What one Major Swiftie Thought of Miss Americana

Like most Swifties with Netflix access, I watched the long-awaited Miss Americana yesterday. Sipping from my Taylor Swift mug, I watched the 1.5 hour doc, directed by Lana Wilson, with my sister (another Taytay fan), my boyfriend (a Swiftie now as well), and a few of my roommates (who mostly watched while multitasking). After the documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot about who watches Miss Americana, and how your position in the Swiftverse influences the ways in which you receive the doc. How does the doc speak to you if you’re already a massive Swiftie who knows a lot about Taylor’s rise to fame and what she’s been through this past decade? If you’re a casual listener of her music and mostly know the hits like “Love Story” and “Shake It Off”? If you’re just watching because you happen to live with someone who really cares about Taylor Swift? If you are politically active—as a conservative? A liberal? A socialist? Although Miss Americana moves chronologically through Taylor’s formative years, the doc ultimately wants to tell us more about what’s next for the star: Miss Americana is the portrait of the artist as a young activist.

The documentary is titled “Miss Americana,” which feels fitting; it is a reference to a track from Lover that borrows a high school setting to make larger claims about national disillusionment and the importance of finding love amidst political chaos. The song is probably one of Taylor’s most close-readable songs; Swifties and non-Swifties alike wonder, who’s Miss Americana? And who is the heartbreak prince? A few weeks ago, Kevin sat me down and we went through the song line-by-line as he asked these very questions.

Well, one thing that we can agree on is that Miss Americana represents Taylor here. “Americana” refers not only to “things associated with the culture and history of America,” but is also a musical umbrella-term that encompasses folk, gospel, bluegrass, country, and other music traditions. To be “Miss Americana,” you have to reflect America-ness in some way. You have to be America’s sweetheart.

But what makes America “Americana” when the country is so divided? In 2016, when presidential election day came round and the country was presented with two options—Hillary Clinton and Trump—whomever you voted for said something about what you believed (or wanted to believe) about America.

Until 2018, Taylor had remained infamously quiet about her politics. So quiet that neo-Nazis decided she was their “Aryan goddess.” It didn’t help that Taylor had released an album called “RED” and turned the color into her aesthetic for a year. Or that she’s a wealthy, white, straight woman who grew up on a Christmas tree farm.

For so much of her life, Taylor was taught that “a nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you; a nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” And it is precisely Taylor’s niceness that has made her a role model to so many. Growing up, I remember how Taylor was always presented by the media as the exemplar superstar; the one who is close to her family and takes tons of photos with fans and doesn’t ever stir up drama. This is in sharp contrast with some of her peers; in 2008 and 2007 respectively, Miley Cyrus was criticized for posing nearly topless in Vanity Fair while Vanessa Hudgens was dealing with a nude photo leak. If you were paying attention to teenage pop culture at this time, you’d know that 2007/8 was when Taylor was recording Fearless, which debuted at the end of 2008 and propelled her into worldwide fame. As a young kid, you listen to “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “White Horse,” etc., and decide to let go of your former idols, Hannah Montana and Gabriella Montez. The new nice girl in town is Taylor Swift.

Taylor begins the doc by telling us that all she ever wanted to be was a nice girl. Someone good. She should know that her kindness and empathy is what makes her fans (at least me) love her so much. But, as Taylor admits, her own desire to play the role of good-girl Miss Americana came back to bite her in unexpected ways. One of the pivotal moments in the doc (and in Taylor’s life) is when (trump-supporter) Kanye West and Kim Kardashian turn the world against Taylor by releasing “evidence” that Taylor gave Kanye permission to call her a bitch in his song, “Famous.” These are dark times I remember well. It felt like all of a sudden, people who were just waiting for an opportunity to hate Taylor Swift came out to say, “Aha! I knew it! There’s no way you could possibly be so good and innocent. You’re a snake.” People were fed up with Taylor’s nice-girl image, her popularity, her attractive boyfriends, her inability to mess up. Her blunder with Kanye proved that she was not only a good girl who effed up, but a good girl who was never so good to begin with.

What’s happening here is not just that haters are gonna hate. People turned on Taylor not just because they were mean-spirited or jealous. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this drama ensued in 2016, a time when the “goodness” of America was thrown into question after November. Why did people turn on Taylor Swift? Why didn’t enough people vote for Hillary Clinton? Both are instances that involved a disbelief in the “good” of Americana. Oh, Taylor Swift isn’t who you thought she was? Well, neither is America.

Taylor has said some very enlightening things about why she didn’t endorse Hillary in 2016, notably in an interview with Vogue:

“The summer before that election, all people were saying [about me] was She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,” Swift said. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.”

What’s unspoken here is that Hillary’s top celebrity-endorser at the time was Katy Perry, with whom Taylor was still infamously beefing with in 2016 (according to the public eye), so Taylor’s involvement in Hillary’s campaign would have caused another host of problems. But Taylor is right; she was unpopular in 2016. And her team wouldn’t want that unpopularity to spread further, particularly not to the election.

In the doc, Taylor tells us that women in the music industry have to constantly reinvent themselves to become “interesting,” or else they become disposable. Indeed, Taylor has been doing this her entire career; going from country sweetheart in Nashville to pop icon in New York. But Miss Americana is about Taylor reinventing herself in a new and more important way; as a politically-vocal artist.

