My Aunt Jan turned 70 this year. To celebrate, her three siblings, including my mom, chipped in to buy her a ticket to see one of her favorite musicians: Taylor Swift. My mom had asked me if I would like to join her, but after I consternated (and ultimately declined), Aunt Jan sent me her own email. “I’ve never been to a rock star concert, so it’s on my bucket list,“ she wrote, followed by, “But I have no one to go with me!” She closed with the kicker: “I’m buying.”
Familial circumstances had already practically sealed my fate, but still I consternated more. Taylor Swift was not the problem (I’m a fan). Nor was the idea of going to another gigantic arena-pop spectacle. I’d taken myself to see Katy Perry at Madison Square Garden on the California Dreams Tour for work, and last summer I covered One Direction with a friend and had a blast. I was, of course, absurdly self-conscious, both times. I was a 20-something man in a teen girl’s world. I didn’t feel guilty for liking the music; this is pop, it is popular, it is designed for the populace. It was the awkward dread that, despite all that, these shows were not a place for me. I was in those seats as a fan of big lights, explosions, I-IV-V chord progressions, harmonies, and silly lyrics about love. But I am not a teen, whose connection to those things — and desire to engage with them at a billion decibels — is so much more urgent. We were all “purer” music fans when we were 15. I am also, as I once heard my dad put it, very conscious of how my presence affects others — in this case, parents, whose side-eyes I felt (or maybe just imagined) glaring, as if to say, “What’s your game here?”
I told a friend about my Taylor Swift dilemma. She told me it wasn’t a dilemma. I had to go. I wanted to go. So I went.
I drove to Aunt Jan’s the night before the concert, five and a half hours from my home in Nashville. I spent a good chunk of the drive scanning the wide-open airwaves of Midwest terrestrial radio, stopping at the classic rock hits I grew up with and country songs that I either knew or that sounded silly enough for me to get to know. I heard “The Hills” at least three times and “Can’t Feel My Face” at least five.
Aunt Jan and Uncle Jerry live in a ranch home in a sort of gated residential community in Creve Coeur, a suburb of St. Louis. I’ve spent countless Hanukkahs in this house, numerous Passover seders, a handful of Rosh Hashanah dinners and Yom Kippur break fasts, and probably a shiva or two. The basement has a red shag carpet, a ping pong table, an old, bulbous fridge with a streaking metal handle that yanks outward with the door, and an amazing stained-glass Budweiser lampshade; upstairs, the decor is tasteful midcentury, Midwest sorta-modern. The fanciest things are either assorted Judaica or instruments.
My mom’s family is stupid musical: She, Aunt Jan, Aunt Sheila, and Uncle Stuart would gather around Grandpa Saul and Grandma Dolly at the piano and harmonize, standards like, “You Made Me Love You,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” or Saul’s favorite, the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” As the oldest sibling, Aunt Jan brought rock ‘n’ roll and late-’50s, early-’60s folk into the house. Even now, at the seder, Peter, Paul and Mary’s versions of “If I Had My Way,” “Autumn to May,” and, of course, “Man Come Into Egypt” are liturgy as much as “Had Gadya” or “Dayenu” (there’s even video of all four siblings, four cups deep, harmonizing “Cotton Fields” a cappella). Aunt Jan has made a career in music: For years she ran a music program for children, and she currently sings and plays guitar in a small Jewish folk group. Her voice is crystal clear and matronly — certainly it shows the cracks of age, but it leads, as she does.
Aunt Jan found out about Taylor Swift from her two young granddaughters, and at the past few family gatherings she’s asked for someone to play one of her songs, typically “You Belong With Me.” But Sylvia and Maxine weren’t accompanying their grandmother to this show — not just because they live in Chicago and it’s a school night, but also because their interest in Swift has waned with her foray into pop. (I also suspect they’re nearing that pre-pre-teen age when some start to believe it’s necessary to revile all things popular; Sylvia, the older one, recently gave me a withering look when I copped to welling up during Wall-E.)
