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"All Too Well" is Taylor Swift's best song, and I will fight you if you claim otherwise

Okay, it might be "Blank Space" actually

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Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 27 2020

17 min read

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A few weeks ago, I made a momentous personal realization about myself: I am a huge — I mean HUGE — Taylor Swift fan.

Telling people this honestly felt a little like coming out as a trans woman, simply because I had tried to deny this part of myself for so long that most people were already picking up what I was putting down. “Oh, I’m not a Taylor Swift fan,” I would say, “But she’s written some good songs. By which I mean ‘all of them.’” Or I might say, “I don’t know that I’m a Taylor Swift fan, but I find absolutely everything about her wonderful, including all of the things about her that are terrible, which are extremely similar to the ways in which I am terrible. Why are you looking at me like that?”

I had tried so very hard, over the years, to deny this part of myself. But when I started as the culture editor at Vox in the summer of 2014, we were right on the cusp of 1989 — aka the peak of Swift’s stardom so far — and former Vox reporter Kelsey McKinney, who was assigned to my pod (and remains a wonderful all-around human), knew so much about Swift that I gradually gave in to the undertow swirling around my subconscious and went all in.

It was a highly convenient time to do so. 1989 is still probably the easiest Swift album to like, largely free of both the adolescent whinging that defined her early albums and the thornier relationship with both the media and herself that has defined the albums that came after. (To be clear: I am a #teen, and I think adolescent whinging is awesome, but it definitely makes, say, Speak Now harder to take. That said, the way the media narrative became all about which boyfriends each song was about — understandable because of how Swift all but invited this kind of speculation, but maybe kind of sexist!)

1989 is also Swift’s hookiest album, blending her songwriting craft (and ear for great songwriting craft in others, which is its own separate and important skill!) with pop production that wasn’t unprecedented in her career but felt sunny and optimistic in a way that befitted the predominant pop culture take on the late Obama era. What’s more, it came out exactly in a window when the media became briefly fascinated by white feminism without quite being ready to push beyond that to examine all of the ways whiteness infected the ideology. And, like, I say this as an extremely white woman: Taylor Swift is an extremely white woman. (Have you heard the spoken world interludes she crams into so many of her songs? It’s incredibly “white Midwestern mom who’s learned a rap where she lists the books of the Bible.”)

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So 1989 was a good album (I still think it’s her best so far), but it also had that ineffable quality of coming out at exactly the right moment to ride a whole bunch of waves to end up feeling omnipresent. It was the kind of pop culture phenomenon that was so massive that it carried within it an automatic sense of a moment that was drawing to a close. Her dominance felt both like the ultimate triumph of poptimism and a certain sign of its inevitable decline. You knew things would never be this big for her again, that announcing oneself as a Taylor Swift fan in 2014 was cool in a way that announcing oneself as a Taylor Swift fan in 2020 might result in people saying, “Really?”

Partially this is because one can never just be a fan of Swift’s music, because she makes her whole… deal inseparable from her music. This is part of a double standard in how we talk about men and women’s art — women’s art is automatically assumed to be much more confessional, even when it isn’t — but I’m not sure it’s unfair to Swift, who, again, invites at least some of these comparisons via hints hidden in her liner notes or whatever. (I’d roll my eyes at this if my inner #teen girl wasn’t so enthralled by the thought of her setting every man she’s ever dated on fire.)

But the reason Swift’s persona informs her music (and vice versa) is because so much of what she writes is almost unsettlingly intimate, like she’s sitting down with you and staring intently into your eyes as she strums a guitar and sings about both her personal failings and yours. This is, needless to say, my favorite form of artistic achievement. (As a friend recently told me, “You make these huge personal confessions, and they’ll just be buried in the review of some TV show’s third season,” which, fair. Also, am I asking you to call me the Taylor Swift of TV criticism? I’m not not asking that.)

And I think it’s telling how much Swift has turned this unsettling intimacy into her core strength. She’s a terrific songwriter, as mentioned, but her voice is a little thin (listen to some of her earliest albums and you’ll become convinced she’s got a barely passable voice), and she’s not a good dancer. There’s something stiff and awkward about her every movement, but all of that only adds to her authenticity. She’s compensating for a lack of sheer technical precision with honesty, but she’s never quite being as honest as she might be. We think we know Taylor Swift. We don’t know her at all.

Is it the part of the newsletter where I talk about myself? It’s the part of the newsletter where I talk about myself.

In 2013, Taylor Swift performed the song “Closer” with Tegan and Sara, its originators, at her concert in Los Angeles. It was part of Swift’s borderline mercenary effort to ingratiate herself to corners of the pop music community she might not have overlapped with otherwise, part of the “welcome to the stage!” era of her career (brilliantly parodied in this video).

