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TAYLOR'S "ALL TOO WELL": TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED & HURT

It’s easy to be a punch line: be a public figure, try to grow up and trust the romantic notions you’ve been fed. Cinderella, the Prince and a glass slipper; Snow White, Prince Charming and “the kiss.” Disney movies and fairy tales continues into every Meg Ryan/Kate Hudson/Jennifer Aniston/Drew Barrymore rom-com where the meet-cute stumbles through awkward or adversarial encounters, a mystery attraction then—breath held—love.

Taylor Swift grew up in public, a hyper-focused teen hellbent on being a pop star. But like all little girls, she wanted to fall in love, crushed on the same boys every other girl her age did – Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Styles. Only Taylor Swift was famous; she could be in the same rooms, at the same events in a way that lifted her above all the other available women. Smart, pretty, talented—the boys were drawn like flies.

But there’s another trope about famous men, especially musicians, they often go through women like Kleenex. Only you don’t see them do it. You don’t realize how many girls a man can go through in a day. Not even in a skeevy, objectifying way; more in a sharing what’s being offered, as much a story the girl will tell her friends as weaving a web that it’s something more.

That’s the thing about most girls sucked into the web of flirtations with famous men: it’s a short-term thing. Take what you get, enjoy whatever notions that it’s more than what it is at your peril. Taylor Swift’s mistake was simple: she trusted these boys (or men) that their experience was something else. That idea of who she was, perhaps, made it more. The fact there was the public-facing aspect to dating her would keep her safe from the callowness of men who’ve gotten bored, or had enough.

And so Taylor kept believing each suitor was different, really meant it. Taylor is smart, not someone who’ll just tumble down a mineshaft of pain without really listening; by sharing her vulnerability, she believed the exchange was of equal or greater value. That truth, which doesn’t occur to those men who think she’s a raging woman scorned, is what makes Taylor’s re-recordings so interesting. Red’s re-recording of the original 462-word, 5:27 “All Too Well”—as a 10 minute-plus, 965-word set of Polaroids and postcards from her liason with Gyllenhaal – reaches further into what happened, as well as the fallout.

The 2012 original, more straightforwardly guitar-laced and tympani-rolling, is marked by the raw pain of the coltish songwriter’s vocal. That pain is the strongest ingredient in the performance with its strong echo of “it happened again” self-recrimination. It hurts, and you should know better, but you want to believe... That’s where destiny and men of shallower definitions of the big words grease the rails to punch-linedom.

People laughed. She took it. She had no choice.

That’s what she gets... for what? Trusting? Hoping? Listening – in this case -- to the things the actor said?

In a cynical world, it’s easy to dismiss this as Taylor’s Revenge, Pt. 2. But as the quieter, more brooding track rolls forward, her voice more whisper than pain, there’s a curious intimacy, as well as a deeper awareness of what happened. What’s staggering is how the images endure, the way love, when you’re young, tattoos your soul.

Equally staggering is how much more there was to it, the events and the careful word choices, an almost bullfighting with the truth by never coming out and saying the obvious. She muses halfway through, “And I was thinking on the drive down, any time now/ He’s gonna say it’s love, you never called it what was/ Til we were dead and gone and buried/ Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same/ After three months in the grave/ And then you wondered where it went to as I reached for you/ But all I felt was shame, as you held my lifeliess frame...”

The part we – voyeurs, fans, writers for gossip mags and late night shows – never see is laid out in a few spare lines. The original line that said “you break me like a promise” suddenly gains  real dimension; the idea just because the word wasn’t said, it doesn’t mean “it”* wasn’t real. Truth is: it’s often the stuff we don’t want to see. Even those who’ve experienced that passive betrayal, who’ve survived the humiliation of knowing and being denied on a technicality.

Consequences aren’t for pop music. Revenge? Alanis Morissette or Avril Lavigne howling rejoinders? Sure, but even that rage seems like they’ll spew hard, collapse from exhaustion and return copacetic.

“All Too Well” is a snow globe that swirls emotions.

In the rearview mirror, much becomes clear. Not just her knowing better – “and I forget about you long enough/ to forget about why I needed to” – but how seduction unfurls – “the way you charmed my Dad with self-effacing jokes, sipping coffee like you’re on a late night show...”

And the hard jab of what tore her open, the youth and truth of the emotional cost of surrendering to the heart. That same father seeing it up close. “But then he watched me watch the front door all night, willing you to come/ And he said, ‘It’s supposed to be fun... turning 21’”

What you don’t see. Fathers of daughters know this freefall they can’t save their girls from. The warnings don’t matter, the hollow words can’t be punctured until they’re puncturing their little princesses.

Taylor, for the record, hasn’t lost her straight-razor recrimination. With a sweetness, she confesses, “I was never good at jokes, but the punch line goes/ I’ll get older, but your lovers stay the same age...,” invoking the endless string of age-inappropriate women so many famous men continue pursuing. Beyond the cliché, the stunted maturity is thrown open.

Funny the double standard. “The crazy bitch, the pass-around slut,” and the silver fox who likes the ladies, marginalizing the discarded. Did the (anti)hero ever mean it? Did he fall in love with falling in love? Was it just too much? Does it matter?

Of course, this version validates profoundly. Why else would that scarf left at his sister’s home not come back in the box of returned things? A talisman of what was, a purity perhaps, a feeling too good to surrender completely.

If the outro, an almost glistening expanded rumination of the affair’s final breaths, she wonders if perhaps what happened maimed him, too. Is there any reckoning – beyond the embarrassment of being publicly trolled by Swifties – for the other person? Even more, is there any loss or hurt from losing that passion that inspired all of it? A remorse for the pain caused?

As the song fades, the details and repeated “I was there, I was there” drifts into the air. A prayer? A hope? A sanity-anchor? Or maybe a deeper dig into the reasons she believed the intimacy to give thse who slam the door and don’t look back a real sense of the damage in their wake.

When the Knack named their debut album But the Little Girls Understand..., the cynicism was bald-faced. What Taylor Swift figured out as a teen holds true: what the little girls feel matters, maybe even more than the boys’ emotions. She grew into the world’s biggest pop star not just because the parents had to drive the kids to her shows, but because – like Billie Eillish and Olivia Rodrigo – she saw those bruised, belittled emotions as deserving recognition, validation and a celebration of being more.

Beyond Times Up, Me, Too, glass ceilings and men who get away from it, there’s the raw sob in someone’s throat who was willing to believe. That betrayal of trust has never been framed more transparently, or offered on a sonic bed that allowed even the transgressors to understand.

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