Miserable and magical: Taylor Swift's "22"
Emotional Resonance is a safe place where we can go deep on what a single song means to us. Happy times and sad, good news and bad, we explore the soundtrack to our lives.
Taylor Swift is an anomaly. Where most of our current popstars, musically and culturally, embody something about the times we live in, you’d think Taylor’s particular brand of earnest, classicist singer-songwriter would’ve been better served at any other point in the last fifty years. And yet, her particular gift for making the personal universal is so distinct it renders all else irrelevant. The 2009 VMAs were quite literally Kanye’s attempt to wrest the cultural narrative back to something that made more sense - why was this 19-year-old white girl singing about a crush defeating our Beyoncé, finally on the brink of true iconhood? But in a different light, “You Belong with Me” is every bit as perfect an unrequited love song as “Be My Baby” - a direct descendant of the teenage symphonies that spawned pop music in the first place. Imagine if Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton in their prime were combined into one of the world’s biggest popstars - that only sounds like hyperbole because Taylor’s pulled it off so unassumingly, without adopting any of the signifiers that’d make her cool to “serious” music fans. One of her defining singles is the truest song ever written about feeling fifteen, and god knows few groups are taken less seriously than teenage girls - except, maybe, pop critics. Sometimes it feels like Taylor Swift’s entire million-selling fanbase consists disproportionately of the two.
Twenty-two is a decidedly awkward age; caught between adolescence and adulthood, it’s the first birthday you don’t celebrate, as if it’s insecure enough that it, too, demands glorification in the form of a Taylor Swift song. “Not a lot going on at the moment” — yeah, tell me about it. At first, Taylor’s vision of “22” sounds so carefree you could mistake it for frivolous, but no, it’s very much an active decision not to give a fuck; it’s all the more joyful for all the drama and bullshit she’s setting aside for a night. It’s kind of knowingly goofy how “22” finds solace not in partying, but people; it’s the rare song that genuinely, unselfconsciously celebrates platonic friendships. Like all the best Taylor Swift songs, it’s universal emotion rooted in the specificity of her songwriting; they never try overly hard to be the definitive kiss-off/twenty-two/celebrity-shaming song, but they’re so emotionally direct, so casually archetypal that they’re always the first to come to mind. Both totally meaningless and entirely honest, “22”’s “we’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time” might be the most millennial lyric of all time. It certainly sums up my default state of mind: cautiously optimistic in an increasingly pessimistic, complex world, wanting to feel absolutely everything at once.
It’s fascinatingly contradictory that one of the most transcendent pop songs of 2013 was heard by only a few thousand people across Tumblr and YouTube, yet involved two of the most famous popstars of our time. Britney Spears’ “Lucky” was never quite beloved; its admirably wide-eyed, naïve vocal couldn’t entirely improve its particular brand of sugary teen-pop ballad, unnecessary key change and all. In the years since, it’s become an oddly prescient vision of Britney’s downfall. But wedded to “22”, even though none of Britney’s vocal remains, it’s almost as if her presence itself brings out Taylor’s beneath-the-surface melancholy. There’s something genuinely poignant about two Max Martin-produced songs that don’t sound remotely alike, written twelve years apart, achieving perfect synchronicity - one of those perfect “what if?” pop duets that could never have happened. For me, “Lucky 22” has the year’s most mind-blowing moment in music - by retaining “Lucky”’s final-chorus key change, it actually forces Taylor’s “22” vocal to modulate mid-syllable, grafting a key change onto a song that never had one. Nothing about it should work - pop outgrew the truck driver’s gear change years before “Lucky”, but the result is intensely fucking joyous, two songs’ worth of overwhelming euphoria spilling over at the same time.
Kanye’s often talked about growing older, yet trying to regress to an even more childlike state of wonder - striving for an even greater purity of expression even as his music grapples with more complex emotions. He and Taylor have more in common than you’d think - having never once misplaced her sense of wonder, her music is all about negotiating young adulthood while never giving in to cynicism. When your gift is for the universal, there’s something inherently rewarding, even generous about embracing populism. “22”, in whatever form, is as good an argument as I’ve ever heard for the uniquely transcendent power of pop music.