Taylor Swift - Never Grow Up (Speak Now, 2010)

I was in two minds as to which song I’d put up here for you guys, but I went with “Never Grow Up” in the end, because I think it’s a better representative of what I want to talk about. Even so, the song I would have liked to have made you listen to is “Enchanted,” which snuck up on me to become my stand out favorite from Speak Now. “Enchanted” relates to what we’re going to talk about today, but I love it for other reasons. It features Swift wielding her enviable talent to crystallise the essence of an emotion into pop song form. The song narrates her first time encounter with a captivating stranger, but as with Cam’ron, whose romantic conquest of a woman only becomes real when he calls up his buddy Juelz Santana to tell him about it ("I hit"; "What else?"; "Plus dome"), for her tune, Taylor focuses on the aftermath of the rendez vous.

"It was enchanting to meet you," Taylor sings of the man who is no longer sharing her company, and the most arresting portion of the tune is the coda, which contains a thumping rhythm that hammers as if it were her heart pounding on the walk home she describes. "PLEASE  DON’T  BE  WITH  SOME  ONE  ELSE,” she intones. It’s a thrilled, nervous mantra: “PLEASE  DON’T  HAVE  SOMEBODY  WAITING  ON YOU.” You can almost feel the blood rushing excitedly through her head.

But it’s not a lovesick song; it’s an expression of joy. Her story describes herself as “wonderstuck, blushing all the way home.” The focus is on the private, gleeful moments of reflection when she has the night all to herself, after the social demands are over. At that time, she hopes her new friendship might blossom into something else, but “Enchanted” is all about the moment, not the future. Swift might wake up tomorrow and decide that a lovely evening was a lovely evening, and Mr. Enchanted will have to have a nice life. Or perhaps she will moon hopelessly over him for piteous month after piteous month. I don’t know; I’ve had my share of Ms. Enchanteds draw that response from me.

But “Never Grow Up.” It’s hard to remember now, but back before Speak Now came out, a whole bunch of critics were wondering what on earth Swift would do once she had to make a new record about not being a teenager. These were the same critics, I suspect, who, in the earlier years of this century wondered how Warner Brothers could possibly make seven Harry Potter movies with the same cast, considering Philosophers Stone featured characters so young. 

Well Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint grew older, and, expectedly enough, so did Taylor. Suitably for the first album she recorded since graduating from high school, she no longer sings about sneaking phone calls to friends and (not) falling for football players. She’s now singing about being a young woman in her early 20s.

She’s not doing it as well as Ashlee Simpson did, but few people ever have. Even so, “Never Grow Up” is a subtly revelatory song. I’m not talking about the framing device of her speaking to a young child, of which I was sure no one would be dull enough to take as the actual subject of the song. (Apparently I was wrong; the writer also compares Swift to a dog.) The track’s centerpiece is its bare final verse, which begins “So here I am in my new apartment in a big city; they just dropped me off.” Who are they? Well, she’s a young woman who has just moved out of home. They are, of course, her parents, and Taylor has just entered, nervously, into proper adulthood.

I remember when I did it, too. I wrote about it years later:

That’s when it happened. The biggest wave of fear shook my body, and I knew at that instant, more sure of anything than I ever had been, that I’d made a huge mistake. There was a ten metre gap between me and the waiting customs officials, but I would have done anything to turn it into a ten kilometre gap. I couldn’t get to Los Angeles, let alone find my hotel, avoid getting murdered and then make it up to Seattle the next day. I couldn’t spend six months in a tiny college town; I’d never even lived away from home before. I couldn’t shop for myself, do laundry for myself, or cook for myself. I couldn’t be without my parents or my friends or everyone else I knew for six months. I would end up starving and broke  I was sure I had nowhere near enough money­  within a week of landing in the U.S. This was the biggest mistake of my life.

I would have turned around right then and there, except I knew that I couldn’t bear the shame of wanting so badly to do this, and then having to explain to people that I’d cancelled the entire trip at the last minute because I’d only realized it was a real dumb-fuck idea at that point. I’d have to turn around and walk back to my parents and grandparents and say, “Nope, sorry, this was a bad idea. I did spend thousands on a plane ticket and months applying for an exchange, but let’s just head home and chalk it up as a near miss, alright?” Pride is meant to be a sin, but it’s sure done a lot for me.

I was 21 then, older than Swift is now. The second time I left home I was much more self-assured, but then, that was the second time I left home, wasn’t it?

Perhaps it is silly and vulnerable to feel worried when one first encounters the world as an entirely independent being. Perhaps at such a time it isn’t better to remember being a teenager when it was such a problem for your mom to be dropping you off in front of all your friends outside the movies  Mother! And how comforting to, in such a grown up way, chide yourself for your past faults. And then you remember doing stupid shit like dancing in your pajamas when you were meant to be getting ready for stupid shit like school, because… oh, never grow up.

But gaining one’s independence is exciting as well, and outside those little moments of melancholia, folks like Taylor and I (and maybe you, I don’t know) are aware of this. In her songwriting, Swift favors lyrical motifs; she peppers her songs with recurrent images as if something in her brain was compelling her to return to them. That has thus far manifested itself as a fondness for events to occur on Tuesdays, for important encounters to happen at two in the morning, and for romantic occasions to coincide with downpours.

Speak Now has these, and it has some new fixations too. Part of the charm, as it always is with Swift, is that it’s not quite clear that she’s included them intentionally. Despite her nervous tale of moving to a new city in “Never Grow Up,” the other times she mentions relocations to big towns on her record, it’s with great excitement. ” In “Mine,” she romances a college-age beau, one who represents everything her small town past is not, under the “city lights by the water.” Notably, he too has “left a small town, never looked back.” I might be tempted to compare this to Bruce Springsteen, but the most obvious point of comparison is Miranda Lambert, another country girl who couldn’t wait to grow up and show the big city what she was made of.

And in “Mean,” the song so often misinterpreted to be an act of petty revenge against some critic who’s recently given her grief, the big city stands in as a promised land. I agree with Theon Weber that too few commenters pay heed to the violent line about her someday being big enough that her detractor can’t hit her, but I think it’s more important that her escape from this turncoat enemy is “a big old city.” The bright lit metropolis might be a played out image, but if an artist reappropriates it three times in the space of one record, it’s clear it means something to her. Taylor Swift is ready to grow up.

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