In September and October, I wrote extensively about the things in my life that have changed since I finished college in the spring. I have spent much of this season charting the differences between who I am now and who I was as a teenager, trying to conceptualize what I would tell the girl I used to be, but never taking the time to consider what that girl would say to me. In doing so, I have failed to acknowledge the ways I have stayed the same. In November I was forced to face the parts of me that have been consistent throughout my life, and this was directly related to the release of Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, reputation.
Listening to a new Taylor Swift album for the first time is a process I take very seriously. I do not listen halfheartedly, in a rush, or awoken from sleep at the strike of midnight. Generally I wait until I have the physical album in hand and can seclude myself to absorb it in isolation. I listen all the way through, without skipping the promotional singles, and I read every detail of the album booklet, including the lyrics, liner notes, co-writers, producers, and any other surprises. (Like, did you know that Martina McBride’s kids are the ones snapping their fingers in “Hey Stephen,” or that in the background of “Wildest Dreams” you are hearing the sound of Taylor’s actual heartbeat?! There is so much to discover here, people!) At various points, my listening sessions are joyous and sad, satisfying and disappointing, but enthralling and solitary throughout.
But this November, the first time I listened to reputation, I broke my own rules. The album became available on iTunes as I was driving out of Philadelphia with my sister, who is far less strict about these things than I am. She insisted that we listen to the new album to fill the time as she drove us back to New Jersey, and I was surprised at my own willingness to oust my former listening traditions.
Of course I immediately built a list in my head of logical reasons to break my routine for the first time. One of my excuses was the increasing stress I experienced with the release of each promotional single from this album. I had become preemptively resentful of reputation and worried about the content of it because all of the public dialogue surrounding its release had become political and controversial. If I could tell my eighth grade self that in the week leading up to Taylor’s sixth album release she would find herself debating with her (liberal) friends who claim that it is this pop star’s responsibility to quell the fantasies of neo-Nazis in the darkest corners of the internet after they claim her as their Aryan goddess, she would be so incredibly confused. Hell, I’m confused by it now.
Mostly I believed I was entitled to listen to reputation because I was still on the high of realizing that I have somehow built the foundation of an academic career on my ability to talk about Taylor Swift’s music at length. I was in Philadelphia to present my research at a regional conference on popular culture, and a large part of my research is an analysis of the representation of female sexuality in Taylor Swift’s lyrics and music videos. The crux of my argument is that Taylor’s negative reputation as a serial dater is a patriarchal punishment for presenting a more feminist version of sexuality than her contemporaries do. (In simpler terms, while Taylor spent a year writing an album about her reputation, I spent a year writing a thesis about it. We’ve always been SO in sync.) During my presentation, I stood up and walked around the room and talked with my hands, receiving positive encouragement from a group of older feminists sitting in the back row who nodded vigorously whenever I mentioned sexual subjectification. When they complimented me afterward, I felt like I had manipulated everyone in my life into praising me for something that comes intuitively. If I could tell my eighth grade self that in the week leading up to Taylor’s sixth album release she would find herself defending Taylor's representation of female sexuality at an academic conference, she would be so incredibly confused. But I hope she would be proud.
My sister Kellie pointed out to me when we began listening to reputation that the only person I know who had ever before witnessed me listening to a Taylor Swift album for the first time was Taylor Swift herself. This is true: the first time I heard 1989, Taylor’s fifth album, I was sitting on her living room floor surrounded by strangers. (More details in a very nascent blogpost here.) Still, I went to Target on release day a few weeks later to buy a physical copy of 1989 and do my traditional full listening session after class. I recall clutching the unopened CD on the subway ride back to my dorm, excited and relieved to already know that I liked the album. I felt powerful and omniscient when 1989 was released, and I recall smiling during class as my friends texted me their initial reactions to the songs they knew I'd already heard.
This sense of immortality peaked when 1989 was released, but I remember this mindset characterizing my entire nineteenth year. At the time, I was squished safely in the very middle of college, far enough into it to avoid homesickness but far enough from the end that graduation day felt like nothing more than a shimmering mirage, past rolling hills of sand in an imaginary setting. I think my insides really believed that graduation would never happen to me. This month I have been longing for how headstrong I was at nineteen, when Taylor’s last album came out, and for how sure I was of all that I said and did at that time. I thought everything was permanent then, because I believed I had the grown-up power to make things last. This sense of permanence made me bitter enough to act impulsively, and do things like write passive aggressive essays in my introductory Communication classes and run away to Italy for a semester. Do you remember how it feels to know so little about the world that you are capable of believing that you know everything?
Armed with the blaring pop singles of 1989, which were a new, forceful direction for Taylor Swift, at the time of the last album release I remember thinking: this is what my life will look like from now on, this is who I am now and therefore who I will be forever, these are the friends I will keep by my side, this is the city I will live in, I can see my whole future ahead of me and it does not scare me. In hindsight, at the time 1989 was released I was a caricature of my true self, just scratching the surface of the woman I would become. I had recently watched every episode of Girls very quickly, was highlighting full paragraphs in Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals, wrote clunky poetry in my economics class, gained a newfound optimism while planning my sister’s wedding, and spent Saturday afternoons at The Strand, where I read the back covers of dozens of books I never purchased and walked out exclusively with magnets and postcards displaying satirical remarks. I thought I had discovered and checked off all of the shallow boxes that made up Who I Will Be As An Adult Woman, and the world was mine to conquer. I do not want to be nineteen again, because I know that I was not happy then (plus I was extremely pretentious, and this combination would be absolutely unbearable to be around when not confined to a college campus). But I miss being naïve in a way so tragic and dramatic that it becomes beautiful in retrospect, and I envy a more fearless version of myself, who I like to think still exists in an alternate dimension where I am still listening to “Welcome To New York” on sunny mornings in Manhattan and insisting it was written just for me.