The “welcome to the stage” era was indicative of Swift’s turn toward “my gal pals are so much more important to me than any guy could ever be!” path in the 2010s. Swift uses friendship like a weapon — you always sense she really does mean what she says about her girl friends, but also that she can never escape the sheer fame gap between her and everybody she knows. You can never quite escape the thought that Swift isn’t building friendships but cultivating them, finding those who will fit a presumed image of herself and cycling them in and out of the friendships closest to her core. To be Taylor Swift’s friend is to become a recurring player in a national psychodrama, even today, when she’s become a bit more under-the-radar (if anyone like Swift can be called “a bit more under-the-radar”).

And yet this was always part of the appeal to me about Swift. I, too, felt like I was picking friendships at random, trying to solve the equation of what friend group would make me feel more complete and always ending up frustrated. I felt a deep ambivalence about Swift; I sometimes thought we were the same person, except for all of the ways we weren’t.

And by “deep ambivalence,” I mean that I loved her music, but I didn’t know a way to talk about that, because loving her music felt too close to the heart of something I couldn’t figure out. One summer, to work on a writing project with a teen girl protagonist, I listened to her bully-targeted ICBM of a song “Mean” (written about a music critic!) over and over and over again, and it felt like the song I needed in that moment, like it vibrated on a frequency that might draw me out of this universe and into another one.

I was this way, often, with pop culture made by or centered on women before I came out. It would feel a little like watching a scary movie between your fingers. You could sense what was going on, but if you looked directly at it, something bad might happen. There was an emotional directness in Swift’s songs that felt like it spoke to me, and I didn’t really know what to do with that, because knowing what to do with that would mean knowing what to do with the parts of myself that didn’t fit yet. I felt more comfortable with, say, the distant emotional grandiosity of Arcade Fire or the grubby intellectualism of The Hold Steady, both because their music was great and because the music critic intelligentsia made it more socially acceptable for anybody (least of all a seeming man trying to construct an identity out of pieces of pop culture chosen for him by others) to glom onto those bands. And still Taylor Swift was sitting there, with her fucking guitar, and staring at me in a way those bands weren’t.

So anyway: Tegan and Sara, Los Angeles 2013.

I watched the video of the “Closer” performance because I really liked the song “Closer” and because it was an acceptable way to consume Taylor Swift content with just enough of a distancing effect to not have to look at her or at myself. But the video also made me sense the person I really was, buried deep inside of myself. It was the way she moved, I think, hopping about the stage like she was a particularly complicated Muppet who required operation by several different puppeteers. Her stiffness, her “not quite human” quality — they real to me in a way that other people never quite bought. I remember thinking “She doesn’t know how to be a person,” and then hearing a voice deep inside myself say, “You don’t know how to be a person either.”

I stopped the video about halfway through. I had this bolt of clarity that I loved Taylor Swift so much because she, too, was a tall, blonde, white woman fighting her way through a series of systems designed to keep her safe for mass consumption to express something closer to the person she really was. She would begin that process the next year, when she released 1989 and began definitively breaking with her past. I would start doing the same around the same time, and even if the two of us ended up in vastly different places, I’m glad she was there, a gawky North Star who somehow became a massive celebrity.

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Somewhere in the middle of writing Arden, season two, I became convinced that we needed to pay for the rights to have a character perform Swift’s “Mine,” a song that had once reduced me to emotional rubble in a 7/11 at 2 in the morning (this is a story for another time). Paying for the performance rights would be expensive — though not nearly as expensive as trying to license the song proper — but my creative collaborators agreed with me that it sounded worth doing.

But, then, this made sense. When I once tried to jokingly write off my Swift fandom, co-creator Sara Ghaleb fixed me with a dead-on stare and said, “Emily, we do not fuck around about Taylor Swift.” We eventually abandoned the above idea in favor of something similar but more emotionally satisfying for the character in question (once the episode is live, I’ll tell you what the original idea was). But the idea of Swift as this emotional touchstone in the life of one of our characters made me realize that for as much as my public-facing self didn’t dare say so, my shadow self, my real self, was spending the past 10 years building a life where this dumb pop star mattered so much to her.

Of course, that was happening to lots of women (and men!) in the 2010s. That emotional intimacy that made me feel as though Swift spoke only to me applied to so many of her other fans as well. That’s the thing that separates people who become as mega-famous as Swift did from all of the other famous people — there’s a quality to them that feels a little like having a friend who can speak only to you.

So even though Swift is not a direct presence in our second season (I think we reference her a couple of times), she’s still all over the playlist we made to help us get in the right mindset to write our characters. Listening to her best songs feels a little like what we wanted our show to feel like this season — unguarded and off-kilter but also shot through with this wounded immediacy that you can only look at between your fingers.

(Also, “Love Story” is about Ralph and Julie from season one.)

I do not really think that Swift has ever quite escaped the degree to which her every move feels calculated to her detractors, but she’s seemed looser to me in the last few years, as she’s settled in to both adulthood and a long-term relationship that seems to have stuck. She remains dogged by rumors and the tabloid press, but she also no longer seems like she has much to prove, and her occasional stabs at, say, political statements have been fumbling centrism, but in a vaguely agreeable way.

