“breakin’ down and comin’ undone”

I like Taylor Swift. Let’s just get that out of the way. I know I’m not exactly part of her target demographic, but I like the idea that she is a role model for those oh-so-impressionable 10 to 17 year old girls. Taylor is fresh; she doesn’t look all used up already like the other artists whose music gets played by tweens and teens alike, regardless of whether or not they are the intended audience. Maybe that is Taylor’s secret. She knows that 14-year-olds are listening to her music. Plus, she is confident without being cocky. She stands on her own two feet but isn’t afraid to take her mom on tour with her. She is, after all, only 19. Lindsay Lohan was 19 just four years ago, though, and it didn’t look like this:

All of the good stuff about Taylor Swift’s position as a role model for adolescent girls makes what I’ve noticed particularly problematic. There is a song on her most recent album, Fearless, that makes me cringe. Now, I know a lot of people who think Taylor’s singing is cringe-worthy. I’m not here to talk about her musical abilities. Even if I wanted to judge that, I have no education or talent to use as a basis for such a critique. No, what I want to talk about is feminism.

What? You’re surprised?

This song, called “The Way I Loved You,” bothers me on two levels. First, its more benign offense is that it’s all gender stereotypey:

He respects my space
And never makes me wait
And he calls exactly when he says he will.
He’s close to my mother
Talks business with my father.
He’s charming and endearing
And I’m comfortable.

The issue here is obvious. Why can’t the boy talk business with Taylor’s mom and why can’t he be “close to” her dad?

However, the more damaging problem in “The Way I Loved You” is that the song is perpetuating the romanticization of emotionally abusive relationships that pervades teen culture. (Twilight, anyone?) Take, for instance, the chorus:

But I miss screamin’ and fightin’ and kissin’ in the rain
And it’s 2am and I’m cursin’ your name.
You’re so in love that you act insane
And that’s the way I loved you.
Breakin’ down and comin’ undone
It’s a roller coaster kinda rush.
And I never knew I could feel that much.
And that’s the way I loved you.

Even though the nice boy gets along with Taylor’s parents and makes her feel “fine,” Taylor longs for the one who makes her cry and scream and lose sleep and, in short, feel bad. For one thing, at any age but especially at Taylor’s age, there is no reason to limit our choices to “fine” and “awful.” It’s OK to be alone. What bothers me more, though, is the notion that in order to experience real love, we must be somewhat miserable. Why does love so often get conflated with emotional dysfunction? Why aren’t there representations of passion and intensity that don’t involve screaming and crying? Passion doesn’t always involve crying, and intensity needn’t yield screaming fights. Like fat, there is good passion and bad passion. I wish there was some place in pop culture that showcased the difference so young girls could learn to examine their relationships.

“The Way I Loved You” is not representative of Taylor’s songs. Most of them are lighter and less dire. Maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned about this anomaly, but while it doesn’t represent Taylor Swift’s typical output, it does reflect a common trend among pop culture genres (movies, books, music, TV shows, etc.) aimed at teenage girls. Taylor happens to be pretty much the only artist in that niche that I can stand for more than 30 seconds so this particular song has become the springboard for this particular discussion.