If you want to watch “Miss Americana” to know how “Shake It Off” was made, forget it. As Taylor says in the doc in a tearful scene, it “just feels like it’s more than music now at this point.” One of the best scenes in the doc is her posting her Instagram post about elections, in effect coming out as a democrat (personally, I always knew she was a democrat and I find the Aryan-goddess theories ridiculous):

Credit: https://tayorswift.tumblr.com/post/190577760681/i-wanna-do-this-okay-so-i-always-have-to-bring

The scenes where she talks about the lessons she’s had to learn along the way are by far the most impactful moments in the doc. For example, when she says:

“I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people and deprogram the misogyny in my own brain. There is no such thing as a slut, as a bitch, as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss. We don’t wanna be condemned for being multifaceted.”

And my favorite:

“I wanna love glitter, and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I wanna wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics. I don’t think those things have to cancel each other out.”

You might be asking, is Taylor Swift “woke” now? And you might be saying, “well if so, she’s late to the party.” But, look around you; clearly, the world is not woke (whatever that means). Miss Americana shows one of the planet’s biggest superstars doing what we should all be doing, i.e. continuously educating ourselves, recognizing our own hypocrisy, and speaking up for what we believe in. Taylor laments towards the end of the doc that she feels as if she were frozen at the age she got famous. A number of tough wake-up calls in her life, from the Kanye incident to her sexual assault case in 2017 to her mom’s ongoing battle with cancer, forced her to reassess everything around her. Taylor is famous for writing about heartbreak, but the “heartbreak prince” in her song represents another kind of heartbreak: one that exposes the pain that the country you call home. A recurring claim Taylor makes in the film is that Marsha Blackburn’s values are not the “Tennessee Christian Values” the American people stands for. And yet, Blackburn was still elected as senator. An important message that this film conveys (and I haven’t seen anyone say this yet) is that to many people in Tennessee, clearly, Marsha Blackburn is their Miss Americana. All this goes to show that, despite how clear-cut the doc is about what Taylor believes in, America is still rife with divisions and disillusionment.

I expected that I’d tear up in the doc when Taylor spoke about her political awakening, or about her mom’s cancer. But actually, the moment that truly got me (and I feel so emotional typing this still) is the rare scenes of her with Joe Alwyn:

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Miss Americana, both the song and the movie, are about political despair. But they are ALSO about love; “finding happiness without anyone else’s input.” As someone who has Taylor’s entire discography essentially memorized, I know how much Joe (true love) means to her. It’s not only trauma, but also the love in Taylor’s life that has empowered her to find her own voice. And I think that’s beautiful. The doc shows a number of scenes that are obviously filmed by Joe, in effect making him another cinematographer helping to tell her story. The decision to include his gaze (not so much the male gaze but the lover’s gaze) in the film alongside Lana’s shows that we’re seeing Taylor not only through the eyes of “her team,” but also her family. The doc focuses so much on Taylor’s political awakening, but don’t forget that Taylor Swift—before she became Taylor Swift The Activist—was (and is) Taylor Swift the Love Guru. I don’t want her to think that songs such as “Miss Americana,” “YNTCD” and “Only the Young” carry greater gravitas than “Call it What You Want” or “Cornelia Street.” I hope she knows that her voice, no matter what she is using it for, has and will always be of profound importance to those who care about her.

If left to my own devices, I could easily continue to work on this piece until it is book-length but I’m gonna try and wrap it up, lol.

Parts of the doc that I really appreciated, apart from the aforementioned, include: Taylor swearing (we love to see it), Tree Paine being supportive (Tree is Taylor’s publicist and I love her), Taylor eating a burrito and talking about how she had her first burrito in her late 20s (I, too, arrived at burritos late in life), the montage that shows Taylor talking about her conception for the ME! video and the actual filming of it (it was nice to see directorial decisions in the doc), the dinner scene with Abigail (in general, I liked seeing Taylor’s friends make lil cameos in the movie; e.g. Claire Winter and Ashley Avignone), the cat backpack (the funny moments of this doc were peak), her arguments with her dad about politics (heartbreaking tho), her self-deprecating humor (which is well-known among Swifties), the scenes with her mom (love Andrea Swift)…

I didn’t walk away from the doc feeling jubilant, though (as this review might make clear already). In fact, I think the doc actually makes one feel rather sad about the way in which fame and public scrutiny can really affect one’s self-perception and mental health. After I finished watching the documentary I didn’t quite know how to feel for a while. I didn’t reaaaallllyyy like the way in which the documentary was interspliced with “Age 23, ” “Age 25” markers, for instance. If they wanted to divide it up in that way, I would’ve almost preferred they included more information (e.g. “RED era”). Aesthetically, I didn’t really like the white-font-on-black-background look.

