the ask@AAR: How are Taylor Swift and Romance Alike?

warning: today’s ask is more of a rant than a question

Taylor Swift’s first album came out when my daughter was ten. We both loved it–I still get a catch in my heart when I listen to Tim McGraw and Mary’s Song–and played it again and again on the way to school much to the dismay of her twin brother. As Taylor continued to release albums, I continued listen but, by the time my daughter was in her early teens, Taylor wasn’t cool. (I suspect my daughter still listened to her but on headphones where musical tastes aren’t public.) Like her three brothers, she listened to Eminem, Jay Z, Snoop, Kendrick, and other men (Rihanna was the exception). The songs we now heard in the car were those about bitches, hos, guns, and pain. Love songs… not so much.

Taylor’s music, which has always been about love and relationships, was for years ignored or condescend to by the mainstream music critics–the first article Rolling Stone wrote about her in 2008 had the headline Best of Rock 2008: Best Country Lolita. They called her music poppy country and quoted her as saying she just wrote about boys. In her first ever mention in the New York Times, rock critic Kelefa Sanneh said Tim McGraw was a lightweight ode to seasonal love.

These days critics take Taylor seriously–the woman has sold over 200 million albums, won Album of the Year three times, was named Artist of the 2010s Decade by the American Music Awards, and is one of the top ten streaming artists of all time. Even though she’s still singing love songs. Even better, my daughter now listens again to her with no fear of shaming. Her twin brother even has a favorite Taylor album: 1989. (That’s mine too. And, yes, I’ve watched this video more times than I can count.)

Early Taylor is like romance: a victim of the patriarchy’s obsession with male stories of violence, pain, the big bucks, and misogyny. One could say that Netflix’s Bridgerton is romance’s equivalent of Taylor’s 1989, her first album that critics gave her work the credit it is due. Just as the NYT is now reviewing romance, hip music critics have spilled a thousand rivulets of ink on Taylor’s remakes of her original work, lauding her for her feminism in taking back her work, and marveling at the songwriting artistry in Red that they’d dissed in 2012.

Great romance, like a great Taylor Swift song, shows us the emotional and relational aspects of life. Unlike Jake Gyllenhaal, I’m a big fan of both. I am always here for women’s stories, the louder and more emotional the better. Here’s to love stories, sung or read, and to celebrating those who tell them.

And if you haven’t seen this video, it is the bomb.

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