"I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone."
Taylor time (n.) - The period of time which, upon reflection, causes maximum embarrassment, shame, anger, or self-loathing.
Right now my Taylor Time is c. age 20-21, though I can feel my growing nostalgia for that period already starting to color the pain of remembering those experiences with more ambivalence and a bit of sympathy. I've been writing a "2004" entry in my Decade in Music series for months now, typing a bit here, erasing a bit there. Day to day my thoughts about that year mutate. This is my Taylor Time reaching its final resting place in nostalgia, which is certainly still apt to shift over time, but will never cause quite the visceral unpleasantness it did in the past three years of my life (I'm 26 now).
As I searched the basement in my parents' new house for a few missing box sets this past weekend (found 'em!) I also uncovered some horrendous fiction writing I did at 15 that I'd forgotten about entirely. Emily insisted on reading it, and though I expressed mock outrage and disgust, I was kind of excited to read it, too. It was truly awful -- girls with eyes blue like "lagoons" (have I ever even seen a lagoon?) and tortuously recounted yet utterly banal observations on my first romantic experiences. The detail of a technical manual and the elegance of a Penthouse Forum letter.
But it was kind of funny! I can remember writing some of that stuff (not all of it) pretty well. Long nights typing away in a blank Word document, trying out my prose, writing the most moralistic/misogynistic tripe imaginable. Not that I ever intended to show too many other people, though I am a little embarrassed to think of the people who did read it at the time (sorry Joe, sorry the-other-Emily). Thank god it wasn't on the internet (TGIWOI).
When I was 20, I threw a lot of that old stuff out in disgust -- reams of poetry "inspired" by Radiohead's liner notes to OK Computer, "humor writing," nonsensical skits and half-finished plays built around dumb titles I thought up -- "Cats and Cheese," "The Banana Effect." I was suffering through Taylor Time and 20-year-old me hated 15-year-old me. Meanwhile I was, at 20, regularly publishing stuff that, as recently as a year or two ago, mortified me enough to want to throw it out forever, too. Too bad it was on the internet (TBIWOI).
For the third or so consecutive year I've felt my Taylor Time ebbing in its severity. I didn't feel as mortified about my Taylor Time at 25 (19-20) as I did about my Taylor Time at 20 (16-17); I didn't feel as mortified about my Taylor Time at 18 (14-15) as I did at 15 when I violently reacted against a "former" me that I located at 12 or 13.
So I've been following along with some interest, and some anxiety, as Taylor Swift herself deals with her Taylor Time(s) very publicly. And I empathize to some extent with the more egregious of her material on Speak Now -- which I'm sure she, the actual human being (usually I'm referring to Taylor Swift the Persona, which may include songwriters, producers, etc.), will continue to be proud of if she ever enters an "anti-Speak Now" Taylor Time IRL. The album's often moralistic and judgmental tone and inflated sense of importance isn't unlike what I was thinking and writing like around the 2004 election. It's not a totally misplaced sense of needing to put the world to rights, either; it just doesn't seem to be grounded in the kind of acute observation that makes such calls to action or judgmental pronouncements stick. And some people can make a career on such shallow pronouncements, be it as an artist or a politician or a blowhard who talks too loud in restaurants (the guy in "Mean," say).
I'm particularly interested in seeing how her teenage period -- 13, 14, 15 -- has changed in the last two albums. We have three songs that explicitly reference each age -- "The Best Day" deals with 13, "Never Grow Up," which Chuck Eddy accurately calls "The Best Day 2," deals with 14, and "Fifteen" deals with 15. But there are quite different approaches to each age, each coming at a different period of Taylor Time, which can be identified, or at least guessed at. (And again I'll note that I'm not talking about literal intentionality here, Taylor-Swift-the-actual-person, but rather the messages that come through at different points in Taylor's career. For what it's worth, though, Taylor is credited as the songwriter on all three of these songs.)
On Fearless we have a fairly poignant and sympathetic recalling of what it was like to be 13. Taylor and mom go for a drive when girls at school are tormenting her (Taylor) and end up window shopping in another town. The tone is sympathetic, even a little pitying, but fairly realistic in its portrayal of the age -- life is cruel, Taylor is a victim. "13-year-old Taylor" escapes Taylor Time and safely lands in a nostalgia zone, with some nice reflection on both what it felt like to be 13 and on how 13 becomes a more abstract marker for her relationship with her parents.
15-year-old Taylor isn't so lucky -- despite its well-crafted narrative, the song is needlessly harsh on younger-Taylor's presumptuousness and naivete. In fact, the condescending tone here is a clear template for more songs on Speak Now, which expand the overwrought "this is life before you know who you're gonna be." The idea here is a common one -- childhood and adulthood are clearly delineated periods, with adolescence getting its own special "period" devoted to the transition; hence, we don't know "who we're going to be" until we're closer to adulthood. But in fact there are aspects of ourselves at 15 -- at seven, maybe at birth -- that do suggest to us, even as we think about it at the time, what we're going to be. There is some knowledge that we have at fifteen that won't change dramatically. And there is some knowledge that we have after fifteen that will change dramatically when we're thirty or forty or fifty or seventy (I hope -- now who's being presumptuous?).
