Taylor's Masterpiece

Taylor Swift first came to my attention in 2008 with the song 'Love Story', an adaptation of the story of Romeo and Juliet from her second album Fearless. What caught my ear was the way the song would lead you through with vivid detail in the storytelling and a descending-staircase sort of effect (a lot like Tiffany's version of 'I think we're alone now'). It's like she can paint a moving picture with sound, and I like that a lot.

Fast forward four years and two albums and the then 23-year old Taylor released Red. I thought it was a terrific album, with songs like the title track and 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' drawing widespread acclaim. It was said to be about a specific love affair and breakup. It was also a time when she began to gain a reputation for singing about her own relationships. A lot of people drew the lesson "don't get into a relationship with Taylor" as a result.

I never really saw it that way. Every singer writes about their personal life, one way or another. What distinguishes Taylor Swift, however, is the sharpness of her imagery. The details and the feelings are so vivid, because she remembers everything. Something to keep in mind.

Red contains the first version of her song 'All Too Well', where she writes (sadly) about her short relationship in the fall of 2010 with Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a good song, it moves well, and it moves us, as she recounts the magical moments earlier in the relationship and then the pain she felt after it ended. The kicker is that a number of months later he comes back to her, but by then she's moved on, because she remembers 'all too well' why the relationship ended.

Yeah. Just a song about a relationship. It touches on feelings and emotions we've all had over the years. That's why people like the song so much; we can relate. I can relate.

Fast forward to 2019. The recordings of all her early albums, including Red, have been sold to Scooter Braun, who was aligned with Kanye West, who in turn grabbed the microphone from her as she was trying to accept a music video award in 2009. Losing her catalogue to him, she wrote, represented a worst case scenario. "This is what happens when you sign a deal at fifteen to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says ‘Music has value’, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it."

Why is this relevant? Because her response to this was to re-record all her old albums as what she called "Taylor's version". And had she not done that, we might never have heard the full ten minute version of 'All Too Well', which many are calling her masterpiece. It was written back in 2011, but we're seeing it only now.

It is an incredible piece of music. I shared the link to it on Twitter when it first came out. That was a month ago. It still has a hold on me.

Now, I'll do this. For whatever reason, I'll become deeply attached to some music, and it will resonate through me for a week or a month or more. In my teens it was Elton John. When I was 20 all I could think about was Supertramp. When I was driving up north in the 90s it was Bonnie Raitt. When I was coding Edu_RSS it as Bruce Cockburn. In New Zealand in 2004 it was Jane Siberry and Sarah McLachlan. 2006 it was Kate Bush. 2010, Arcade Fire. There are many many more examples. I let the music wash through me, trying to feel what they feel, partly in response to my own feelings, which are sharp and painful and crystal clear, and partly in an effort to feel something else.

I am an audio person. I can't remember faces for the life of me. I am unable to visualize imagery - they call it aphantasia - in my mind (I've tried; I tried to train myself, but there just wasn't enough to hold on to). My memory consists of sounds and noises and feelings. I sense, rather than see, concepts and algorithms and everything that is not a sound. Meanwhile, those sounds play out in my mind, a constant dialogue, between myself and the past.

That's probably why Taylor's movie, which she released along with the some, means little to me. But I'm catching every nuance in her voice, in her tone, in her pacing, as she crafts this sonic masterpiece.

Anyhow, what I've been doing for the last month (besides putting in 10 hour days on my course videos) is listening not simply to the song but also to reaction videos to the song. 'All Too Well' has spawned a particularly rich supply of them.

A 'reaction video' is a video made by someone - a fan, a voice coach, a critic - as they listen to a song for the first time. They're a thing on YouTube (and maybe other platforms, but I wouldn't know). Reaction videos are almost always positive - I can't recall ever seeing one where the person is disappointed with the song. They're about saying why you like the song (maybe that's why I like them). 

So - to the song, the ten minute version. Note that it doesn't feel like a ten minute song. It feels like it's over before it starts, and you've simply been transported somewhere. But I'll break it down anyways.

The first two verses talk about the early days of the love affair, with autumn leaves falling, and leaving her red scarf at his sister's home, where everything seemed to be falling into place. Lovely. Those moments. "And I can picture it after all these days."

A short pre-chorus tells us it's long gone and she tells us "I might be okay but I'm not fine at all."

Why? Because she remembers the details, every little detail. That's the chorus. "Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well." This is something I can latch onto; there's a short story I never wrote in my mind that ends "... and the wind, beautiful, beautiful, in my hair." 

The next verse talks about the affair again, about meeting the parents, and again about the way everything seemed to be coming together. "You told me 'bout your past thinking your future was me."

To this point the early version and this version are lyrically the same, though there is a lot of difference in the sound and feel of the new version. Taylor's voice is much richer, much more nuanced, and there's more layering with background videos and tone. One of the reaction videos talks about the sound 'shimmering' so we can sense that this is the past, as compared to the direct vocals of the present (where the 'present', recall, is 2011, when she wrote the song).

The new version adds to this, though, referencing 'the first cracks in the glass' suggesting the relationship isn't everything it could be. In the video the music stops and there's an argument about the way he ignores her when talking with his friends. The new lyrics reference him tossing the car keys and saying 'fuck the patriarchy' in a dismissive way.

