Twenty-Seven: Taylor Swift's "1989"
The first time I ever heard a Taylor Swift song was during the Fall of 2008. I was riding in the car with several of my girlfriends--we were all sophomores in college--on our way to see a movie. My friend Jenn Berry suddenly hushed everyone, cranked up the volume on the speakers and said, "GIRLS. You have to listen to this song."
As the sweet sounds of "Love Story" filled the car, I was immediately hooked. I'd never heard anything quite like it before. It was clearly guilty pleasure music, and part of me was skeptical. Was it really okay to belt along with a song that was so obviously girlish and naive? Would people judge me for liking the music of this glammed-up teenager? And, mostly, why was the song so addicting?
Since Fearless came out, Taylor Swift has released three subsequent albums, the latest of which is 1989. Speak Now, released in 2010, was similar to Fearless in the content, and how it was marketed. Red, released in 2012, began a shift in Swift's image and music, with some of the songs forsaking Swift's country background and blurring the line into the realm of straight pop. She straightened her hair and put on hipster clothes, which marked a big change from the frothy princess gowns she'd worn on all of her previous album covers.
In 1989, Swift has made the transformation complete, stating publicly that this album is not country, but straight pop. And just as Swift has made transitions throughout her career, so have her fans. When she first appeared on the scene, her fans were overwhelmingly teens and pre-teens, with college girls like me forming a loyal but somewhat apologetic fan base. It was not okay to like Taylor Swift if you were a straight man or a person with any kind of discerning taste in music. Even I, who consider myself someone with fairly relaxed standards (hey, I watched ten seasons of Smallville) didn't always admit to liking Swift. Or if I did, I said her music was guilty pleasure music.
I think, at first, it was because Swift's music marked such a contrast to the music that was popular in the mid-2000s. While we were all listening to Damien Rice, the Juno soundtrack, and other, as my dad puts it, "whiney" songwriters, here was Taylor Swift, wearing sparkly dresses and singing about love stories. It was kind of embarrassing, the honesty she had. In one of my particular favorite Swift songs, "Enchanted," these are the closing lyrics:
Please don't be in love with someone else
Please don't have somebody waiting on you
Please don't be in love with someone else
Please don't have somebody waiting on you
Not only has Swift's music always been hopelessly romantic, but she puts into words the thoughts we all have inside our heads, and would die of embarrassment if anyone knew we were thinking them. Take, for instance, her songs "Mean" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." The title of the latter speaks for itself, I think, but here are some of the lyrics from "Mean:"
All you are is mean
And a liar
And alone in life
(I want to pause and take this moment to acknowledge that all of the lyrics I have quoted thus far did NOT need to be looked up. I have written them down from memory. Which is pertinent.)
Swift's career has been a constant rejection of the pressure to diminish her hopeless romanticism in favor of the cynicism my generation favors. But there are several interesting things that have evolved through the years. The first is the way the pressure has affected Swift, and what it's done to her music, and the second is the fact that somehow, it has become uncool not to like Swift.
First, her music. I've been fascinated for some time by Swift's response to her critics, because she has not completely caved to the pressure, but she has certainly responded. Her image did a 180 with the advent of the red lipstick and hipster dresses featured in Red, which I imagine was due in part to the critics, and in part to getting older, living in a variety of cities, and having endless fashion opportunity. Her music, despite the new label of straight pop, has stayed pretty much the same. While some of the content is a bit edgier (the final song on 1989 is about getting clean) Swift's common themes of love, heartbreak, being misunderstood, and rising above adversity are all intact. The packaging may have changed a little, but the heart is still there.
What has become more clear is Swift's understanding of her role, and how she is perceived. On both Red and 1989, Swift sings about being judged. In her song "22," she sings:
It seems like one of those nights
This place is too crowded, too many cool kids, uh-huh
"Who's Taylor Swift anyway? Ew."
And in the song that is currently sweeping radios across the country, "Shake It Off," Swift speaks directly into her harshest criticism (who's Taylor dating now??):
I go on too many dates
But I can't make 'em stay
At least that's what people say
Her response to the criticism has not been to change her message, however, but to bolster it with a positive, don't-let-them-get-you-down message. In "Shake It Off," she goes on to say that she's going to ignore the critics and, oh hey, shake it off. (Gotta love pop.) Swift also seems to be fully embracing the reason so many people love her, which is that she says those things we either don't have words for, or would be too embarrassed to say. In a note in the digital booklet (or album jacket, if you're old school) she writes, "These songs were once about my life. They are now about yours." Quite a statement. But absolutely true. I can't even count the number of times that I've felt Swift's lyrics closely fit my experience, or provide a balm to my achy heart.
