What Taylor Swift Can Teach Us About Writing

I’ve been a casual fan of Taylor Swift’s for a while now — first thinking she was a good role model for girls even if I didn’t care to listen to her music, then sort-of liking that one song about how “she’s cheer captain and I’m in the bleachers,” then really digging her dubstep/pop song “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Now I’m officially in — and looking for friends who will go with me to her next concert — with her new album, 1989. Because I’ve had it on repeat all this week, I’ve also started digging into her older stuff for variety and have found lots of little gem lyrics even in the songs that didn’t otherwise thrill me. (“You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter”? You better come up with equally clever sentences on a regular basis before you dare not take this girl seriously.)

I could listen to this new album in its entirety all day, except for one song: “Welcome to New York.” It makes me squirm so much that I wish there were a separate version of the album available without it. (I know I can theoretically try to delete it from my iTunes, but the Cloud never forgets.) It’s killing me that on an album that includes the delicious “Out of the Woods,” “Style,” and “Blank Space,” she is running around performing this piece of fluff to promote the album. I am not the only one — this song has been universally eviscerated, not surprisingly, by those of us known as “the New York media elite,” who are not impressed by this very wealthy newcomer’s account of what New York life is like. (We’re “elite,” but most of our apartments and bank accounts are not.) A friend of mine called it “tone deaf,” and she didn’t mean it was literally not in tune — she meant the lyrics were lame, when Swift’s lyrics are usually impeccable. The Village Voice called the song “bullshit”: “‘Welcome to New York’ celebrates as generic, flat, and lifeless a New York as has ever existed in pop culture.” I cannot explain its shortcomings better than the Voice did, so I’ll quote this excellent rant here:

If you’re young and hungry, moving to New York takes a leap of faith and an acceptance that life will be difficult and finding your way won’t come easily. Swift’s New York is passive; it’s a city that’s “been waiting for you,” which is a completely unrecognizable aspect of a place that’s the Grave Digger of naive kids who come here to make it. New York waits for no one — that’s supposed to be why when you get here, you hustle or you die. Well, maybe not die, but you do wind up moving to St. Louis.

I can only think that NYCGo, which named her Global Welcome Ambassador for New York City, is either trolling us on purpose or trying to give Swift some kind of serious New York-style hazing.

I’m here to defend not the song, but Swift’s intelligence and talent, even in relation to this very song. I’m also here to make this misstep a teachable moment for us writers. (Full lyrics here, for reference.) Swift’s major talent is stringing together words, but it’s also wielding extraordinary insight. (In other words, she is a writer.) Part of the whole Taylor Swift thing is that even when she was still a teenager, and she was writing naive songs about waiting for her prince to come that stressed feminist commentators out all the time, she brought the kind of self-awareness that usually only comes with age. (And for many, never comes at all.) She has a specific obsession in her work, like so many of us do: Hers is with the moment you know a relationship will end. It’s not even necessarily with the actual end. It’s the moment you know it won’t work, and many times for her, it’s a moment when you keep trying anyway. She’s fascinated with this aspect of human experience, and she renders it beautifully, over and over. “I Knew You Were Trouble.” says it all in the title: “Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago/You were in my sights, you got me alone … I guess you didn’t care, and I guess I liked that/And when I fell hard, you took a step back.” From “Out of the Woods”: “The night we couldn’t quite forget when we decided/To move the furniture so we could dance/Baby, like we stood a chance … And I remember thinking/Are we out of the woods yet?”

This compared with a New York that’s just sitting around waiting for you with bright lights and it’s “aglow” and the most interesting thing about it is that “everybody here was someone else before”? This encapsulates about the first 10-15 seconds I spent in this city. As someone who’s been battling this place for 13 years, this song makes me feel about a thousand years old, and it makes her sound like the least observant, least insightful person to ever come here. And if you’ve ever been in Times Square, you know we’re constantly crawling with people who aren’t so observant or insightful. (See? This is what New York does to you.) Here’s where my defense (of sorts) and my writing insight comes in: There is something endearingly naive about this, coming from a girl who seemed so world-weary of love by age 20. It’s cute to me that she could write such a bad song at such an otherwise fertile creative time in her life. I’m proud that my city could confuse her so much that she had feelings she couldn’t actually put into clever, interesting, insightful words.

It reminds me of the most important time in my own life, which also happened to be the earlier years of my time in New York. I was trying to leave a longterm relationship, an engagement, and I didn’t know how. I realized how dire the situation was when he, essentially, bought us a condo on the Upper West Side because I said I wanted to live in the city, not New Jersey; then it turned out it was the relationship, not the housing, that was a problem. I finally escaped to a tiny studio in the East Village with a shower in the kitchen, a foldout bed acquired on the street, and a mouse roommate. I cried a lot. I tried to write about all of this while it was happening, and that resulted in a few good, raw passages, but mostly it resulted in an entire “novel” I’m now glad never got published. But months and years later, I wrote about some of these events again; this time, some of the best writing of my life happened.

Most of the time, when we’re writing about our own lives, we need the perspective that, for most of us, only time brings. If we happen to write something and publish it before we have that kind of insight, those are the pieces we look back on and cringe for our naiveté. I think Taylor’s going to feel that way someday about “Welcome to New York.” Lucky for her, she has a few other hits to be proud of for decades to come. She says she might even write a book someday herself. I’m all for that.

 

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