With nowhere else to turn, I took shelter in Taylor.
It happened like this.
My Spotify subscription ran out in late July, so the dotingly arranged playlists I put together were no longer accessible on my daily commute.
And since I’m a millennial, I don’t own any music — except for Taylor Swift’s most recent album, “1989,” which I had to buy last year when she refused to put it on the streaming service.
Here’s the thing: it’s been great. The record makes me further appreciate just how creative, expressive, and subtle a person can be while working in a popular idiom.
Taylor, as I’ve taken to calling her, is a popular songwriter in the truest sense, and “1989” is a marvel of accessibility.
Yet her work is not simplistic. Upon repeated listens, her tracks on “1989” grow more enjoyable, not boring — which psychologists have found to be the signature of complex music. Within the heys and hmms that punctuate her songs, there is a sense of structure that’s deeply satisfying to composition nerds like myself.
Three things stand out as lessons for writers.
Nailing the lede.
Journalists call the start to a story a ‘lede.’ The lede has to be attention-grabbing — if it doesn’t intrigue, delight, or surprise the reader in some major way, they’re going to close the tab, quick.
I don’t know if Taylor ever sat in the famed writing workshops that McPhee has led at Princeton for four decades, but her songwriting shows a mastery of the lede — her opening lines hit with such force, and are laden with such emotion, that they quickly pull you in to the rest of the song.
I often think about and discuss with my colleagues how crucial it is to avoid wandering exposition. Stories that start with since the dawn of time, scientists have been concerned with or when it comes to [this issue], there’s always [this problem] feel so stilted and formulaic. Just get straight to the action.
In “1989,” Taylor does this again and again. The album opens with “Welcome to New York,” which immediately thrusts you into a scene: Walking through a crowd, the village is aglow / Kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats. Then “Style” opens on a totally different tenor: Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights /Long drive, could end in burning flames or paradise. The album closer “Clean” also has a punchy beginning: The drought was the very worst / When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst.
In each case, the song opens with that proverbial flashlight — one that shines through the rest of the story.
Writing with images.
Academic writing is painful to read because it gets mired in abstract ideas. If you don’t share the same background as the person you’re reading, you’re not going to understand what they’re saying.
But describing physical reality — giving readers images and scenes that don’t require a point of reference — is one of the most reliable ways to write well. In his recent book “Sense of Style,” Harvard linguist Steven Pinker describes this as “classic prose.”
“Forcing yourself to describe things in concrete terms is a way of undoing your own idiosyncratic accumulation of abstractions,” Pinker told us during a recent interview, “and to present things on the common ground that you’re likely to share with readers. If I’m a psychologist and I say ‘the infants were presented with a stimulus,’ my fellow psychologists might know what that means, but if I say ‘I showed Big Big to a baby,’ everyone knows what Big Bird means.”
Based on her songwriting, it’s safe to say that Taylor is a classicist.
It’s instructive to anybody in the word business: Instead of wandering around in abstraction, she gives the reader images and scenes to imagine.
From “How You Get The Girl”:
Remind her how it used to be (yeah, yeah)
With pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks (cheeks)
Tell her how you must have lost your mind. (uh-uh)
When you left her all alone, and never told her why (why).
Pictures in frames of kisses on cheeks. That is an elegant and precise multi-layered image, one that symbolises a love that used to be — and might be again — in eight words.
Writing in a personal voice.
Carr’s describes his class on voice as:
How to quit sounding like everyone else and begin sounding like … yourself. Who you are and what you have been through should give you a prism on life that belongs to you only.
Though she writes songs that are intensely relatable, Taylor is always personal. Each of her songs, at least on “1989,” is hers, and when she’s at her best, they could come from no one else.
Consider the close of the first verse of “Blank Space”:
New money, suit & tie
I can read you like a magazine
Ain’t it funny, rumours fly
And I know you heard about me
So hey, let’s be friends
I’m dying to see how this one ends
Grab your passport and my hand
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend
While still maintaining her girl-next-door appeal, Taylor is winking at what it’s like to live as a celebrity. Read you like a magazine, rumours fly — trying to date when you’re the world’s most famous 25-year-old means that any interaction you have with another human is endlessly analysed by the gossip press.
Yet these lyrics could just as easily be identified by a young listener as representing the rumour mill of the nearest college dorm. The lyrics are universal.
All this Taylor has made me reflect on my own writing and editing. It’s a reminder that clarity, relatability, and voice are key.
Among many other things, “1989” shows us that you can create vivid, compelling imagery of your own, while still relating to millions of people.
And that never goes out of style.
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