She’s also been, to the surprise of at least a few, one of the leading voices in pushing back against the way the music industry has become an incredibly hard place to make money unless you have Taylor Swift levels of fame — and has also seen her own back catalog torn from her in a way that has demonstrated how little control artists have over their own art once they go corporate (and Swift went corporate at 15). She has stopped trying to play the underdog and in so doing has shown the ways in which she actually is an underdog. Even if you think this is a calculated move, it’s a smart calculation in our age of corporate malevolence.

Or maybe I feel like she’s grown looser because I’ve grown looser, and I identified so closely with her in my wilderness years that I’m now projecting my own identity back onto her. I no longer feel like my friendships have to solve for X, and somehow, slowly but surely, I’ve built my own gang of gal pals. The things I thought I saw in her music are things I didn’t want to see in myself, and now that I’ve seen them, it’s become easier to admit how much I do love that music.

I don’t really dare imagine that Taylor Swift and I have much in common (though, again, if you want to call me the Taylor Swift of TV criticism, this is highly encouraged), but I did once write:

Professionally, I have always tried to be as open as possible in my writing, to let my criticism be obviously informed by myself. It is impossible to write about something as personal as art without revealing at least something of yourself, after all. But now I am also correcting a misconception. The real reason I have always shared so much, I think, is that I knew I wasn’t really sharing myself. If I could build up trust by telling every truth except one, no one would ever guess I was hiding something.


Hiding the truth in plain sight feels like something Taylor Swift might understand. If you’re reading this, Taylor, let’s be gal pals. I feel like we’d get each other.

xoxo,

Emily VanDerWerff

(Oh, right, and Taylor Swift’s best song — and a big touchstone for me as I wrote Arden season two — is “All Too Well” from Red, which is this gorgeous lost love song filled with perfect little details that has almost a Bruce Springsteen feel. Swift and Springsteen are surprisingly similar songwriters, I’ve found, working in wildly different musical idioms, and the sooner you accept that 1989 is her Born in the USA, the better you will truly understand her. But, like, “Blank Space” slaps, too. I’m not going to deny that.)

Important programming note: For the next three Mondays, I’m going to be tackling topics that are vaguely related to the second season of my scripted fiction podcast Arden, then asking you to give me money to make the second season of Arden. You can read more about the show here, but suffice to say season two will tackle rural America, trans issues, asexuality, big agribusiness, and waterfowl — among many, many, many other things. (I should mention that we’re a comedy? Also a mystery? Also a romance? As befitting a project I’m working on, we are a confusing jumble of tones.)

You can donate here. If you donate any amount, you will be privileged to receive the story of the time Roger Ebert almost got me fired.

Read this: Do you read everything Eve Ettinger writes? You should. She’s one of my favorite writers working today, and she dissects the intersection of the American mainstream with Christian fundamentalism with razor-sharp precision. Her latest, on Dave Ramsey, is incredible.

It’s like the story of the mouse and the cookie: Dave Ramsey and his mentor, Larry Burke, gave my father the idea that debt was sinful. Because my father believed that debt was sinful, and believed God wanted him and my mom to have as many kids as possible (Quiverfull theology), they were too broke to help me pay for college. Because of this anti-debt theology, I wasn’t allowed to take out student loans myself, and had to attend a really conservative Christian college because it was so cheap and the school gave me a good scholarship package. The school also didn’t allow students to take out federal student loans (given their conditional exemption from Title IX). Because I went to that college, I met my boyfriend, who had private student loans because his family was too rich for him to get a scholarship package. Because my boyfriend had student loans, my father tried to break us up. Because my father tried to break us up, we got married in a rush. Because we got married in a rush, his family gave us a wedding gift of paying for us to take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class. Because we took that class and were shamed into agreeing with Ramsey’s teachings by our parents, we spent all our undesignated remaining funds after rent and bills paying off my ex-husband’s student loans and didn’t have any bills in my name because I didn’t have a credit score, and ate cheaply at home and lived in a shitty illegal basement apartment in DC with a former Nazi as our landlord. Because I didn’t have a credit score, when I needed to leave my husband, I couldn’t rent an apartment of my own, and because we’d been paying off his student loans, I didn’t have savings to buy my own a car to commute to work. Because… because because because.


Watch me: I have always loved Kelsey McKinney and Joe Posner’s video dissecting the music video of Swift’s “Style,” which they made in 2015. It remains one of the things I have loved working on (even the tiny bit I worked on it) at Vox.

And another thing… Don’t want to donate to the IndieGoGo for Arden, season two? I don’t blame you. I should not be encouraged. But if you’d rather give to another terrific campaign, consider either of these projects by trans artists — Melody Danielle Rice is raising $2,500 to make a feature film with 23 days to go and the new audio drama Fireside Folktales has only a handful of days to go in its campaign and just over $600 to raise on its way to a $2,000 goal. Consider supporting either of these projects!

This week’s reading music: “Cornelia Street” by Taylor Swift

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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