I jabbed at my car’s dashboard. Preset 1. Preset 2. Preset 3. Taylor Swift was singing on every air wave throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. And we don’t even like Country! I slammed the radio off, shutting her down mid-wail. But really, there is no shutting Taylor Swift down. She is everywhere. I merged onto the 2 freeway, the silence inside my car growing thicker with every passing mile, choking me softly. I like driving to music. There is nothing better than blasting a crank-worthy pop or rock tune, windows down, hair flying as I cruise for home. And tonight I was in need of said salve; music to soothe this middle-aged woman’s aching soul. Anything—classic rock, new pop, even Old Skool R & B, but please, no more Taylor Swift! What was her genre anyway? Country? Pop? Soft Rock? Did she need to be queen of all genres? This nearly 46 year-old driver was growing increasingly more resentful towards a certain blonde mega-watt music star for monopolizing all the airwaves. Now I had to listen to the “What-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life?” anxiety whirling through my brain. She’d left me no choice but to drive home in the kind of doomed silence that leads to dangerously introspective thought which leads to cookie-dough binging which leads to the morning-after scale-weighing. And nothing good ever comes of that.
Taylor Swift. It’s all your fault.
A few years ago I watched a 60 minutes segment about Swift, as she prepared to launch her “Speak Now” world tour. Even Veteran TV reporter Lesly Stahl seemed slack-jawed at the way Swift deftly navigated her role as CEO of this undertaking. She’d vacillate adorably, frequently from impressionable 20 year-old, “Look! Sparks!” as technicians rehearsed with pyrotechnics, to an insight decades beyond her age when she spoke of her art and perspective of this life she’d been granted. It was annoying.
Swift rose to superstar status along the typical speed-of-light-trajectory that fame-craving Americans demand. There is an unspoken formula for stardom and it usually goes something like this. Take wunderkind, underage beauty (a la LeAnn Rimes) + undeniable raw talent + someone-willing-to-take-chance-on-you = overnight sensation. I wanted to ignore her. Ignore her lithe and lovely frame, (Is she naturally that thin? Does she starve herself? Does she take pills?), her gleaming Rapunzel-like tresses so fairy-tale thick, (Are they extensions? Then surely a wig!) And I wanted to ignore every moment of her red carpet dance—never a misstep, never a tumble. Designers probably clamoring to clothe her perfect size-2 frame. (Or is she a size 0? Because that would be even more perfect.) All that without ever opening her mouth.
And when she did open her mouth, she belted out hit after hit after hit, even crossing over onto the pop charts. In 2008, she scored a Grammy nod for “Best New Artist”. By age 24, she was already on her 4th album. And she writes all the freaking music herself! She storyboards her own videos! (Next up, a perfume! Scratch that. She already has one.) Swift was dating cute singer after hot star after handsome dude. Me? I was sustaining “complications” in my marriage. And the awards! Don’t even get me started. This girl with the perfectly-dewy-skin-that-never-needs-a-rice-paper-blot, masterfully strumming her guitar and crooning about t-shirts and bleachers had nothing to offer me.
Even her name was perfect. Taylor Swift. Her first name—simple, strong, perfectly androgynous—sounded like the title of Giant Corporation (which she was swiftly evolving into. Pun intended.) And her last name was an active verb! My name is a bizarre ethnic jumble. 99% of the population mispronounces my first name, and no one ever bothers to try to pronounce my last name. They just wait for me to explain it to them, annoyed that it isn’t something simple like Smith. Or Swift.
One of these reasons alone—her beauty, her talent, her social life would be reason enough to hate her. But all three? It just wasn’t fair.
Meanwhile, I didn’t understand why I knew so much about her. We have cut off our cable, I once called tweeting twatting, and I scroll Facebook mainly to see transatlantic photos of my second cousins. I am not social media savvy. I had satellite radio, but I never listened to country music. The music is pat, the lyrics mind-numbingly simple. I like music with angst, an intense guitar riff, a complicated lyric; head scratching, “But what does it MEAN?” significance. Give me a crotch-grabbing rock star over Swift and her guitar sitting on a stool like the lead in a high-school production of “Our Town” any day. By the insidious osmosis of supermarket rags, mini-TVs at the gym and flat screens in waiting areas, we have been programmed to assimilate Taylor Swift. I will reject the Swift as Soma! I will not succumb! I will not become of one of her minions!
And then the inevitable backlash hit. Singing live at the 2010 Grammys, Swift’s performance was less than stellar. Oh, let’s call a spade a spade. She bombed. And suddenly, she was a falling star, sparking out as fast as she had risen in the celebrity sky. We loved to love her, now we loved to hate her. This is part of the aforementioned recipe for success. We still have an appetite for destruction; we are gladiators at heart, even if we do dress up our dogs in tutus and paint their toenails. This was Part B of the formula for stardom: The Backlash. “She can’t sing. She can’t keep a man. She ain’t Country anymore.” For Swift, the hits just kept on coming.
This was when I began paying attention to Swift, because now she was an underdog. I understand the underdog. I am an underdog. Now, I have never personally bombed at The Grammys, but I understand a little about crawling out from underneath the weighty anvil of Public Opinion. We were suddenly sistahs.
At the next Grammy awards in 2011, she gave a performance of her hit song “Mean”. It was clearly orchestrated as retaliation dedicated to all the meanies and bullies who’d vultured over the previous year’s catastrophe. I remember the way the camera zeroed in on her eyes at the end of her performance. Swift's eyes like lasers seared the camera’s gaze, deeply, defiantly. And I thought, “Holy crap. Taylor Swift just told the whole world to Fuck. Off.”
Taylor Swift. You da bomb.
Now, I wouldn’t say I became a fan. Her music is still not my cup o’ tea, and I’m not a 20-year old male, so I have no reason to troll her videos on You Tube. But Rolling Stone described her "squirmingly intimate and true songs” to be "literally ripped from a suburban girl's diary." And 45 million Twitter followers can’t be all wrong. So I began to listen with open ears.
Once I got past the distracting filter of Auto-Tune on “I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In”, I realized I’d missed the sound of her soul tearing in heartbreak, the meaty drippings of unrequited love left on the recording studio floor. I’d missed that SNL’s parody of her stunned, open-mouthed gape at her Grammy win was only funny because she was so genuinely surprised. And I’d missed that her self-confessional lyrics were non-negotiable because she truly was an artist, one human being trying to connect with another human being. All the rest—her buffed and bedazzled façade—blinds us to the reality that she is brave enough to manifest her inner Plato and examine, write about and volunteer up her life. And innately understand Life’s just not worth living if we don’t. Even if you are worth $200 million dollars.
Can someone that famous, that accomplished, that beautiful have angst, or if she does, surely it doesn’t run as deep as mine? Isn't true angst reserved for those suffering with Ebola or the homeless? But then I wouldn’t qualify for soul-searching either. All you have to do is listen to her heartbroken howl on “Trouble” —“OH! OH! Trouble, trouble, trouble…”—to know her angst is real. And maybe it isn’t mutually exclusive. Maybe you can have angst and be happy. I know I am.
But then, I’ve never been dumped by Jake Gyllenhaal.
And so I turned the radio back on. There she was, no surprise, grinding her way through the bridge, a hyper-sexualized woman-child bringing home her recent smash, "Shake it Off!" with its infectious chorus, “Shake it off! Shake it off! AH! AH! AH! Shake it off! Shake it off!” It reminded me we all have a story. And, mine? Life was good. I was driving home to my love. The one thing she doesn’t have.