Art and Expectation2021-02-12
CW: mentions of suicide and mental health later in the article.
Taylor Swift and I were both young when I first saw (and heard) her. I was 13, and she 21. Like many before me, my first exposure to her was her song "Love Story", part of her second studio album titled 'Fearless'. It didn't take a lot for me to be hooked; it was a really good song that spoke to my teen anxieties like few others. I had a raging crush and wasted no time in purchasing the audio CD for the entire album.
In the years since, I've been a fairly avid "Swiftie", indeed, that CD still lies on my shelf as one of the few pieces of physical media from my teens I still own. I must have played every album until "Red" tens of dozens of times and have many of her lyrics memorized better than more important things. I did drop out of the fandom for a while when she released "1989" and "Revolution", both albums that had a distinctly different vibe to her usual fare. They are admittedly important for her journey as a musician, but they were not, and continue to not quite be "my thing" in terms of genre. She did, however, bowl me over once again in the blink of an eye with "Folklore" and the subsequent "Evermore". It felt incredible to rediscover an artist I held so dear not so long ago, and to see how her songwriting has matured.
This is why I was excited, curious, and just a tad skeptical when, yesterday, she announced on Twitter that she would be re-releasing 'Fearless' later as a version more true to who she is now this year, with six tracks that didn't make the cut the first time around. She kicked this off by releasing what she calls "Taylor's Version" of Love Story earlier today. My heart pounding and my fancy headphones on, I tuned into Spotify to check it out.
Four minutes of anticipation, four minutes of disappointment. The song is, for all intents and purposes, basically the same as the original with a few minor tonal differences. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great song, but it rings different for me personally. This post is me thinking out loud to try and understand why this is the case, and wondering what I even expected to get out of it. For my fellow fans and those more ardent than I'll ever be, I'm not saying she shouldn't have released it or that she owes us (me) anything, really. I'm trying to articulate why I feel deeply unsettled listening to this song despite there being very few differences on the surface.
My personal experience with music is that the first time you discover a track playing on the radio or a streaming service of your choice is a very different experience. You almost never know the artist, and the music is all there is for you. You judge it on the way it sounds, on how it is written, how it makes you feel. Perhaps you like it. Every subsequent listen attaches new memories, new interpretations and new expectations. As you learn more about the artist and immerse yourself in their work, the way the song feels to you becomes something else entirely, more than a purely auditory experience.
When I first heard Fearless, I was fresh off getting my heart broken a first time, and riding the wave of hormones that is adolescence. When she recorded it around 2008, Taylor would have been a teen herself, and I felt like she "understood", that she went through a number of the same things I did and was able to express them better than I ever could. Every time I've listened to the album since, that purity, that clarity of thought, the innocence is what I'm taken back to. I'm not the same person that I was in 2010. I've seen more of life and of love than who I was back then, and I know Taylor has as well because we've been on that journey with her with every album she has released. She's not exactly an artist who creates "concept pieces", each several layers of abstraction from the real world. With her, you know her music is deeply personal, her way of processing or discussing the things she goes through in real life. So when I listen to Love Story now, while I'm taken back to a simpler, a better, more hopeful and innocent time, I'm also reminded of how far I've come since then and how the meaning of love and my expectations from it have evolved along the years. I guess I just expected her to be able to express this abstract notion the way she has expressed the myriad things I've felt over the years even when I haven't been able to do so myself.
If you're re-releasing a piece of music almost 15 years since you've made it, my expectation is that you'd talk about (or sing about, really) how far you've come since then, whether you see life differently or want to go back to seeing things as they were when you first released it. In essence, I think I just expected something substantially different in this new version. Someone I adore and respect greatly, who also happens to be a fan of Taylor's, mentioned that she could be in love again and could be feeling the same way she did back then. I feel like that's a very charitable reading of the situation and the new song as it is doesn't really give me any reason to interpret it that way. Of course, it could be possible. No one knows how an artist feels better than them, and what they choose to put out and how is entirely their choice. I just feel like it could have been really interesting if she added or changed a verse or the music as a way of showing she isn't the same person anymore and has been through so much in life, but is feeling like she is in the same place once again. That would have been really special.
I see none of that, feel none of it, instead I hear what is mostly the same song but with a weird, intangible emptiness to it. It is the same song as from 2008, recorded in a new studio with a new, perhaps better, production team. I find myself unable to relate to this 31 year old multi-millionaire pop sensation "Taylor Swift" the same way I could relate to the 18 year old "Taylor" who I felt was just like me all those years ago. To me, it doesn't feel like it is coming from her, or from a place of genuine feeling and desire to produce art. It feels commercial, like a cover of her own song from so many years ago, or maybe even like a very popular artist covering a song from a young upstart, doing an impressive job technically but without touching its emotional core. I can't help but feel this is coming less from her than from the record label looking to cash in on the nostalgia and the adoration of her fans, many of whom have expressed delight in seeing her "return to her roots" with the last two albums, in a way. Perhaps this is cynical. It feels less like "Taylor's Version" and more like Scholastic/Bloomsbury pushing new print runs of the Harry Potter books, this time with fancy foil covers or Hogwarts house-themed binding in the hopes that people throw money at it again. Perhaps it is unfair to her, and perhaps I see capitalism as a boogeyman in every corner. Or perhaps commercialization is something that has existed in the music industry as long as the term "industry" was appended to the music. Maybe this is part and parcel of life as an artist and it is unfair to project your expectations onto an artist you like, expecting them to cater to your very specific and very unimportant ideals.
In the epilogue to Brandon Sanderson's "Words of Radiance", a chapter also titled "Art and Expectation", he writes: >Art...is fundamentally unfair.
Expectation. That is the true soul of art. If you can give a man more than he expects, then he will laud you his entire life. If you can create an air of anticipation and feed it properly, you will succeed.
Conversely, if you gain a reputation for being too good, too skilled ... beware. The better art will be in their heads, and if you give them an ounce less than they imagined, suddenly you have failed.
I've discussed the way I feel about this new song with other fans and received some measure of pushback. And I get it. It is nitpicking. I am being unfair to her by expecting something she never promised in the first place, and I am perhaps being critical of something I don't deserve the right to critique. I still can't help but feel this way. The song still rings hollow to me. I can't see the same innocence and naivete in it that I did in the original, and that perhaps is more on me than it is on Taylor Swift.
I think long and hard before documenting my visceral reactions to music this way, because the last time I did was in 2017, soon after Linkin Park released "One More Light". Like several fans at the time, I didn't like the album. I saw firsthand as the poor reception poured out across social media, talk about how the band was a shell of its former self, how they were pushing out new music without thinking beyond their own pockets, how it was a completely different band and so on. Two months later, Chester Bennington was found dead. While a reason for his suicide has not been confirmed, I cannot help but feel that this toxic culture of entitlement I enabled and participated in to some extent could have played a part in it. I'm still very conflicted putting this post out because I don't want to be in that situation again. I might take it down later. This love is difficult, but it's real.