A Rehabilitated Swiftie’s Guide to Zen
Because Taylor Swift Sings About Way More Than Her Exes
I have owned two albums physically in my 22 years of life: Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway (randomly) and Taylor Swift’s Fearless. Growing up, we had this really beat-up VCR/DVD player hybrid that was perpetually on its last legs, and it was through this medium that I blasted all the songs on Fearless on repeat. Many years later, I regard this album with great fondness and nostalgia and can still belt the songs line-by-line. I consider myself to be what one would call a rehabilitated Swiftie. Taylor’s music was the backdrop to my early childhood, but somewhere between my first and second year of secondary school, I fell off the bandwagon. The transition to secondary school was rough. I was a bit of a nerd (still am) and was often admonished for my taste in music, with many labelling me an“Oreo." For those of you reading this who aren’t black, this is a grave insult when launched at a black person. It is almost a denial of your blackness because of your consumption of different forms of popular culture. As if your blackness could be erased by something as trivial as the type of music you enjoyed.
All that to say, after her Red era, it would be a long while before I returned to Taylor’s music again. I quit cold turkey. The return happened last December mostly by accident. Spotify does this thing where it randomly shuffles to songs that the algorithm thinks you‘ll enjoy. “Exile“ by Taylor Swift featuring Bon Iver randomly popped up, and as I was in the middle of an intense stretch session, I let it play out. It. Was. Beautiful. From there, I listened to the entirety of her Folklore album, then moved onto Evermore, before finally circling back to the beginning and making my way through Taylor Swift’s entire discography. After this cathartic experience, I can confidently say that I’m a Swiftie again because it’s 2021, and we’re done pretending that Taylor Alison Swift isn’t 100% that bitch.
In the same period that I was experiencing my rehabilitation and rebirth of love for Taylor Swift, the fandom was calling out Netflix’s Ginny and Georgia for this joke:
Fair warning, I’ve not watched this TV series, so I’m unclear about the context of this particular line. However, I disagree with the sentiment behind it for two reasons. For one, Taylor is not the first artist to draw inspiration from her personal, romantic experiences and use that to create beautiful music. Several musicians do this, and they don’t receive half the flack that she does. Secondly and most important for this story's purposes, the statement is a mischaracterization of Taylor’s discography, which explores a breadth of important and impactful topics besides her past relationships. Let’s discuss a few of them here today, oriented around the notion of Zen.
What Is Zen Anyway?
It feels like the word “zen” in popular culture has been co-opted to describe a particular feeling of calm and peace. Chill. Relaxation. Awareness of self and your environment. According to The Zen Studies Society, zen refers to “the direct experience of what we might call ultimate reality, or the absolute, yet it is not separate from the ordinary, the relative. This direct experience is our birthright.” From this definition (which is a tad confusing, to be fair), zen is simultaneously a state of being and a practice to achieve this state. The idea that this state is innate and natural to us as humans is interesting as well because, owing to our multiplicity of experiences, this suggests that we may enter zen in equally varied ways. For some, this may mean the jarring sounds of heavy metal, the soothing sensations of piano music, bone-chilling silence or the delicate whispers of ASMR. For me, zen equals mood music. And mood music is synonymous with Taylor Swift.
Peace - A Place in This World
I don't know what I want, so don't ask me
'Cause I'm still trying to figure it out
Don't know what's down this road
I'm just walking
We are throwing it all the way back to Taylor's very first album, eponymously titled Taylor Swift. Peace, in my opinion, is a core element of zen, and that's the energy that this song gives me. Confronted by expectations and the weight of the future, "A Place in This World" speaks of contentment with the journey and enjoyment of life in the here and now. There is no pressure to define yourself and be anything other than who you are.
