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Of the Beginning of Days
On Taylor Swift & Women's Lives as Lore
Years ago, in Cuba, I got into a fight with my brother about Taylor Swift. At the time I wouldn’t have called myself a fan, though I really liked the then-just-released album 1989. The crux of my argument was this: You can say you don’t like Taylor Swift. Her, her music, both. But you can’t say she isn’t talented; you can’t say she’s not exceptionally good at what she does. That, I said, was just plain sexism.
We tussled over the issue for a while, with the tenacity of two adult siblings who’d had too many beers between them. Eventually, we let it drop. But ever since them, I have been—as I often do with old arguments that I play over and over in my head—periodically poking at my position, to see if it holds up. Unfortunately for my conflict-averse sibling, of all the arguments we’ve ever had, this is the one about which I feel the most confident in my perspective. If possible, my position has become even more entrenched. I’d have that fight again today, and I’d be way meaner about it.
I had the chance to see Taylor Swift last weekend, in Philadelphia, on Saturday the 13th. I don’t think I would call myself a Swiftie. I think most Swifties would not call me a Swiftie, predominantly because I don’t have the same relationship with Taylor as a person—her dating history, her infamous Easter eggs, her various tics and obsessions. (Someone close to me, who may or may not be my girlfriend, could not believe that I didn’t know that 13 was Taylor’s lucky number.) I don’t really tend to have that kind of relationship with living artists—like, taking deep dives into their personal lives or fussing over the nature of their biographies. I think it’s a combination of being a public figure myself and also just a kind of pragmatism. Their biographies are still being written. Their work is usually what matters the most.
But. Since I am close to several diehard Swifties, I have—despite being indifferent to the personal details—been the involuntary recipient of many of them. Backstories about specific songs and albums and her relationships confirmed and suspected and the reason for the Taylor’s Versions, etc. etc. And of course that was all in my head (or being fed, live, into my ear) as the concert was going on. Which led to the—feeling? epiphany?—that ultimately colored my perception that night, and crystalized when a boat began to move towards, and over, the gaping hole of a massive ocean whirlpool during “My Tears Ricochet.”
Which was this: that as I was sitting there, I was reading a fantasy novel about a real person. I was watching a woman who had been writing her own mythology, her own legend, for years. I was watching the lore unspool in real time. When she yelled at a security guard for hassling a fan while not missing a beat of “Bad Blood” while columns of fire shot into the sky. It felt like I was seeing a woman powerful enough, smart enough, savvy enough to define herself like the table of contents in the fucking Silmarillion, and let every heartbreak and success and speed bump and pleasure and failure make its way into something ambitious and ever-growing; a career, yes, but also a kind of literary universe. In which someone like Taylor—let’s call her an autofictional figure who occupies a multitude of aesthetic modes, or Taylor*—rises and falls and returns from the dead, shifts through genres and eras and modes and moods in endless reinvention. I would not be shocked to open up a Taylor Swift album to find a Tolkien-style high fantasy map of Pennsylvania with Taylor’s* journey and relationship to place defining the labels and key and topography. (In my mind, it sounds like this.)
And I am still trying to resist thinking about this as a mode of biography. I am thinking of it more as an act of artistic creation. (Autofiction, maybe. Persona poems. Etc.) But still that blending of life and story and invention. We rarely let women define themselves or their art this way. In epic terms. Let them write themselves and their stories ambitiously across eras and volumes and ages. And when they do, it thrills me to my fucking core. The scale of it! The ambition. The sheer force. It’s all I want in this terrible goddamned world. It’s the only thing I want.
Please enjoy this photo of me (right) and my girlfriend (left) for the past two weeks.
With the obvious caveat that I am nowhere any remotely close to that scale of visibility!
I just really like her as a musician and, as it turns out, her as a performer. The concert was amazing. I don’t need to tell you that. It was just as good as everyone has been saying.
Besides, of course, wow if my life depended on it I could not wear heels like that for thirty seconds much less three-and-a-half hours and definitely not while dancing. If that were required of me, I would surely perish. I’d break my neck in one minute. I’d be a goner.
To be very clear, Taylor and Taylor* are similar, but one created the other, and the self within the work is not the same thing as the self herself.