Off Topic: Growing Up, Taylor Swift and the Importance of Teenage Girls

In my earliest memory it is my third birthday. I am standing in front of the mirror in the door of our linen closet in the house we lived in until I was eight and I’m saying, “but I don’t look three.” I was too young then to understand that growing up happens gradually, that birthdays are largely arbitrary and that I was a little older every day, not just once a year.

And that’s something I still struggle with, the expectation that, because I fit into the definition of an adult in some ways–old enough to vote, to drink, to rent a car–that I should now be an adult in all ways, when so much of the time I still feel like a kid playing dress up. Adulthood sneaks up on me in ways both huge–signing as a witness on my best friend’s Ketubah last summer, paying my rent–and tiny–catching myself sounding confident and self-assured at work, spending more than $100 on anything. But for every self-financed vacation or home-cooked meal there’s a day that I call my mom just because her voice on the other end of the phone feels like an anchor, or a day I have to remind myself that a temper tantrum is a disproportionate response. I’m still figuring out how to get up in the morning, how to budget my money, how to cut my grocery shopping to one trip a week, instead of four.

There’s no one right way to grow up, either. At 25, I know people that are married, people that have kids even. I know people that are still in school, people working traditional office jobs, people that are living with their parents and people that moved across the country as soon as they turned 18. I hover somewhere in the middle-ground: financially independent and also unsure if I’m ready for the commitment of a kitten. And the thing is, none of us is any better or worse at being 25, we can’t measure ourselves against each other. We are, I am, in an in-between age. As Britney Spears put it, “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.”

Taylor Swift is in the in-between, too. She’s a little younger than I am–almost exactly 2 years, actually–but at 23 she’s reached the age where the world expects you to be, if not standing on your own two feet, at least close to it. And seeing as she became an international superstar as a teenager, she’s had to do a lot of her awkward growing in front of a huge audience, an audience that expects her to be a kid and an adult and a role model all at once. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to grow up publicly, I’m having a hard enough time doing it privately, but she handles it with grace. She’s charming, seems to have a good sense of humor about herself, tweets an exceptional number of pictures of her cat (there’s even a Meredith tote bag for sale on her website and, yes, I want one) and while she doesn’t reject her largely younger audience, she hasn’t let that hold her back from maturing as an artist. Her most recent album, Red, is poppy and as outlandishly fun as ever, and it also speaks with a more experienced voice than her past albums. Taylor Swift isn’t a teenager anymore, and maybe she’s not an adult yet, either. She’s “happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time,” and she’s figuring it out like the rest of us.

But what Taylor Swift does so beautifully is pour that exploration into the songs she writes. As Tavi Gevinson put it in her excellent piece for The Believer‘s music issue a couple of months ago, Swift “mak[es] it her job to blow up the most minor event into something that more accurately represents the way she experienced it.” She understands the power of music to speak an emotional truth that can be otherwise difficult to capture. Whether she’s writing about love and heartbreak–and taking a seemingly endless amount of flack for it, more on this later–about leaving home for the first time, or the pitfalls of fame or female friendship, she nails emotions at their most extreme. I would imagine that that’s the thing about her music that so appeals to young girls, who churn with hormones at every moment and feel every emotion to the highest degree possible. Taylor Swift gets them, she understands how phenomenal one moment of your life can be, and how wrenching the next, and she knows how to package that into the right lyrics and the right tune so that you can carry it inside yourself, or share it with the world.

For every person that adores Taylor Swift, though, there seem to be at least two that revile her. I can understand why her music might not appeal to everyone, just as not all music appeals to me. I also understand those who feel that her lyrics can be problematic, though I don’t always agree there either. What I don’t understand is the way she is so consistently attacked for appealing so specifically to teenage girls.

The A.V. Club has a relatively new feature, Hate Song, in which artists are asked to explain their reasons for hating a particular track. I clicked on the latest post when I saw that the song in question was “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” the first single off of Red last summer. It was a song I found completely addictive, it’s still one of the most played on my iPod, but I was curious to hear the argument of the guest Hater, comedian Kurt Braunohler.

His reason seems to be, mostly, that it’s an inescapable ear worm, and that he hates Taylor Swift as a person. He refers to 21-year-olds as “essentially mentally disabled” (which is not only ableist language, but also wildly condescending), accuses Taylor Swift of being “boring and vapid” and he says that he suspects “dating her is like talking to a white sheet of paper with a little bit of vanilla ice cream on it that doesn’t say anything.” He also attributes any skill in her songs to her producers and calls her lyrics “vapid.” More than anything, he seems to resent her for her fame and success, and for the fact that she appeals to a demographic with a certain amount of buying power, notably a demographic that isn’t thought to be interested in what he does. Overwhelmingly, it feels like he’s talking about an idea of a pop star, not about Taylor Swift in particular.

Have you ever seen any of her tweets? I don’t think she’s nice. I think she’s actually kind of horrible. If you give someone at that age that much fame and that much money, they become monsters.

