Kacey Musgraves brought her County & Western Rhinestone Revue to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey this past weekend. The name of this tour is perfectly fitting for the traveling spectacle that Musgraves has built—she presented us with a vintage set, a classic country sound, and small town themes, all expressed through catchy, one-line, tongue-in-cheek metaphors. Musgraves managed to poke fun at her roots by depicting them honestly and without hesitation. She does not glamorize her upbringing; instead, she takes the position of an insider revealing her own town’s dirty secrets to the rest of the world. Her blatant nod to vintage country and western music is satirical, and works to bring more attention to her contemporary lyrics. This contrast between her sound and her writing demands attention from a new audience like a neon arrow pointing right to her—that is, a neon arrow brighter than the jewels on her costume, the lights on her musicians’ bubblegum pink suits, and the shimmery red tinsel of the stage’s backdrop.
With an extremely traditional sound but extremely untraditional lyrics, Musgraves’ music inevitably creates a magnetic pull that facilitates a diverse audience of classic country loyalists and liberal Millenials. A highlight of the set list was the folksy “Family Is Family,” a simple but striking song that received one of the biggest receptions of the night. In it, Musgraves sighs, “Family is family in church or in prison / you get what you get and you don’t get to pick ‘em / they might smoke like chimneys but give you their kidneys,” and the crowd sang along in solidarity. While Musgraves is a natural songwriter and musician, she isn’t a natural performer; she doesn’t appear to be particularly comfortable on stage, further proving that she truly “ain’t pageant material,” making her public and artistic persona all the more genuine—even her greatest weakness became her greatest strength.
When she played her debut single “Merry Go ‘Round,” which in 2013 was her first of many public displays of her routine, small-town, southern culture, she did a solo acoustic performance that reminded everyone in the crowd why they bought a ticket to the tour in the first place. In that same moment, Musgraves proved why she is so important in country music. She informed the audience that her music doesn’t get nearly as much airplay on country radio as singles with more conservative ideologies. “Kiss lots of girls if that’s what you’re into,” and “I’m always higher than my hair,” are among the lines that have prevented universal radio success. She acknowledged us sincerely for selling out the show despite the boundary, saying, “Props to you because that is bigger than any format. So thank you.”
The crowd was full of people who discovered in Musgraves’ albums—(Same Trailer Different Park and Pageant Material)—a sect of country music where they see their lives accurately represented by one of their own. And isn't that what music, particularly country music, is designed to do? To make listeners feel understood and to share their stories better than they could on their own? Saturday’s sold out show was proof that Musgraves has done just that. Musgraves has displayed her confident (“I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t”), humble (“It don’t matter where I’m going, I’ll still call my hometown home”), and sometimes reckless (“Leave it to me to be holding the matches when the fire trucks show up and there’s nobody else to blame”) personality without revision. And her personality, however notorious some consider it, is being accepted with open arms by fans across the world in the same way that she is accepting all of them. She should be proud.
Last Monday, I sat in a club just south of Midtown at the viewing party for the New York Chapter of the Grammys. I had heard only the first few lines of Taylor Swift's "Out Of The Woods" open the show when the woman sitting next to me leaned over and asked, "This song's about Harry Styles, right?" I nodded to appease her and get back to my favorite night in television. The woman's question made me analyze Taylor's music, as I always do, but on a grander scale which included all of Taylor's repertoire and the complexities of all autobiographical songwriters in general. I wanted to explain to the woman that this song isn't about Harry Styles at all. Not anymore.
It's about me.
And it's about you.
It's about my best friend, who wanders London as a stranger and gets full-body chills when he listens to the live version of the song (and then stops to text me about it). It's about my fifteen-year-old cousin Erin, who started screaming in her living room as soon as she heard the performance begin. It's about the presentation that Angela did on the music video for her Advanced Digital Editing class. It's about Megan and the time she met up with her three best friends for the 1989 tour stop in Kentucky because they couldn't wait any longer to see the paper airplanes soaring above them. It's about Summer, who listened to it every day on the way to her new job last fall to give her the strength to handle another shift with a less-than-kind manager. It's about the night that Andrew and I drove around our hometown, like we always do, just a few weeks after the release of the album and talked about how there's just something special about "Out Of The Woods"; we analyzed for hours, even while standing on line at Dunkin' Donuts, and decided it was the most lyrically and sonically consistent track on the album.
It's about the first time I heard the song, sitting on a pillow on the floor of Taylor Swift's living room, inches away from the artist's feet as the line you were looking at me played three times and she stared directly into my eyes—she didn't break her gaze for even a second as I my jaw dropped slowly and the corners of my eyes filled quickly with tears.
It's about the more than two million people who spent their pay checks and filled stadiums in the last year and heard this song live.
It's about the paper airplane necklace. It's about the silver tour outfit. It's about an emotional purgatory. It's about Polaroid pictures and dancing with a false sense of hope.
It's about her vocals—the incredible vocals of a girl who was criticized for her vocals in her 2010 Grammy performance, about which she wrote the song "Mean," and then won two Grammys because of her "terrible" vocals. It's about winning the highest honor in music. Again.
It's about the twenty stitches and the hospital room and the fact that none of us knew; not a single witness at that hospital sold the story that created this song. It's about morality.
It's about the night it was released as the album's first promotional single, when I sat in a small dorm room on Broadway and blasted it on repeat through my headphones to block out the sounds of my roommate hooking up with some guy just a few feet away from me.
It's about Jack Antonoff. It's about the friggen drums.
It's about sitting on a crowded Staten Island bus, listening to the studio, live, and acoustic versions on repeat, and feeling content. It's about pausing the car radio and going, "Hold on, can we just talk about this BRIDGE for a second?!" It's about the ah-AH-ah behind the final chorus.
It's about she lost him but she found herself and somehow that was everything.
It's about Joseph Kahn. And the music video. The damn video and how it took on an entirely metaphorical visual. It's about the behind the scenes of the video shoot, where Taylor quite literally faces the elements for the artistic representation of the song.
It's about the way the media treated her like absolute shit for all of 2012 and 2013 for no reason at all other than blatant misogyny. And it's about her rise from that. How she released an album about being happily independent. How she fostered even stronger relationships with her fans and her friends and how the line between the two became the most blurred that it's been since she was sixteen. How she called out interviewers and media outlets who treated her differently than they treated her male counterparts. And it's about the end of an era—a summation of her triumph since the album was released on October 27, 2014.
"These songs were once about my life. They are now about yours."
I am quick to admit that I am guilty of speculating about the subject of Taylor's songs as well—it's a fun puzzle to put together, especially when you have friends who understand the minute bits of gossip you're referring to. But at this point, a year and a half after the song's release, speculating should fall to the bottom of the list of priorities. Because while it is still Taylor's song, it's ours too. And that's both the beauty and the risk behind public artistry for any writer—connecting deeply with others at the cost of surrendering something that was once only yours. I am grateful that Taylor was willing to give this song to anyone who's been in the woods in the last year and a half, and I appreciate her bravery a little more every time someone assumes they know her muse.
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month