Show And Tell: On 'Lover,' Taylor Swift Lets Listeners In On Her Own Terms
I have no idea what it is like to be a pop star; I don't know what it feels like to be seen by (but rarely known by) billions of people. I front an obscure underground rock band called Priests. While Taylor Swift performs in stadiums and has, through a deal with major record label Universal, an exclusive licensing deal for deluxe versions of her album with Target, Priests performs in tiny clubs and we, its members, run our own record label. (We recently celebrated a new distribution deal that gets our releases into larger chain stores at all.) Swift has 85 million Twitter followers and 121 million Instagram followers; I recently asked our 4000 Twitter followers (only half-jokingly) if anyone paid for bot accounts to follow us on Instagram, since we've reached 10,000 followers and I find it highly unlikely that that many people even know we exist.
So the expectations, the audience size and paychecks for Swift and me are all quite different. But I know about being a performer who is also a songwriter, and how the desires of the performer-self can directly contradict those of the songwriter-self. When I am a performer I am an extrovert. I love to entertain the audience, who I want to make happy, angry, sad, excited, etc. As a songwriter, I am an introverted interior designer trying to install a curtain (a nice looking curtain, a compelling curtain) around the extroverted performer as she carries on (and on, and on, it sometimes feels like), telling everyone everything. The songwriter says: No. Not everything. Pick and choose what you share. Make art, don't read the news to everyone. Whatever form it takes, the art, for me, comes from the friction between these opposing poles of desire: The songwriter always wants to show while the performer always wants to tell.
So I am excited by the show rather than tell songwriter Taylor Swift is becoming on her new album, Lover, turning phrases that obscure as much as they reveal. Most of these 18 songs are pleasant, warm reflections on different kinds of love, soundtracks to which the listener might dance or cuddle. It's familiar ground for Swift, whose discography has always felt like it was written by and for people who grew up on demented Disney-fied fairy tales, movies and other entertainment about rescuing and being saved by the hero/ines of our affection. Swift was a prodigy in the art of romantic songwriter-storytelling right out of the gate with early tracks about crushing on cute boys ("Tim McGraw," "Our Song," "Teardrops On My Guitar"). But tracks on Lover sound comfortable with broader, open-ended story arcs. On "It's Nice To Have A Friend," Swift's narrator recounts moments in a special relationship that may span decades: sidewalks under snow, being on a roof under a pink sky, school bells turning into church bells. This is a new, and successful, approach for Swift, who typically spells everything out; here, she instead invites the listener to do the work — to infer what, exactly, might be so nice about having a friend.
When Swift released her self-titled debut in 2006, she encouraged listeners to build an intimate relationship with her music. Longtime fans know that lyrics in her liner notes often contain seemingly random capitalized letters that spell out messages for those in the know to decode. (A quick Google search for "All Too Well lyrics" and "MAPLE LATTES" will reveal the high-profile relationship that inspired what many consider to be a career-defining song in Swift's catalog.) Fans decided the "PORTLAND, OREGON" message in capitalized lyrics for "Sparks Fly" meant the song was about a country singer Swift opened for in that city in 2006. Stories behind the origins of fan favorites like "Mean" and "Dear John" have been well-documented in interviews both with Swift herself and with her alleged subject matter (a music industry blogger and an older celebrity guitarist who probably should've known it'd be wiser to not date a 19-year-old, respectively).
Lover is the first chapter of Swift's career after what she's described as some of the worst years of her life. Stalkers, a legal battle with a sexual assaulter, breakups in business and romance, severed friendships and her mother's battle with cancer are just a few of the personal issues the pop star has navigated in recent headlines. So as Swift's profile grew, so too did a reasonable reticence about surrendering all detail to the inquiring minds. In a move that she says felt right for her personal relationships and mental health — but felt wrong to many of her fans and some members of the press — she granted no interviews in the roll-out of 2017's Reputation. The playful attempt to evolve out of the image of the chill-girl-next-door-who-will-absolutely-key-your-car-if-necessary that was so captivating to fans was probably a success measured by most metrics, but the historically talkative songwriter's relative quiet left room for a wealth of assumptions, particularly about her values and political persuasions.
I feel empathy with what seems like Swift's own internal conflict between her performer-self wanting to tell everything and her songwriting-self wanting to selectively show, construct a story, an allegory, a way to honor the real emotions that inspire her music and still protect the parts that won't be understood by anyone else. Nobody speculates about Priests the way people speculate about Taylor Swift, but when our band, previously a quartet, released a new album this past spring, we were noticeably a person short. And a lot of people asked (and kept asking): "What happened?" and then, "No really, what happened?"