Similarly, I thought the doc included way too much footage from reporters. Like, waaaayyy tooo much (loads of which I’d already seen before, but then again, I arrive at this doc with 12 years of experience). The fact that this footage predominantly appeared in the first half made me think that maybe it was a directorial/artistic decision to show us how everything we know about Taylor comes from public judgment. But I felt that an over-reliance on media to tell Taylor’s story actually does her a great disservice. The whole doc is about how she wants to shape her own narrative and tell us her own truth. So why is SO much of the film filled with other people telling us about her? Esp. people from the past? I almost wish that we saw her family/friends tell us about her instead; I would’ve wanted to see original content, not rehashing of old footage. I guess a big reason for this is that the doc primarily wants to tell you about Taylor’s political present/future, not necessarily what she was like as a kid (they’re saving that angle for the next doc in like 15 years, I think). But, it was a bit unnerving to see the first ~6 years of Taylor’s career practically narrated to us by reporters/journalists, whereas Taylor has always told us about her life through music. In some ways, music wasn’t really the focus-focus of the doc, even though we certainly see and hear a lot of it. Did we really need to see that much Marsha Blackburn (I guess yes, if you buy my earlier argument about the 2 Miss Americanas)? In some ways, Miss Americana felt a bit like a collage. As I mentioned earlier, I liked moments in the doc where you could see the director making her own editing choices (e.g. the montage). But the viewing experience is drastically altered when many of the clips comprise of news recordings, many of which take place in the past. Tellingly, two reporters who are featured criticizing Taylor have since come out to apologize for their words (as well as express surprise at their cameos in the film). I kinda wonder how many people they had to get “permission” from to use footage. But I guess it’s as Taylor said; it’s about more than just the music now.

All in all, I love Taylor. I love how much the documentary allows us to see what’s important to her, and also what’s important to America. I’m happy for Taylor, and feel extremely lucky to be alive at the same time as her. Here’s to seeing what Miss Americana does next!

Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street… #7YearsofRed

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7 years ago today, Taylor Swift’s best album—RED—was released. RED is a masterpiece, and it seems like critics are only realizing that now; on the recent best-songs-of-the-century listicles that have cropped up, RED has certainly been having a moment. In particular, “All Too Well” is finally getting the recognition it deserves (#57 on Pitchfork, #29 on Rolling Stones). I believe the reputation stadium tour had something to do with this glow-up, too; the song’s acoustic performances truly shed light on its exemplary songwriting and emotional magnitude. And as autumn turns leaves burning red all around us, RED is the perfect seasonal album to listen to on repeat.

When RED first came out, I didn’t give it enough love. But in recent years, the album has grown to become one of my favorites. So, on the 7-year anniversary of RED, I’d like to write this track-by-track appreciation post for the album—and suggest some new ways to think about/listen to the songs today, especially in light of Lover.

Here we go!

State of Grace A lyrical masterpiece and pop/rock/country hybrid, “State of Grace” is the perfect opening track. I personally think it’s her best opening track ever (maybe tied with “Fearless”). Listening to the song post-Lover, certain words jump out at me more: traffic lights, blue, golden. Notice how these are all color-related terms? On an album titled after a color, this opening track also asks us to think about “shades of wrong,” a “mosaic [of] broken hearts.” The affinities between RED and Lover are strong and certainly intentional, given how Taylor has also been performing songs from RED in recent live performances (“All Too Well” on NPR, “Holy Ground” on BBC Live Lounge, and she totally name-dropped “Treacherous” on Jimmy Fallon).
* Listen to the acoustic version of this song!

Red – Who doesn’t love a good TITLE TRACK? On “Red,” we go to simile/metaphor land and it’s amazing. “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street…” It’s amazing how the color red permeates the first verse without even appearing in it. Taylor saves the word “red” for the last line of the chorus, where it counts: “Loving him was red.” The song is beautifully synesthetic, in that all the emotions Taylor describes in words (eloquent as the are) are eventually best described through splashes of color. The pop/country crossover feeling on this song is also especially strong.
* In this song, “losing him was blue” and love is “burning red.” On Lover, however, Taylor often associates blue with love instead (in Paper Rings). Also, she directly references “Red” in “Daylight:” “I once believed love would be (burning red) / But it’s golden / Like daylight.” Talk about a glow-up!!

Treacherous – I think of “Treacherous” as the spiritual predecessor to “I Did Something Bad” from reputation, and the fact that both songs are Track 3 might confirm this theory…it’s the first ballad on the album, and its lyrics are haunting: “all we are is skin and bone / trained to get along.” Wow.
*The secret message in this song (hidden in the lyric booklet) alludes to The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition.” Perhaps listen to both songs side by side and see what you find?

I Knew You Were Trouble This is Taylor’s first song with a bass drop, and that fact in and of itself already makes the song pretty legendary. IKYWT was a major milestone for Taylor, both in terms of genre cross-pollination and audience reach. Taylor x Dubstep is a combination that not many realized they needed…until this song dropped. The music video very much leans into this feeling, too. When Taylor debuted pink hair in the Lover area, many also immediately thought of her pink hair in the video. IKYWT is one of a kind in Taylor’s early discography. This is not to say, however, that nothing else on the album sounds like IKYWT; the “me-e-e-e-e” rhythm in the song echoes the “re-e-e-e-d” vocal patterning in Track 2.
*You’ve heard the “goat” remix of this song, but have you seen Tom Holland’s take??