Perhaps that is Swift's true genius--knowing how to not only write a catchy tune, but one that encapsulates an entire generation's feelings. In the first song on 1989, "Welcome to New York," Swift writes about her move to NYC. Now, my experience of moving to Queens as a poor grad student and Swift's experience of moving to Tribeca as a multi-millionaire are, I'm sure, night and day. But when she sings "the Village is aglow," and talks about a "kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats," I'm right there with her. She has correctly conveyed my experience of moving to NYC, just as she has my experience in love, heartbreak, being angry, missing my family, and everything else.
Perhaps it's this that has finally won my generation over, or perhaps it's a shift in popular opinion. It's more important now to be accepting than exclusive, to have your guilty pleasures and proudly admit to what you like, and perhaps, in true hipster fashion, to like pop "ironically." And just the fact that Swift has been on the scene for six years now, has paid her dues (including being harassed by Kanye West), has been wildly successful, and continues to crank out good music has probably served to soften the criticism. Plus, when people like Lena Dunham--the ultimate trendy gal pal--talk about being besties with Swift, it suddenly makes it okay, and even cool, to like her music.
To be honest, on 1989 I missed the country edge Swift's music has always had. In my opinion, Red struck exactly the right balance, with songs that blurred the lines and kept that warm, starry-eyed feel. But the heart and soul of Swift's music is still very present in 1989, and as we all warm up to her new sound, we can take comfort in the fact that Taylor is still helping us process--and feel united around--our experiences with love.
My sister and mother visited me this week. I haven't spent time with just the two of them (or really much uninterrupted time with them in general) for a long time. After they left this morning, I found myself with a very grateful heart. For the visit, of course, and the fun things we did. For my mother's generosity, and the many conversations we were able to have, and even the moment when we got lost in the Financial District. But more than that, I found myself realizing that we have completely made the transition into adult friendship, and for that I am truly grateful.
My parents always talked about us as friends. I remember my dad saying on many occasions that when he and my mom were having kids, he kept thinking, "This is the best! It's like creating friends for yourself!" Which I always thought was a kind of weird thing to say, but now I think it's sweet. And, in our case, true. I think I've recently realized how often that is NOT true, and how grateful I need to be for this.
High school, college years and early twenties are a hard time for parent/child relationships. I can remember many times when I felt justified in making my own decision about something, and my parents felt that since I was still under their roof, they had a say in my actions. That tension is important, and a necessary step in building trust in a newly adult relationship. Parents have to let go, kids have to figure out how to continue to be respectful. I am grateful that my mother said to me, on many occasions, "I want to be your friend, and not just your mother." While I know there are still decisions she would make differently than me, I am so blessed to know that she respects me as a woman who can make my own decisions, and approves of me. And, perhaps most importantly, enjoys hanging out with me.
My sister and I had a similar path to adult friendship. Five years older than me, there was a lot of letting go that Hannah had to do, and a lot I had to learn about humbly accepting advice in our relationship. But there's no one I feel safer with, or who knows me better. And, like my mother, the best part is that we enjoy spending time together.
It's good to have friends who have known you your whole life, and who share your blood. They know who I have been, and they know who I am now, and they know who I want to be. I am so blessed to have strong, wise, fun women as my closest friends, as sisters in Christ, and as family.
Twenty-One: The Universe
the Universe, she's wounded
she's got bruises on her feet
I sat down like I always did,
and tried to calm her down
I sent her my warmth and my silence
and all she sends me back is rain . . . rain
the Universe, she's wounded
but she's still got infinity ahead of her
she's still got you and me
and everybody says that she's beautiful
the Universe, she's dancing now
they got her lit up, lit up on the moon
they got stars doing cartwheels, all the nebulas on the tune
and the Universe, she's whispering so softly I can hear all
the croaking insects, all the taxicabs, all the bum's spent change
all the boys playing ball in the alleyways
they're just folds in her dress
the Universe, she's wounded
but she's still got infinity ahead of her
she's still got you and me
and everybody says that she's beautiful
and everybody says . . .
-Gregory Alan Isakov
Seventeen: Courageous Vendors
I tend to avoid looking vendors in the eye. Afraid they will expect me to buy something, I often walk quickly past their stalls, glancing only at their goods. But this morning as I walked down University Place toward NYU and passed rows and rows of vendors setting up their booths, preparing for the day to begin, I witnessed something I’d never seen before.
