Me and Taylor, 17 Again
I’m not going to lie about it: I love Taylor Swift. I sing the hell out of Taylor Swift. I sing like nobody’s watching. I sing Taylor until I’m hoarse and croaking. I sing Taylor like only an angst-y teenager can because when Taylor starts to sing, her fake southern accent kicks-starts a voice I silenced half a lifetime ago. Little Kel, as I like to call her, living in a small town called Tobaccoville, NC, who wanted nothing more than to get the hell out. She wanted to be someone else, to create another life, and somehow she always believed she could. I look back on that girl now and I don’t know how she did it because when she finally returned to me a few years ago, everything she felt then sent me crawling to the bathroom floor, to the basement in the middle of the night to curl up with my knees to my chest, crying. Most of the time what she gave me was this unspeakable pain, but sometimes I could hear her voice, angry, telling me to buck up, get a grip, hold it together—the way she always did, they way she needed me to. As an adult I felt I was failing her, my inability to finally hear her secrets and hold them steady in my hands.
Enter my daughter and her first Taylor Swift CD, Fearless. The first song I ever heard of Taylor’s was “Fifteen” and I could feel that girl in me rush up in joy, in hope, in recognition of all I didn’t know at fifteen, all that I did, and all I wanted and never had. Most people would probably say that I was popular back then, that I fit in, but Little Kel was living such a lie that know one knew her—she wasn’t popular, she didn’t fit—because she didn’t exist. The girl who walked those hallways was a ghost, a projection as thin as air that smiled and laughed. Sometimes she even managed to flirt but that girl inside couldn’t take any relationship further because people were scary, boys were scary, and no one could know her secrets.
Taylor wasn’t there to dream along with me about Romeo and Juliet, which I read obsessively, the notion of someone loving someone else enough to die without them seeming unreal to me. Impossible. Because no one loved me that way, and it wasn’t just about the boys sitting next to me in class who thought I was cute but seemed somehow intimidated to ask me out. I was convinced they knew how needy I was and were running for safety. Maybe they were. Maybe I was as unapproachable as I felt, as far away from everyone as I imagined. But it was more than their distance, it was the feeling of being invisible everywhere, or trying to be invisible, because being noticed was a danger in itself. Taylor wasn’t scared though; Taylor was waiting for Romeo, singing “Love Story,” her white dress probably already on order, begging him please don’t go. Take me somewhere we can be alone. Sneaking out, escaping. Taylor, when I was 16, I begged someone please don’t go and he went. We didn’t make it out of that mess you described. I was heartbroken, convinced he’d figured out how unworthy I was, this boy who’d held my hand and brought me Snickers bars. Who worried about me and sat by my bed in another country because I was afraid of the dark. I got away once and then I had to come back, and the bubble burst, the pumpkin smashed, but not Taylor. Romeo came back in the end. Little Kel loves a happy ending.
Little Kel lived in her head, so much so that often she arrived at school and didn’t remember driving there. She’d been somewhere else all those miles, and usually she was living in a Taylor Swift song, though neither of us could know that then. Taylor wasn’t quite ready yet to sing to my seventeen year old self. She wasn’t there singing to Stephen or Drew, but when I hear Taylor sing “White Horse,” I go back to my girl, the way she sometimes lost hope, the time I heard her say, “I’m not capable of loving anyone,” because she had pulled herself so far back and given up on people. When Little Kel lost hope she was right there with Taylor singing,
Stupid girl, I should’ve known, I should’ve known
that I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairy tale
I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet
lead her up the stairwell
this ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town
I was dreamer before you and you let me down
now it’s too late for you and your white horse
to come around
But ah Taylor, there’s always hope in your world, isn’t there? At the end of that same song, we get :
I’m not your princess, this ain’t a fairytale
I’m gonna find someone someday
who might actually treat me well
This is a big world, that was a small town
there in my rearview mirror disappearing now
Now it’s too late for you and your white horse
to catch me now. Try and catch me now
Little Kel hears that and hears my twenty-something self, saying to her, Hell yes. Try to catch me now. She’s a rebellious one. She’s the teenager Little Kel never got to be.
Sometimes when I listen to Taylor, it’s just me there. I hear “You’re Not Sorry,” and I don’t remember some boy who made me cry, I think of my father. I think about trying to get his attention and trying not to. I think about giving up trying and how things might have been if I could have done it sooner.
You had me crying for you, honey,
and it never would have gone away
You used to shine so bright
but I watched all of it fade….
All this time I was wasting
hoping you would come around
I’ve been giving away chances
and all you do is let me down
You don’t have to call anymore
I won’t pick up the phone
this is the last straw,
don’t want to hurt anymore
and you can tell you me that you’re sorry
but I don’t believe you like I did before
You’re not sorry…
There’s healing in Taylor. There’s power in giving up after giving in for so long, and for Little Kel and I that is magic.
You may not know this, but little Taylor grew up on a Christmas tree farm. Imagine the sparkles! The twinkling lights! There’s a song called “The Best Day” towards the end of the album and this song can break me down in its familiarity. There’s the pumpkin patch, the tractor rides. She’s a few states north but living in my rural world, but this song is more than that. It’s all about her mom, about their relationship which is heartbreakingly close. “I don’t know if you knew, but I’m taking the chance to say, that I had the best day with you today,” sings Taylor, and I think of my mother, far away in miles and spirit, the fact that I haven’t spoken to her in years. I think of all we’ve missed out on together and what we’ve never had. Then I think of my grandmother, more mother to me than anyone else, and how desperately I miss her every day. How orphaned I feel in this world without both she and my grandfather because my best days were with them. Even in the grief of those things, I have hope when I hear that song that my daughter might one day listen to it and think of her best days with me. I’m grateful for the tears because the grief I feel for my grandparents is so big that often I struggle to keep it in check, but when I listen to that song, I have a few minutes to let it go, to rest my arms and to cry without trying to blink the tears back. It’s a welcome break. When I need that release of grief, I listen, I let it out, I let it go and I can come back into myself, my day, with my shoulders relaxed, sad but not bubbling over the brim.
And let’s face it: Taylor is happy. Have you listened to her? That girl is normal and happy. She loves her parents, girls weren’t nice to her (because teenage girls suck and generally aren’t nice to each other), and boys liked her sometimes, and sometimes, like me, she sat next to them wishing they’d just see her, notice how much she wants them to really look at her, but overall there’s joy in every word. Even in the saddest songs there’s so much joy in the act of singing that something lifts up. My seventeen year old self listens to Taylor and lives again through her. She goes back to the familiar terrain of her head and she dreams. This is what it could have been like if she’d had another dad, another mom, been born in another place, if she could have been what everyone wanted or if she could have been herself. What if she could have spoken all the secrets? What if she had lived a different life? What might have changed? I would have taken Taylor’s teenage heartbreaks, the boys who were immature, indifferent; the bitchy girls; the mom who took her shopping after a bad day at school. I want Taylor’s teenage years and my 17 year old self sings it out with every song: the sassy, the sappy, the sweet. Taylor! I get it! I want it! Give it back to me!
It started with Fearless, I listened all the way through, over and over again, Little Kel going up and down, up and down like adolescence and hormones, riding that wave of past until it dropped me back to now. It’s a lovely ride. It’s not the Indigo Girls’ debut album that Little Kel listened to obsessively when I really was 17, feeling every blow of “Blood and Fire.” This is windows down, no-speed-limit back roads. This is the smell of memory mixing with tobacco in bloom, and a girl who can take me back through the safety of years with a few scrapes but not the need to bleed for it. I bump through this album and all that comes with it, and at the end, I’m still grown up, and Little Kel is a kid again.
I’m 37 years old, I like to call myself a poet, and I love Taylor Swift. I sat and cried during the 3-night Taylor Swift biography special. I cried for her hurt feelings, and I cried because she worked so hard to get what she wanted, and I cried because she got it. My little 17 year old fed every tear because she got it too. Because she never wanted to grow up, she never wanted hips and breasts, she never wanted the attention they brought or the looks those hips carried through the house in fear, and because everything in her was saying hurry, hurry, hurry and grow up—run! I cried because we both made it and because I can look at my seventeen year old self and hear her secrets, and stand up under the weight of them. She can just be 17 now, dreaming, not escaping, with Taylor, and I can be there with her.
I keep pressing play, set my Taylor play list to repeat for hours. I listen to Taylor in the car even when my daughter isn’t there. When she is, we sing together, we belt it out, Lucy singing like her heart’s been broken a thousand times and she knows, Taylor, she knows how stupid boys can be, how thoughtless, even at 7. There’s me in the front seat, skipping ahead to Speak Now’s “Never Grow Up”, saying, “This one’s for you, Lu,” and my sweet girl saying back, “Thanks Mom, but you know I have to, right? My body just likes to grow.” I wish my body had liked to grow, I wish my body could have grown in safety, free of fear and revulsion. Taylor sings for me and my teenage self, and we sing back to her in joy that she grew up clean, dancing around in her sparkly dress, smiling, and that she sings to my little girl now, that Lu can grow up in a house of Taylor Swift heartaches on her CD player without the secret songs of my teenager, lying on the bathroom floor. We sing back to her because Little Kel always held it together, always; and when we listen to Taylor, she smiles and sings like a kid, and she lets it go.
Kelly Cockerham is a poet and mother living in Maryland. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, she spent some long years in Tobaccoville, NC, before moving to FL and attending the University of South Florida. Her heart still lives in Tampa, cruising down Bayshore Blvd. with her girls, walking Pass-a-Grille Beach in St. Pete, and loving everything about finding her home, and family, in a new world. This is her first public declaration of love for Taylor Swift. She has been published in Ourobouros Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and The Leveler. Her work is forthcoming in Palooka, Tryst and Soundzine.