Whenever I hear the song “Stay Beautiful” off Taylor Swift’s 2006 self-titled debut, I’m transported back to when my mom and I would drive to visit my grandparents in New York Queens’ neighborhood, Flushing. I didn’t know the name of the young woman who sang the song, but I knew that whenever we turned the dial to Radio Disney, it would magically be on without fail. My mother and I would loudly belt, “You’re beautiful / Every little piece, love; don’t you know? / You’re really gonna be someone / Ask anyone”. It would be a couple more years before my friend from day camp, Andrea, called the music video for “You Belong With Me” an act of cinematic brilliance, leading me to sell my soul for a copy of Fearless Platinum Edition (2009) at the Union Square Best Buy.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself able to identify moments of my life with particular eras of Swift’s catalog: singing “Fearless” at my Bat Mitzvah, or when I flew to London the summer I was studying in Berlin out of fear of missing the reputation Stadium Tour. Taylor Swift has a way of submerging me into old memories in the span of a second. Her seemingly magical ability to make me long for my own childhood is due, in large part, to the way she discusses childhood itself in her music, often awash in rampant nostalgia.
She speaks fondly about days “when our world was one block wide / dared you to kiss me and ran when you tried” or the “age of princesses and pirate ships and the seven dwarfs”. Her presentation of childhood borders on that of a sacred realm. It’s not difficult to understand why, for Swift, whose intensive tour schedule necessitated remote completion of her high school education, her younger years consist of her final memories of normalcy and anonymity. Swift’s maturation under the harsh glow of the spotlight denied her the traditional coming-of-age milestones of her peers, such as a normal prom, graduation, and college experience. Instead, intense media scrutiny and various threats towards her personal safety forced the singer-songwriter to surround herself with an extensive security team since her late teens, with any attempts at dating requiring full-scale security operations and wearing wigs.
Swift has often described her pre-fame adolescence as lonely, an era of social alienation accentuated with recollections of playing guitar until her fingers bled and weekend romps to Nashville label executives with a demo CD of Dixie Chicks covers. Despite this, her musings on childhood have remained largely austere and sweet. Swift’s childhood has frequently acted as the rare domain that can neither be snatched by tabloids nor staked out by fans, unlike the pictures of her sitting alone on a boat after being dumped, or the front door of her Franklin Street apartment.
Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Take, for example, Swift’s ode to her tightly-knit relationship with her mother, ” The Best Day”, off her sophomore album Fearless (2008). The song presents a collage of mother-daughter bonding, opening with a memory where: “I’m five years old / It’s getting cold / I’ve got my big coat on / I hear your laugh / And look up smiling at you / I run and run / Past the pumpkin patch / And the tractor rides /Look now, the sky is gold / I hug your legs / And fall asleep on the way home”. Swift’s memory of pumpkin-picking with her mom captures the enthusiasm of a child still in awe of the world. Her memories are largely chronological throughout the song, skipping from the pumpkin patch to long car rides they took together to escape childhood bullies, eventually ending with Swift thanking her mother for supporting her “even when I was wrong” in her new life as a successful artist.
Swift obviously treasures these moments, qualifying each one with the declaration “I had the best day with you today”. Her childhood nostalgia once again occupies center stage on ” Never Grow Up”, from Speak Now (2010), written after she began living on her own for the first time. Throughout the song, she begs the listener to relish the precious and fleeting nature of childhood memories such as “dancing around in your p.j.s” and “what it sounded like when your dad gets home”. Her pleading culminates in the now-grown singer-songwriter on her first night in her new apartment, where “I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone”.
As much as her songs remind me of my childhood, she somehow has made me nostalgic for childhood memories I never had. I never grew up on a Christmas tree farm. I’m Jewish. Yet, despite my irritation with the return of the same five Christmas songs every year, I somehow find “in my heart, there’s a Christmas tree farm” even though I still hate it, like I hate all Christmas music, barring that one Dan Fogelberg song, “Same Same Old Lang Syne”, which just happens to mention Christmas Eve. When Taylor talks of childhood, it’s always been something precious and, might I say, “Delicate”?
However, when I excitedly listened to her latest release, folklore (2020), I was met with an unexpected departure from her previous work. In contrast to the aforementioned tracks, which depict an age of innocence brought to an end by the inevitable passage of time, Swift’s “seven” presents a narrative of innocence dragged out of a child by abuse. The song, co-written with Aaron Dessner of the National, flickers between past and present tense as the now 30-year-old Swift comes to grips with having witnessed a close childhood friend suffer from what is heavily implied to be physical battery by her parents.
Swift’s present-day reflections are contrasted with the reaction of her childhood self, who, at the age of seven, is incapable of understanding what her friend is experiencing. This is most prominent in Swift’s claim to her friend “And I’ve been meaning to tell you / I think your house is haunted / Your dad is always mad and that must be why / And I think you should come live with me / And we can be pirates / Then you won’t have to cry / Or hide in the closet”. This is a line that made me cry in the middle of 4th Avenue in broad daylight.
For Swift, a musician who has long boasted a penchant for describing childhood with wide-eyed wonder and joy, the contrast is striking. Gone are her fantasies of childhood loves that mature into the comfort of retired octogenarians holding hands in rocking chairs of ” Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)”, where seven was presented as the age in which one child falls in love with another. They’ve been thrown out of their seats by the painful epiphany that a childhood friend was being abused by her parents and Swift lacked both the knowledge and wherewithal to protect her. The result is heartbreaking.