Taylor's just reacting to her Taylor Time. She's upset with the girl in fifteen; she wants to go back and tell her something, as if telling her will "solve" whatever problems need to be solved. Whereas in "Best Day" Taylor understands what the problem was and what the "solution" (such as it is) was for her as well.
And then we get to the less subtle "Never Grow Up," where Taylor is 14 and embarrassed to be seen with mom, asks to be dropped off a block from the movie theater so no one will even see the two of them together. This is one year after the window-shopping and a year before Taylor has the world all figured out (but not really! BE CAREFUL YOU'RE GONNA GET BURNED TAYLOR!).
Now something kind of radical happens -- fourteen seems infantile compared to both 13 and 15. The nostalgia is so strong -- for PJs and la-la-la -- that there doesn't seem to be any distinction between childhood and adolescence at all. Which I find interesting, since "The Best Day" is essentially marking that split, quite acutely and painfully, without harshly judging Taylor at 13 (and letting Taylor at 3 be the fuzzy stuff of home movies and its accompanying "received memory," which I'm sure Taylor doesn't distinctly recall herself without the aid of what I'd assume is a Hi-8 or VHS video camcorder -- c. 1990, right?).
So there's something like an overreaction to a Taylor Time that as recently as her last album was practically throttling Taylor-at-fifteen (on "Fifteen") and is now treating Taylor-at-fourteen as the last remaining vestige of a childhood now gone. Even though Taylor-at-thirteen was subject to random acts of cruelty and some Taylor in this age range went through many of the experiences (again not literally, but through song) of her first album.
My guess is that fame intensifies the pain of Taylor Time but also locates it fairly specifically at the moments the fame process developed. That is to say, fame creates its own sort of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood cycle that may or may not correlate to a literal developmental cycle. On Taylor Swift we don't have any real sense of that cycle (that's childhood, infancy even) and on Fearless Taylor is experiencing but not necessarily reflecting on it (that's still childhood). There's a more distinct break on Speak Now, after which everything that corresponded to something like a developmental Taylor Time -- the kind of Taylor Time that I imagine many people feel about their own childhood, adolescence, etc. -- now corresponds to a clunkier Meta Taylor Time. Or maybe Famous-Taylor-Time. So now that pain shoots back months rather than years, and new public shame and pain and anger and other accompanying feelings completely eclipse a sense of everyday experiences of embarrassment or anger or nostalgia. She's a different sort of adolescent, trying out a new identity (again).
So we get formal experiments in Quirk Pop and teenpop and Disney-Americana (a la Marit Larsen) and pop-punk etc., many of which ("Speak Now," "Story of Us," "Mean," "Better than Revenge") abstractly deal with pain but don't really locate us in a clear age or place. "Speak Now" is an imaginative, theatrical riff on the aspirational fantasy of "Love Story." "Story of Us" could as easily have been a Hilary Duff song (Hilary didn't start incorporating felt/developmental self-reflection until Dignity, with mixed results). "Mean" remains vague, its catalyst trauma elusive (could be a loud-mouth, could be abuse; I'd err more on the former than latter myself, but who knows). In "Better than Revenge" boys are toys and rival girls are whores -- it's total fluff.
I don't personally like Meta Taylor Time because I don't personally like Meta Taylor, or Celebrity Taylor. I don't care about the ravages of fame, and in the album -- on which it's really hard for me to bracket my limited knowledge of the celebrity context -- it seems merely to lessen the impact of the stories being told. That said, both the production and the context (if you're into either of those things -- a lot of music critic types are into the former not the latter, a lot of cultural commentary types are into the latter, not the former) are stronger this time out. And my sense that those new musical and celebrity contexts are something of a crutch for lacking storytelling is more of a personal preference than a useful lens through which to look at the album. It's an album about the Taylor Time that only Taylor can have. Not only because there's literally no celebrity like her in existence at the moment, but because fame narratives, unlike developmental narratives, don't happen with enough frequency to draw something more universal from them.
Which is a long-winded way, I guess, of saying that I don't personally identify with the album in the way I personally identified (a little bit -- I shouldn't overstate my former identification) with the last two (the first one being my favorite still for the way it negotiated lived experience and genre convention and production/songwriting in a more nuanced way). And personal identification rarely enters into my consideration of whether an album is any good or not; I'm just disappointed, which isn't to say that it's a bad album per se. It's just not the album I wanted.
Then again, maybe Meta Taylor Time is still Taylor Time; which would also mean that album 5 or 6 might be an interesting reflection on Speak Now. Or maybe by that time Meta Taylor Time will be finito altogether -- Taylor may be done as a pop cultural icon -- and maybe she'll find her way back into the stream of everyday life, where the rest of us have smaller and perhaps more interesting problems. That she needs big fame to deal with small problems is the paradox of this kind of songwriting, the one that ended up crushing Ashlee Simpson (for instance), who's unparalleled in autobiographical songwriting that's at once relatable and larger than (her immediate) life. And she didn't really make it past album one, so maybe I should consider myself lucky that Taylor probably has a few more chances to try to have her cake, which may or may not be shaped like a wedding dress, and eat it, too.