From the ages of 12 to 18, I went to an all-girls’ boarding school. I loved it, and I knew how lucky I was to be there – but I barely encountered any boys throughout my whole six years of secondary education, and I certainly never fancied any.
Other girls would fantasise about celebrity crushes (Chace Crawford was pride of place on more than a few pinboards in the dorms – at the time, Gossip Girl was just reaching its zenith) or message their latest flames late into the night. I remember the glow of phone screens lighting up the otherwise pitch-dark dorms as my friends furiously texted.
But I never even had any real crushes. I knew I was straight, but my only exposure to the opposite sex was at the once-termly school discos with the neighbouring boys’ schools: girls hovering on one side of the room, and boys planted just as firmly on the other. And so, throughout those formative school years, I learned about romance, dating and heartbreak from none other than Taylor Swift.
I first became aware of Swift’s talent when Love Story came out in 2009. I was 15, and had never felt anything like the feelings she describes in that song. I listened to her singing, “This love is difficult, but it’s real”, and I couldn’t imagine having such strength of feeling for anyone.
I felt a yearning curiosity to know more about romance – something more than contemporary pop culture was showing me at the time. I couldn’t relate to the polished, unattainable idealism of Gossip Girl, and teenage vampires weren’t really doing it for me, either.
After I heard Love Story, I listened to everything Swift had ever written – especially Fearless, her second album. I listened to her words over and over on my iPod with a kind of concentrated ferocity as I was falling asleep, imbibing the message and visualising her experiences – experiences that were totally alien to me, but which I couldn’t get enough of.
Teardrops On My Guitar helped me understand the pain of unrequited love; I couldn’t imagine not being able to breathe when the object of my affection walked by, but the song gave me a vivid impression of what it must be like to love someone who’s in love with someone else.
Our Song showed me the suppressed euphoria of sneaking around and hiding your relationship from your parents; acts of teenage subterfuge and disobedience I’d never had any reason to undertake.
You’re Not Sorry presented me with the grief, resignation and strength of someone vowing never to let their partner screw them over again. I’d never (yet) been screwed over by anyone; but as a teenager I hoped I’d have similar courage, if I ever needed it, to tell a damaging person to stop calling.
“When you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them”, Swift sings in Fifteen. Well, at age 15, nobody had ever told me they loved me. But a line I did relate to was the one where she said: “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be at fifteen”. I didn’t, either – but listening to Swift’s songs was helping me to slowly figure it out, by presenting me with emotions I simply wasn’t seeing anywhere else.
And now Fearless is getting rereleased, along with five other albums. It’ll feature six songs that have never been released before, that she wrote between the ages of 16 and 18 – the ages I spent furiously consuming her songs to give me all the life experiences I wasn’t having.
The difference is, at 27, I have finally experienced those emotions Swift sings about. I’ve felt the gut-wrenching pain of unrequited love: that stunning realisation when you see the love of your life with someone else, his hand casually resting on the small of her back, and it’s like someone’s plugged your airways with Blu Tack.
I’ve been through break-ups that have made me feel as though my soul was being viscerally torn from my body. But I’ve also experienced love that gave me quiet swells of joy every time I looked at that person’s face, or held his hand, or saw his name light up my phone screen; love made me feel utterly invincible, as though nothing and no one could touch me while I had that person’s arms around me.
Swift taught me what romantic love is – with all its corresponding bliss and pain. I can’t wait to listen to the album again, with the nostalgia and hindsight that the past 12 years have given me. Love Story, the single, was rereleased today, too: I’m listening to it now with a small smile on my face, picturing that 15 year-old who would inhale the lyrics, eyes screwed shut, learning about love – second-hand.
Listening now, makes me realise how much I’ve experienced since then; but it also reminds me how much I have yet to feel. I suspect there’s still a thing or two we can all learn about love from Taylor Swift.
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