The Ingenious Melancholy of Taylor Swift

Forget "America's sweetheart" or "crossover queen" or whatever else folks may be calling her. In the spirit of Halloween, I'm going to call Taylor Swift what she really is: a witch. How else but through some strange, possibly dark magic could this 22-year-old barn swallow have so intoxicated me?

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Forget "America's sweetheart" or "crossover queen" or whatever else folks may be calling her. In the spirit of Halloween, I'm going to call Taylor Swift what she really is: a witch. How else but through some strange, possibly dark magic could this 22-year-old barn swallow have so intoxicated me with her plinky pop tunes, all sung with a voice that's one warble short of a caterwaul? Because that is what's going on, folks; over the course of a year or so I have become a decreasingly ashamed devotee of Taylor Swift's music, and her new just-released-yesterday album Red is going to do nothing to stem that tide. Nay, it encourages it. So what's going on here? What is there to love so dearly, so urgently about a t(w)een sensation's stable of goopy hits? Let me try to explain.

First off, it has nothing to do with all the coded nonsense. Yes, most of Swift's songs are at least partially autobiographical (I don't think they're quite as literal as some people take them to be) and there's a game in trying to figure out which lyric is about which of her famous ex-boyfriends. She doesn't really make it that hard, and it's not like we've dozens to choose from. There's the Jonas boy, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, maybe one or two I'm forgetting, and the current squeeze, 18-year-old high school junior and lordly heir to a tragic fortune, Conor Kennedy. In her hints, Swift is both direct and glancing enough to make the guessing a game, but not an obfuscating or enigmatically frustrating one. She even puts codes in the liner notes of her CDs, hinting at the mystery man (or sometimes woman, a BFF or two) who's the subject of the ditty. I get why all that glossy detective work is a good time, but that's not what connects me to Swift's music.

Really I'm not that interested in her personal life as it relates to her artistic output. Sure it's lots of fun to look at pictures from Hyannis Port (or "Hyiannis Port," in Taylor's coded misspelling from Red's liner notes) and imagine a whole Taylor Swift-invades-Camelot narrative. And yeah it's funny to read about her overly cutesy home life, or at least what she presents as her overly cutesy home life. But that Taylor Swift, the public curiosity Taylor Swift, isn't the one that I connect to on a, gulp, emotional level. That Taylor Swift is just some 22-year-old faux-modest celebutante who will curry our attention for a time until we move on to whatever else. The music, though, the actual songs, might be more timeless than that.

Here's the thing about Taylor Swift's music: It makes me nostalgic for things I've never done and never felt. She, and her legion of producers, are geniuses at crystallizing an imagined, shared adolescent past that maybe existed for no one, but that we all yearn for despite, or because of, that fact. Her second album, 2008's Fearless, was a sappy-sweet paean to fumbly teenage years, ones chock full of crushes and swoony longings and all that gossamer stuff that I'm sure someone, somewhere, experienced to a degree, but did the heart ever ache as sweetly and earnestly as it does in "Fifteen" or did the tale ever seem as star-crossed or fate-kissed as it does on "Love Story" or "You Belong With Me"? That Swift started in country music should come as no surprise. The genre, at its best and at its worst, peddles a fantasy America that is as ideal and wholesome as we've always wanted small town America to be, while also nodding to common hardships in a way that is, rather magically, both grounding and elevating. That's Swift's trick on a song like "Fifteen" — she sings nicely about crushes and first love and all that, then wails knowingly about the dangers of going too far with a boy (her early-career mini-obsession with purity has earned her some completely justified backlash) in a way that, strangely, also gives the Bad Story the sheen of a gauzy memory from the dearly departed past. And this is all done by a girl who barely ever went to a "normal" high school, constantly on the road and songwriting in Nashville as she was. In those earlier days, Swift proved herself a master storyteller, seemingly confessional while appealing to the broadest of colloquial, generic fantasies. It's potent stuff.

