When I bought Taylor Swift’s 1989 from iTunes on the day the album was released last October, I was trying to be “in the know” and connect more with my 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. We had listened to Swift’s other albums a few times, and we all liked “Shake It Off,” the single that was released that August. Because of all the publicity the album was receiving, and because of the simple fact that it was Taylor Swift, I figured it would be a big influence on my kids and thought it was a good idea to try to get out in front of it. My husband and I don’t limit our kids’ music exposure too much. We usually prefer indie, folk, alternative rock, and staples such as Johnny Cash, The Beatles, and U2, but we think it’s good for them to have some freedom to make their own choices. We want them to enjoy current popular music, but we also want them to be discerning about it. We recognize our role in helping them learn to do that, so on that fall day when I downloaded the album, I was just doing my job.1989 sums up much of my journey and the decades that have made me the woman I am now.
Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” This became clearer to me after I made a CD of 1989 for my car and realized how easy it was for me to relate to the album. I was hooked from the beginning. I’m a 40-year-old married mama. I’m far-removed from being a tween. I’m far-removed from being a single and carefree twentysomething. But those songs grabbed me. Swift’s lyrics awakened pieces of me that had long been dormant. Memories were stirred within me the way a smooth pond is disturbed by stones skipping along its surface. Images emerged creating a long-lost photo album in my mind. What started out as something for my kids quickly became something for me.1989 stayed on repeat in my car all day every day for several months.
The second track, “Blank Space,” was immediately my favorite song from the album. I’d crank up the volume and sing along at the top of my lungs:
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
After a few days of listening to “Blank Space,” it occurred to me that one reason I’m drawn to the song is that Swift is singing about me. This realization made me feel guilt and shame over the years of my life when I was certifiably boy crazy. There was the crush on Rob in first grade, “going with” Kevin in fourth grade, my first kiss with Donald in eighth grade, and Danny—who would be considered my first boyfriend—in ninth grade, which also happened to be in 1989. And those are just a few snapshots of my early years. High school consisted of relationships with Chris, Jon, David, and (another) Kevin. In college there was a string of guys—some were actual boyfriends, some were not. I was always aware of all the males within striking distance. I was always on the prowl.
And I was probably insane.
When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder eight years ago during a major manic episode, my therapist told me there might be a connection between my illness and my preoccupation with guys when I was younger. Looking back, I can remember specific situations in college when I was manic. There were feelings of euphoria—when I was happier than usual, had very few inhibitions, and everything was super interesting.
I can also remember times when I was depressed. I had trouble getting out of bed for my morning classes, and I climbed right back in following my afternoon classes. My grades and friendships suffered. I turned to Jack Daniels mixed with Coke to escape my misery.
Now I know I tend to have moderate depression during the winter and am susceptible to mild mania during the early weeks of spring. I didn’t have categories for any of this when I was in college, though. No one in my circles talked about mental illness. And I surely didn’t think of it as a possibility.I’m a 40-year-old married mama. I’m far-removed from being a tween. I’m far-removed from being a single and carefree twentysomething. But those songs grabbed me. Swift’s lyrics awakened pieces of me that had long been dormant.
Swift sings about being insane because it’s a buzzword people can relate to in various ways—she doesn’t intend it as a diagnosis. “Blank Space” reminds me of the young woman I was in high school and college and the angst that comes with navigating the ups and downs of youth and romantic relationships. Hearing this song allows me to think back with wisdom upon who I once was. According to L’Engle, I haven’t lost this person. She’s still with me.
Some other songs from 1989 stood out to me early on because they brought back the feelings I experienced when the first boyfriend I had after becoming a Christian broke up with me. We had dated for eight months, and two weeks before my birthday and one month before my college graduation he came over to my tiny apartment, sat down on the stiff, cream-colored couch, and told me he needed space. He told me I was putting too much pressure on him and I was looking to him for my security and ultimate satisfaction when I should be looking to God. When we said goodbye under the stars on the brick steps leading up to my front door, he gave me one last kiss.
I struggled to eat and sleep and complete my schoolwork for the semester. I was dazed and disoriented like a foreigner in unfamiliar surroundings. I couldn’t imagine my future with anyone but him. I couldn’t imagine his future with anyone but me. Much of the chorus from “Wish You Would” would have been fitting:
I wish you would come back,
Wish I never hung up the phone like I did.
I wish you knew that I’ll never forget you as long as I live.
And I wish you were right here, right now, it’s all good.
I wish you would
I spent weeks beating myself up for roping another one in and then smothering him and running him off. I felt responsible for the deterioration of our relationship. I was too much.