All Too Well where do I begin with this song, Taylor’s chef d’oeuvre? The longest song in Taylor’s discography (it would have been longer if she hadn’t cut the 10-min version), “All Too Well” is treasured, beloved, worshipped among Swifties. Lately, I can’t stop listening to it on repeat when I’m running. The song boasts Taylor’s best musical arc, arguably best lyrics, and most moving narrative. It all starts with a scarf that is introduced in the first verse and returns at the end: “you keep my old scarf / from that very first week.” Like a scarf, the song is composed of similar patterns and loops in a way that makes the song stronger with each iteration. Taylor wrote the song to get over a bad, bad breakup, the way you’d reach for a scarf to warm you. There are lyrics in this song that are among my all-time favorite lines, one of them being: “we’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” I mean, WOW. Also: “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.” The parallel between pieces and picture?? Also, the way “red” appears in this song is sublime; “you almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over at me,” “your cheeks were turning red.” Also, the bridge in this song is just unbelievable. “Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / ‘Til you tore it all up.” Well, one thing is clear. “All Too Well” is a masterpiece, and no one is tearing it up!!

22 Earlier this year, I wrote a longer essay about turning 22 vis à vis this song. “15” and “22” are the two age-songs in Taylor’s oeuvre, so “22” has always held a special place in my heart. It’s one of the poppiest songs on the album and, like IKYWT, has a “viral” charm. “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling twenty two-oo” is a line that sticks both melodically and lyrically. You can count on the song being blasted at 22-year-old birthday parties. It’s also one of the songs on this album that is deliberately self-deprecatory; in one of the verses, you hear a voice in the background going, “Who’s Taylor Swift, anyway? Ew.” Taylor’s knack for poking fun at herself will reemerge two songs later, and is also the kind of energy that made “Shake it Off” from her next album one of her biggest hits ever. “22” is a song that embraces the ups and downs—”We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time”—and is thus a timeless hit, whether you are 22 or not.
*Did you know? The girls in the “22” music video are Taylor’s real-life best friends.

I Almost Do – An underrated song on the album, “I Almost Do” is about the difficulty of getting over someone, the instinctual reaching for the phone. Sandwiched between two songs that sound pretty defiant, “I Almost Do” is one of the most vulnerable, honest songs on RED.
*I think of “I Almost Do,” Treacherous,” and “The Moment I Knew” as being part of the same trio.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – More commonly referred to as “WANEGBT” in the Swiftie fandom, this song was the first single to be released—and, in some ways, also the “odd one out” in the album. WANEGBT doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album; a single-release strategy that Taylor is known for (see: the release of “ME!” as her debut for the Lover era). But “WANEGBT” is a powerful blast of pop, which does foreground the pop influence in this album. “You would hide away and find your peace of mind / with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings to her ex in this song, as if noting the genre characterization of her album. The shake-it-off energy in this song also carries much powerful-woman energy, which Taylor completely exuded in the RED era—from her outfits to her red lipstick to her skyrocketing fame.
* “WANEGBT” is a power move. Listen to it alongside “The Man” for some perspective!

Stay Stay Stay – Here’s the cutest song on the album, and for some people, it’s a little too cute—but I love the quick lyrics and iteration in the song. It’s a perfect ukulele jam. Taylor didn’t write this song about a relationship she was in, but about relationships she observed—the kind of love she hoped to find, the kind of love she sings about in “Lover.” My favorite line is probably, “you came in wearing a football helmet and said ‘okay, let’s talk.'”
*If you liked this song, you’ll also like “Paper Rings,” and vice versa!

The Last Time (ft. Gary Lightbody) – Without a doubt, this is Taylor’s most heartbreaking ballad, and one of the most emotional songs on this album. I find the harmonies in this track amazing, and something about Gary’s voice lends this song an indie quality. I particularly like how the word “me” quavers leading up to the chorus.
*If you haven’t seen this song performed live yet, head over here!

Holy Ground – Another lyrical showstopper, “Holy Ground” has some of the best lines on the album: “back when you fit in my poems like a perfect rhyme,” “spinning like a girl in a brand new dress”… the drumbeat that propels this song makes it soar. It’s a song that forgoes regret and instead thinks of the territory of a past relationship as being holy. A number of Tay’s songs draw upon religious imagery, and I love how we get it in subtle ways in this album, with “State of Grace” and this track.
*Listen to Taylor’s 2019 update of the song here, as performed on BBC Live Lounge.

Sad Beautiful Tragic Another slow ballad on the album, this song is a trio-of-adjectives and feels like the melancholy parallel of “22.” Instead of the bop that is “happy/free/confused/lonely,” we’re in the nostalgic realm of sad/beautiful/tragic. The heartbreak in the following line is palpable: “time is taking its sweet time erasing you.” The ukulele/riff in this song really shapes its entire emotional arc.
*Try listening to this song with earphones in, paying attention only to the riff. I promise it will hit different.

