A Poet for Our Time


With no adolescents at home, I had not been exposed to Taylor Swift until Nest Realty offered me free tickets to the Eras Tour movie that opened October 13. So a friend and I went out of curiosity—to find out what all the hoopla is about, and for the sake of cultural literacy. And find out we did! The movie was three solid hours of non-stop entertainment. I don’t know how Swift finds the stamina to sing, dance, climb stairs, and play both piano and guitar for that long. Her flirty, sidelong glances and sudden hip bumps kept the audience enthralled. Besides the fun of watching an extravaganza of music, dancing, and high-end stagecraft, I ended up being truly impressed by Swift’s sincerity, musicianship, and poetic lyrics—some of them so affecting and so real I teared up. I went in skeptical, but came out a convert. I am not a music critic, and I mostly listen to classical music, plus folk music like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor (after whom Swift is named). But I do feel comfortable reviewing literature and theater, so I can look at it from that angle. This concert movie was so mind-blowing, I felt compelled to write about it.

The lavish production—one of the most expensive and technically ambitious of the 21st century, according to The Wall Street Journal—takes place on three separate stages connected by a broad ramp, and outfitted with hydraulic platforms that rise and fall as needed as well as a trap door into which Swift dives at one point, followed by a CGI segment showing her swimming under the stage. “It is a 4D cognitive experience,” wrote Alex Young in Consequence, featuring pyrotechnics, confetti shooters, laser lights, smoke machines, fire cannons, indoor fireworks, and image projection technology. Adding to the Broadway theatricality, Swift makes no fewer than 16 costume changes over the course of the concert—from sexy and spangly, to bouffant and flowy, to snaky and vamp. The casting displayed a gratifying inclusivity, with men and women, white and brown, big and small performers among the stunningly talented 14 dancers and four backup singers.  This extravaganza was filmed by six cameras—some on overhead drones—during multiple performances at the SoFi stadium in Los Angeles. 

Taylor Swift has become a pop music icon for a reason. Business Week declared, “[she] IS the music industry.” She is the whole package: a consummate musician, dancer, actress, poet, storyteller, entertainer, and beauty queen all rolled into one. Writing songs since she was 9 years old and performing since she was 14, Swift is a prolific songwriter who has released 10 studio albums and won multiple awards in every possible category—including 12 Grammys, 29 Billboard Music Awards and 23 MTV Music Video Awards. She was named Artist of the Decade in 2019, and the first-ever Woman of the Decade that same year. Various educational institutions, including NYU, offer courses on Swift in literary, cultural, and sociopolitical contexts. Now aged 33, she has described this tour as “a journey through all of the musical eras of my career.” The set list of 44 songs is divided into ten distinct acts that portray her albums conceptually. 

Although she has collaborated with other songwriters, most of the lyrics are her own; with her 2006 Taylor Swift album, she became the first female country music artist to write or co-write every track on a U.S. platinum-certified debut album. She writes in the vernacular, using plain English and everyday idioms (I’ve had to take off my grammarian’s hat to appreciate her lyrics.). Often called the queen of breakup songs, her confessional lyrics usually concern love relationships, both affirming and toxic, past and present, and personal. She is beloved because she comes across as genuine, honest, and vulnerable. She appeals to youth, as they survive “the growing pains, heartbreaks, and insecurities” of high school, said fan Molly Swindall, “but also the thrills of youth—the friendships, crushes, and adventures with songs like “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “The Way I Loved You,” and “We are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together.” As she points out in Miss Americana, “my fans grew up with me.” But adults can also remember those feelings nostalgically. Although her tunes often sound the same, her lyrics and the story they tell develop. Memorable lyrics are set to soulful melodies. In “Marjorie,” she sings:

Never be so kind,
you forget to be clever
Never be so clever,
you forget to be kind

Her lyrics use poetic devices such as allusion, concrete imagery, showing instead of telling, and suggesting more than is stated. The most recognizable of her songs (at least to me), “You Belong With Me,” from the 2008 album Fearless, creates a contrast between two potential girlfriends competing for a boy’s affection. 

She wears high heels, 
I wear sneakers.
She’s cheer captain, 
I’m in the bleachers
Dreaming about the day 
when you wake up and find
That what you’re looking for 
has been here the whole time…
Can’t you see that I’m the one who understands you?
So, why can’t you see
You belong with me?

With “Our Song,” from her debut album Taylor Swift—published when she was just 17 years old—she became the youngest person to single-handedly write and sing a number one song. After setting the scene, “I was riding shotgun/with my hair undone”:

‘I was just thinking
How we don’t have a song’
And he says….
Our song is the slamming screen door
Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window
When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow
‘Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know

Her beautiful, 10-minute song “All Too Well” is one of her deepest, listing in vivid detail all the memories of a long-lost love. “You kept me like a secret/ I kept you like an oath” suggests the difference in what the affair meant to each of them. She ends each stanza with “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” 

And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all… too well.

In “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” she mocks the Disney princess myths young girls are taught.

From sprinkler splashes to fire place ashes
I gave my blood, sweat, and tears for this
I hosted parties and starved my body
Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss

Her songs also have decidedly feminist themes and support the empowerment of women. Haven’t we all thought, at one time or another, “Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby’,” as in “Illicit Affairs”? In “The Man,” from her 2019 album Lover, she imagines what her life might have been like if she were a man rather than a woman. 

They’d say I hustled, put in the work
They wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve
What I was wearing, if I was rude
Could all be separated from my good ideas and power moves

I’m so sick of running as fast as I can
Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man
And I’m so sick of them coming at me again
‘Cause if I was a man then I’d be the man

But only after her 2017 sexual assault trial (which, as the victim, she won) did she become politically aware, using her platform to advocate for civil rights and writing songs like “Only the Young” and “You Need to Calm Down.” After a dispute with her first record label, Big Machine, Swift began re-recording her early albums in 2020 in order to obtain full rights to her songs, releasing each album with the subtitle “Taylor’s Version” (TV).

In the film, Swift kept 70,000 fans and countless movie goers spellbound for over three hours. The shots of fans screaming and crying reminded me of Beatlemania when I was young—and like the Beatles, her music spans many genres. “If there’s one thing that Swift has proven throughout her career, it’s that she refuses to be put in a box,” wrote Mark Savage of the Recording Academy in 2021. “Her ever-evolving sound took her from country darling to pop phenom to folk’s newest raconteur.” Swift is aware of this, observing in Miss Americana that “Storytelling is what sets me apart from everyone else.” Her showmanship and stage presence remind me of a female Michael Jackson, but her breathy innocence and throaty punchlines are more reminiscent of Enya. Described as a mezzo soprano, her voice is best in the lower registers. But I firmly believe that the heart of her fame is not her beauty or her style, her youth or her stage presence, but her poetry. Her heartfelt ballads tell complete relationship sagas—e.g. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” or “All Too Well”—evocative of Leonard Cohen. While her tunes may get repetitive, her lyrics are deep and original. 

As she says at the end of Miss Americana, “I want to still have a sharp pen, and a thin skin, and an open heart.” These traits are exactly what make her so popular.

So, am I a Swiftie? Certainly well on my way. I can’t wait to see what this poet for our time will do next. 


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