I love Taylor Swift, and other concerns

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 5:36pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

 

Disclaimer: Yes, it’s a little embarrassing how thoroughly I researched this article and how many pages of lyrics I obviously had to go through to come up with this list. It’s ridiculous to care this much about Taylor Swift when everybody knows cool people with Good Music Opinions don’t do that. But consider this: My apathy toward having a Good and Cool Music Opinion is equal and opposite in strength to how deeply I care about chronicling the evolution of the Dress as a motif in Taylor Swift’s music. Also, for the pedants out there, yes, “Love Story” has a dress in it but I left it off of this list because it’s a wedding dress and I just don’t think there’s much deeper meaning to it (I still <3 you, “Love Story”). We good? Good.

1. “Tim McGraw”

Key lyric: “When you think happiness / I hope you think ‘that little black dress’”

Taylor Swift has built a career out of weaponizing memory. Her gift is in the details: conjuring up tiny moments so specific and intimate that they become universal enough to stab you in the heart. She reveals just enough so that it feels real, but not too much that it feels like it’s only Taylor-applicable. When a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio, we’re invited to not only to listen to her story, but also to understand how it’s our story, too. It’s no accident that this was the first song Taylor ever released, all about how memory can turn heartbreak into something a little gentler, a little more bittersweet. In “Tim McGraw,” she turns moments of their time together into relics of a time long gone: the song they used to dance to, a pair of jeans and, of course, a dress. Really, she’s repurposing these memories to construct an image of herself: “When you think Tim McGraw / I hope you think my favorite song... / When you think happiness / I hope you think that little black dress.” It’s about the power of a reminder. Just like that, it’s not any old dress anymore. And in his memory, that’s how she’ll be forever: wearing that black dress, dancing to that old song. What’s funny though is how that image stuck, not just in his memory, but in ours. Taylor in a dress is one of her defining images, and it’s embedded deep in our cultural databank. Because the Dress isn’t just a piece of clothing: It’s Taylor herself.

2. “Fearless”

Key lyric: “I don’t know why / But with you, I’d dance in a storm in my best dress / Fearless”

Sometimes the Dress is a distillation of Taylor herself, and sometimes, like we see here, it’s a shorthand for a certain grandness of feeling — the Dress as a way to externalize the process of a heart swelling. The album art that accompanied this song in the lyric booklet is appropriately melodramatic (and in classic Swiftian fashion, a completely unsubtle and literal reenactment of the lyrics), Taylor in a fabulous blue evening gown with her back arched as she dances on a rain-soaked street. The Dress signifies an emotion here, a ridiculous, almost embarrassing-to-say-out-loud emotion that doesn’t make sense in words, it only makes sense in actions (or in a Taylor Swift song). Saying it isn’t enough — dancing in a storm in your best dress might cut it, though.

3. “Today Was a Fairytale”

Key lyric: “I wore a dress / You wore a dark grey t-shirt / You told me I was pretty when I looked like a mess / Today was a fairytale”

Taylor is so good at picking details. She offers no commentary here, she just presents these precious and tiny memories like facts. Today was a fairytale — that’s not her opinion, it’s just what today was. Again, the Dress is a way of creating an image of Taylor in an aftermath. She writes in the first person here, but it’s like she’s imagining herself as part of a story, reflecting on an experience from a comfortable third-person distance. At this point in her career, it’s “Today was a fairytale / I wore a dress” but later it’ll become “It was rare / I was there / I remember it all too well.” In both cases, her memory is sharp, and it’s used as evidence of a feeling. Somebody else might try and deny it happened but she was there. Today was a fairytale and this is a fact, as concrete and airtight as the fact that she wore a dress.

Also important to note is that Taylor knows the connotations of a dress — the way the vision of a pretty girl in a pretty dress can make a story immediately softer, more romantic. And I mean, Taylor’s work has always built on this distinctly feminine association — all hand hearts and red lipstick and kittens. Emotional and messy, pretty and soft, a close examination of the whims of a teenage heart. I think this is why people tended to write her off, especially in the early years, because, well, there’s nothing especially important about a girl in a dress, right?

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

 

4. “Dear John”

Key lyric: “The girl in the dress wrote you a song”

Yeah, so there’s a lot that’s important about a girl in a dress. “Dear John” is a culmination of sorts. Taylor spent the first five years of her career-defining herself by a fluttering, deeply emotional romanticism, and “Dear John” is, I think, a defining moment in Taylor’s evolution as an artist: It’s the point when shit started getting really, really real. Not that I think there’s anything light or frivolous about her earlier work (“Fifteen” packs a hell of a punch and “Forever & Always” is full of enough vitriol and spite to kill a dozen Jonas Brothers, let alone the one it was written about), but “Dear John” is almost seven straight minutes of emotional excavation that completely hollows you out before lighting your heart just a little bit on fire. It’s the Dress, though, that really kills me. “The girl in the dress wrote you a song” could easily be a one-line manifesto for Taylor’s entire career. It’s an acknowledgment that there are strings attached to being a girl in a dress, a thing the world sees as meaningless, effeminate, stupid.