The Lucky One – In this song, Taylor gets incredibly candid about fortune and fame. What’s it like to be so luckily loved by so many fans, and yet have a “lover in the foyer” who “doesn’t even know you”? It’s a song that gets real: ” you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place.” And yet, it’s also a song that recognizes the double sides of being “lucky;” it’s both lucky to have your name up in lights, and also lucky to be someone who can get out unscathed, dignity intact. Thinking about the way Taylor values her privacy now, I think she’s figuring it out what it means to be truly “the lucky one.”
*The word “lover,” apart from appearing in “Lover,” also appears in this song!

Everything Has Changed (ft. Ed Sheeran) – The collaboration that gave rise to the Ed/Taylor friendship, this song is one of my favorite duets that Taylor has ever done. It’s lovely and sweeping, and the chorus is triumphant. The collab also feels totally natural; it makes complete sense that two of our generation’s best songwriters would put their guitar-plucking skills together to make something happen. It’s also a triumph to go from a song like “Sad Beautiful Tragic” to “Everything Has Changed,” a narrative about the tables turning. Fall is a time of change and this song highlights the particularly beautiful, falling-headfirst kind.
*If you’re already familiar with this song, you’ll certainly want to visit its original lyrics, which are more wordy but also delightfully detailed.

Starlight Taylor wrote this song about Ethel Kennedy (and she liked it), which I think is pretty cool. It’s another track on the record that feels distinctly poppy and sparkly, which befits its title. I love songs that Taylor writes based on other people’s stories; she does something similar in Lover with “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” but in “Starlight” you get the most exquisite details.
*Listen to her cover of “Untouchable,” another starry song.

Begin Again – What a perfect way to close the album; by suggesting a return to form, a renewal of love. Taylor’s most narratively-cohesive songs master the “loop” structure: see “All Too Well,” “Tim McGraw,” Our Song,” Love Story,” etc. They end the way they begin. The idea of new beginnings seems to always come at the end of a Taylor album—the final tracks, such as “New Year’s Day” and “Daylight,” all suggest revival. Perhaps the prettiest and most delicate song on the album, “Begin Again” is what autumn feels like: crisp air, a new start, revisited memories.
*Fun fact: Katy Perry loves this song and added it to her playlist recently. In the year 2019, Katy and Taylor are friends again.

The three tracks on the Deluxe version of RED are “The Moment I Knew,” “Come Back…Be Here,” and “Girl At Home.” Each of them could have belonged naturally on the album, and in many ways, all of them have become canonical (I particularly like “Come Back…Be Here”).

But that’s all I’ll say for now. Happy listening to RED. ❤️

Now I See Daylight: Lover is Taylor Swift’s Brightest Glow-Up

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The musical event of my year transpired last night when Taylor Swift released her hotly anticipated 7th studio album, Lover. It’s Taylor’s 13th year in the game, my 11th year as a Swiftie, and we’ve both never been better. After dancing/crying/listening to Lover since last night, I’m finally ready to write my review of this triumphant, exuberant pop masterpiece.

It’s been a whirlwind past few months, from five holes in the fence to the star-studded, not-without-controversy YNTCD to the gorgeous title track that is “Lover.” As always, Taylor and her team have orchestrated a business-savvy album roll-out, complete with an elaborate, year-long, Easter Egg hunt. There is always much speculation about a Taylor Swift album, and a marketing campaign structured around clues is a smart way of creating the speculation, shifting listeners’ attention somewhere productive; in this case, re-watching the “ME!” music video over and over to catch all the eggs and amp up the video’s views. But to hear Lover in its entirety at the end of an Easter Egg journey is ultimately rewarding and intimate. “I am an architect, I’m drawing up the plans,” sings Taylor in “I Think He Knows.” The Lover era confirms her skills as a powerful architect; she builds speculation, constructs masterful bridges (she really went to “bridge city” with many songs on this album), and shows no signs of stopping.

The opening track, “I Forgot You Existed,” is an understated earworm that essentially bids the reputation era (and the Kimye drama of 2016) adieu. It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference,” Taylor shrugs. Vocally, the song has a colloquial quality; throughout, Taylor speaks, laughs, even trails off. It’s the equivalent of the throat-clearing that launched Track 1 of reputation, “Ready For It.” The first and essentially last song about “drama” on Lover, “I Forgot You Existed” clears the path for the 17 raw, emotional tracks to come.

The immediate next track, “Cruel Summer,” is an absolute pop-bop that immediately takes us to the higher register (Taylor in soprano-mode is sublime). It’s likely the next single (Tay teased the title in the YNTCD video and in a recent Amazon ad). This is the first song on the album that takes us to BRIDGE CITY—Tay practically screams “he looks up, grinning like a devil” in the bridge, and it’s amazing. We get to hear several New Taylor Sounds in this album, and it’s a lovely surprise each time. The saxophone that opens “False God” and the way Tay sings “lo-o-o-o-ve” in the chorus prove that it’s all in the details. Structurally, the song staggers the lyrics in the chorus, such that each bleeds into the next (“Religion’s in your lips / Even if it’s a false god.” The religious imagery in Taylor’s past two albums is fascinating). Something similar happens, with even more syncopation (and brass!), in “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” which is the grown-up, dreamier version of “Mary’s Song.” Speaking of the debut album, the way Taylor sings the bridge of “Cornelia Street” (“Barefoot in the kitchen…”) sounds just like the chorus of “Invisible.” Are these callbacks to her debut album coincidental? Knowing Taylor, likely not.