At first I was fascinated by the preparations themselves. The way each vendor took time and care, fastening down tent flaps and arranging clothes, jewelry, food items, sunglasses—whatever he or she was selling. They arranged and rearranged, positioning their wares exactly. The precision and care was lovely.
As I walked, my gaze transferred to the vendors themselves, and I was amazed at what I saw. A husband, wife and son worked together in one booth, while many booths seemed to be run by pairs of brothers, or grown children with their parents. As I passed them by, looking closely, many of them raised their eyes to mine, and I smiled back. Some said, “Good morning,” and I returned the greeting with no fear. The fact that they did not have their wares arranged meant there was no expectation, and I felt comfortable and friendly.
Later, I wondered what it would be like to work as a vendor and have people avoid your glance. It would be hard. Not only in a business sense, because after all, their livelihoods depend on making sales, but also in a human sense. Their profession is so naked—they have created these goods with their hands, and have put them on display, along with themselves. I am so used to having the distance a store provides that it makes me uncomfortable to be presented not just with the goods, but with the manufacturer herself. It feels as if by refusing her goods, I am making a judgment on her person.
In some sense, I suppose I am, and many of the vendors would probably be okay with that. They have poured themselves into their goods (at least in this particular street market), and they stand or fall with the quality of their work. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized just how much courage it must take to lay their handiwork before the world—and how much beauty can be found in the people behind the counters.
The first step of learning the NYC transit system is simply to survive. The overwhelming network of trains at first seems impossible to navigate, especially once you add in all the crazy shenanigans the weekend trains try to pull. Once you've mastered the first step and begin to have an idea of how to get from place to place, you can move on to the second step: learning the character of the trains. As the routes become more familiar, you start to get a feel for what kind of people ride each train, what to expect at certain hours and on certain lines, and what that means for your comfort and survival. I have recently moved on to step three, which involves remembering on which side the doors open at each stop, what end of the train is closest to the exit you need, and, most importantly, being aware of what's happening inside the cars as they pull up so you can make an informed decision about which car to get into.
So I was a bit disappointed with myself yesterday when I got on the train at 11pm and realized immediately that I'd gotten onto a loud one. A family of several kids (one in a stroller) were yelling and crying and laughing, and as I sat down and looked at the faces around me, I realized they'd probably been doing so for a while. Though my initial feeling had been disappointment at getting on a noisy car late at night when I would have preferred quiet, the longer I sat on the train the more upset I got. Not with the family, who seemed blissfully unaware of the reaction of the other passengers (though I'm sure the parents weren't), but with the passengers who were huffing and puffing in their New York fashions and shooting the family dirty looks.
I recognize that my perspective on the situation is influenced both by my involvement with children as a teacher and nanny, and by my profession as a theater maker. Many of the people sitting on the train probably spend very limited time with children, and that makes loud, active play somewhat jarring. But the way the passengers were reacting just seemed so extreme. The girl sitting next to me kept looking up from her book and staring at the parents, as if by giving them a mean enough look she could silence their children. The couple across from me did nothing the entire ride but give each other knowing looks and whisper pointedly. And the older man sitting next to the couple intermittently yelled at the kids in Spanish.
Kids have to learn that there is a time to be quiet, and parents need to be sensitive to the people who come in contact with their families. But these kids weren't out of control. They were just being kids, and the passengers around me were acting like this was the worst display of brat behavior they'd ever seen. Like this was a personal affront to them, ruining their evenings beyond repair, when really it was just a short train ride. (And honestly, I have little sympathy when the solution to their problem is as simple as changing cars at the next stop.)
As a nanny and a teacher I spend plenty of time thinking about discipline and creating boundaries for kids, and I certainly have my moments of shortness. Yet I realized as I sat on the train that there is a fundamental difference in how I interact with kids and how those people sitting, glaring on the train do. Kids don't have a filter because, as my good friend Felicia Bertch once said, "Their arrows are pointing out." As adults our arrows are always, always pointing in, wondering how our words or actions are affecting others and what people think of us. Kids only care about the world around them, and the input they're receiving. It's kind of beautiful. Sitting on the train, I wanted to ask the passengers around me, "Don't you remember what it was like to be a kid? Don't you remember that enthusiasm and wonder? Don't you wish you still had some of it? Isn't that more important than your desire for silence right now?"
