Music

Swift makes her lyrics feel like diary entries. We should read them as art.

The release of “Red (Taylor’s Version),” Taylor Swift’s rerecording of her 2012 album, has revived old talking points: Swift as the ex-girlfriend who savages her former lovers in public, whose lyrics operate as a coded form of gossip, whose expertise lies in playing the victim. Even the project of rerecording her first six albums, which began earlier this year with her 2008 album, “Fearless,” comes laden with drama: Swift is doing this to make the masters owned by her old record label, Big Machine, functionally worthless, since she could not recover them under favorable terms. (The label has since sold the masters to an investment fund.) When Swift sang the standout song on “Red,” a newly extended, 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, she ran her voice ragged with the intensity of her performance - but I’d hardly taken a breath before the “Weekend Update” segment started with a joke about her as a famously vengeful ex-girlfriend.

All of this feels like a throwback to an earlier time - back when Swift released songs that were obviously about particular people, when audiences read every album as a burn book, when “listening to Taylor Swift” was something you pretended was just for teenage girls. And it might have been inevitable that the chatter around “Red (Taylor’s Version)” would focus on Swift’s ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, the likely inspiration for “All Too Well” - he even started trending on Twitter when the album dropped. I’ll admit to laughing along at some of the jokes. But it’s also too bad.

“All Too Well” is not just Swift’s best song; it’s also her most representative. It’s a sorrowful romantic ballad about being left behind, rich in careful details - a scarf, a refrigerator light - that give it a building power. If somebody wanted to know what her whole deal was, this is the song you’d play for them. It’s representative, too, of the tricky intimacy she cultivates with her fans. In her art, in her self-presentation, Swift makes a window that’s actually a mirror: You gaze into the emotional world of her music, but all you’re seeing is yourself. Part of Swift’s appeal lies in this contradiction. In her music, she is always crying over a lost love or falling hard for a new one; in real life, Swift is so careful about her image that it took a particularly dedicated paparazzo to snap a picture of her that showed her belly button. It’s hard to imagine the woman you see acting like the woman in the songs, but it’s hard to listen to the songs without thinking, this must be how she is.

This is what artists do, of course: transform something about themselves and the world into something new that’s intimate but impersonal. But it’s easier to talk about Swift as a drama magnet than about Swift as an artist. Even when I try, I end up talking about the effect her songs have on me, not about her songs. But maybe that’s appropriate for an artist who’s always telling stories without giving herself away.

I didn’t grow up with Old Taylor, the squarely country-music performer of her first three albums. I’m not sure I paid attention to Taylor Swift one way or the other until 2013. But that spring I was heartbroken and had been for a while. I’d listened to a lot of music about being sad, but it was mostly knowing, self-deprecating: the Smiths, Aimee Mann, that kind of thing. I was sad and it was stupid to be sad and also it was my own fault. Then “Red” came onto Spotify and I thought, why not?

In its exquisite, unembarrassed attention to heartache and desire, “Red” was what I needed to hear. I liked how Swift took the subjects of her songs to task for their cowardice in not loving her, even if actually saying that to another person would be very unwise. It was how I felt, too. The songs had no intellectual take on the emotions they portrayed, no wry knowingness. They said: Feelings can’t be wrong or right, stupid or smart. Let yourself feel every inch of your grief, even if it’s dumb. You will anyway.

Swift didn’t really make the cultural jump from “guilty pleasure” to “pleasure” until her next album, “1989.” (There was a “Saturday Night Live” skit about that, too.) But as she was enjoying more critical acclaim than ever, the album left me cold. It would be impossible for somebody like Swift to “sell out” - to what, exactly? - but that was how it felt. She released “Reputation” in 2017, and I barely tuned in. The artist who had meant so much to me seemed to have disappeared. What I wanted was vulnerability, not clever music videos or immaculate but chilly pop. When I eventually went back to those albums, I realized that a lot of what I thought had gone missing was always there: What had felt savvy and sterile about “1989″ was a way of experimenting - not just with musical styles but with storytelling cut free from the particulars of Swift’s life. I’d overlooked Swift, the artist, the entire time I thought I was standing guard over her.

Now, listening to her sing “Red” all over again, it should be clearer than ever that these songs are properly regarded as art - not as diary pages, not as a revenge plot. Even aside from that, it would be easy to imagine her deciding to revisit her past work; her songs are forward-moving but backward-looking, full of anticipatory nostalgia for something that might not even be over. The songs that have benefited most from her project have been “Fifteen” from “Fearless” and “22″ from “Red”: Now Swift can properly reflect on the younger self who wrote them instead of skipping ahead in the story to imagine an older, wiser, sadder person. The lyrics’ immediacy gains strength the further she gets from the events they describe.

“All Too Well,” short or long, isn’t a song about how a guy kept your scarf. The guy doesn’t matter; he’s just the occasion. It is a song about grieving a love affair that mattered more to you than to the other party. The image of the scarf is the part of this grief that’s denial - the desperate conviction that somebody would have kept it because it meant something, instead of the more likely reason that they forgot it ever belonged to you. In the new lyrics, Swift makes this more explicit, singing, “Just between us, did the love affair maim you all too well? / Just between us, do you remember it all too well?” It’s funny to think about how that would have hit back when I first fell in love with this song - it was the question I wanted to ask and knew I couldn’t. One of the things I’ve always liked about Swift’s persona is that it’s more concerned with being in love than being loved. The price for being vulnerable that way is grief. But grief is also the reward. The only thing being invulnerable does is waste your time.

Songs aren’t feelings, though they can induce them. They’re not memoir, though they can be about real people. They’re works of art. Whatever happened between Swift and Gyllenhaal is long over. The persona she assumes on the stage is the one of the song, not her actual feelings. That devalues nothing, any more than an actor getting up and performing the same role every night devalues his lines or his performance. And yet we drag everything back to a relationship that’s been dead for 10 years. Swift is a lot of things: a tabloid regular, a pop star and yes, a dishy ex-girlfriend. But she’s also an artist. And when gossip about her and Gyllenhaal is not even a faint memory, in some future when Swift is a grande dame of music like Dolly Parton or Stevie Nicks, people will still put on “All Too Well” and sing their hearts out to it, belt it at karaoke, put it on loop while they stare at the ceiling. Because while the gossip might have brought you there, the art is why you stay.

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