I’d encourage you to take a look through Taylor Swift’s twitter. Her recent tweets are mostly giddy exclamations about the guests she’s brought on stage at her latest tour stops and glamour shots with her best friend. She retweets a lot of excited fans, I’m sure only sending that excitement level skyrocketing, and, as I said before, she posts a lot of pictures and vines of her cat. To some her relentless enthusiasm seems manufactured, an attempt to maintain a certain image, and I’m sure that comes into play. The celebrities that tweet without a filter–Dan Harmon comes to mind–tend to get themselves into trouble along the way, and the weight of that role model moniker she carries must be pretty heavy. To me though, she mostly seems pretty genuine. A lot of 11-year-old girls have big dreams for their lives, but not many of them pursue those dreams as ardently, immediately or successfully as Taylor Swift did, and 12 years later it’s nice to see that she still seems pretty happy with her choices.

Like nearly everyone, Braunohler is more interested in discussing Taylor Swift’s love life than her music. It seems obvious to me that someone so famous would date other famous people, that’s her social circle, and it also seems obvious to me that a songwriter would take experiences from her life and mold them into songs. But there is a relentless obsession with who Taylor Swift dates, how many people she dates, which of her songs is about which of the men she has dated…I’m as moderately interested in the personal lives of celebrites as just about anybody that’s ever picked up a copy of US Weekly, but the way her love life is discussed and dissected often comes across as an attempt to shame her, and for dating really not that many men, and some of them only casually. It also allows no room for poetic license or fictionalization in her songwriting.

But what’s more alarming to me than Braunohler’s attacks on a 23-year-old public figure are his attacks on her largely young, largely female fanbase. I’m five years out from teendom, and I’ll admit that that’s still pretty young, but not so much so that I haven’t been known to groan about “youths” when a crowd of noisy teenagers joins my subway car in the morning, that I don’t sometimes express dismay at how much has changed since I was in high school, a whole 8 years ago, but I’d never dismiss teenagers at large. I still remember what it was like to be one of them. In this new in-between age the world is a little more muted than it was in the before age. I’m not living in some colorless hellscape, waiting to die, but neither can I hyperfocus the way I could at 16, I’m less familiar with emotional extremes. Kurt Braunohler may think teen romances are “dumb, shallow and…essentially meaningless,” but that’s because he’s not a teenage girl, for whom those same teen romances are everything. There’s a reason television has produced so many series about teenagers falling in and out of love: it’s because nothing feels as life-or-death as a crush, and no pain hurts as badly as rejection, when you’re 17.

Contrary to what Braunohler may believe, teenagers have very little power. Most of them function within a strict school schedule, they have to answer to parents, guardians, teachers and other authority figures, and only some have access to cars or public transportation. At 16 or 17 you start having those moments, those flashes, of your adulthood on the horizon–I remember standing in an aisle of the grocery store, with my keys slung between my fingers, not long after I got my driver’s license, and feeling so very grown-up, just for that split second. It was startling and amazing and kind of terrifying–but there aren’t a lot of people that will trust you with it.

And while the buying power of teenage girls may have skyrocketed Taylor Swift’s career, and One Direction’s, while they may be keeping Pretty Little Liars on the air and turning “Paranormal Teen Romance” into a section of the bookstore, the things they are known for loving will never be respected like the things middle-aged men are known for loving. Braunohler accuses them of being “indiscriminating consumers,” but that’s not true at all. Just like anyone, they love the art and culture that speaks to them. Teenage girls love Taylor Swift because her songs are written in a language that courses through their blood. (Plenty of teenage girls also love Breaking Bad and Wes Anderson movies and Vladimir Nabokov and European politics and The National and baking and learning French and Pro Wrestling and really just about anything you could think of, anything at all, some even all at once. Plenty of teenage girls hate Taylor Swift. Teenage girls, just like everyone, contain multitudes.)

They aren’t done cooking yet, either. Braunohler points this out himself: “You don’t become a fully-formed human as a female, or even a male, until you’re at least 30″ (and yes, let’s take a moment to note that “or even”). I don’t disagree that a lot of development takes place in your twenties, I’ve changed in the last 5 years, in the last 3 years, in the last year. I’m sure I’ll keep changing and growing, and probably well past the time I’m 30. I also don’t think you can discount the thoughts and feelings of everyone under the age of 20–or 30–just because they’re still growing. It’s remarkably close-minded to write off an entire generation, especially one that keeps turning out brilliant, driven young women (women like Tavi Gevinson and Lena Dunham and Adele and, yes, Taylor Swift), just because they’re still baking. These girls are developing independent taste, just as Braunohler once did. That taste is probably going to change, probably several times over the course of their lives, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. If the only thing that you allow to matter is the future then nothing matters at all.

It’s impossible to know what path the rest of Taylor Swift’s career will take, just like it’s impossible to know what the rest of my own life will look like, but I hope she continues to grow and evolve as an artist, and that her audience continues to grow and evolve with her. She’s so passionate about music and there’s such nuance and earnestness in her songwriting that I suspect she will develop nicely over time, but we can’t know. But whether her music career spans decades or flames out on her next album doesn’t really matter. What matters is that at some point in time her music meant something to someone, to many millions of someones.

And that’s kind of amazing, isn’t it?


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