This summer I participated in voice workshops by another amazing friend and artist, Jenn Cribbs. We worked to unlock our voices from the tiny cage we lock them into on a daily basis, which in turn shuts our bodies down and turns our awareness firmly inward. During one of our workshops Jenn's daughter's voice interrupted us, echoing through the room from far across a nearby field. "Do you hear that?" Jenn asked. "She speaks like that because no one has taken it away from her yet. And if anyone ever does..." She made a fist.
We all laughed that day, but I thought about Jenn's words on the train yesterday. The parents on the train were not trying to quiet their children or contain their play. We can and should talk about all the times parents need to teach their kids respect and discipline and sensitivity, but I think we also need to talk about our society's problem with both judging parents for the childlike actions of their children, and imposing our own desire for silence and order on kids who simply have their arrows pointing out. We could all stand to reverse our arrows a little bit.
Thirteen: Are You Known?
Yesterday one of my roommates quickly and succinctly summed me up. “You’re a cat,” she said. She proceeded to explain my personality and the way I interact with people through this metaphor, and everything she said was completely true. I was impressed that, after only living with me for a month, she knew me well enough to provide me with clarifying words about my personality and how it extended into my relationships.
If you had asked me ten years ago if anyone knew me, I would have said no. As a preteen and teenager, I spent quite a bit of time moodily reflecting on the fact that no one could see into my mind, and since I was an introvert, the likelihood of anyone truly understanding me seemed impossible. I wrote sheets of angsty poetry and journal entries about this lack of understanding. But secretly, I kind of liked it. Believing that no one understood me gave me an excuse to be angry, or insulted, or justified my behavior when nothing else could.
I’m not the only teenager in the world to have felt this way. In fact, I’m guessing most teenagers feel this way until they hit their twenties and begin to discover that people are actually pretty similar. The thrilling uniqueness of being a teenager and having crazy thoughts fill your brain at all hours begins to recede into a more comfortable rhythm of grown-up concerns, and worrying about how misunderstood one is starts to fade. Yet being truly known is still, I think, something that catches us off guard.
The older I get the more I am convinced that it is hugely important to be known. Being known means that there are people in ones life who have spent enough time around to see patterns and reactions. People who ask and remember, who have a right to pursue a topic of conversation and dig into the reasons why. People who can encourage or reprimand. People who know enough to be tough.
As an introvert, it’s sometimes uncomfortable when I realize how well someone knows me. There are so many parts of me that I don’t necessarily love, and seeing people I respect identify those parts and know them makes me embarrassed. It would be easier to shut people out, as I did when I was a teenager, and hide behind the belief that people will never fully understand me, so why try explaining myself? But that kind of attitude is neither sustainable nor healthy. We are made to be communal creatures, gathering wisdom from those around us, and allowing others to help when we need it. Without allowing people to know us, we shrivel into what CS Lewis described as the darkest hell: a “ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self.”
Being known does not just keep us accountable, either. Sometimes it can bring great joy. For years and years I resented the fact that people told me I was a loud person. I would argue that I wasn’t that loud, or get annoyed and change the subject. Every time my family mentioned it I thought they were trying to make a dig at me. But only a few years ago I found myself thinking through this truth about myself, and suddenly it didn’t seem like a problem. I sat on my bed and, as I decided to own the fact that I am a loud person, I began to cry. I cried and cried. Because I am loud. And while there are times when my loudness can be awkward or annoying, my loud voice is part of what makes me who I am. It reveals to people immediately whether I am happy or sad or passionate or angry. It is my siren when I return home and my signal that I cannot contain my love. It took me much too long to realize that when people mention my loud voice, most of the time it’s not any kind of judgment. It’s an indication that they have recognized an integral aspect of who I am and they are telling me that I am known.
I am glad to be known. I am glad when other people allow me to know them. I hope, as the years pass, I can say that I am well known by hundreds of people, and that they are known to me. The fingerprints we leave on each other are of much more worth than a closely sheltered soul.
A song of ascents. Of David.
1 My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
3 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love to talk about the Myers-Briggs test, and those who love to hate on it. (And, I suppose, those who have never heard of it. But there are less of those.) I’ve known people who began by loving it later come to hate it, because the test has taken over their circles of friends, and because there are individuals who begin to see life decisions through the lens of the test (“Should I date that boy? No! I’m an ISFJ and he’s an ENFP. It would never work.”) A quick google search will come up with countless dating websites that explain in detail what each personality type would be like as a spouse, and how to interact with them. Obviously, the world of Myers-Briggs has gotten out of hand.
