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.