Freshman year of high school, I catch rides with my older sister. The radio doesn’t work in her Hyundai, so we listen to Taylor Swift’s Red album on repeat until the 19-track deluxe edition is the soundtrack to our lives. A 15-year-old girl who’d never had a crush, I was learning what love was from my new friend Taylor, who defined it in a single word: red. Love was “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street.” It was a “treacherous slope,” a “dangerous daydream.” Its loss could leave you like “a crumpled-up piece of paper,” but in the thrill of it, you were “spinning like a girl in a brand-new dress.” According to Taylor, love was the fabric of existence and the lover the thread, but despite my searching, I couldn’t imagine any boy holding my world together.
Sophomore year, my sister’s in college, and I’m listening to Red from the driver’s seat. I’d never had close girlfriends, but I meet a freshman who’ll ride shotgun and sing along with me. She’s gangly, kind and far too clever for her friends, and I don’t know why, but I start to understand Miss Swift more each day. By junior year, we’re inseparable, and when Taylor Swift releases her 2014 album 1989, I rebel. I’m not prepared to trade in Red’s haunting, longing melodies for the drive-by snapshots of cool desire captured by 1989’s new synth-pop sound. Instead, I hold onto hours spent lying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling with my co-pilot and our silent late-night phone calls. “Best friends” doesn’t sound substantial enough to describe us, but that’s all we are: friends.
I attend the 1989 World Tour with my sister just before senior year starts, and dancing to Taylor Swift live, I finally Shake Red Off. I skip through senior year with all the energy and drama Taylor brings to “Blank Space,” not even hearing the lyrics I’m belting out until March when I’m accepted to my first UC. I’m standing in a bookstore with my best friend, and the moment I get that email, our world stops. I always knew I loved her, but on that drive home, in the dark car with 1989 coming through the speakers and her head on my shoulder, I finally understand why this kind of love was different. I hear Taylor whispering to me beneath the sonic pop sound on the second to last track. “You can hear it in the silence. You can feel it on the way home. You can see it with the lights out. You are in love, true love.”
That fall, I leave for UC Berkeley and stop listening to Taylor altogether. I know with my friend’s religious family we could never go anywhere, so I slowly start to build walls. I find excuses not to call and sluggishly reply to texts. I don’t tell my new friends about the girl at home or even that there could be a girl at home. By the time Taylor releases her sixth album reputation – a treatise on isolationism – we scarcely speak, succumbing to “deep fears that the world would divide us.” I embrace a shadowy persona like Swift, pierce my nose, and hold everyone at arm’s length. But when I attend Taylor’s tour the next summer, I’m taken by surprise. Rather than leaning into the bitter “Look What You Made Me Do,” she focuses on the hopeful “New Year’s Day,” lingering on the line, “please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” I reach out to my pal, and for months, we’re almost back to normal. But just before New Year’s Day 2019, she tells me that while she had loved me for years, she was now with someone new.
It’s taken me until now to understand that what the two of us had (or didn’t have) isn’t what love should look like. It was destined to fail because we were “dancing with our hands tied.” Despite the pain, confusion and heartbreak I’ve felt these seven years, I can’t regret them because they have helped me see the kind of love I deserve. Taylor Swift has likewise done her share of retrospection, and her newest album Lover, released just a few weeks ago at the dawn of my senior year of college, is her magnum opus. It reflects her realization that the heat of love shouldn’t burn you to ash, but it should illuminate you and make you shine. It’s a celebration of love in its many forms and a declaration that no one should have to hide their love away. I’m not sure if my life so far has been dictated by Taylor Swift or if she has just been a good friend there with the right thing to say, but regardless, I’m glad to report that we’re finally on the same page and like Taylor, “I once believed love would be burning red,” but now, I know “it’s golden like daylight.”