It’s been almost 2 decades since Taylor Swift released Debut, and a very long time since my sister and I lazed around in our shared room in Delhi all summer, Limewire-ing songs like ‘I’d Lie’ and ‘Should’ve Said No’.
Much like the rest of the world, I have watched Taylor Swift grow up, and have become increasingly fascinated by how her career is the product of a perfect collision of genius and fate. But the reason I can’t stop listening to her is a little different — and it has as much to do with me as it does with her. Let me explain.
I’ve always felt like my feelings — all kinds, joy, grief, the highs, the lows — are so much bigger than me. To be cursed with intensity means that every emotion jumps out of my body, sits in my hands, and begs that something be done with it. I can’t just trivialize it by feeling it and letting it go, as therapists all over the world recommend. I need to somehow validate its bigness. I need a witness to marvel, as one would marvel at a mountain or the deepest depths of the sea, at the way this emotion is impossibly larger than life. I need to feel justified in my experience of it. I need something outside of me to know that this has happened to me.
But that, of course, is neither rational nor possible. So sometimes I talk to my friends, sometimes I create art and music, sometimes I perform the lonely task of validating myself. This leaves me with a chronic feeling of being half-understood. Every now and then, it makes me cave into myself — dealing with the shadowy parts of me in silence.
Taylor Swift, on the other hand, is openly as unhinged as I am about her emotions. And she has made it her life’s mission to make sure that the entire world understands their bigness. She has perfected the art of letting her anger and longing and happiness grow and grow beyond her, seeping into people’s bodies as they sing along to her songs. The singer and storyteller is in fact an illusionist, articulating her fiercest emotions with such conviction that they become ours- and with such earnestness that we never forget them, humming decade-old songs as if the memories that birthed them were our own, too.
In 2011, Taylor was recovering from what seemed like a particularly nasty breakup with the much older (and self admittedly asshole-ish) John Mayer. She sang in the ‘Dear John’ bridge during one of her concerts,
“All the girls that you’ve run dry
Have tired, lifeless eyes
‘Cause you burned them out
But I took your matches before fire could catch me,
So don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town”
As she screamed the last line, the world in her vicinity erupted — fireworks shot up into the sky, thousands of people in the crowd cheered at the top of their lungs, the electric guitar in the background levelled up in intensity — and her lone voice prevailed louder than it all, reliving her personal battle in almost-wailing ad-libs. In that moment, every single person present at the concert bathed, reveled, and found themselves in the fact that a young girl had retained her brightness in the face of a broken love. She stood in her power despite the odds, and made it such that the world had no choice but to acknowledge this journey.
In Enchanted, she repeats seemingly endlessly, ‘please don’t be in love with someone else’. A decade later in New Year’s Day, she sings over and over again, ‘please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere’. Even later, in Cornelia Street Live from Paris, she sings the single line: ‘I hope I never lose you’. We’ve all felt the desperate longing of such love. When Taylor Swift feels this feeling, however, she is compelled to get the world to feel the impossible depth of it all — very much in its entirety. Her desperation is measured in millions of voices singing back to her, not quiet nights spent alone.
She justifies in the childlike scream of ‘Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first’, that not having agency over the formative years of your life — something more women have gone through than not — is deserving of a tantrum, its echoes ringing across continents. When a man tells her that he prefers to date younger women like herself, she quotes him, dripping with spite, in what becomes the longest #1 charting song on the Billboard top 100 in US History.
When the internet ‘canceled’ Taylor Swift, she seemingly longed for vindication so intensely that she went into isolation, and came back into public view and made her audience bop to songs about narcissists with gunshot sounds and snake visuals – all encompassing the rebirth of a lone woman’s reputation. When she lost her Masters, she returned in the Folklore-Evermore era using every ounce of power and fandom she had accumulated up until that point in her career to turn the situation into a once-in-a-lifetime marketing win. She sang to the wife of the man who wronged her,
“The master of spin has a couple side flings
Good wives always know
She should be mad, should be scathing like me
But no one likes a mad woman”
In turning her revenge into a song, she once again ensured that the world not only witnessed, but participated in her vindication. Voices from across the globe confirmed to her that yes, what happened to her was wrong. Unfair things have happened to all of us. The relief of acknowledgement, however, is exceedingly rare.
Perhaps the most telling song title referencing what I write about here is ‘My Tears Ricochet’. She sings about how in navigating the mess of her personal and professional lives, she is ready to leave without grace, letting her emotions win and forever taint every person and decision that wronged her. She predicts that her pain will harness the energy of countless people who have felt that way too, and ricochet in the most spectacular way. Sure enough, an ever-rising number of streams and a Grammy later, they do.
Love notes on billboards at Times Square. Turning your person into a temple, a mural, a sky. Stadiums of people feeling feelings back to you. Reflections on overwhelming grief slotted in perfect rhymes and sung by millions. Wielding unimaginable power to scream into the world, not a void, about how you feel, and making it feel it too. The bigness of one person’s emotions taking over life itself — the only thing that, finally, validates them in a way that feels adequate. That’s how I think our emotions long to be treated. I witness that happening, in real time, when I listen to Taylor Swift’s music. And that’s why I do.