Right before an exam at MIT, I usually spend ten minutes walking down Mass Ave, from Random Hall to wherever the exam will be held. A lot of times, it’s an exam I’m nervous about. In past years, the class average was probably something like a 50% (I’m looking at you 6.046). There’ll be a great time constraint on difficult problems, and an attendant pressure building in my head that goes something like this:
You’ll have to be real creative real fast, or else you can watch your grade plummet.
It’s mostly nerves. Just the brain talking too much, overthinking things, playing out worst-case scenarios. At some point, I learned to just not pay it any attention. In those ten minutes before I’m scribbling away, I put my headphones on and I play some Taylor Swift. My go-to stress-relief jam is usually Shake It Off, and after several hums of “I shake it off, shake it off, I, I, I…”, I’m bobbing my head and feeling better already. It’s largely the lyrics, but it’s also the vehicle of the lyrics–Taylor Swift’s voice.
For at the least the past eight years, Taylor Swift has been my favorite artist (a fact I impress on everybody, family, friends, random stranger standing next to me on the bus). I’m the biggest Swiftie in existence (around the world, pitchforks rise from indignant fans, but I maintain my assertion). I have every song she’s ever released, and dozens she never officially did. I’ve spent an insane number of hours on YouTube watching her music videos, interviews, song mashups. I’ve rocked out to her everywhere, on Rock Band at Alpha Delta Phi, in the shower, while grocery shopping, probably even in my sleep. For the longest time, she’s been one of my role models.
The why is a bit tricky to explain. A lot of it is tangled in details too personal for the blogs, but some of it isn’t, and so I’ll give it a shot.
I heard my first Taylor Swift song in high school (which in Nigeria runs from grades seven to twelve). It was a boarding high school a few hundred miles away from home, and was quite strict. In particular, most electronic devices were banned–cellphones, laptops, iPods. Which just meant those devices found their way into school anyway. You just had to be really sneaky.
One of my friends snuck in his MP3 player. It had a soundtrack from a Miley Cyrus Disney movie which included the bonus song “Crazier” by Taylor Swift. I was drawn in by the the first line:
I’ve never gone with the wind, just let it flow.
It was a beautiful, laidback song and I was interested in listening to more. But it would be a few more months before my friend had more songs of hers, and in that interval, several things were happening to me. High school gets rough sometimes, especially when bounded by fences and a punishingly familiar routine. Add a sense of awkward self-consciousness and encroaching puberty, and I wasn’t always in the greatest mood.
I was at a point of particular loneliness. The kind that learns to hide its face. I could wear a smile as heavy as dumbbells and carry on with the rest of my day with that poker face, but somewhere inside, I felt isolated from most of my classmates. I spent a lot of time indoors, often perched on the floor writing what would become Sagittarius, an 1800-page all-over-the-place sci-fi series, but when I was out of that world, I didn’t care much for the one my body inhabited.
I had a small group of pretty close friends, and perhaps that should have been enough. For whatever reason, it wasn’t. Part of me was disconnected. On some days, it felt like the world around me was a mirage, illusory somehow. I was a participant, nothing more. These feelings were strange, angsty and pervasive, and in the months between Crazier and the rest of Swift’s material, they persisted.
And when I finally heard more songs from her, they were just…the right songs.
My friend got her first two albums, the eponymous Taylor Swift, released when she was 16, and Fearless, released when she was 18. From that first album, I heard The Outside and for a moment, I was certain that she had dug inside my head, explored my weird mushy state of being, and penned those words for me. Then I heard A Place In This World and Tied Together With a Smile.
These albums also contained a lot of love songs on the spectrum of heartbroken to fulfilled, and I heard those songs at the particular point in time that my wistful yearning for some amorphously defined connection intersected with notions of romance for the first time. I was at a point where I could “get” the appeal of relationships, not just as an abstract thing I recognized when I looked at my parents or any set of couples, but as something I could want and be fulfilled by. I was at the point where, even in my state of mild disconnection, seeing certain people was enough to let my mind wander, run amok, paint rosy images of our shared fairytale, Nameless Soulmate and I.
I think the simpler way to say it is this: at a critical time in my life, growing up, separated from my family and in a high school that could often be alienating, something about her songs provided companionship. I could relate to the descriptions of isolation in songs like The Outside and I could bury myself in an alternate reality, in which a cord bound my heart to someone else’s, in songs like Love Story and Fearless.