Aunt Jan still loves Taylor Swift, though, and when I arrived she had left the deluxe edition of 1989 on the dresser in my cousin Becky’s old room, where ticket stubs for Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants, and David Bowie shows were still pinned to a cork board. Considering my version of 1989 was, naturally, digitally obtained (via means Swift believes inherently devalue art), I flipped through the small packet of faux-Polaroids that came with the album, lyrics scrawled beneath grainy, sun-soaked, expertly staged ~New York City moments~. I loved the melodramatic ones on what looked to be an empty Staten Island Ferry; five and a half years in New York myself, and I’d never bothered to take the free trip.
My inkling as to why Aunt Jan liked Taylor Swift involved a combination of her own work, her granddaughters’ initial enthusiasm, and a deeply ingrained understanding of what makes for good, catchy music. The folk music Aunt Jan cut her teeth on is the people’s music as much as contemporary Top 40 is, and playing music for and with children — a never-ending rotation of simple songs — has kept her capacity for appreciation sharp and genuine, rather than dulling it and leaving it prone to the scourge of thinking everything sounds “same-y.” But when I finally asked why Taylor, why this concert, en route to the Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis, questions she rightly, immediately pegged as “interview questions,” Aunt Jan spoke more about Swift’s earnest, real, down-to-earth appeal — she did not seem encumbered by all the trappings of fame.
I bit my tongue a little. Swift’s ability to control and perpetuate such a manicured mythos is one of her greatest accomplishments. She’s an intensely personal artist whose songs provide tabloid fodder (and vice versa), yet she never plays confirm-or-deny with the press, and never cedes control of any given song. The exuberance of her meticulously managed, #TFW-heavy, emoji-laden social media presence is as familiar as it is hyper-real, like a six o’clock news broadcast stricken by the soap opera effect. The holes and cracks that have begun to show through this persona are inevitable and not necessarily damning of her overall character. But do I tell Aunt Jan about Swift’s problematic response to Nicki Minaj’s indictment of this year’s VMA nominations? Do I get into the politics of her predominately white “girl gang,” her unreal troupe of, to use Minaj’s words, “women with very slim bodies”? Do I pull up Dayna Evans’ fantastic Gawker essay, “Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend,” and quote, “The underdog narrative that the Swift machine has built is one of forced falsehoods; Swift is not coming from behind. She’s been ahead since she started. And watching her collect best friends during a moment in history when womanhood is finally beginning to feel valued does not only feel uncomfortable — it feels evil”?
Luckily, there’s music to distract me. On our way to and from the show, Aunt Jan and I listened to 1989 and talked about our favorite songs. I skipped over a few so I could hear “Clean,” a deep cut I adored and was sure Swift wouldn’t play that night (she did; it was great). The show, too, was every bit the spectacle I’d hoped for — pyrotechnics, beefcake boy-toy dancers, a band so precise they sounded like the album, backup singers who expertly mimicked Swift’s beautifully layered studio vocals, blazing lights and videos and a ridiculously long catwalk that lifted into the air and spun around 360 degrees so that the star could sing to literally every single person in the arena. Nelly was the special guest. They sang “Hot in Herre” with the Haim sisters. I screamed. I sang. Security told the mother next to me several times her daughter could not stand on the chairs, so she held the kid up for almost the entire concert. The girl wore a tutu and a 1989 tour T-shirt, and she sang every word, wide-eyed, and on the other side of me Aunt Jan sang too, and I loved that for each it was probably their first “rock star concert.”
But the show — like Swift, like anyone or anything — was not without its flaws. While the singer and her crew took well-earned breaks and changed costumes, the giant screens showed a series of videos in which the “girl gang” enshrined Swift in a golden aura of normalcy. They talked about how important moving to New York City was for her art; about how excited they were to hear 1989 for the first time; about how unfair it is that the minutiae of Swift’s dating life is put on display for the whole world to see when she, just like you, is only trying to get to know another human being.