Anyhow, long story short, he ghosts her.

OK, maybe not exactly, I can't say for sure. But she shifts time, moving to the future, after the relationship has been "three months in the grave", and only then does he say "I love you". He comes back, pretending nothing had happened, "check the pulse and come back swearing it's the same," and he holds her, but all she feels is shame.

The pre-chorus again tells us it's long gone, "I forget about you long enough To forget why I needed to," and again, though, she still remembers all the details, "dancing 'round the kitchen in the refrigerator light," she remembers it all too well. And the chorus tells us why she can't just pick it up and start again as though nothing had happened. "Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well."

And - as the chorus continues - it turns out that the affair was supposed to be something like their little secret. "And there we are again when nobody had to know, you kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath." And they swore they would always remember. "Sacred prayer and we'd swear To remember it all too well, yeah."

Now none of the reaction videos are saying this, but from where I sit, it seems to me like he's gaslighting her. There are things only she seems to remember, and with each interaction, it's like he's trying to reshape her memory of things.

The bridge now comes in, and it's the same as in the original version, but we have a better sense of what she's talking about. Maybe, she says, "I was asking too much," but maybe also, "this thing was a masterpiece 'Til you tore it all up," that is, when he started being "casually cruel in the name of being honest." And now, after, "I'm a crumpled up piece of paper lying here 'Cause I remember it all, all, all."

The argument in the video makes it clear what she's talking about. For example, she tries to hold his hand when he's talking with his friends, but he pushes her away, and then later denies even noticing he did it, "literally a moment I don't even remember, that you're holding me hostage over.... it's crazy" (take a look at this analysis that makes this all clear).

Now the long version inserts a new verse 4, which changes in the tempo and melody, where she replays in her mind the sorts of things he has said to her, how they made her feel, and what they said about him. He introduces the difference in age - he's 30, she's 20 - and says "if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine." As though only she was actively participating. And she wonders just what he thought she was to him: "A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you." As though she was somehow mistaken if she had ever thought it was anything else.

His reappearance after three months to now proclaim his love left her "weeping in a party bathroom" where "some actress" (Jennifer Aniston) asks her what happened. "You. That's what happened, you." The before: "You who charmed my dad with self-effacing jokes." And the after: simply not showing up. Ghosting her. Her father says, "It's supposed to be fun turning twenty-one." But what I hear is that love and relationships, in general, are supposed to be fun. This isn't love. It's being used.

Back to the old version, which is now verse 5, and one more lie (which we now know is just one more lie, after all the rest): "Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone But you keep my old scarf from that very first week... You can't get rid of it 'Cause you remember it all too well, yeah."

And now back to the chorus, which since the first time around has been building the list of things she remembers all too well... down the stairs... wind in my hair... it was rare. "I remember it all too well." But now we know that he remembers too - so what's up?

In verse 6 Taylor makes it very clear what's up. "I'll get older, but your lovers stay my age." (And if you check the history of Jake Gyllenhall's girlfriends, before and since, she is exactly right). Arm candy. But maybe she wasn't so easy to dismiss. "Did the twin flame bruise paint you blue? Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?" 

Because Taylor does remember, even if Jake is gaslighting her, and in this beautiful coda to verse 6 she tells us, "I still remember the first fall of snow And how it glistened as it fell I remember it all too well." And the song, which began sad, and then became angry, becomes wistful and lets it all go.

And I can feel it. I can feel exactly that. The moments when everything hung in the balance, the moments when everything came crashing down, the moments when I let it all go. The song, which in the first version, is a sad lament for a love affair lost, becomes in this retelling what it originally was, an affirmation of her own value and her own sense of self worth even after all this.

And that's what I love about it.

Normally I'm not very interested in the details of a relationship, the back-and-forth that happens when they go south, and the laments of both parties. Sure, there's love songs, breakup songs, and everything in between, and some of them speak to me sometimes, because I've been everything in between, but they're so often passive, and never about taking control. And what I am interested in are songs and stories telling me about how people are able to find themselves, renew their sense of self-worth, and forge a path ahead, whatever. Because that's what's always been so hard for me. And that's the sort of thing I need to hear in my ears, especially when I'm doing something risky, like recording 50+ hours of video for a course about artificial intelligence and ethics.

And I think that you can't do anything great and lasting until you've been able to get to that point. And the difference between Taylor at age 20 and Taylor at age 30 is that she's learning to do that, to be able to say the things that need saying, and to not be pushed around by people who will try to use her insecurities as leverage. I think that's what she tried to do with Reputation, but it's what she succeeds in doing here.

Because, you know, it's the little things that add up to the big things. A scarf. A staircase. Some keys. And it's the way we we relate to us individually that add up to the big things in society, like the way people feel they can steal your microphone or your music. And each of us as we make our way through society add up to define what society is all about, how we treat each other in general. And in my mind, at least, it adds up to things like #metoo and #timesup and Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump. Because they're all of a kind, and this is Taylor fighting back against all that.

Eventually this song won't have the same hold over me, because I'll move on, and the song will move on. But for now, we'll walk together, because I can see, with the hindsight of 30 more years over Taylor's, that these are the moments that define a person.


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