Paul Slansky
16 min readNov 1, 2022


Maybe This Thing is a Masterpiece

In the refrigerator light

Can’t you see that I’m the one / Who understands you? / Been here all along / So, why can’t you see? / You belong with me

I decided early on that I didn’t need to pay attention to Taylor Swift. What, really, could this teenage country singer have to say to someone whose musical taste was solidly in the Stones/Kinks/Dylan/Petty realm? Did I need a new LeAnn Rimes?

The first time I was really aware of her was that iconic cultural moment when Kanye barged on stage as she was receiving the Best Female Video award at the 2009 VMAs. Kanye, as one does, grabbed the mic out of her hands and bellowed his humble opinion that the award should have gone to Beyoncé.

It’s a testament to the degradation of our national discourse to recall that, at the time, Ye’s boorish behavior was properly condemned for its vulgarity — President Obama called him “a jackass” — while today, far more disgusting transgressions, by far more dangerous people, are accepted with equanimity. But I digress.

I listen to KCSN 88.5, the best station I’ve heard in my many decades in L.A. — here, see why — which apparently deemed Taylor Swift not hip enough to be played by them. In the twelve years that the station has existed in its current format, I was not once exposed to her music there. I’m sure I’d heard some of her hits playing in the background at various moments in my life, but I wasn’t really listening to them. As her career took off and she entered her twenties, I was aware of her mainly for her penchant for serial dating famous young guys, breaking up with them, and writing songs about them. I felt no need to seek out those songs.

Still, I began associating her name with good things. She sued some DJ in Denver in connection with his having grabbed her ass during a drop-in to his station. (For a dollar. Just for the principle of it. And she won.) The experience completely politicized her, and whereas she’d been avowedly apolitical — she’d told David Letterman, “It’s my right to vote, but it’s not my right to tell other people what to do” — she suddenly came out strongly against Tennessee’s lunatic Republican Senate candidate (and, horrifically, now Senator) Marsha Blackburn. In the 2020 Netflix doc Miss Americana, you can watch her coming to terms with her inability to remain silent about her political beliefs, and overruling her father and her management when they warn her not to Dixie Chicks her career. (She didn’t care — she loved the Dixie Chicks for just that reason. And her career remained intact.)

The white supremacists who tried to adopt this tall, beautiful blonde as their Aryan goddess were accurately described by her as “repulsive.” She came out as strongly anti-Trump, but not until 2018, too late for her fans to have maybe put Hillary over the top (which she’s aware of and regrets). And she delivered the sweetest fuck-you ever to the music business when the executives who owned the masters of her first six recordings dickishly refused to sell them to her because she’d left the label. She announced that she’d be re-recording those albums and would be licensing only the new versions.

For all of this, I found myself increasingly respecting Taylor Swift as a public figure. As my wife, Liz Dubelman, said, “I’m happy she exists. I like her political stance, I like the fact that she fights back, I like her as a feminist. She seems to be a good person. People like her a lot.” And still I remained ridiculously ignorant of her art.

Until last November 13th, when we sat down for our usual stone-faced viewing of Saturday Night Live. Now, SNL offers me very few rewards, let alone life-changing ones, so I wasn’t expecting anything until host Jonathan Majors said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Taylor Swift.” I thought, not actually in these words but this was the gist, “Okay, the universe is putting it right in front of me. Let’s finally see what this is all about.”


Twenty years earlier I’d been similarly ignorant of Eminem, with the excuse that Liz and I were raising our infant daughter, Grace, when Slim Shady began putting people on blast, and our focus was, unsurprisingly, pretty much exclusively on her. I was aware that he was pushing buttons that I always liked to see pushed, but we were watching PBS Kids, not MTV, so I hadn’t appreciated the nuances of the unhappiness he engendered in parents, and I had no idea whether he was actually, as the media had decided to portray him, homophobic.

Then I saw him do “Stan” on the Grammys — with Elton John doing the Dido part to show solidarity with Em against the anti-gay charges — and if you saw it you still remember it, and if you didn’t, here, you should see it. It sent me off the next day to pick up both of his CDs and a few bootleg compilations of his early work and guest spots with the likes of Missy Elliott, Biggie, and Jay-Z, and I listened to pretty much nothing else until I finally wrote something about my obsession (“Guess Who Thinks Eminem’s a Genius? Middle-Aged Me”) when The Eminem Show came out fifteen months later. When I fall, I fall hard.