As much as the lens through which she describes the situation takes note of her understandable ignorance at seven, she also envies her seven-year-old self, begging her friend to remember her as she was in the days when fathers were only mad because they were living alongside ghosts. Swift’s declaration that “I hit my peak at seven” embodies who she was as a child; “in the weeds / Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted”. When Swift recalls who she was as a child, she discovers a girl who viewed the world around her with excitement rather than fear; authentic and unafraid. Swift’s seven-year-old self is depicted as a mixture of pure and courageous. She believes in goodness to the extent that considering the monsters might not turn out to be just trees and may instead be the fathers of close friends is a possibility too horrifying for her young self to even imagine.
The rare instances at which Swift has posited childhood as a time of something darker have been when the child has been the addressee in her lyrics, rather than the narrator. In her single ” Ronan” (2012), written to benefit cancer research, Swift narrates the tragic story of the eponymous Ronan, a four-year-old boy who died of neuroblastoma, from the viewpoint of his mother, Maya Thompson, sourcing directly from Thompson’s blog. The language of the song skews similar to “seven”, with images of plastic dinosaurs comparable to the dolls Swift refers to in the more recent track. Swift’s “Come on baby with me / We’re gonna fly away from here / Out of this curtained room in this hospital grey / We’ll just disappear” mirrors the assertion the two friends in “seven” can just run away and “be pirates” while the line “I love you to the moon and back” in “Ronan” is referenced in a line in “seven”‘s hand-game-esque chorus, “Love you to the Moon and to Saturn”.
The difference between the childhood innocence lost in “Ronan” versus “seven” rests in that while the childhood Swift believes everything will work out okay and that the only thing standing between her friend’s escape from whatever she is afraid of is that they’re not already running, “Ronan” makes painful peace with the understanding that some things cannot be escaped, albeit the monster in “Ronan” is a terminal illness, whilst the monster in “seven” is abuse.
Additionally, a similar argument can be gleaned from ”
Safe and Sound” (2011). The folk ballad, co-written and featuring the since-disbanded The Civil Wars for The Hunger Games (2012), was described by Swift as a “death lullaby”. The lyrics depict a world where “everything’s on fire / The war outside our door keeps raging on” yet promises “Just close your eyes, the sun is going down / You’ll be alright, no one can hurt you now / Come morning light, you and I’ll be safe and sound”.
Despite the reassurance Swift will never let the addressee go (it seems that it’s someone whom she had guardianship over, given the maternal tone of the lyrics), it’s obviously a comfort mechanism employed to make the addressee’s passing easier. Apparently, the sentiment for this song was distilled from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, who feels protective towards her younger sister and fellow participants, Rue and Peeta. This protectiveness is further embodied by Swift’s plea, “Hold on to this lullaby even when the music’s gone”. Both “Ronan” and “Safe and Sound” reflect on the end of innocence for a child with the knowledge that his life can be snatched away by a harsh world. Yet the narrator’s knowledge rests on experience and age, far from the realm of understanding for the child.
On ” cardigan”, Swift mocks the assessment that youth equates to ignorance, remarking “when you are young, they assume you know nothing”. The perception that young people don’t “understand” is one Swift has spent her entire career combating through the release of her confessional ruminations on young love and teenage angst, in addition to her well-documented appreciation for her young fans. Fittingly, the notion that age dictates neither competence nor emotional validation is a point that rears its head throughout folklore: the snapping at the presumably older lover in “illicit affairs” whom Swift demands not call her “kid” or “baby”, and used again, albeit in an alternate sense, in the character of James’ desperate apology for his unfaithfulness to the eponymous “betty”, “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you”.
Youth is frequently seized upon by hostile parties as a rationalization for invalidating an individual’s emotional experience. What Swift’s catalog, especially her latest release, demonstrates is that lacking some knowledge does not preclude an individual from having a valid emotional response, or that any knowledge said individual does have is consequently worthless. folklore scoffs at the idea of dismissing emotions. “I knew everything when I was young” she shoots back at the tail-end of “cardigan”.
The nostalgia Swift conjures up in her songwriting for her childhood is not depicted as a longing for what her world was like when she was seven, as it is still a world marred by monsters and demons —rather, the nostalgia Swift conjures up is for a time she felt she could accomplish anything. A world before she was reduced to being the “good girl” who feared alienating consumers through political admissions or had to carry military-grade gun gauze in her purse out of fear of her many home invaders.
By virtue of her career choice as a musician and her wild success in the undertaking, Taylor Swift has become a creature defined by the perceptions and opinions of strangers. The only havens for Swift where the beliefs of onlookers are irrelevant are in the relationships she maintains with those who know her personally. Swift moved away from her Pennsylvania home at fourteen, and the specifics of the childhood friendship described in the song remain inaccessible to those outside of her inner circle.
We grow apart as they grow older, and sometimes we lose touch. (Sometimes we don’t. I’m still friends with Andrea, and when I chose to write my undergraduate thesis on Taylor Swift, she said she had created a monster.) Swift admits that she lost contact with her friend and can no longer even recall her face, yet maintains she still feels love for her. In confessing her lapse in memory, Swift waives her escape to her past life of normalcy. There is a painful sort of honesty in Swift pleading that her friend remember her as the child she was at seven.
Swift’s knowledge of her friend’s story ends when their paths diverged in childhood. However, Swift is famous, she’s no longer afforded the privilege of being forgotten in the mind of her friend. In begging her friend to remember the Swift of yore before she was molded into a pop star, a girl who promised her “Pack your dolls and a sweater / We’ll move to India forever”, she is begging to be viewed as a real human being and not the ” mirrorball” any and all project their insecurities and realities onto. Swift’s nostalgia here exists not solely as a desire to return to a world that was not complex, but to an iteration of herself, who at the age of seven, was brave enough to face it, a Swift who might refer to herself as Fearless.