It’s difficult for me to talk about this performance. This song is too dear to me at the best of times and actually watching it happen consistently reduces me to tears, always, all the time. This performance in particular is maybe the most important thing to me? in the world? because it is such a perfect vengeful victory, which as you know by now I am very much in favor of. So. Let me give you some backstory.
In 2010, when Taylor Swift was not yet 20, she won four Grammys for Fearless, one of the best albums of my personal life and our collective existence as humans. This was shortly after the “Imma let you finish” incident with Kanye at the 2009 VMAs, and the world was very distinctly split into camps about Taylor Swift at this point. People who loved her loved her, they got it, they thought her surprised face was cute and they knew she could sing. Everyone else – myself shamefully included – didn’t feel that way. I am writing this now as a person who wishes I could take back a lot of the things I said and thought about Taylor Swift, and the meanness that I felt toward her in my heart, in a very real and unintelligible way, closed me off to something bright and beautiful and powerful for a long, long time. And that’s why it hurts me so much now to think about the 2010 Grammys; that’s why it gives me such vengeful, vicious joy to tell you this story in its entirety.
So. In 2010 Taylor Swift wins four Grammys, and she gets to perform with Stevie Nicks, and together they sing “Rhiannon.” This video, which is a pretty solid recording, is titled “Taylor Swift BUTCHERS THE SHIT out of Rhiannon.”
So take a minute, go ahead and watch this, and think about being 19, and think about finally receiving some kind of validation of the sadness and pain that you feel as a teenage girl, and think about the incredible vulnerability of asking for that validation in the first place. I get that not everyone relates to Taylor Swift, I really do – I didn’t, for a long time, and there are a lot of factors that separate her from most people who would potentially identify with her. It’s hard to take a beautiful white girl seriously when she says she feels unwanted and unloved, and it’s even harder to relate to her, but recognizing the personhood of Taylor Swift is one of the better gifts you can give yourself as a person. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to, but I’m telling you this story nonetheless, and maybe it will affect you the way it affected me, and maybe you’ll find yourself on her side.
So Taylor Swift sings “Rhiannon,” and honestly, I feel like this is a fine performance? Like, it’s probably not her greatest showcase but I feel like “BUTCHERS THE SHIT OUT OF IT” is a bit extreme. But this was, like, a universal feeling! Adult music critics were coming out of the woodwork to be like haha bye, idiot guitar girl, hope you enjoyed your 15 minutes ’cause you blew it! A man named Bob Lefsetz, who is and was a very famous music critic, wrote a piece in which he declared quite publicly that Taylor had “destroyed her career overnight,” saying, “It’s hard to be a singer if you can’t sing.” He says she should have auto-tuned, and then calls her too young and dumb to understand the mistake she made. The mistake of being human, of being a teenage girl, of being less than perfect. (I will direct you once again to Lilian’s amazing piece on the expectations placed on female vocalists.)
So Taylor Swift is nineteen, just newly nineteen, and she’s already getting made fun of constantly for liking boys and writing songs about liking boys and generally having feelings, and for whatever reason adult critics seem particularly drawn to eviscerate her in a way that denies her any kind of agency, or intelligence, or human emotions, and now she has apparently just ended her own career with one performance. On the day she also won four Grammys. This is the world! This is what she is contending with. And I am speaking for myself but I have a hard enough time when someone blogs vaguely about me on the internet – I literally cannot imagine what this would have been like for her. Stevie Nicks defended her, which I love, but again, speaking for myself – it’s so easy to doubt yourself when others are cutting you down. It’s so, so easy; the anxiety-baby part of my brain waits until I think I’m fine and then leans in, but what if they’re right, though, did you even think about that. When I was nineteen I hated Taylor Swift because my friends hated Taylor Swift, and I let a boy that I thought loved me take away all my happiness, and I drank too much and made stupid decisions. And I got to do it out of a spotlight. And it took me a long time to feel okay about myself, and to stand up for myself, and honestly, listening to Taylor Swift – which I didn’t even start doing until our very own Tess’s OWOB on her – was a huge part of that, of starting to realize that those people were wrong, and cruel. I said it before and I’ll say it again: meanness is so often dismissed, you’re mean, a childish insult, but being mean to someone is fundamentally ignoring that they are a person, and it is diminishing in terrible ways, and it is so hard to combat precisely because it seems so nothing. Why are you so mad, anyway? Why does it bother you so much? They’re just being mean.
So. Here we are again. It is 2012, and Taylor Swift is newly twenty-one, fresh off the Speak Now world tour, winning another couple Grammys, and she’s performing once again. And I can’t watch this video without tearing up, because I regret every minute of my life I didn’t spend loving Taylor Swift. I know she’s incredibly famous and rich and beautiful, but I hate that she was hurt. I hate that someone would do that, because even if she’s rich and beautiful and famous she wasn’t always that way, and if she’s anything like me she has a very small flame of self-doubt inside her that has never burned out and maybe never will. The Wikipedia article that mentions Lefsetz’ criticism says that a lot of people think it made her a better performer, which I guess is possibly true. But I hate that that’s what had to happen, that she wasn’t given the chance to evolve without that. What I do know is that if I’d had Taylor Swift when I was nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, I might have learned how to stand up for myself sooner. I might have learned that it’s okay to fight back when people are mean to you.
This performance. This song, always, when I think about performing it live, what that must be like. Imagine! Imagine looking out into a world full of people who think you can’t sing, who hate your guts and spend their lives writing about what a terrible role model and/or person you are, and saying simply Why you gotta be so mean? What must that feel like, looking out into those lights. That pause after “grumblin’ on about how I – can’t – sing,” the eternity of that heartbeat waiting for anyone to cheer, to side with you. Imagine what it feels like to sing those words at the Grammys, after a sold-out world tour, how terrified and vindicated and victorious. Imagine having the courage, at twenty-one, as a girl who has made a living talking about feelings, who has been vilified by everyone who isn’t a teenage girl for doing so, to get up in front of millions of people and call someone mean! And I’m sure you remember the shit she got about that song, the snide thinkpieces, wow, for an adult Taylor sure calls people “mean” a lot, like, you are exactly the problem. Like, okay. This is long and I’m trying to wrap it up but what I’m saying is this. I hate that Taylor Swift felt like she needed to write this song; I hate that she felt that she had to prove herself, that we all feel like we have to prove ourselves, every day, uphill in the snow, to people who don’t get it and never will get it. Does Bob Lefsetz need I didn’t know who I was supposed to be at fifteen? No, probably not, but I did, and I know so many of you did, and there are always going to be people who don’t get it. And you can’t change them, but you can stand up tall and look out into those lights and roll your eyes like it never bothered you. You can profit off the things that still hurt you if you look at them too directly; you can make them work for you, you can make them pay. You can clap your hands and smile with steel and fire in your eyes. Someday I’ll be singing this at the Grammys, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.