The Girl in the Dress isn’t taken seriously, not ever. Nobody ever expected her to fight back — to write something as sharp and painful and true as “Dear John.” Nobody expects the girl who wrote a song like “Love Story” to write lines like: “And you'll add my name to your long list of traitors who don't understand / And I'll look back in regret how I ignored when they said, / ‘Run as fast as you can.’” But that’s the whole point. The Girl in the Dress is a fragile, frilly thing who’s pretty and gentle and has her heart perpetually broken. Well, she’s angry now, and she has something to say. There’s a reason this song resonates so well, a reason that the crowd is full of shining tear-stained faces every time she performs it. Taylor knows that what it’s like to feel underestimated and small — but she also knows how to turn her vulnerabilities into strengths. The Dress, something that once coded her to the world as soft and feminine and weak, becomes her weapon of choice. “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with” sounds like an admission of hurt, and it kind of is, but the way she sings it makes me think it’s more an attack than anything else. You hurt me, she seems to say, and that’s on you. “The girl in the dress cried the whole way home / I should’ve known” becomes “The girl in the dress wrote you a song / You should’ve known.”

On the Speak Now tour, Taylor used to act out this transition in vivid color. She would perform this song wearing a purple dress and a ponytail, and sang part of the song hunched over her microphone, sitting on the stairs in a grand show of heartbreak. But somewhere between “I should’ve known” and “You should’ve known,” she would always stand up, the song building in momentum. When she got to the line “I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town,” massive sparks would shoot from the stage, and for a minute all you could see was her shape against the lights — the silhouette of a girl in a dress, singing you her song.

5. “Better Than Revenge”

Key lyric: “They didn’t teach you that in prep school so it’s up to me / but no amount of vintage dresses give you dignity”

So we’re gonna ignore the unfortunate 2010-era slut shaming that permeates this song and instead focus on the fact that Taylor Swift wears more vintage dresses than like 99 percent of people in this world, so this insult is either a self-aware many-layered joke or a deeply hilarious self-burn. Either way, it makes me really happy. Also, Taylor refers to boys exclusively as toys and property in this song and I am very proud of her.

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

 

6. “Holy Ground”

Key lyric: “Spinning like a girl in a brand new dress / we had this big wide city all to ourselves”

Like in “Fearless,” the Dress is a shorthand for a sparkling feeling. A girl in a brand new dress spins and it’s a signifier for the wide open emotion of first love and youth. She’s so happy that she twirls; she can’t contain it. In “Holy Ground” memories stack on top of each other, the words coming quickly and breathlessly as if she can’t help herself, she just has to get this off her chest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this song is the perfect tempo to spin along to (not that I’ve tested it out or anything — ahem). The whole song sounds like a rush of emotion — it sounds the way spinning in a brand new dress feels. It’s notable here, though, that Taylor herself isn’t the Girl in the Dress anymore. She’s spinning like the girl. The image of herself as the fluttery romantic girl is a past tense thing now, a self-created archetype relegated to memory. “Darling it was good / never looking down / and right there where we stood was holy ground,” she sings, and you get the feeling that the brand new dress is a piece of that ancient history. The old Taylor isn’t dead yet, but she’s fading away.

7. “Dress”

Key lyric: “Only bought this dress so you could take it off”

I don’t know if Taylor Swift wrote “Dress” using every single narrative device I love most in this world specifically with me in mind, but I am very grateful it exists anyway. After spending 10 years building a distinct image off being a Girl in a Dress, she quite literally throws that dress on the floor.  Reputation may not have been the image overhaul we expected based on its marketing, but “Dress” is a quiet deconstruction of the Taylor she used to be. “Dress” is what happens when a hopeless romantic grows up. Instead of “Today was a fairytale / I wore a dress” it’s “Flashback when you met me / your buzz cut and my hair bleached / even in my worst times / you could see the best in me.” These are still gentle, tender memories, full of love, but they’re less about using retrospect as a way to construct a romanticized version of the past, and more an admission of honesty.

For the most part though, “Dress” is a completely different kind of Taylor Swift song in that it’s written in the present tense. She’s careful to say it’s a “flashback” rather than the usually unspoken agreement between listener and singer that the whole song is a memory. With the exception of maybe “Sparks Fly” I don’t think she’s ever written a song about wanting somebody in the now. But the Girl in the Dress is getting older, and so she turns all of her old habits on their head in “Dress,” a song all about the nuances of the now. “My hands are shaking from holding back from you,” she sings, and there’s nothing bittersweet about it, the way her details usually are. It’s unfiltered, clean, straight to the vein emotion, no hazy layers of memory between the Taylor singing and the Taylor experiencing.

Up until this very moment, the Dress has been a marker of a Taylor long gone, a Taylor alive only in a memory. The Dress has been in dusty pickup trucks, it’s gotten ruined in the rain, it’s been worn on first dates and last dates, it’s been a sign of weakness and a spectacular show of strength — but it has never made it into a present tense song before. The Dress has been a distillation of Taylor herself and it has been an image Taylor sees from a distance, watching herself wearing it. But in the end, it’s always been part of a story. It’s a way of turning her life into a narrative, a process that grants her a kind of immortality — because an image can live forever in the memory of someone long gone.

It’s powerful stuff, writing yourself into a story, into someone else’s very heart. But if Taylor Swift has taught me anything, it’s that the Girl in the Dress is a lot more than a memory. She’s real.