On her 2010 release, Speak Now, Swift went darker, or at least slightly more mature, just as her theoretical core fanbase entered the latter half of their high school years. The glittering first loves of Fearless had faded and blown away and left only the bittersweet regret of "Back to December," while Swift's own personal life inspired such kiss-off anthems as the kitschy "Mean" or the John Mayer barn-burner "Dear John." Her music was never abjectly sad, though. There is always a late-song swell that curls the music up into inspirational, this-is-me-growing territory, making these the perfect songs for more pensive than usual nighttime car rides with friends, or, y'know, having that third glass of wine while home alone on a Thursday. I might not have any analogous experience to what she's murmurating about, but that's beside the point. The point is that Swift seems, convincingly enough, to be singing about Youth, as a massive and monolithic identity, and there's something undeniably effective about that. Who doesn't want to relate to learning through heartbreak, gaining experience and wisdom on this bumpy beautiful road of life? Swift is remarkably adept at plugging into that particular brand of bleary melancholy, the sentiment that extols both how wonderful and terrible it is to grow up.

Now on her latest album, Red, Swift has fully left behind the trappings of high school and is now a young woman. If she were a normal kid, Swift would, at 22, most likely be just out of college, suddenly truly independent and stumbling around in the grownup world. The prototypical Swift fan might still be mired in dorm life, but Swift has elided those years. She's now out of her childhood bedroom, out from under her parents' and other authority figures' watchful eyes, and that shows in her music. She goes full pop on a song like "22", but somehow manages to lose none of the This Is Our Youth heart-swell of her earlier, more innocent songs. In "22," a pre-gaming, rum shots-and-hair dryers thumper, Swift sings about going out on the town with friends and meeting dangerous guys (these days that's naughty fun, rather than woefully bad, as it was in "Fifteen"), but still manages to sneak the line "We're happy free confused and lonely in the best way" into the song. This is not just some toss-off night, my friends. This is an age-defining, beginning-of-the-world evening of free-spiritedness. Don't we all want to remember our early twenties like that? As glorious mad dashes through the night, arms locked with our friends', unburdened by the mundane injustices and struggles of life, but ever enlivened by the truly dramatic bits, painful as they may be. Swift again creates a fantasy of living, one that's as addictive as it is, perhaps, ultimately false. There she is again making me want to dive back into an age that wasn't actually at all like that. (Twenty-two, for me anyway, was mostly, "I'm broke and oh god I can't believe I have to work every day until I'm 65.") Maybe some people did have the blissful-if-splintery experience that Swift is singing about, but I'd guess that most people just wish they had. Or, in the case of her younger fans, simply can't wait to.

This is Swift's evil gift. She can sell millions of records because of their doors-everywhere accessibility, and yet she somehow finds a way to needle, to pinpoint a particular spirit or feeling that, to the more susceptible among us at least, directly speaks to something specific and exposed within us. How did she know that that was how I felt? The reason that Taylor Swift has become a sensation is not just because she is a good, canny pop song writer, which she is, but because she is somehow beyond-her-years wise about how she'll want to think of a particular age before she's even done living it. She sings from an eerie remove, as if she's somehow had contact with her future self and that Taylor, the older wiser Taylor, has told her to revel in the here-and-now while also never taking her eyes off the way the bigger picture is turning out. How else could she know, at 22, that she'll one day want to look at what she's doing as "miserable and magical"? Miserable, sure. But magical? No, it normally takes a few years to arrive at magical. It's interesting to watch Swift grow up through her music, but it's also a little unsettling. She seems awfully good at growing up, doesn't she? Sure her millions of dollars and international fame probably helped her confidence and sped up the aging process a bit, but despite all the isolation of fortune and success, she still manages to drill through it all and hit bone. Our bones. Kids' bones. Everyone's bones! Are we feeding off of her, or she off of us?

You might not go for all this stuff. You might think it's silly and corny and cheesy and pandering and whatever else. And you're probably right. And you're lucky. But after months and months of saying about any particular Swift tune, "Oh, I just think it's a fun song," I'm ready to admit that, no, it's not just a fun song. Something about Taylor Swift's earnest, dorky, possibly exploitative music rattles me in a sincerely emotional way. Again, the two of us have no experience or really even any subject in common, but the way her plaintive squeak of a voice deconstructs her experiences while also vaunting them up to the immortal heavens of memory is something that, helplessly, gets me nearly every time. I don't know if I'm convinced that there is, somewhere past Swift's looking-glass, actually a world in which adolescence is as epic and prettily profound as she makes it seem, but it can be nice, on occasion, to imagine that there is. Where bad things burn but don't leave scars, where every ill is an empowering lesson, a place we will one day look back upon with a perfect, gleaming ache. I was never one for photos when I was younger—too self-conscious or something—so Taylor Swift's pictures of those years will have to suffice. I know they're not of me, I know that I'm out there past the frame somewhere, but, that's O.K. They're plenty nice to look at anyway.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.