Taylor Swift and the Wisdom of Youth
Taylor Swift and the Wisdom of Youth
When she was 18, Taylor Swift wrote a song called “Fifteen.” “Back then I swore I was going to marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine,” she sang, sounding more like a wizened great-grandmother than a rising senior.
“Fifteen” is evocative, if a little sanitized: Nimble mandolin strums mimic the nervous-excited butterflies of the first day of high school, as Swift sings of wide-eyed hope that “one of those senior boys will wink at you and say, ‘You know I haven’t seen you around before.’”
There was a certain emotional truth to the lyrics — do several years’ age difference ever seem more consequential than when you’re a teenager? — but some older listeners were skeptical. “You applaud her skill,” wrote a critic for the Guardian in a mixed review of Swift’s second album, “Fearless,” “while feeling slightly unsettled by the thought of a teenager pontificating away like Yoda.”
Swift, now 31, sings, “When you are young they assume you know nothing,” on “Folklore,” an LP that is both compositionally mature and braided throughout with references to the specific, oft-denigrated wisdom of teenagers. (It earned five of Swift’s six nominations at the Grammys, which take place Sunday in Los Angeles.) By the end of that song, “Cardigan,” the narrator has excavated such a heap of florid but emotionally lucid memories that she must conclude, with the force of a sudden revelation, “I knew everything when I was young.”
Though it’s not as flashy a topic as exes, fame or A-list celebrity feuds, age has long been a recurring theme in Swift’s work. A numerology enthusiast with a particular attachment to 13, Swift has also released a handful of songs whose titles refer to specific ages: “Seven,” “Fifteen,” and, of course, “22,” the chatty “Red” hit on which she summed up that particular junction of emerging adulthood as feeling “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.” Like her contemporary Adele, Swift seems to enjoy time-stamping her music, sometimes presenting it like a public-facing scrapbook that will always remind her what it felt like to be a certain age — even if, with their millions of fans and armfuls of Grammys, neither of these women is exactly typical.
Swift’s critics have often seemed even more hyper attuned to her age. Perhaps because precocity played such a role in her story from the beginning — at 14, she became the youngest artist to sign a publishing deal with Sony/ATV; at 20, she became the youngest to win the album of the year Grammy — many listeners have been fascinated with how her evolution into adulthood has, or hasn’t, played out in her songs. People comb Swift’s lyrics for allusions to sex, alcohol and profanity as meticulously as MPAA representatives do a borderline-PG movie. Particular attention was paid to her 2017 album “Reputation” and its several mentions of drunkenness and dive bars — even though Swift was 27 when it came out.
The relative puritanism of Swift’s music up until “Reputation” did feel like an intentional decision: Unlike the female pop stars who broadcast their “loss of innocence” as a sudden and irrevocable transformation, Swift seemed acutely conscious that she did not want to repel younger listeners — or lose the approval of their parents. At best, it felt like an acceptance of her status as a role model; at worst, it had the whiff of a marketing strategy.
But the mounting obsession with whether Swift was “acting her age” also reflected a larger societal double standard. Famous or not, women face much more intense scrutiny around age, whether it’s those constant cultural reminders of the biological clock’s supposed ticking or the imperative that women of all ages stay “fresh-faced” or risk their own obsolescence. (“People say I’m controversial,” Madonna said in 2016. “But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”) And while girlish youth and ingenuity are rewarded in some contexts, they’re also easily dismissed as silly and frivolous as soon as that girl strays too close to the sun — as Swift has experienced time and again.
Despite having once been a teenage girl myself (unlike a lot of music critics), I confess that I am not completely free of these internalized biases. I was initially dismissive of “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a song that appeared on Swift’s 2019 album “Lover.” The first few times I heard it, I wondered what a grown woman on the cusp of 30 was doing still writing about homecoming queens and teenage gossip.
But over time, I’ve come to appreciate the song and its dark vision, which acknowledges cruelty, depression and the threat of sexual violence (“Boys will be boys then, where are the wise men?”) more directly than any of the songs Swift wrote when she was an actual teenager. The senior boys in this song are not the sort who wink and say to freshman girls wholesome things like, “Haven’t seen you around before” — which, unfortunately, makes them feel more authentic. Even the title “Miss Americana” alludes to a larger world outside the high school walls, and the greater systemic forces that keep such patterns repeating well into adulthood.
“Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” now feels like a precursor to some of the richest songs on “Folklore,” which finds Swift returning once again to her school days with the keen, selectively observant eye of an adult. Consider “Seven,” an impressionistic recreation of her perspective at that age. The second verse, charmingly, plays like a first-grader’s breathless sequence of unguarded observations:
“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.”
But “Seven” is not cutesy so much as poignant, because of the tensions that result when Swift’s adult perspective interjects. “Please, picture me in the trees, before I learned civility,” she sings in a yearning soprano, prompting the listener to wonder what sorts of feral pleasure she — and all of us — has exchanged for the supposed “civility” of adulthood.
Quite a few songs on “Evermore,” Swift’s second release of 2020, also toggle between past and present, conscious of what is lost and gained by the passage of time. The playful “Long Story Short” passes a note to Swift’s younger self (“Past me, I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things”), while “Dorothea,” like “Seven,” revisits a fevered childhood friendship from the cool perspective of adulthood.
Most striking is the bonus track “Right Where You Left Me,” a twangy tale of a “girl who got frozen” (“Time went on for everybody else, she won’t know it/She’s still 23, inside her fantasy”). That language echoes something Swift admits in the 2020 Netflix documentary “Miss Americana”: “There’s this thing people say about celebrities, that they’re frozen at the age they got famous. And that’s kind of what happened to me. I had a lot of growing up to do just trying to catch up to 29.”
But Swift’s recent songs, at their best, understand that “growing up” isn’t always a linear progression in the direction of something more valuable. Take the “Folklore” songs “Cardigan” and “Betty,” which use an interconnected set of characters to chronicle teenage drama and celebrate the heightened emotional knowledge of youth. “I’m only 17, I don’t know anything, but I know I miss you,” Swift sings in the voice of James, a high schooler who broke Betty’s heart and has shown up on her doorstep to ask forgiveness. Maybe that is a melodramatic thing to do; maybe it is the sort of thing adults could stand to do more often. Swift’s music helps us to remember that growing up doesn’t automatically mean growing wiser — it can just as easily mean compromise, self-denial and growing numb to emotions we once felt with bracing intensity.
In a gesture to regain control of her songs, Swift is currently rerecording her first six albums (her master recordings were recently sold by Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings to the investment firm Shamrock Capital). Last month she released a note-for-note update of her early hit “Love Story,” and has promised to release an entire new-old version of “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” later this year. It has been amusing to think of Swift going back and inhabiting the voice of her teenage self: On the face of it, “Fifteen” is particularly surreal to imagine her singing as an adult.
In another way, though, “Fifteen” — with its distant reflections on the youthful folly of expectations — makes more sense and carries more emotional weight being sung by a 30-something than it does an 18-year-old. Perhaps Swift was preparing for such an exercise when she made “Folklore,” an album that shakes off years of scrutiny and finds her reveling in the creative freedom to be as young or as old as she wants to be.