We explained the story the way we wanted to, in a way that felt most accurate to all parties involved: It both was and wasn't messy. The split was as amicable as it was tense. Though it had been Taylor Mulitz, our bassist, who made the choice to leave, I was the first to say I thought he should go. He had new obligations that would make it impossible to continue being a member of Priests, I reasoned, and I hated the idea of being a burden (which, in retrospect, has a Swiftian "leave before you get left" energy to it). Writers wanted to know about the now-weekly band therapy appointments we attended, which, to their occasional disappointment, we didn't have much to say about. I felt like people wanted our storyline wrapped neatly into an inspiring, educational, or entertaining package; that our lack of resolution or willingness to tell all about our personal drama had disappointed them. I felt frustrated. I wondered how much of this frustration was the result of us refusing to flatten our story, our work, or the people in it into an easily digestible plotline. I thought of Russell Crowe in Gladiator when he, furious that he has decapitated an opponent and the crowd is not cheering, takes off his helmet to shout "Are you not entertained?!" At what point, I wondered, does the performance of our pain and conflict satiate the unrelenting desire for consumption and popcorn-eating, and what does it cost our ability to write songs and do our job?
Except for the few unlucky people who were kind enough to listen, this (melo)drama played out mostly in my mind. For Swift, though, that wasn't exactly the case. I can't imagine the real-time complications of squaring one's own self-perceptions and personal relationships with the perceptions from hundreds of millions of fans and members of the press, some of whom took Swift's 2017 album to mean a calculating, vengeful "snake" had been writing these songs all along.
When Swift re-emerged, shedding Reputation's darker palette, she announced Lover with pastels and a common symbol of transformation and rebirth: lots of butterflies. Four deluxe versions of the new album include scanned pages from Swift's diary. An entry dated summer of 2016 describes the time period as her own personal apocalypse. It is no wonder that many fans are now fanatically poring over Lover's imagery, lyrical subject matter and context clues from Swift's life to reveal the secret of what the record, one she has been willing to talk about more explicitly, must really be about.
But what makes Lover a good album for Swift's evolution is how much she now chooses to evoke rather than explain. Lyrically, her vivid observational details (weather, colors, places, being drunk, Leonardo DiCaprio, hair tangled in coat buttons) more often direct to further mystery than resolution, or at least make for a catchy hook. On "Cruel Summer" the delightfully ambiguous phrasing of "It's new, the shape of your body" next to "It's blue, the feeling I've got / It's a cruel summer" suggests blue could be a shape as well as a feeling (which could be blue or cruel), much like the disorienting uncertainty and thrill of a new crush.
The narrators of Lover sound like they've done a lot of thinking; some even have a self-accepting sense of humor. On the first verse of the album's title track, Swift, who likely sees herself as planned and deliberate to a fault, is going to live free or die (we all contain multitudes), hilariously insisting she and her romantic interest "can leave the Christmas lights up 'til January" (holiday cheer for an extra couple weeks at most in this lawless home). This song did not grab me on first listen. But its gentle snare slap (possibly my favorite sound on the entire record) called me back again and again, until I realized it has now become one of my favorites in her catalog of perfect pop romance. That bridge! Those girl group harmonies! Swift's songs are "relatable," but not about realism. "Lover" sounds like the fantasy happily-ever-after many of her songs' narrators have always wanted to inhabit.
As an album, Lover even finds the songwriter meditating on love that will mean eventual grief. The anxious chorus falsetto of album highlight "Cornelia Street" anticipates just the possibility of heartbreak, its narrator freaked out by the small chance a good situation could go bad. Pessimism-as-defense-mechanism is replaced, however, on "Soon You'll Get Better," about a narrator's struggle with knowing their own optimism-is-literally-all-I-have desperation will not stave off the inevitability of a loved one's death.
Much as Lover offers fairy-tale endings, its stories are also rooted in this uncertainty and ambiguity, too; a reminder that there are always details we can't quite know from the performers we treat like an always-open book. In her essay "I'm Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams," Kim Gordon, rock icon and co-founder of Sonic Youth, asks, "How long can [a performer] continue to exert intensity before it becomes mannered and dishonest?" How long can a performance continue, at what point does the audience feel like the artist isn't showing anything anymore? A performance deserves a beginning as much as it does an end, a time for the curtain to close and for the performer to leave the stage. What Swift now avoids in personal disclosures around Lover's release, she gains in craft and storytelling. In a move that emphasizes her artistry over celebrity, Swift's reconciliation of her performer and songwriter selves makes more room for her listener's imagination.