by Leigh Miller and Emma Eisler
“Tim McGraw” always makes me smile. My first real relationship lasted longer than a summer, but it had the same feeling of being separate from the rest of my life that gives those memories the golden tint of summer love. It’s so hard not to do what Taylor does—to wonder what songs make him think of me; what images call that time back for him; and what, if anything, he wanted to say but didn’t. Or if there were things I should’ve said but never found the words for. There’s something special about this kind of love, that can remain unmitigatedly beautiful in memory as if preserved in amber. But, listening to Taylor sing, I understand, too, the sadness of September, of never venturing into those colder months and complexities, so, without knowing the full extent of the relationship, you never fully fall out of love.
I heard it in my family’s minivan on the radio when I was in around second grade. I told my family this was a singer we would all like…I loved TS from the beginning! Now, this song ALWAYS makes me happy. I love turning it on in the car when the weather gets warm and you can have the windows down. When I was a young kid, it made me idealize being 16, and now it has a timeless ability to brighten the mood of any moment and reminds me to find the dreaminess in any situation.
It’s the only song I know every single word to. What I would sing in my mom’s car driving home from elementary school, bobbing head and pigtails. In high school, it became my best friend’s and my song. Although our relationship wasn’t romantic in the traditional sense, we lived so many of those moments together—ridin’ shotgun with my hair undone; sneakin’ out late… maybe even more importantly, comforting and being there for one another at the end of a long day. What I love about “Our Song” is that it celebrates the music in daily life, in repetition, and small acts of love. So many years and states away from those early days of listening, whenever it comes on, I sing along, loud and unembarrassed, and I think of my best friend (or, more often than not, look to where she is sitting beside me) and I think of hers and my song that is the one in my ears, but also every other sound that makes up our years of knowing each other.
“I’m Only Me When I’m With You”
This song never loses that feeling of young summers with your friends. It reminds me of summer concerts in my town’s park and running through the grass with my friends until it got dark out. There’s such a sense of freedom in long summer days and having so much energy, creativity, and imagination. This song title was definitely an Instagram caption from 13-year-old me and I don’t regret it. What a sweet song of just having fun and making the most of summer days.
Even though I know it’s a love song, this song always makes me think about my friends–both at home and at college. I see myself in high school, jumping over waves at Ocean Beach or sitting in comfortable silence on my friend’s roof. I see myself with my childhood closest friend, sitting outside eating waffles with powdered sugar. Freshman year, talking in the dining hall until closing hour, or falling asleep curled beside my friends watching a movie. Hikes at Monkey Run, apartment dinners, phone calls when we’re apart, and how all the people I most love bring out different sides of me that make me more who I am.
“Tied Together with a Smile”
I think when Taylor wrote this, MySpace was about the only social media around, so this was more about someone putting on a real life facade…but as I listen to it now, I think it mirrors or foreshadows the illusion that is Instagram. After years of being on social media, people are now reflecting a lot on how the way most people use it paints a rosy picture that makes followers think their life is worse than other people’s. Even though most of us know at this point that social media is deceiving us, I don’t think it stops those negative feelings from coming.
“The Best Day”
Listening to “The Best Day,” I am skipping school with my dad to drive to Alice’s Restaurant and eat pancakes with sunny side up eggs. I am with my mom driving to Carmel, past the garlic capital of the world and the place where sand blows over the road. I am at the picnic table at San Gregorio, eating sandwiches from the country store, walking up onto the bluffs or down by the sea peeking in caves. For me this song will always taste like ripe raspberries and maple syrup, and will always feel like arriving home tired after a day in the sun; it is all the geography of home that is equally a map of love.
I can’t listen to “Fifteen” without picturing my crumbling concrete high school–seeing myself walking in for the first time, jittery and scared but also feeling so much anticipation for the experiences I would have and the person I’d become. Like Taylor and Abigail, I sat beside two girls in class, and soon enough they were my best friends. We made mistakes and cried, wished to be older and then regretted that longing once we were, laughed on the bus and swore we’d be out of here as soon as we could. When I look back at the person I was walking into high school that first day, part of me feels sad for her—so much of the hurt and pain she will feel in her life, she can’t imagine yet. Equally, though, I feel so much gratitude and tenderness for her. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be, but I knew my own heart enough to love my friends, to know on some level what a precious gift we’d been given to grow up side by side.
My dad always sings this to me when I complain. He got a lot of use out of it when I was actually 15. I think this song kind of always applies, though, and follows me…the older I get, I always look at previous years with this mindset… You think you understand what’s going on, like when Taylor sings, “feelin’ like there’s nothing to figure out,” but you look back a couple years later and can’t believe how much you didn’t know at that point. It’s how you know you’re growing up!
