinematic walk-in-the-rain Taylor goodness.

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” 

ALREADY EASILY ONE OF THE BEST POP SONGS OF ALL TIME OF ALL TIME. Here’s where she’s like, “I know I’m not some fucking hip, tortured indie artist and also I don’t care, OK, cool”: “I’m really gonna miss you picking fights, and me / falling for it, screaming that I’m right, and you / would hide away and find your peace of mind, with some / indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”
I reeeeally didn’t want to bring any exes’ names into this—her music is more enjoyable when all that gossip is ignored—but apparently this song is about Jake Gyllenhaal and I can just so see Donnie Darko being like, “Can’t you see how FUCKED UP the world is, man? I don’t have time for your bullshit teen tiger beats!” Wait—OMG—is this why there are furries in the music video? TAYLOR, YOU CARD. I hated Donnie Darko so much that I looked it up on Facebook to see which of my friends liked it and then silently judged them and then probably got food and went to sleep.

“Stay Stay Stay”

“I just like hanging out with you / all the time.” Taylor is a big fan of Girls and I wouldn’t be surprised if this song was inspired somehow by the speech Hannah delivers at Adam’s door in the fourth episode of season one. I also think this song shows her sense of humor about herself and her own lovesickness/crazy-­­girlfriend-ness: “I threw my phone across the room at you” is sung so cheerfully! Over, what, a ukulele?! All-around delightful. The very beginning sounds like some happy commercial with cartoons bouncing around because it’s spring and you need new laundry detergent or something.

“Holy Ground”

This feels like drinking every energy drink at every gas station from every Lana Del Rey song ever. By the end it has a “Long Live”–esque kind of HUZZAH feel that I’m sure will make it amazing in concert.

“Sad Beautiful Tragic”

HER VOICE. All of it. So delicate and fragile and then the bridge is absolutely heartbreaking. “Could you just try to listen?” kills me.

“The Lucky One”

Taylor is a smartypants about fame some more.

“Everything Has Changed”

The little bit about the butterflies is just perfect. The whole thing is perfect. This is a perfect song.

“Begin Again”

“He didn’t like it when I wore high heels. / But I do.” This is the last track on the album, like her parting words with us are just an FYI that she’s growing up and she does things for herself now and she’s BEGINNING AGAIN and changing. In “You Belong with Me,” from ye olde Fearless phase, she goes, “She wears high heels, / I wear sneakers.” I feel like now she’s established herself as both a sneaker-wearer and a high-heels-wearer and I am totally cool with that. Beautiful and famous and good at performing, but capable of feeling lonely and small, and unafraid to talk about it.

*

One of my most passionate waves of TS love hit when I had been working for thirty hours straight without sleep and just wanted something that was so HIGH SCHOOL and NORMSIES and made me feel part of that demented girl culture that I was left out of in middle school because I looked like a boy/grandma and that I eventually stopped wanting because It Gets Better™ but that I still desire in a corner of my soul when I’m doing my adult job. This is not supposed to read like one of those weird side comments people make for pity, because #WritingAnArticleAboutTaylorSwiftForTheBeliever #Summer2013 #NoRegrets. But for a long time, I did use her music to feel part of a teen experience that I just wasn’t meant for, and to feel connected to something so many people like in this way I had become rather opposed to due to my own middle-school inferiority complex. Those first three albums helped me believe I was still someone who could relate to something that had no irony to it, who could genuinely enjoy a completely earnest expression of desire and love. Letting myself geek out over Taylor’s music was legit good for my mental health.

In the time since then, however, two things have happened and fucked me over completely. For one, I embarked on a relationship with a person I love, meeting my once-harmless wistfulness with a scary, real thing that I care about. For another, Red was released—an album free of any fairy-tale bedazzlement, set outside the high-school vacuum of the other three, sung in screams and whispers and nothing in between. It’s not daydream material; it hits too hard. It’s not just catchy chemical power satisfying my perpetually slight yearning for an adolescence I just wasn’t cut out for; it’s a musical manifestation of my very own brain and soul and blood and tears.

It almost makes me angry, having to deal with these dumb, real feelings now. I feel like a Kevin James character, middle-aged and moderately depressed because I thought I was just picking up a lady at a sports bar but we ended up getting married instead. I feel like TAYLOR SWIFT HERSELF dated me and “tricked” me into staying in it long enough for a relationship and then wrote a song about me that GETS ME COMPLETELY, whether I like it or not.

But one thing you become shockingly OK with when you do reach this scarier understanding of the music of Taylor Swift is these dumb, real feelings. You start to see each one, no matter how painful, as just another layer of your emotional spectrum, another experience, another inexplicable circumstance valuable in itself because it’s another thing you get to feel. It is suggested, perhaps, that her music is less about being in love or mourning the loss thereof, but how incredible it is that we can know what it’s like to have these emotions at all.

This facet of Taylor Swift’s strength I spoke of four thousand words ago, the most heart-stopping one of all, can be best summarized with this sentence from a letter Frida Kahlo wrote Diego Rivera: “It’s not love, or tenderness, or affection, it’s life itself.”

Long live.

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