Yes, I had a brief moment of doubt when I heard Taylor Swift’s new song, ‘Shake It Off’. ‘Where’s the banjo gone?!’, I panicked. But then I gave it another listen, and she won me over like she always does.
It’s the Taylor we know and love, doing her thing bigger and better than ever before. Saying she can’t branch out from country music is like saying a writer can only write poetry and never try writing a play, or that a painter can only paint in watercolours and not try their hand at oils. In the video for the song, she is simultaneously celebrating the awesome skills of all kinds of different dance genres, while laughing at her own inability to keep up with their cool moves.
‘Selling millions of records doesn’t make me feel cool’, Taylor says in this outtakes video. This song is such an incandescently joyful celebration of ‘dancing to the beat of your own drum’. I love the bit at the end of the video where she dances like a goon with her fans. As Sarah Ditum wrote recently, it makes me hopeful for the future of humanity.
I wrote about how I fell in love with Taylor Swift early last year on my old blog, and I think now is a good moment to share that again. Here’s to dropping the pompoms!
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I remember the moment that I first heard a Taylor Swift song. It was the summer of 2009; I was getting ready for a party with some friends when suddenly ‘Love Story’ came on and they were singing along at the top of their voices. I winced and said something along the lines of ‘You can’t seriously like this?!’
I remember the moment that I first started liking Taylor, too. It was the autumn of 2009 and I was in a friend’s room at college. We were in a silly mood and ‘You Belong With Me’ came on and we just started dancing like no one was watching. From that moment on, listening to Taylor made me feel happy – all I had to do was to forget about what it was cool or not cool to be into, and just let myself enjoy it. ‘Love Story’ remained one of my least favourite songs (the whole point of Romeo and Juliet is that their families hate each other and it’s a tragedy – hardly a love story I’d like to emulate), but, as I quickly discovered, this girl can really write a tune. And you know what, if you’re not taking it all too seriously, you start to see the skill in her lyric writing, too. I love the line in ‘Fearless’ that goes ‘[You] run your hands through your hair/Absent-mindedly making me want you’. For all her clichéd moments of kissing in the rain and seeing fireworks when she makes eye contact with a hottie across a crowded room, she has a very real talent for rendering emotional moments very clearly, and for throwing in unexpectedly fresh lines that give a depth to what, at first glance, looks pretty shallow.
I tried to keep my Taylor loving in a special guilty pleasures box for a while, along with Michael Bublé (he has a voice like melted chocolate!) and B*witched (their album was the first album my older sister ever owned on tape, and who doesn’t love doing a little Irish jig to that bridge in C’est La Vie?!). But recently, she’s been escaping from that box more and more, and the more I see and hear of her, the more I admire her and am not ashamed to admit it.
I love the way she doesn’t try to act cool and cover up her wide eyed enthusiasm about things, her borderline crazy keen crushes, and her snappy way with words. Her lyrics aren’t necessarily groundbreaking, but they give you the comfortable sense that you’ve found a friend who understands you, and assigns value to your emotional experiences. Occasionally, you recognise with a pleasant shock something you’ve experienced over and over again parcelled up into a neat little one liner: ‘[You're] So casually cruel in the name of being honest.’ As the New York Times writes, ‘Ms. Swift has excelled at capturing the fresh sting, as if arriving at a feeling for the first time.’
Taylor has a talent for writing catchy tunes and lyrics that have more substance and humour to them than your average young pop star. She’s playful, intense, giddy, overdramatic, a hopeless romantic who can poke fun at herself with lines like: ‘You would hide away and find your peace of mind/with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’. People make fun of her for being so surprised and excited when she wins awards, and I love her response: ‘It’s just hard when you get excited about stuff. It’s like, if you win an award, isn’t that crazy? … How do you sit there and be like “Oh, another Grammy. I guess I’m gonna get that now”?’
Oh, Taylor! I really get that. I get being so excited about a new friend that you develop a kind of friend crush and act a little too keen. How many times in life does our fear of how we’ll come across to others prevent us from saying something nice to someone, or doing something nice for them? Half the time we don’t make the effort to reach out for fear of looking ‘uncool’ or weirdly intense. What is ‘cool’, anyway, and why does it matter? My favourite people in the world are genuinely so interested in others, having so much fun, that they don’t seem to waste any thought or energy worrying about whether or not other people think they’re ‘cool’.
I have this theory that there are two types of people in the world, the wavers and the nodders. The nodders don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to rejection, so they opt for a non-committal nod when they see someone they know in the street, whereas the wavers throw caution to the wind and flap their arms around happily (rather awkward if someone ignores you and you end up having to pretend you were fighting with a pigeon or something). Taylor is a waver through and through, and I love that she is inspiring other people to be a little more open-hearted and starry-eyed, too. She is the physical embodiment of the fearlessness I wrote about in my blog post ‘Our secret weapon, or Making lemonade’.
Taylor’s goofy, fearless, anti-cool is special because it’s so rare in the world of pop; it invites people to be kind to themselves and to others in a way that goes so far beyond Lady Gaga’s acceptance of misfits (I would feel far too uncool to hang out with Lady Gaga, but I get the impression you could have just as much unselfconscious fun with Taylor dressed up for the Grammys as you would do in your PJs at a girls’ night in). Whatever she’s singing about, Taylor always makes you feel like she’s on your side, or that you’re in on a joke together. She’s not competing with you; she’s your biggest cheerleader.
In a culture inundated with pop stars like the Pussy Cat Dolls gyrating to the lyrics ‘Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’, Taylor stands out as an unexpected slap-in-the-face type of reminder that we women really are in this empowerment business together, and ‘sexy’ is way overrated. Stars who can’t seem to stop pouting long enough to show any personality bother me, not because they’re pretty or sexy, but because their public lives seem to be about striking one long attractive pose, perpetuating the idea that women in their ideal form are empty vessels for male sexual fantasy. It’s the same issue that I wrote about in relation to what makes a woman funny – she has to be able to stop thinking about whether or not she’s coming across as sexually desirable. Kate Winslet and Tina Fey are just two examples of gorgeous, funny, clever, and personality filled women who show up the idea that some women are just too gorgeous to play a diverse range of characters or to make themselves look foolish as the fallacy that it is.
Taylor’s song (a bonus track on the Target exclusive edition of her latest album, Red) ‘Girl At Home‘ is such a refreshing break from the rest of popular culture. In this song, Taylor stands up to the false idea that desire is something that should dictate how we behave, without any thought to how our actions might impact someone else. ‘I just want to make sure you understand perfectly you’re the kind of man who makes me sad’, she says to the sleaze bag who tries to make a move on her despite having ‘a girl at home’. ‘I don’t even know her, but I feel a responsibility to do what’s upstanding and right, it’s kind of like a code, yeah?’ Oh, Taylor, I love you.
Then there’s her relentless energy, hard work, optimism, and ambition; it’s astonishing and inspiring that she has been writing her own songs and pushing for musical success from such an early age. As Jess Holland points out, ‘Let’s not forget that she started writing songs at 12 and got signed at 14. When Bob Dylan was the age she is now – 22 – he’d only just switched from covers and Woody Guthrie impressions to his own stuff. Just saying.’
And even if all of this is worthless to you, one thing you can take away from it is that Taylor Swift is the ultimate weapon against hipsters and music snobs. Seriously. Flick your hair and giggle like her and they’ll stiffen uncomfortably. Sing a line from one of her songs and they’ll start twitching. Play her music at top volume, and they’ll run a mile. It’s a fun game – trust me, I used to be that hipster, until Taylor stole my heart.