There’s something about the way the street looks when it’s just rained; there’s a glow on the pavement, you walk me to the car; and you know I wanna ask you to dance right there, in the middle of the parking lot…
Taylor Swift’s songs came to me for the first time at exactly the right time. A sort of alchemic fusion between her words, her voice, my own ill-defined needs occurred, turning admiration into something quite like idolization, and the more I got to know her (as well as one can hope to know a megastar celebrity anyway), the stronger the fusion grew.
As a kid, she handed out copies of her demos to record labels in Nashville, only to get rejections. She learned how to play the guitar and kept trying. She has a hand in writing every single song she’s ever released. Speak Now, one of my favorite albums ever, possibly my favorite album of anyone ever, had every single song in it single handedly written by Taylor Swift. Swift who would be at a scheduled meet-and-greet with fans and stay for hours beyond the allotted time, just signing autographs and talking to them. Swift who would devote so much time, affection and care to her craft, to her fans, to herself. She became my role model, and still is to this day.
Now, a common rhetoric that arises whenever Taylor Swift comes up is that she’s part of a money-making industry, and ruthlessly cultivates a potentially disingenuous image. That may very well be the biggest flaming pile of nonsense I’ve ever heard. When that much time, effort and affection has been exuded on her part, consistently, day after day, year after year, the image and the person behind the image are virtually indistinguishable. Who people are is often a consequence of what they do, and what she does is write great music, and put real smiles on the faces of millions of people worldwide. She isn’t perfect, but she shouldn’t be expected to be. What she is, is real. Real to me.
Her lyrics have been a formative part of my life since I was 12 and blasting her songs. Often, I’d lock myself in a bathroom in high school, and just play her on repeat. Her voice became familiar and comforting, and so even in songs I couldn’t relate to as much, the vehicle for those songs that was her voice gave them all the power. And years later when I found myself in the United States, at MIT, she would accompany me. On Uber rides. At the T. Before difficult exams. Before sleep.
Sometimes, something would happen. I’d make an awful, stupid mistake and be ridiculously hard on myself. And after a while, I’d come to Innocent, from the Speak Now album, and she would let me know, again and again, that:
I guess you really did it this time
Left yourself in your warpath
Lost your balance on a tightrope
Lost your mind trying to get it back
Wasn’t it easier in your lunchbox days
Always a bigger bed to crawl into
Wasn’t it beautiful when you believed in everything.
And shortly afterward:
Time turns flames to embers
You’ll have new Septembers.
When my family was too far away, and sweet memories of them turned into sad reminiscing, I would listen to The Best Day or Never Grow Up. I can’t listen to Never Grow Up for long without tearing up:
Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room,
Memorize what it sounded like when your dad gets home,
Remember the footsteps, remember the words said,
And all your little brother’s favorite songs,
I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.
Whether it’s lines like “Time is taking its sweet time erasing you” or “You call me up just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest” from the Red Album or “Shake it off, Shake it OFF” from 1989, Swift’s lyrics find their way into my head all the time.
I’ve only seen Taylor Swift in person exactly once, and it was as part of the crowd at her 2015 concert in Santa Clara, which played the day after my Los Angeles Internship ended. I took a bus from L.A. to San Francisco, arriving there sometime in the morning. I checked into a cheap hotel room, got some quick breakfast, and made my way to Levi’s Stadium, a good several hours before she was slated to appear.
There were so many Swifties around me, many of them with incredibly sophisticated concert signs. We would talk about everything Taylor Swift, scream alongside the speakers blasting her songs while we waited. After a bit of waiting, we were let into the sitting area, which I got to see slowly fill up.
Vance Joy and Shawn Mendes were the opening acts that night, and as they sang, sunlight bled out of the sky. Night arrived. And with it, extreme excitement from knowing that she was about to spring up on us.
When she did, popping onto that stage, screams filled the stadium, mine joining a thousand others. It must have been enough to rattle the clouds. And right there, in front of us, she sang and danced. I sang and danced along, waving my arms, screaming the words, recording. I was ecstatic.
After the concert ended, the Swifties left the stadium. Finding an Uber took forever, but I eventually made it back to the hotel room, utterly worn out, my voice mostly gone. I passed out instantly, woke up the next day to a screaming alarm clock (I’d been so tired I slept through it and missed my flight to Boston; I was able to catch another one a few hours later though). It didn’t matter though. I’d seen Taylor Swift! It’s a night I’ll never forget.
There’s a certain shamelessness, a certain intensity of affection, that I think we should never constrain for the things and the people we love, things and people, whether it’s Taylor Swift or Superman, that reach into the deepest parts of us and leave their marks there. We love them because they bring that love out of us, somehow, magically, effortlessly.
And there you have it. That’s why I love Taylor Swift.