It might seem incongruous for Em and Tay to be the two twenty-first century artists I’m most passionate about, but as Billboard pointed out, “Swift and Eminem … are the most successful writer-artists to break in and sustain such levels of popularity since the 1990s began.” And I was about to become a (nonthreatening) Taylor Swift Stan. “When I love something I’m very very vocal about it,” she once said, and I share that quality with her. It’s the rarity of things to love that makes the discovery of one so exciting.


We watched Taylor’s ten-minute “All Too Well” transfixed, going from “This is not bad” to “This is really good” to “I love this” to “This is fucking brilliant!” as the song went on and on, one movement of this powerfully vitriolic symphony seamlessly segueing into the next. It was an epic performance. My belated introduction to Taylor Swift’s music was her “Idiot Wind.” It blew into my brain before it was over and said, “I’m going to be your new favorite song.”

[A little history: The original 2012 recording of “All Too Well” (widely considered to be her greatest song) was only half as long as the song she had actually written, about a brief relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal that ended badly, and the re-recorded albums gave her a place to put the full ten-minute version in all of its wounded rage.]

I instantly posted on Facebook about how extraordinary she was, acknowledging that I was very late to this party, and got into an exchange with music business veteran Toby Mamis. “She’s 100% the real deal,” he said. “Brilliant last night. Nobody else comes close.” I asked him which songs or albums I should check out, and he said, “Honestly, I’d start from the beginning and track her growth. She was pretty darn self-assured and aware from the start. Her sound has evolved from country to pop to whatever/however her most recent albums can be described, but always grounded in the singer/songwriter foundation.”

My exploration of her catalog was on hold, though, because I was listening to “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” on repeat for over a month. I couldn’t hear it enough. My phone bluetoothed it into my hearing aids so whatever I was doing — washing dishes, doing laundry, taking a walk — I was listening to that song. It was an audio heroin drip.

Finally, I loaded all eleven albums — nine originals and two re-makes — onto a playlist and started going through them chronologically. I found one album after another filled with fantastic songs, like albums almost never are. Thank you, Toby Mamis, that was exactly the way to do it. I binged Taylor Swift like a teenager bingeing The Sopranos.


2006’s Taylor Swift, was a dazzling debut country album. It opened with “Tim McGraw,” “Picture to Burn,” and “Teardrops on My Guitar,” all three just different enough to show off her impressive range. It stayed on the Billboard 200 longer than any other album of that decade. By her second album, Fearless, she was already pushing into pop with huge hits like “Love Story,” “Fifteen,” and “You Belong with Me.” Fearless won several Album of the Year awards, including the Grammy, and was the best-selling album of 2009.

There was a weird element to becoming so connected to the words and music of a teenage girl at this stage of my life, but she seemed so intuitive about the human condition. As music writer John Milward, a fan from the start, said, “At first, I thought, ‘How can this middle-aged guy be listening to this sixteen-year-old girl?’ There was a cringy Lolita vibe to it. But then, I didn’t listen to Britney Spears. With Taylor I recognized from the get-go that she was a writer. She was clearly talented.”

“Mine,” “Mean,” and “The Story of Us” were three highlights of her third album, Speak Now, the title track of which observes “a bridesmaid … wearing a gown shaped like a pastry.” After having long heard snarks about how her co-writers really wrote the songs, she wrote this entire record alone. Before Fearless she had never headlined a tour. The Speak Now World Tour sold out arenas and stadiums. Rolling Stone wrote, “She might get played on the country station, but she’s one of the few genuine rock stars we’ve got these days, with a flawless ear for what makes a song click.”

She began working with top producers like Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff, reveling in testing her limits. Her crossover was complete, and rock — “State of Grace,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Holy Ground,” and the anthemic “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” her first Number One hit — defined her fourth album, Red. (Joni Mitchell’s fourth album was the classic Blue. Taylor pays attention to things like that.)

1989 was even better, with its incredible rock / disco / synth pop run of “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Out of the Woods.” And then there’s “Wildest Dreams,” “Welcome to New York,” and the ubiquitous “Shake It Off” — an album devoid of bad tracks.

Red and 1989 were the triumphant culmination of her first decade, two albums I can play all the way through and feel almost no impulse to skip a song. Two classic albums back-to-back, like Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. (Somewhere in this time period, she sang “As Tears Go By” with the Stones in Chicago.)