Indeed, many moments in Lover remind us that the old Taylor is far from dead, as she previously proclaimed in LWYMMD. “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” makes a direct reference to Tay’s song from the Hannah Montana movie (I looove “Crazier”), and in “Daylight” she sings that she used to think of love as being “burning red,” a lyric from “Red.” And Track 12 of Lover, “Soon You’ll Get Better,” is like Track 12 of Fearless, “The Best Day” (one of my all-time favs)—both are songs about Taylor’s mom, Andrea Swift, who is currently battling cancer. “Soon You’ll Get Better” is the album’s #1 tear-jerker, and features Andrea’s favorite band, The Dixie Chicks. It’s the closest thing to country on the album.  

But on Lover, we are undeniably listening to a new Taylor who brings the storytelling traditions of country into the energetic world of pop. This Taylor writes about love from a stronger place of growth and self-confidence. You know that meme that goes, “I’m you but stronger”? That’s Lover to Taylor’s early discography. Tay’s confidence jumps out clearly in ME!, which was the first single Taylor released on 4.26 and honestly still one of my favorite tracks from the album (catch me yelling “HEY, KIDS! SPELLING IS FUN! on tour). I truly love Brendon Urie’s part in that song. Although “ME!”might have a reputation for being a “kids’ bop,” it channels a form of self-awareness that we also get on “Afterglow,” which is about a lover who understands her own flaws: “It’s all me, in my head.” Both “Afterglow” and “ME!” speak to the beauty and possibility of experiencing a storm with someone and recovering together afterwards, be it in the rain or in the light. It’s not just self-awareness that Taylor demonstrates on Lover, but also social awareness—this is the year she finally became vocally political, after all. “YNTCD” was her first LGBTQ anthem, and while some have accused her of “queerbaiting,” the song is her love letter as an ally to the LGBTQ community. Then there’s “The Man,” which slams the patriarchy by imagining a world in which Taylor is not a woman, but a man. “If I was out flashing my dollars I’d be a bitch, not a baller,” she sings. She also gives Leo Dicaprio a well-deserved roast; while Taylor’s dating life has received extensive scrutiny, tabloids don’t hate on “Leo in Saint-Tropez” the way they lambast Taylor for ‘serial-dating.’ “The Man” also sounds very much like HAIM’s “Forever” (“Dress” on reputation gave me HAIM vibes too). And I’ll forever stan Taylor x HAIM.

In Red, Taylor sings “Stay Stay Stay” to someone who later likely breaks her heart. Interestingly, the song on Lover that sounds like a musical echo to that track is “Paper Rings,” an adrenaline rush of a song about getting married. The song is another perfect 60s bop, and I love all the counting that happens in the song; it lyrically and spiritually channels the “you’re the only one I want” energy from Grease. “I like shiny things,” sings Taylor (we know) “but I’d marry you with paper rings.” And the other elephant-in-the-room song about marriage is of course “Lover,” which has literal wedding vows in its beautiful bridge. Of the three marriage-related songs on this album, “Lover” wins my heart (and it’s Taylor’s favorite song that she’s ever written, I hear). It’s a beautiful ballad that comes straight from the heart. Like the best Taylor Swift songs, it’s personal. We get straight to the time and place, like in “Cornelia Street,” the street on which Taylor used to live. In fact, the song’s melody seems to share the same musical pattern as “Delicate,” and some fans even speculate that the “third floor on the West side” from “Delicate” is on Cornelia Street. Another song is that is very location-specific is “London Boy,” which is a personal favorite for its allusion-heavy lyrics and catchy beat. I know that some Londoners are shaking their heads at the lyrics, but oh well—it’s a cute nod to Taylor’s current boyfriend of three years, Joe Alwyn, who (if you haven’t figured it out by now) is the inspiration behind many of the songs on this album.

Another standout, should-be-a-single track is the aforementioned “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” which demonstrates Tay’s exquisite, imaginative storytelling style and mastery of metaphor (“Getaway Car” was the masterful-metaphor song on reputation). I could really write a paper on these lyrics. The Guardian seems to think it’s about living in Trump’s America? It’s a song that, along with “The Archer,” is reminiscent of Lana Del Rey’s dreamy pop (although the latter, while lyrically lovely, has yet to totally grow on me). Taylor has long been outspoken about her love for Lana’s music (they also share a producer: the amazing Jack Antonoff). If this means that Taylor’s music is beginning to take on a slightly indie-rock quality, I’m not complaining. For instance, “Death by a Thousand Cuts” has a slightly Vampire Weekend-quality to it, especially with the freestyle piano tinkling that emerges towards the chorus. But it would be remiss for me to compare Taylor to other artists (although maybe this at least proves that I listen to other music hahahahahah). As she sings in “ME!”, she’s the only one of her(!), and Lover proves this to a T (see what I did there?). From the records it broke even before release day to the pop perfection we’re getting on every track, Lover is bold and brassy, and Taylor knows it.