1989 marks the only release week I miss today. But Taylor Swift releases albums in the fall, in the Octobers and the Novembers, so this month I have been compelled to recall my past first listens. I remember the release of Red two years earlier, in October of my senior year of high school, only vaguely but I know I was collected and content after my first listen. Despite Taylor’s rapidly increasing commercial success in 2012 and 2013, much of my time with her fourth album, Red, was spent in isolation: driving home down Northville Turnpike after 9th period Latin, messing with my FM transmitter until it played “Treacherous” more clearly; sitting in my car in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot during fifth period lunch, eating a salad my mom made for me and playing “Holy Ground” on repeat for twenty minutes until I had to flip my hair, reapply my lipstick, and head back to school in time for Spanish class; with track fourteen on repeat after a high school graduation party in early July, on the hottest day of the year, when I desperately regretted leaving too soon; after a closing shift at my first job, close to midnight, on many, many nights during a commute that was just long enough for one song; sitting in my bedroom with my hair curled and my lips red during that awkward, in-between week separating Christmas and New Years when you forget what day it is, wishing he would text me, but mostly wishing I had a friend I felt I could safely confide my feelings in. The more time I spent alone with this album, the more intricately I learned its composition, and the better I became at interpreting its messages and realizing their significance.
Before Red came album number three, Speak Now, when I was fifteen, which disappointed me upon release only because it wasn’t album number two, Fearless. I had fallen in love with Fearless when I was thirteen, longing for security, and in need of something—or perhaps someone—distant enough that it was impossible for it to let me down. (I had been deeply disappointed by several adults in the year prior, the scarring of which I still battle today, especially during this time of the year.) I couldn’t articulate this then, but at the time that Speak Now was released I was struggling to accept that Taylor Swift was not my friend, was not my big sister, was not mine and only mine. All of the interviews and songs and behind the scenes footage I consumed during the Fearless era had felt fixed and controlled, but the release of a new, living, breathing album made me realize how little say I had over something I had previously believed was static. I recall feeling overwhelmed by vulnerability as I realized this thing I loved so personally had become public, with record-breaking first week sales and girls from school going to see her on Good Morning America. I recall crying on the couch in my basement in 2010, in the same spot I had unwrapped her debut album on Christmas morning three years earlier, deeply upset that I had to share Taylor Swift with the rest of the world when I felt ready to do no such thing.
Looking back now, all of the hours of my teenage years that I spent reading through album booklets, watching interviews and bonus DVDs and performances, traveling to and from shows—often during late November release weeks, but also during all the weeks in between—it all feels like preparation for the way I spent my senior year of college, cultivating all of the research on pop music that I presented in Philadelphia this month. The diligent, hyperfocused, intellectual skills I used when reading the messages of each of these earlier albums is reflective of the way I perform my research now. If I weren’t getting accepted to present at conferences, or writing personal statements describing my research philosophy for graduate school applications, I would still be talking about the idiosyncrasies in albums, I would still be analyzing, and researching, and digging for details in lyrics, I would still be examining the ways that popular culture is consumed by me and by people like me and people around me, and I would still be reading and writing about it all, even if no one else was interested in consuming it or grading me on it. I can say that I am sure of this because it is what I have been doing all along. The circumstances have changed, but when I listen to reputation's "Delicate" while driving home from work through Providence, I am adjusting the radio for "Treacherous" again. I received moments of clarity and direction this month, which have been rare for me ever since I grew out of my nineteen-year-old resolve, but particularly so in recent weeks. When I left the conference in Philadelphia and decided to listen to reputation, and when I recall all of these Late Novembers, it becomes clear to me that I am still very much the same as I have always been, despite spending all of September and October trying to distance myself from the fool I feel I was yesterday. I will feel very lucky in my life if I can continue to trick people into letting me stand in front of a podium and talk about Taylor Swift—especially if I can figure out a way to get paid for it.
Now, in the month that reputation was released in 2017, I am still wearing a thin silver ring on my right hand that my mom bought for me when I was fourteen. It says the word “love” in lowercase script, and I wanted it because Taylor Swift wore one just like it in the beginning of her career. After eight years I hardly ever notice it anymore, except maybe when it gets caught on a glove, or when I am seeking comfort and twist it around my finger because it has shifted too far to the right—it has always done this. Earlier this month I took the GREs in preparation for graduate school applications, and I was required to take off all jewelry in the testing center. I forgot to even consider this ring a piece of jewelry. It feels so minimal compared to my cameo necklaces and my Frida Kahlo earrings—it feels less like an accessory and more like it's one with my hand at this point. The test administrator pointed it out and asked me to take it off. I felt silly for not noticing it, then felt even more embarrassed when I realized I couldn’t get it off my finger. I told her it was stuck, and I asked if I could have a minute to run some cold water over it and try to remove it. She said that wasn’t necessary, and let me keep it on.