Of course, the media eventually became envious of the attention they’d bestowed, and after ten years of adulation, the inevitable backlash set in. Hate Taylor Time had come. She disappeared from public view for a year, and came back with reputation. “I Did Something Bad,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Look What You Made Me Do” were her funny middle fingers to all of it. And then there were “Delicate,” “Getaway Car,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” — it was astounding how many excellent songs she kept coming up with.

2018’s record-breaking fifty-three show reputation Stadium Tour was a state-of-the-art spectacle, with a legendary performance entirely in a downpour at New Jersey’s Metlife Stadium. One reviewer said, “There may not be an artist in this lifetime who quite manages to connect to thousands of people on a rainy night as well as Taylor Swift can — and that’s the reputation she will be remembered for.” Netflix has the Dallas show from this tour and it’s very much worth watching. (And no rain that night.)

Her seventh album, Lover — “I Forgot That You Existed,” “Cruel Summer,” “You Need to Calm Down,” and again, so many more — arrived six months before lockdown, so its world tour was cancelled. Instead, Taylor stayed home in L.A. — she also has homes in Nashville and Rhode Island and a huge penthouse in Tribeca — and, working remotely with Antonoff and Aaron Dessner (from The National), she put out the mellower Folklore (“Cardigan,” “August,” “Betty”) in July 2020, and its sister album Evermore (“Willow,” “No Body, No Crime,” “Coney Island”) less than five months later. During COVID, before there was even a vaccine, the woman put out thirty-four new songs. Now in her thirties, in an apparently successful long-term relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn, these new, mature songs won her new respect. It was Love Taylor Time again.

And then came last year’s first two re-makes, of Fearless and Red. Very faithful to the originals — these Taylor’s Versions often benefited from her now stronger voice — and each with an extra disc of unreleased contemporaneous songs, with one of them, “I Bet You Think About Me,” so good that it’s hard to believe she just sat on it for ten years.

“People often greatly underestimate how much I will inconvenience myself to prove a point,” she said earlier this year. This re-make project is no small inconvenience, but at the end of it she will own the only version of her songs that can be licensed. With every song she re-records, the value of the original catalog decreases, like sand falling through an hourglass. Point proven.


Over 100 brilliant songs that the world has been living with for years have been blissfully brand new to me. Dozens of her insanely addictive hooks have been my daily earworms for almost a year. I made a Spotify playlist of all her songs and arranged it in the general order of how much I loved them, and I can get down to the hundred-twenties before I find something I’m tempted to skip. And even those lower down often reveal themselves when I give them a chance.

I’ve been embarrassingly ignorant of one of the most impressive bodies of work in this century. Not that I expend a lot of energy attempting to keep current, but I do expect that if something is really good, it’s going to get to me eventually. But this one took a long time.

At first, I thought it was my personal carelessness, but I found that most of my Boomer/Gen X friends had dismissed her as casually as I had. She’s the biggest music star in the world, and we’re all just assuming, “Nah, not for me!” Who are we?

Exhausted from spending the better part of the past decade consumed by my abhorrence for America’s Worst Family, I needed to shift my focus to something positive. I took it upon myself to spread the word, sharing my playlist with similarly unaware friends.

Writer Steve Radlauer swooned instantly. “There’s something so personal about her that whether it’s all real or not almost doesn’t matter,” he said. “Even if it’s not real, and I think it is, but even if it’s not it’s still great, because it means this genius managed to concoct this identity. No matter what, the creation is a work of art.

“One of the things about Taylor Swift,” he went on, as I find that people who’ve just realized how much they’ve been missing often do, “and this is true of all great art as it emerges into the world, is that it always feels like a layer of bullshit has been removed and we’re finally getting something that’s true. It almost feels artless at times. Like when she’s describing being in that ‘party bathroom,’ that just struck me as such a real thing. Her songs are full of these touches that just feel totally real, like a layer of song-writing artifice has been stripped away and she’s just getting down to it.”

At that point Steve’s thirty-four-year-old daughter, Kate, came upon him gushing about her with me on the phone. “Oh,” she said, “the dads are getting into Taylor Swift now?”


Well, yes. I turned to Wikipedia for some basics. Born December 13, 1989. (So, famous half her life.) Named after James Taylor. Grew up with money — not obscene amounts, but very comfortable. Blessed with parents (both from the world of finance) who recognized her talent and devoted themselves to it, moving from eastern Pennsylvania to Nashville when she was fourteen so she could pursue her country music career.

