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Who is Taylor Swift? That’s the question she asks and partially answers with her new album Midnights, which dropped at midnight on October 21.
Having listened to her throughout her career I think the case could be made that Taylor Swift is restless because she wants a family of her own. She says the opposite more than once on her new album but, like Hamlet’s mother, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Swift told fans that her new album is a search for her identity.
“This is a collection of music written in the middle of the night,” she wrote. “For all of us who have tossed and turned and decided to keep the lanterns lit and go searching — hoping that just maybe, when the clock strikes twelve … we’ll meet ourselves.”
For her, she said, the search is dire: “I struggle a lot with the idea that my life has become unmanageably sized and, not to sound too dark, I struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person.”
I can’t help but see the whole thing as a search not just for what it means to be Taylor Swift, but for what it means to be a woman in 21st century America — a question that has been fraught with even more than the usual confusion lately.
The reason I think of Taylor Swift that way is because my first daughter turned 13 when Taylor Swift’s first album dropped, and my fourth daughter is 15 now. Her music has accompanied me as a father watching my daughters’ growth and self-conception.
Taylor was born in 1989 to parents who remain married to this day, and her early songs show it.
Her songs were filled with happy childhood memories and eagerness to make memories of her own. But then her life happened. She became a star at 17 and 10 albums later, she is a master of the music industry, using all the tools of the 21st century from social media, to media easter eggs and carefully cultivated personas to keep the world’s attention. And she does it all while saying fresh, honest things in a pop-friendly way.
Others were lauded for some or all of those abilities in their time — notably Alanis Morrisette, Lady Gaga, Adele, and Alicia Keys — but they all have been second-born royals compared to Swift’s reign. That means that Taylor Swift’s musings on love and marriage are not simply a thermometer showing where the culture is. They are a thermometer showing where a one-of-a-kind celebrity and artist is.
But I think one reason popular artists are popular is that they reveal where the “hive mind” of their time is on issues. And I think what Taylor shows is that the dream of love is still marriage, and that the reality of romance is still disappointing.
Last year, Taylor gave us a masterful take on what love looks like, and how much it hurts when it ends, in the re-release of her album Red.
In the new-old song “I Bet You Think About Me” she tells her ex:
“You grew up in a silver-spoon gated community / Glamorous, shiny, bright Beverly Hills / I was raised on a farm, no, it wasn’t a mansion / Just livin’ room dancin’ and kitchen table bills.”
That phrase “Living room dancing and kitchen table bills” is a brilliantly succinct evocation of the sweetness and struggle of domestic life.
But that album also contained her 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” a song that starts out with another succinct picture of real love, “You told me about your past thinking your future was me,” and ends by describing the sharp sting of a relationship’s end — “You call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
If you can trust a dad’s diagnosis, I think it’s clear what has happened to her.
She describes “nights when you made me your own / And now you mail back my things and I walk home alone.” She uses the same image in “happiness” on 2020’s evermore, “I pulled your body into mine every -…- night, and now I get fake niceties.”
We saw exactly the same thing with Alanis years ago. These are the words of a woman who has been lied to and betrayed in the most powerful, primordial way — by promises of forever-love consummated by sex. All her life, men have teased her desire for lifetime love to get nighttime access to her bed, and she’s devastated by it.
Taylor Swift turns 33 this year, the age Jesus was when he died. And her new album sounds like it.
Early Taylor was content. Midnights Taylor is in turmoil.
Early Taylor’s boyfriend made her want to kiss him in the rain. Midnights Taylor says “He was sunshine, I was midnight rain.” When early Taylor’s boyfriend left her, he was “Just Another Picture to Burn” with angry laughter. Midnights Taylor seems haunted by pictures that won’t go away: “I wake with your memory over me / That’s a real -…- legacy to leave.”
Early Taylor looked at her crush and imagined a perfect marriage “Love Story.” Midnights Taylor laments that “The only kinda girl they see / Is a one-night or a wife.” Early Swift went “Back to December” to move on from a guy she left. Midnights Taylor says, “You know how much I hate/ That everybody just expects me to bounce back?”
Early Taylor listed for her guy all the ways “You Belong With Me.” Midnights Taylor lists the reasons he didn’t: “He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain / He wanted a bride, I was making my own name.”Early Taylor sang in joy. “I’m Only Me When I’m With You.” Midnights Taylor sings to herself in resignation, “You’re on your own, kid / You always have been.”
Taylor once expected she could “Shake It Off,” and “Forget That You Existed.” Now she knows she can’t and she worries that, in a lyric she made her new social media self description:“I’m the problem, it’s me.” The only cure for what ails her is love, real love, married love, and I pray that she finds it.
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