That July, he found out I had gone on a few dates with someone else and concluded he had made a mistake. There were multiple phone calls. There was a seven-page handwritten letter proclaiming his love for me. He could have been taking directions from Swift in “How You Get the Girl.” Swift sings:
I want you for worse or for better,
I would wait forever and ever
Broke your heart, I’ll put it back together
I would wait forever and ever
And that’s how it works
It’s how you get the girl
I was confused and wondered if his ego and jealousy were driving him. I didn’t trust him. It didn’t make sense for him to change his mind so drastically within a matter of months. This verse from “All You Had to Do Was Stay” would have been my theme:
Here you are now, calling me up, but I don’t know what to say
I’ve been picking up the pieces of the mess you made
People like you always want back the love they pushed aside
But people like me are gone forever when you say goodbye
But it didn’t take me long to gain clarity. A few weeks later we ended up in the same beach town on the Gulf Coast for an afternoon. We sat in a booth at a funky bar drinking Heineken. He looked at me with his hazel eyes that had hypnotized me ever since the day I met him and convinced me he was sincere and that he wanted to date again with the purpose of moving toward engagement and marriage. In that moment, “This Love” would have become my new theme. Swift sings:
Your kiss, my cheek, I watched you leave
Your smile, my ghost, I fell to my knees
When you’re young you just run
But you come back to what you need
This love is good, this love is bad
This love is alive back from the dead
These hands had to let it go free
And this love came back to me
The following May, on the first nice Saturday afternoon in weeks, in a beautiful sanctuary, and with our family and close friends present, we got married. The doors to the church lobby swung open for me; I looked to the man I was marrying, he saw me for the first time as his bride, and I saw an expression on his face that is now tattooed on my memory. I walked down the aisle on the gray slate floor sprinkled with rose petals that my niece had dropped along the way. When I arrived next to him, I put my right arm around his left bicep and held on tight. After the vows and prayers and hymns and a homily that made me weep because I was overwhelmed by the goodness of God’s grace, we were declared husband and wife. Taylor Swift has provided a soundtrack for our relationship, one that didn’t go down in flames after all.
Just about every song on 1989 reminds me of different people, various time periods, or regrets and longings I’ve had through the years. I have known the excitement of being in a new place, starting a new journey, and embracing new ideas like Swift sings of in “Welcome to New York.” I have known on again, off again relationships like the one in “Style.” I have known what it feels like to go through difficulty and come out on the other side like she sings of in “Out of the Woods.” I have known the loss and betrayal portrayed in “Bad Blood.”
It’s been almost a year since 1989 came out. Sometimes I still choose to listen to it on my iPhone when I’m going for a walk in my neighborhood. Some of the songs still come on the radio when I’m running errands in my car. I still sing along. But now I remind myself that the themes she explores are universal. That’s why it was the best-selling album of 2014. That’s why Ryan Adams released a gorgeous1989 cover album.Taylor Swift has provided a soundtrack for our relationship, one that didn’t go down in flames after all.
I’m not the only person who has desperately sought life from a source that can never satisfy. The path I walked led me to where I needed to be because it took me to the end of myself. Accepting that no person or other idol could fill the pervasive emptiness in my soul was part of what led to my conversion to Christianity during the fall of my junior year in college. That truth took me back to my Redeemer and Rescuer when my true love broke up with me. That truth has continued to take me back to my Redeemer and Rescuer for the past 20 years shared with my true love.
In addition to helping me make peace with some of the shameful things from my past, my engagement with Swift’s music has also helped me celebrate some of the good things. I have experienced true joy. I have danced and sung and laughed. I have loved, and I have been loved.
1989 sums up much of my journey and the decades that have made me the woman I am now. I’m thankful Taylor Swift has given me opportunities to remember who I’ve been, and I’m thankful for Madeleine L’Engle’s wisdom that tells me I haven’t lost those pieces of myself. As I reflect on who I was, recognize who I am today, and think about the woman I long to be 20 and 40 years from now, I want to make space for the sinful choices and the repentance, for the heartbreak and the love, for the betrayal and the beauty, and for the insanity and sanity. I want to offer myself compassion in the areas where compassion is needed. I want to celebrate where celebration is warranted. I also want to hold on to the lesson that God isn’t limited to the Bible, to books about faith written by famous theologians, and to the praise music or old hymns we sing at church. God is everywhere, and He can use any means He chooses to get our attention, to show us more of our own stories, and to open our eyes—and our ears—to His Story.