The messages weren’t cringe-worthy, nor were they exactly wrong — especially the second video, which underlined the importance of girls sticking together and not tearing each other apart — but their inclusion seemed so unnecessary, as if yet another group of 20,000 adoring fans needed to be assured that their hero was not just worthy of their worship, but no different from them. At that point, she was simply providing ammo to her fans should they ever come face-to-face with anyone so mean as to question the validity of their taste or toss out playground-level ad hominem attacks against Swift. If any of the 1989 tour’s gimmick actually succeeded in putting Swift on the same level as her fans, it was not the videos, nor her sweet speech (prefacing my beloved “Clean”) about how your mistakes make you stronger, not damaged goods, but the LED wrist bands taped to the back of every single chair in the arena. Throughout the show they flashed brilliantly along with the music, a fun little party favor that turned the audience into a somewhat active component of the spectacle, rather than passive consumers of it.
Nestled among the various “forced falsehoods” that have formed Swift’s underdog narrative is the truth that she began her career as a fan. Only someone who is a fan first and foremost could write a song called “Tim McGraw” or “Our Song.” Only a fan would bring Lisa Kudrow on stage and introduce her as Phoebe Buffay before a performance of “Smelly Cat.” What keeps her “Clean” speech — which, in addition to being repeated night after night, can be easily found reproduced online — and other empowerment salvos fresh is the absolute wonder she feels at being, like her own heroes, able to give people something that makes their lives that much easier. She said as much during the show, and in her recent GQ cover story while pooh-poohing Chuck Klosterman’s sorta-question about how she must feel so lonely if her life so often entails playing to a faceless mass, participating in myriad meet-and-greets, and then watching Friends alone on her tour bus. Swift copped to the existence of irony in the situation, but just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
“There is such a thing as having enough,” she told GQ. “You might think a meet-and-greet with 150 people sounds sad, because maybe you think I’m forced to do it. But you would be surprised. A meaningful conversation doesn’t mean that conversation has to last an hour. A meet-and-greet might sound weird to someone who’s never done one, but after ten years, you learn to appreciate happiness when it happens, and that happiness is rare and fleeting, and that you’re not entitled to it. You know, during the first few years of your career, the only thing anyone says to you is ‘Enjoy this. Just enjoy this.’ That’s all they ever tell you. And I finally know how to do that.”
When I arrived in St. Louis, Aunt Jan wanted to know if I was going to write about this experience, well before I’d conducted our pseudo-interview on the way to the show. I wasn’t sure. If I was going to mine my life for content, who was it for? Who should care? I’d like to think it’s for fans of music, because they’re the only ones worth connecting with. But here’s the thing about fans: They do not need this. Fans are emotionally invested in things they have zero control over, making this an attempt to quantify and make tangible an experience that is supposed to be irrational. The only proper way to experience it is as a fundamentalist: To revel and relish. It is to allow absolute pleasure into your life — not necessarily happiness, because sad songs are often the best songs — without worrying about the angles or the nitty-gritty sociopolitical narrative of pop or any of the mind-wringing nonsense that I almost let keep me from going to the show in the first place.
This is why the “girl gang” videos were so unnecessary. This is why Aunt Jan’s appreciation of Swift as a normal human being is more significant than any meaning I could ever derive from everything I’ve read and observed about her. This is why Taylor Swift survives every single critical poke and prod. It’s why her platitudes about how you are not the flaming fuselage of your mistakes, but rather the always-growing-and-learning product of them, still ring true. It isn’t unfair to want and expect the best from our most prominent cultural figures, especially the ones packaging reality for the susceptible youths, but the truth is, as a fan, in 45 years, when you’re at some niece or nephew’s bar/bat mitzvah and the Partytron 6000 Robo Disc Jockey plays “Shake It Off,” you won’t — I pray — be sitting down, haranguing some teen about that one time Swift failed to grasp intersectionality. You will be dancing and having a great time, a proud 70-year-old uncle or aunt.