Gratitude - The Best Day
And now I know why the all the trees change in the fall
I know you were on my side even when I was wrong
And I love you for giving me your eyes
For staying back and watching me shine
And I didn't know if you knew, so I'm takin' this chance to say
That I had the best day with you today
Gratitude for all that we have and are is an essential component of mindfulness. Acknowledgement of the efforts of others in the process of shaping who we are is of immense importance. "The Best Day," a song from Taylor's sophomore album Fearless (my favourite Taylor album, by the way), is an ode to the impact of her mom in her life. It's one of the lesser popular Taylor Swift songs, but I believe it's one of her best works as a songwriter as it embodies this notion of gratitude.
Hope - Evermore (feat. Bon Iver)
And I was catching my breath
Floors of a cabin creaking under my step
And I couldn't be sure
I had a feeling so peculiar
This pain wouldn't be for
"Evermore" is my favourite song on Taylor's latest album, also entitled Evermore. I think that when we experience pain and discomfort, it's easy to imagine that it will be long-lasting. That we're never going to feel okay again. And that we are alone in our despair. Not only is this song beautifully conceived and produced, but it also sends such a powerful message about resilience and hopefulness. In the darkest of times, hope is the one thing that we should continue to hold onto.
Confidence - Long Story Short
I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things
Will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing
I was almost tempted to throw "Shake It Off" into this slot as a representative for confidence, but in the end, I decided to go with "Long Story Short," which is another song from Taylor's Evermore album and one of my favourites by her. The attainment of zen is also an extension of one's vulnerability and willingness to sit in awareness and mindfulness. Sometimes, this results in mistakes and errors of judgement from our past being drudged up and echoing inside our heads. It's perfectly normal. The mind thinks, that's what it does, and we shouldn't fault it for doing so. Instead, as "Long Story Short" suggests, we should endeavour to accept our past shortcomings and embrace them fully as they are only a tiny part of our larger story.
Nostalgia - Seven
Sweet tea in the summer
Cross your heart, won't tell no other
And though I can't recall your face
I still got love for you
I grew up in the Caribbean, which is as far away from Pennsylvania or Tennessee as one can get, but I relate so profoundly to the sentiments of “Seven” from Taylor’s Folklore album. Although zen meditation stresses the importance of remaining in the here and now, during particularly long sessions when I’m immersed in an overwhelming sense of peace and calm, my mind drifts to happier and simpler times. Nostalgia covers me, and I dream of long days at the beach, school field trips, laughing and playing with childhood friends in the expansive field at the back of school, and spending hours captivated by nonsense things we’d forget in minutes.
Joy - Starlight
I said, "Oh my, what a marvelous tune"
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved
The whole place
Was dressed to the nines
And we were dancing, dancing
Like we're made of starlight
Like we're made of starlight
“Starlight” from Taylor's Red album is such an underrated song. It fills me with such pure joy and light. It reminds me of the feeling I have just after I’ve finished meditating. I open my eyes, and my lips stretch in a gentle smile that’s both unassuming and tentatively excited for the rest of the day ahead. I experience this viscerally when I listen to this song.
Love - Soon You'll Get Better (feat. The Chicks)
And I hate to make this all about me
But who am I supposed to talk to?
What am I supposed to do
If there's no you?
A common criticism about T-Swift is that all of her songs are about romantic love. I hope that through the previous songs that I've presented, I've helped to demonstrate that this is categorically untrue. But just in case you needed a touch more convincing, here is an incredibly moving song by Taylor about her mom's battle with cancer that is absolutely centred in familial love and care. This song is beautiful, vulnerable and makes me feel simultaneously sad and thankful (a weird combo, I know). It tugs on all the right heartstrings and does something to the soul.
Rediscovering something you loved when you were younger is such a weird and surreal experience. You’re simultaneously a tourist and a local here. I fell back into Taylor Swift’s music at the same time the Ginny and Georgia scandal was happening, where the writers made an unfunny and ill-conceived joke about Taylor’s love life forming the basis of her career. As someone whose love life is essentially dead, I’ve always been more drawn to the deep imagery in Taylor’s discography and her discussion of topics such as family, self-confidence and gratitude. These important themes running throughout her music always help to center me and aid me in achieving zen. I hope you enjoyed my brief list, and here’s a playlist to check them out: