When I was thirteen, I brought along with me on a weeklong family vacation to Texas a single album: Avril Lavigne’s seminal Let Go, featuring cultural touchstones like “Sk8r Boi” and “Nobody’s Fool” (actual lyric: “I’m not the milk and Cheerios in your spoon”).
For seven days, I listened to Let Go on repeat. Nobody understood me like Avril did: the album was a journey through my thirteen-year-old brain. I doodled her lyrics in the margins of my diary (“He wanted her; she’d never tell—secretly she wanted him as well,” which conveniently ignored the reality of the situation wherein I told my crush that I wanted his spiky-haired, skateboarding bod and he went after my best friend instead). I glared at my father when he played the rental car radio loudly enough that it interrupted my seventeenth ceremonial listening of “Anything but Ordinary.” I glared at the rest of my family because I was thirteen and that was the only facial expression I was capable of.
I like to tell that story whenever we talk about how hilariously tragic it was to be a teenager. And it’s the kind of story you tell with the implicit suggestion that you would never do something that ridiculous again, especially in this age of shuffle and Songza: listen to one album and nothing else, no matter how loud your dad blasts Click and Clack (RIP), for a solid week?
Yeah, we all know where this is going.
Want to know what I’ve been listening to since last Friday when I finally bit the bubblegum-flavored bullet and dropped thirteen of my hard-earned dollars to buy Taylor Swift’s 1989? That’s right. Taylor Swift’s 1989. On repeat. Every time I leave the house. Or when I don’t.
Like every twentysomething who recognizes that the therapeutic effect of Taylor Swift on a breakup is worth the indignity of acknowledging that Taylor Swift is, in fact, a musical genius, I was excited to listen to 1989. (Also, I was born in 1989, and I’ve been waiting since 1995 for the Smashing Pumpkins to pay tribute to a year that I was around to experience. That obviously hasn’t paid off, so this was the next best thing. Despite all my rage, I am still just a white girl wearing red lipstick in a cage.)
I did not expect, however, that doing so would catapult me back to the summer of 2002. I can blame it on any constellation of factors: my recent breakup and the fact that I, like Taylor, used it to propel myself to artistic fame (okay, whatever, she has a few more fans than I do and I don’t have backup dancers yet but I bet I could bribe my fellow retired amateur ballet dancers enough to follow me around for, like, an afternoon); the fact that it’s getting cold and taking off my gloves to change the music on my touch-screen phone means inviting certain frostbite; the fact that it’s just so goddamn catchy.
Regardless, what I know is that being forced to buy 1989 meant that I did something that I almost never do anymore: I listened to it from beginning to end. (87 times. In a row.)
I had forgotten what a unique experience it is to listen to an album that an artist designed specifically to evoke a defined sequence of emotions. I’m a sucker for shuffle and Pandora and Songza, tools that supply me with a steady stream of interesting music by artists I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. The wheat is separated from the musical chaff for you: none of those flimsy little B-sides that never should have made it into the recording studio, let alone out of it, none of that bizarre filler that seems to serve only as a means to string together disparate tracks.
I wasn’t raised to listen to music like that, though. I am the daughter of a man who saw Led Zeppelin and Queen in their heyday. The golden period of my musical education was in ninth and tenth grade, before I got my own driver’s license, when my father and I listened to his album collection, from “the Mighty Zep” to Dark Side of the Moon to Highway 61 Revisited over the course of our daily thirty-minute drive to my high school. I learned to look beyond “Stairway to Heaven” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and to appreciate how the psychedelic strains that opened “Tie Your Mother Down” brought “Teo Torriate” to a satisfying close. I could write a novel about all of the wonderful things that my father gave me by forcing me to listen to Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd at 6 AM when I was fifteen, but chief among those is the appreciation of the album as an art form.
Playlists provide the constant entertainment that the millennial generation craves: the sonic equivalent of empty calories that leave you satisfied but, ultimately, emotionally unfulfilled. Albums are the medicine that remind you that what the world throws at you is not an unceasing string of flawlessly crafted hit singles, but rather a roller coaster of emotions wherein sandwiched between masterpieces like “Oh! Darling” and “She’s So Heavy” is, of all things, “Octopus’s Garden.” (While I don’t share my father’s utter disregard for everything the Beatles let Ringo slip onto an album, you have to admit that in this slightly painful extended metaphor, that’s like when you leave for work hungover on a Thursday and realize halfway through your commute that your laptop is still sitting on your couch from when you tried to work on a marketing document after three margaritas the night before. I think the word I’m looking for here is “undignified.”)
Even after the great state of Nevada made the grave error of allowing me to operate a motor vehicle alone and my dad and I lost our precious morning ritual, I continued to devour albums as they were meant to be devoured. I can play back the memories of my most wretched teenage moments to the soundtrack of Damien Rice’s O and 9 and the Postal Service’s Give Up. It gave me great pleasure to sit in silence waiting for the hidden track at the end of O to begin, like Lisa Hannigan singing “Silent Night” was a reward for my patience.
Albums are funny that way: as a rule, they start out with energy and with hooks, the kind of music that makes you want to run outside and engage with the world and fall in love and dump your boyfriend and start a riot. And then they lapse into the tracks that don’t make it on the radio, the songs that more accurately reflect the banality of human existence (okay, whatever, I am trying REALLY HARD to excuse how shitty “Recycled Air” is compared to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” but bear with me here). And the best albums close not with inspirational bullshit but with meditations, choosing instead to intersperse the more powerful songs at choice moments along the journey.
Consider Rumours: there’s a reason that “Go Your Own Way” isn’t the closing track, and it’s because you need that to survive listening to “Songbird.” And then you take “Gold Dust Woman” with you into the universe to help you grit your teeth and keep moving after you divorce the bassist (guys, don’t date your coworkers). I believe that considerable effort is expended in determining the structure of every album, no matter how lightweight or artistically unimpressive the responsible party. At a young and impressionable age, I was devoted to this tenet.
Then Steve Jobs ruined everything.
My family were early adopters to collecting music digitally. We had Napster back before anyone noticed it was illegal (and then KaZaA and Limewire and everything else that I probably shouldn’t admit here lest I ever apply for a security clearance). I burned a LOT of mix CDs featuring artists who weren’t quite tolerable in album length: Something Corporate, Oasis, Taking Back Sunday, etc., etc., angst angst scream scream. But when I got an iPod, I turned into a shuffling monster. I flagrantly disregarded everything I held sacred about the art of the album and, in the process, lost something precious. (My attention span, that is. Look! Something shiny!)
Because I’ve already acknowledged that I am hopelessly basic, I am only moderately ashamed of the fact that it took Taylor freaking Swift and an album that contains the lyric “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes” to remind me of the power of the album. And though like any good recent college grad, I really like free stuff, I have to admit that I support her decision to pull her music from Spotify. Because I had to buy her album to listen to it, I did, and I suddenly remember what music is supposed to be. It’s like books: you don’t pick up a book and read a single chapter because you like it better than the other ones (right? People don’t do that, right? I would judge you). You read the whole damn thing and it’s a journey and some of it is Harry and Hermione farting around in the woods for like four hundred pages, but that’s what life is and you can’t subsist only on peaks and valleys or “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” You have to take the weird shit in between, even if it’s only there because the Moody Blues were doing A LOT of drugs.
So anyway, in conclusion, the point of this exercise is to convey my deeply held belief that Taylor Swift can do no wrong and to make it clear that although I may have burned the song “Konstantine” to approximately every single mix CD I made when I was fifteen, at least I never bought an entire album by Something Corporate. Which is probably not enough of a declaration to discount the number of times I’ve referenced Taylor Swift in this essay, but, like, it could be worse.
By the by, are we out of the woods yet? It’s unclear.