“A Place in this World”
Time at home during the pandemic caused a lot of reflection and assessment of what brings fulfillment/joy to my life as well as what kind of work is helpful to the world. Also, I’m halfway through college and starting to make plans for after school…I never felt such confusion about my path in life until this age. School, then four years of college…everything was sort of mapped out when I was younger. Now I’m at the point of picking my own direction/goals/hopes, and this song has really started to speak to me!
We never thought we’d be looking back at socializing as a thing of the past…I never thought the last party I went to in March 2020 would be a “last.” This song mirrors the abrupt change the pandemic brought, and being haunted by a lack of closure, or a change you never saw coming. It reminds me of leaving without saying goodbye to so many of my friends and not knowing the last time I saw them would be the last time for half a year! Just like Taylor says, “Never thought we’d have a last…”
I sort of tie this in as a sequel to “I’m Only Me When I’m With You.” That song transports me back to late middle school/early teen years of just running around and never getting tired or bored with my friends. “Long Live” of course brings the nostalgia for high school, so it immortalizes the magic of being at such a special but short time of your life. Now it has a second meaning for me–sort of the partner to “Last Kiss” as a reflection on the period of time before the pandemic. Now, things are coming to an end, or perhaps already ended, faster than we anticipated–for the class of 2020 who lost the end of their senior year, the class of 2021 who lost their whole last year, and all of us who have had to accept that some parts of our life are a thing of the past. Those nights out late with my friends (hopefully they’ll return soon, though some friends will be gone by then) that ended with starry walks through campus–they have a magic associated with them now. Long live those nights!
My 22nd birthday did not feel like “22.” I didn’t dance in crowded rooms and I definitely didn’t fall in love with strangers. Mid-pandemic, I sat on the couch in my childhood home with two close friends–one who I met in high school, the other freshman year of college–who’d gotten tested so we could spend the weekend together. Despite the difference in circumstances, though, 3 minutes and 50 seconds before midnight when my birthday would officially start, we put on “22.” We swayed and laughed, the two of them hugging me between them. In the morning, we packed beer and sandwiches and drove through a redwood forest and past small towns to my favorite part of the coast, where our shoes were nearly swept away by the sea. Later, my oldest friend from childhood came over and the four of us ate dinner in the backyard and talked until the sky grew dark. I wouldn’t say I felt completely free, or even completely happy (although something close), but despite months of isolation and the loss inherent to this time, I didn’t feel lonely at all.
I’ve been thinking about Taylor’s different eras. Young and still purely country on Fearless, cynical and self-righteous on Reputation. I love quarantine-era Taylor especially, how her albums seem to contain some of the best of each past moment; a little country, some pop that I can dance to, a sprinkle of indie, all buoyed by the storytelling that has always been a touchstone in her music. When I listen to Red, it feels to me like an album of Taylor coming into herself. Some songs like “Begin Again” and “All Too Well” feel transcendent and assured, while others like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” seem to come with the growing pains of trying to be someone else or do something new but not yet being wholly sure of your footing. For the past couple of years, I’ve dyed my hair red, so I joke sometimes that I’m in my red era, too. Sometimes I’m confident and assured, and I know exactly how to articulate my own feelings and what I want. Other times my voice quavers or I lose the thread halfway through, or I spin through the kitchen then suddenly become self conscious and stop. Still, I can relish the music of this moment.
The more years you live, the more mistakes you make, and the more perspective you gain to reflect on things from your past that you wish you did differently. The early months of lockdown provided such a long, quiet, reflective time to sort of process the end of my teens and what college had been like so far, and that left a lot of room to be critical. It’s the sort of feeling where you know you’re young, you’re supposed to mess up and not know things, and you haven’t done anything majorly terrible, but you’ve still taken some missteps. This song reminded me to give myself grace while reflecting during the long days of isolation.
“Never Grow Up”
Each birthday comes with a sense of anticipation, but also a sense of loss. If I close my eyes, I can be back in my bedroom, hearing the sounds of my parents talking in the kitchen. Only it isn’t my bedroom anymore, but my childhood room where now I am a visitor. When I listen to “Never Grow Up,” I think of the versions of myself I’ve been and phases of my life past, but I am reminded also to take in the sounds and smells of my life at this moment, not to take for granted even what seems at the time mundane. Here I am in my first apartment, the air smelling of vanilla and baking cake. Two of my best friends in the world are laughing in the kitchen, and in a minute I’ll get up and join them. This, too, is home. Let me hold onto this, in memory, yes, but also as I live it, knowing we’ll all soon be older and on to the next place.