It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and I’m standing outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, frantically refreshing StubHub on my phone while bartering with a scalper for his final two tickets to the event inside. Before I can talk him down to the amount of cash I have on hand, an excited couple swoops in and buys the tickets. They head inside, where Taylor Swift is taking the stage.
The clock has struck midnight on my hopes to see one of my most anticipated events of the year and I must walk home in the dark, defeated. How in the hell did we get here?
My first job out of college in 2006 was as a disk jockey at a country music radio station in Enid, Oklahoma. I had no familiarity with the genre, other than to know it wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed. During my time at the station, I became quite familiar with the format, and while most of the music failed to win me over, there was one artist that stood out to me. Her name was Taylor Swift.
Swift was 16 years old at the time and had just released her debut self-titled album. Her first single, “Tim McGraw”, was named after one of the genre’s biggest stars, and while she was far from our most requested artist at the station, she certainly felt like an artist on the brink of something big.
I remember being taken aback by her maturity as a songwriter. Was a 16 year old really singing these songs? Many of her tracks were stripped down acoustic ballads and they felt like the songs from someone scarred, yet still content after years of pain. She seemed to capture the essence of country music in its simplest form. There was no flash, only the songs of a young girl who seemed seasoned beyond her years.
I still feel that sense of strength when I listen to “Teardrops on My Guitar”. The song feels familiar, and it has the unique ability to connect with listeners both young and old. We know that “Drew” is a teenage boy, but without context, he could be anyone, especially since we’ve all felt the need to laugh “’cause it’s so damn funny”. What that song captures in terms of emotion and experience is something many artists spend a career trying to achieve.
By the time Taylor released Fearless, her 2008 sophomore record, I was no longer working at a country music station – but no matter. Fearless would prove to be Swift’s true breakthrough, generating five singles, two of which were undeniable international hits. Taylor was officially here to stay, and frankly, unavoidable.
However, my respect for her craft vaporized quickly. On Fearless, Swift harnessed a number of big name co-writers and added pop elements to the mix, creating a blend that caught on quickly with a mass of listeners and blurred genre lines. Gone were the genuine, stripped down moments and in were bouncy teen-bop anthems about boy trouble. Increased radio play and MTV appearances bolstered Swift’s fame, and once Kanye rushed the stage during her VMA acceptance speech, Taylor was a bonafide superstar.
Much more than the sudden fame, I was troubled by what I interpreted as an artistic regression. It seemed as though Swift had sacrificed maturity and authenticity for dumbed-down radio hits that sounded as though they were written by a focus group. It doesn’t help when your most famous song’s chorus features the profound line, “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess / It’s a love story, baby just say, ‘yes’”. In my mind, Swift had gone from the next great country prodigy to the soundtrack to the worst knock-off Disney movie ever made.
When the just-as-successful Speak Now released in 2010, I had already made up my mind. I was the guy that used to like Taylor Swift before she sold her soul to be America’s teen idol. Even when the singles from 2012’s Red tickled my ear, I continued to write Swift off as childish and immature. I was stubborn and I was wrong.
So had Taylor Swift really become less mature as an artist, or was I just missing the point? The answer to that question didn’t become clear until last fall, when Swift released 1989. As one of the few who didn’t immediately fall in love with lead single “Shake it Off”, I’m still not quite sure why I decided to listen to the whole album upon its release. Even so, I distinctly remember listening to it. And then listening to it again. And again. That afternoon, I bought the album from iTunes. A week later, I bought the album on vinyl.
1989 was Taylor’s first official pop record – and it is a doozy. The album is a coming of age story and depicts the journey of a young woman who finally feels comfortable in her own skin. It’s wonderful pop music, but it’s also a bold artistic statement from someone who isn’t afraid to change her voice and redefine herself. Both thematically and sonically, it’s actually kind of brave.
As I wrestled through the emotional baggage that comes with falling in love with the music of the person that you once condemned, I started searching for why I felt that way in the first place. What I failed to realize (or simply just ignored) during Swift’s journey to stardom was that this was the actual journey of a real human being.
Put on the map at the tender age of 16, Swift has spent the better part of a decade growing up and finding her voice while standing in the brightest of spotlights. During that time, she also became the voice for a new generation of music lovers who hung on her every word. I just lacked the grace to see the situation for what it was.
Songs that once made my eyes roll, like “You Belong with Me”, now sound full of innocence. Tracks that once made me guffaw, like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, now make me remember my younger days and the confusion I felt. Of course, all of this fails to acknowledge the simple fact that during the majority of Swift’s career, I wasn’t her target audience, which is totally acceptable.
To put it simply – it wasn’t you, Taylor. It was me.
In the months since the release of 1989, I’ve come to love the record more than when I reviewed it last year. I’ve even come to enjoy Red (which I also purchased on vinyl), perhaps even more than 1989. Although my end-of-the-year Spotify stats won’t show it, I’ve probably listened to Taylor Swift more than any other artist in 2015. That’s a sentence I never in my life imagined that I would be typing at the age of 32. But there it is, and here we are.
When tickets went on sale late last year for the 1989 World Tour, I was still in a state of confusion about my feelings toward Taylor Swift. By the time I came to terms with the truth, tickets were selling on the secondary market for arms and legs. Alas, there would be no exorcizing of demons by crossing the threshold of Bankers Life Fieldhouse to witness Taylor Swift in person. For now, spinning those vinyl records will have to do.
It’s safe to say, her next record is already my most anticipated album of 2016. Funny how things work out.
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.