A few months ago, Taylor wrote in an Elle listicle that she has learned to “step into the daylight and let it go.” That line has indeed revealed itself to be a lyric from the final track of Lover, “Daylight,” a 5-minute long song that beautifully closes the album. “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you,” sings Taylor to her lover. But she also ends with a monologue: “You are what you love.” For Taylor, to love someone is to also love yourself. And that message of self-love radiates throughout Lover.

Earlier this year, I read an article with the headline, “Sad Taylor Swift is the Best Taylor Swift.” While it’s true that artistic production does often come from places of suffering and heartbreak, Lover steps into the daylight and delivers songs on an album that is wonderfully bright. The album cover, shot by the talented Valheria Rocha, captures the softness and loveliness of this glow. In Lover, Taylor is not our heartbreak princess. And we don’t want her to be, either. She’s braver than “Fearless,” and she’s more than simply “Clean.” I’d like to argue that Taylor is at her best at her brightest, which is to say at her clearest and cleverest. She’s someone who shines, inside and out, in her music and in her life. The illuminating, skin-clearing grace that she delivers on Lover lights up my room. This review is glowing, and so is Lover.

#IStandWithTaylor

In the past few days, some friends have asked me to explain the “Taylor Swift drama” that has been in the news recently. Why me? (ME!). Because most people who know me know that I am a big Taylor Swift fan, and have been for the past 11 years. But being a Swiftie doesn’t mean I’m incapable of being critical of her work or actions; rather, I believe it makes me a more qualified and generous judge of her character compared to the average listener of her music. Do I ever raise my eyebrows at moves made by Taylor and her team? Yes. But am I also a hardcore fan who will defend her to the best of my ability? Yes. In this post, I hope to elucidate why I believe standing with Taylor is important, especially given the double standards of the toxic, often male-dominated music industry.

Below is an image that Taylor shared on her tumblr:

image

What happened?

Two days ago, it was announced that Scooter Braun had acquired the Big Machine Label Group (Taylor’s previous label) from Scott Borchetta, and along with it, Taylor Swift’s entire back catalogue. If you are understandably asking who Scooter Braun is, he’s the manager of artists such as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and Kanye West (Trump supporter, husband of #KimOhNo Kardashian).

Why is this a problem for Taylor Swift?

Before I delve into what makes this a problem, I want to first address why it’s a problem for Taylor specifically. She puts it best on her tumblr post: Her “musical legacy is about to lie in the hands of someone who tried to dismantle it.” Scooter, like many other people in the entertainment industry, has always had it out for Taylor. This takes us back to 2016, when Taylor and Kanye had “beef” over Kanye’s song “Famous.” In the song, Kanye sings, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” (How did Kanye make Taylor “famous,” exactly? According to him, by interrupting her award acceptance speech in 2009. Even Obama called him a “jackass” for it. ICONIC.) Anyway; Taylor claimed she never wanted Kanye to use her name like that in the song; Kim Kardashian then illegally released a recording of a phone conversation in which Taylor presumably said it was “okay.” It goes without saying that what Kim did was wrong and disrespectful. Not surprising for someone who has just recently tried to trademark “Kimono” for her own clothing brand. But let’s assume that Taylor did say “yes” to Kanye. How many women’s “nos” are manipulated by men into “yeses?” How many women out there understand how difficult it is to say no? How many women are blamed for situations in which they feel like they had no control?

To use a personal example, last night, I went out swing dancing, and felt someone rub my back in an intimate way. I turned around, expecting it was my boyfriend. No, it was a total stranger, who immediately asked me: “Would you like to dance?” My head said no, but what instead came out was, instinctively, “yes.” I spent the rest of the dance regretting it. I realized again, in that instance, that many women are often pressured and conditioned into saying “yes” to everything, when we should have the right to say no to as many people as we want. So, when people accuse Taylor Swift of saying “yes” to Kanye, one of the first things I think about is how easily people (especially men) will assume that saying “yes” is automatic, unconditional, and simple for women. I also think about how t he audio snippet Kim released was blatantly doctored and illegally publicized. And how Kanye later barely received criticism for stripping Taylor’s body double naked in his music video for “Famous.” Scooter was there when Kanye organized his “revenge porn music video” for “Famous.” Scooter was also there when Justin Bieber, Kanye, and some other random dude (see photo above) teamed up on social media to bully Taylor about being “exposed” by Kim. Scooter has, as Taylor rightly says in her tumblr post, been responsible for the “incessant, manipulative bullying” aimed at her for years.

Back to 2019

So, given this context, you can understand why Taylor is not happy with SCOOTER BRAUN acquiring her masters, her life’s work, her greatest hits, her dreams. This is not “pettiness.” This is injustice. Scooter is not only a man who now reaps the rewards of a woman’s labor, he is also a man who has purposefully targeted this woman and is now in a position that allows him to assume some control over her artistic representation.

Why didn’t Taylor just buy her own songs?