What makes the situation even more humorous is the fact that very few people actually take the real test; since you’d have to pay around $50 to take the official test, most people take a knock-off internet test that approximates the real one. So when someone looks a friend in the eye and says she understand everything about that friend’s soul based on a fake Myers-Briggs score, I can see why people have started to get jaded about the world of personality testing.
However, I am writing in defense of the Myers-Briggs test, and other personality tests. With some caveats, of course. While the test has the potential to become a self-centered exploration of all the various and fascinating aspects of YOU, I have also known friends who have found genuine healing in the discoveries they’ve made about themselves through the introspection and perspective the test provides. One of my friends grew up in an environment where people constantly told her to “Stop being so shy!” and rewarded her peers for being assertive. She struggled to understand why she couldn’t force herself to become comfortable being outspokenly friendly, until in her twenties she took the test, in an environment where her friends were also taking it, and discovered that lots of people have introverted tendencies, enjoy being alone, and aren’t naturally comfortable meeting new people or being outspoken. Learning this about herself allowed her a lot of freedom to grow and become more comfortable with the way she operates.
In my own life, the test has taught me quite a bit about accepting the differences between my friends and myself. I used to spend a lot of time being frustrated and hurt when friends bailed on me and flaked on plans (and of course I still am to a certain extent—that will never totally change). But when I discovered the difference between people with the J initial—who, by and large, are punctual, dependable planners—and the P initial—who tend to prefer keeping their options open and going with the flow—a world of understanding emerged for me. I don’t have to take it so personally if my Friend the P bails, because the more I understand about the way she operates, the more I realize that she can love me dearly and be a flakey person at the same time (not that it will be any less annoying in the moment.)
Like anything, the Myers-Briggs test can and has been taken too far. But it’s also a great way to begin to understand and empathize with friends, uncover more about the way you yourself operate, and build community. Just make sure you follow these simple rules:
1. Never think that a person is the sum of their Myers-Briggs test results. You’ll never know everything there is to know about a person, and you can’t put people in a box!
2. Never limit your work/friendship/dating options based on your Myers-Briggs test results. Especially if you haven’t taken the real test. That’s just silly.
3. Don’t get self-obsessed. The test is not an excuse for you to talk or think about yourself for hours. It’s just one way of identifying your tendencies.
And most importantly:
4. If you begin talking about the Myers-Briggs test and one (or all) or your companions doesn’t want to talk about it—STOP TALKING ABOUT IT.
Seven: "How Patient are You?"
I laughed when I saw the prompt for today. "How patient are you?" it asked. Anyone who knows me probably knows how impatient I am. The number of times I went behind my mother's back as a kid, because I couldn't bear to wait for my schemes to come to fruition (and also because my policy was generally ask for forgiveness instead of permission)... let's just say one of the first things I learned about myself is that patience does not come easily to me.
It hasn't gotten much better as I get older. If I've been arguing with someone, I find myself panicking if I can't resolve the conflict immediately. I still struggle with the childish impulse for instant gratification (though I'm convinced that one of the greatest things about being an adult is that, if you just really need that frosty, you can go buy it. Right away.) Just last night I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning because I wanted to finish writing the script for my devised project, even though I knew my mind would be clearer if I waited until morning. As much as I have learned about being an adult, patience is still one of the hardest things for me to learn. And the hardest part of learning patience, as an impatient person, is that you have to be patient and wait to learn patience. It's enough to drive a person crazy!
Because of all this, I know patience will be something I continue to learn for the rest of my life. And yet there are a lot of big picture things about my life that I've already been forced to learn patience in. I don't have a long term job yet, I don't have a spouse, I don't even know where I will be living after December. Learning to be patient as these things become clear is hard, but it's also a privilege. There is joy and excitement is knowing that my place right now is transient, exciting, and full of possibility. God has been graciously teaching me to enjoy the ride.
And I'm also beginning to see the benefits of being an impatient person. I can stand to learn to be more patient, and will continue to do so. But I've also realized that, with the right balance, being impatient can be a good thing, because it gives me the urgency to be a doer. I am motivated and thorough when I have a project on my plate. As I grow in patience, I can also grow in appreciation of this assertiveness, and learn to find the balance between the two. Life is not about growing into an extreme, but into the balance between two opposites. Here's to being given the patience to learn to be patient!
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor