I have a framed memory in my mind of hearing “Tim McGraw” on the radio. I don’t know why. But I can close my eyes and still see myself at sixteen, driving down the boulevard, hearing the words of You said the way my blue eyes shine percolating into my pierced ears. The K102 host had introduced it by saying: “Taylor Swift recently said she is not a stalker”, defending herself against her own provocative title. I thought, Yes you kind of are and rolled my eyes. The memory ends. So random. So weird. But then again, that’s my brain, always collecting the mundane, useless moments for later review- however, a possible explanation for it’s resilience could be that I was hopelessly in love with Tim McGraw. In the music way, of course. But the gay way, too.
Overall, though, the song wasn’t really for me. It was so wildly romantic. So bubbly with love. And at sixteen, I was decidedly against romantic love. I was convincing myself that despite what the poets said, it was not magic. It was not happiness. It was not what life was about. It was conditional, for starters. Messy. Hard. And Real Life always shattered it. Wouldn’t it be far better to spend my life going it alone, unshackled and free in this big wild world? I had no choice but to believe it would.
The year her album came out, kids at school were buzzing about it. In the parking lot, her music was blasting out of cars Should’ve Said No, Picture To Burn, ear-budded girls sang Our Song as they strolled down the hallway. Her music found it’s way into the social fabric of my life, so I started listening to her too. I downloaded her first album, Taylor Swift, and ran it all the way through, quietly, as I cleaned my room. And that was when the song came on that made me fall for her.
You saw me there, but never knew
I would give it all up to be
A part of this, a part of you
And now it’s all too late so you see
You could’ve helped if you had wanted to
But no one notices until it’s too
Late to do anything
So how can I ever try to be better?
Nobody ever lets me in
I can still see you, this ain’t the best view
On the outside looking in
I’ve been a lot of lonely places
I’ve never been on the outside
This song, The Outside, was written about her life in school, her feelings of invisibility and the paralyzing anxiety of isolation. Asked to elaborate on the song, she said:
”I wrote that about the scariest feeling I’ve ever felt: going to school, walking down the hall, looking at all those faces, and not knowing who you’re gonna talk to that day. People always ask, How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13? It’s because I could never feel the kind of rejection in the music industry that I felt in middle school.”
On another occasion, she said: “I was a lot different than all the other kids, and I never really knew why. I was taller, and sang country music at karaoke bars and festivals on weekends while other girls went to sleepovers… It’s strange to think how different my life would be right now if I had been one of the cool kids.”
I had many friends in school, unlike Taylor. I had close friends that I went to movies with and had sleepovers with, played video games with and on the football team with. I had friends in many pockets, my hand in many cliques. I was well-rounded socially, never left out, never left alone.
But I wept a little when I heard The Outside. Then I played it again. And again. And again. The words falling into the blank space beside the long indescribable definition of my life. I was lonely. I was on the outside. I wanted to be in. At sixteen, I had spent much of my life striking the pose of a good christian boy, a popular peer, rooting myself to the center of both spheres- but always, always, always, I found myself staring through the glass at everyone else, locked out.
Of course, I never told anyone I was a fan. When asked about her music by people who adored her, I would typically sneer a little, do my best grunt: “Yeah, I don’t really get her…. but she’s pretty hot.” I put Swift beneath other rock and roll bands, the way I put harsh republican politics and harsh Christian theology over my slowly suffocating self. These were the days when I learned to also not talk with my hands and drop my voice one octave, spit into the sidewalk and talk nonstop about boobs. Being a fan of Taylor Swift would expose me.
But I kept secretly listening to her music as it has evolved. Throughout the span of her career, she has moved from country star to country-pop star to the world’s biggest star to now the Princess of Pop Star. From Taylor Swift to 1989, she has moved toward feminism, away from purity culture, and has even started speaking out for gay rights.
And as she moved, so did I. Our lives on something of a parallel track of evolution. When the adventurous album, Red, came out, I was in the midst of my own coming out, exploring the treacherous waters all around me, uncovering the scriptures, learning my God. At the very beginnings of owning my acceptance.
When the 1989 album came out, it was declarative, it was self-empowering. It was about shaking it off and learning that the people in our lives are a mix of good and bad, as are we. It poked fun at the public’s caricature, with Blank Space. It spoke powerfully about overcoming, resurrecting, returning to the essentials of who we are in Clean. And I was there, too. I still am. I’ve begun to feel my thickened skin around my tender heart, my ability to claim my acceptance without diminishing someone else’s. I’ve learned how to laugh at the haters. How to laugh at myself.
And I don’t pretend to hate her music anymore.
Obviously, if you follow me on twitter, you know this to be true. Friends have teased me for having a dog ears whenever her music comes on from some speaker. My first time dancing at gay bar, shake it off sirened me onto the floor. Lately, when I get mad, I put on Bad Blood.
And it’s less about the music than it is about my own self-acceptance. It’s a token. It’s a tribute. I don’t worry anymore about men calling me fem for crooning out her lyrics, the same way I don’t worry anymore about second glances from café dwellers seeing my rainbow stickered laptop. In listening to her music, I am reminded of my own freedom to like who I like, listen to who I want to listen to, to reject the standards of patriarchy.
Being a closeted gay, you don’t get little enjoyments like that. Being a closeted gay, you have to learn to like what others like, make yourself into their image, submit to straight pastimes. And then when you’re out and you see how incredibly blessed you are to be on the wrong side of normal, on the outside looking in, you begin to think silently to yourself how differently your life might be if you were one of the straight kids. And then you smile. Give thanks.