Folks have been saying that Taylor once “had the chance” to buy her own music, but “passed.” As Taylor makes very clear in her tumblr post, however, the deal offered to her by Big Machine Records, a.k.a Scott Borchetta, was anything short of liberating. In order to own her previous albums, Taylor would have to ” ‘earn’ one album back at a time,” one for every new one she turned in. This would take at least 10 years. Taylor walked away to set herself free. Borchetta, who genuinely believed he was doing himself a favor by sharing the following photo, posted an exchange between him and Taylor on his website. His post includes one text from Taylor, informing him of her decision to leave Big Machine Records, and one text from himself, notifying her of Scooter’s purchase. It does not take a genius, or even an English major like myself, to note the marked contrast in tone that both texts present. Firstly, I’m pleased to know that Taylor begins her texts the same way I begin my emails: “I hope this finds you well.” Secondly, one line in Scott’s text jumped out at me as carrying the saltiness of a salty, salty ex-manager: “I wanted to pass along to you the same courtesy that you passed along to me in regard to my future.” I saw no courtesy there. Honestly, go read the exchange, and tell me whether you see it.

image of Taylor Swift deal points

Why does Taylor’s fight matter?

Scooter’s wife, Yael, addressed Taylor on Instagram, saying that Scooter “believed in you more than you believe in yourself.” Are you kidding me? Do I even need to expend the energy to rebut this? She also tells Taylor to leave her kids out of this drama, whereas Taylor had never, anywhere, in any way, mentioned Scooter’s kids. So. Perhaps it’s true, as Yael says in her post, that Scooter reached an “olive branch” out to Taylor. But after everything Scooter has done to Taylor, why should Taylor invoke the energy to respond to Scooter? Do people have to forgive or even interact with those who have hurt and traumatized them? No.

In the aftermath of Taylor’s tumblr post, different celebrities and media outlets have spoken out, each with their own story, each with their own way of reframing the narrative. Taylor herself is a master at framing narratives. After Kim called her a snake in 2016, Taylor rebranded her next album to successfully and cleverly incorporate the snake motif into her music. Her latest single, “You Need to Calm Down,” is an LGBT-anthem (or at least wants to be) that brands herself as a strong ally (although not without controversy) after years of her political silence. But I don’t want to make this about narratives or social media or celebrity gossip, which is what the tabloids want. This is “drama,” but as Taylor says, “I don’t love the drama, it loves me.” Try to ignore the gossip swirling around Taylor’s post (which albeit invokes it) and focus on the simple, straightforward fact that Taylor Swift is an artist who would like to own her own music and is fighting for other artists to also have that right. People point out that even The Beatles don’t own their own music. So? Since when has established tradition been a reason to preclude future change?

Taylor Swift “grew up in a pretty house,” but has not had an easy time in the spotlight. She is in a position of immense privilege, but also has had to make a number of sacrifices (like, privacy) to get to where she is today. There are articles out there saying that Taylor’s struggles are nothing compared to those of laborers who are also fighting for their own rights. People will say that Taylor has no right to complain, given her wealth and status. But if Taylor Swift, one of the most powerful and influential women in the world, is also subject to outrageous injustice and manipulation, what does that say about our world? That even those with the most power cannot have it all? Or that the profit-driven, business-minded, and often male-dominated music industry can always trump creative thinkers and artists?

The bottom line is that music written, sung, and produced by Taylor Swift, alongside many other artists, is now in the hands of someone who had absolutely no part in making it. It is in the hands of someone who has not been a friend to Taylor Swift. It is in the hands of someone who should, honestly, NOT have it. Whether or not you like Taylor Swift, take a moment to think about the implications of this transaction. Some might say that now that Scooter has Taylor’s music, he’ll want the best for her (now, he has a stake in it). While that kind of ownership mentality is toxic in itself, the facts speak for themselves: recently, Scooter’s team has been re-uploading Taylor’s catalogue onto iTunes and rebranding it; Fearless has gone from being under the “Country” category to “Pop,” erasing the contributions that the album made for country music in 2008. One of Scooter’s friends congratulated him on social media for having bought Taylor Swift. The Big Machine deal between Scott and Scooter would have been nothing without Taylor’s catalog. Taylor’s years of hard work now enlarge the status and bank account of a man who has wronged and disrespected her on many occasions. Imagine if you were Taylor in this situation. Just think about it.

Since the start of her career, Taylor Swift has always been an easy victim. She’s been ridiculed by the media for her dating life when few other artists have experienced the same slut-shaming she was subject to; certainly, no men were victim to such media scrutiny. People love to say that Taylor can’t write her own music, even after she wrote the album Speak Now entirely own her own to prove a point. People criticize Taylor for remaining silent on political issues and criticize her when she uses her voice. Too often, men treat women like easy targets, and assume that their casual “bullying” will have no consequences. Too often, men assume forgiveness. Too often, men think they can get away with anything: even profiting off of a woman’s labor.

What angers me about the Scooter-Scott deal is the way in which it reinforces notions of gender inequality and the soul-sucking nature of many business deals. But what gives me hope is the fact that I believe Taylor can make a change for the greater good. In the past, she has used to power to leverage deals with Spotify, Apple Music, and Universal Music Group to increase artists’ wages and agency. “People throw rocks and things that shine,” but “snakes and stones never broke” Taylor’s bones. Taylor Swift doesn’t have to say “yes” to anyone anymore. I believe that, in the years to come, she’ll be able to make the music industry a better and more equitable place. And that she will continue to be a role model for women and emerging artists everywhere. And for those reasons, #IStandWithTaylor.

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