Grandmother was an opera singer. Biggest musical influence was Shania Twain. First song she learned to play on guitar was Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.”

Started writing with several people, frequently with Liz Rose (who co-wrote “All Too Well”). Went from teenage country singer to one of the biggest rock stars in the world. Has made more than 60 videos, and has been directing them since 2019. Has been nominated for almost 1,000 awards. Won almost 500 of them.

The main thing I learned was that she’d cultivated a relationship with her fans, the “Swifties,” as personal as they could hope for. They initially connected with her because she was a teen writing about the same adolescent things they were going through, and they’ve grown up with her, and she treasures and nurtures these relationships. She communicates with them through messages hidden in Easter eggs in liner notes. The lucky ones have been invited to her house. She’s held secret advance listening parties for them. They’ve gone backstage at concerts. She’s even helped some of them out financially. The philanthropy section of her Wikipedia entry is a fat twenty-seven lines long. She’s on record as saying her ”entire moral code” is a “need to be thought of as good.”

“People relate to Beyoncé as some kind of otherworldly ice queen,” said John Milward. “Taylor’s fans can imagine having a cup of tea with her.” And she keeps up with them. “I’m always lurking,” she told Seth Meyers. “I’m always listening to their opinions and theories.”

My daughter, who took the immersion ride with me, thinks Taylor “deserves her success. The ways she’s approached her career, taking back the power in an undeniably male-dominated field by re-recording those albums, make her an empowering figure.”

“When she got an honorary doctorate at NYU [which, after UT Austin, was the second college to offer a course in Taylor Swift], she was so normal,” said writer Marilyn Johnson, another immediate enthusiast. “So charmingly self-effacing and unpreening. If you’d sold 200 million records and achieved that astronomical level of success, you might strut a little. And we didn’t have to watch any of that.”

We did get to watch her deliver a pitch perfect commencement speech, sharing a vividly intimate look at what growing up in public was like for her. “I was a teenager in the public eye at a time when our society was absolutely obsessed with the idea of having perfect young female role models,” she said. “So, I became a young adult while being fed the message that if I didn’t make any mistakes, all the children of America would grow up to be perfect angels.

“However, if I did slip up, the entire earth would fall off its axis and it would be entirely my fault and I would go to pop star jail forever and ever. It was all centered around the idea that mistakes equal failure and ultimately, the loss of any chance at a happy or rewarding life.

“This has not been my experience. My experience has been that my mistakes led to the best things in my life.”

In the Miss Americana documentary, filmed when she was still twenty-nine, Taylor delivered a scathing soliloquy worth quoting here: “We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard by the time they’re thirty-five. Everyone’s a shiny new toy for like two years. The female artists that I know of have reinvented themselves twenty times more than the male artists. They have to, or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent. Constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny. ‘Be new to us. Be young to us. But only in a new way and only the way we want, and reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting but also a challenge for you. Live out a narrative that we find to be interesting enough to entertain us but not so crazy that it makes us uncomfortable.’ This is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success, so, I don’t know, like as I’m reaching thirty I’m like, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful.”


Taylor Swift is a stunning storyteller with amazing musical instincts and an exhilarating facility with words. The personal details she throws in make the stories universal. She’s a wonderful observer of how women deal with men in all kinds of relationships. She’s already one of the best songwriters of my lifetime, and she’s only thirty-two. And as musically compelling as they are, it’s the rare song that doesn’t also have at least one classic line.

And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / So casually cruel in the name of being honest

They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential

The ties were black, the lies were white

Said “I’m fine,” but it wasn’t true / I don’t want to keep secrets just to keep you

You should take it as a compliment / That I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk

You laughed at my dreams, rolled your eyes at my jokes

And when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favorite

You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath

I could fill pages with them. It’s another link with Eminem, that contagious joy in their verbal agility that they both share with Dylan. (And here’s one more link between Tay and Em.)


Very few people have ever hit my musical sweet spot so consistently, and I’d long since stopped thinking I’d find anyone new who could do that. For all of Taylor’s Brobdingnagian success, I think she’s wildly underappreciated by the cool kids of all ages. Not that she needs more fans, but they’re out there, they just don’t know it yet. If you’re as oblivious to her as I was, you’re really missing something. I was going on like this one night to a friend who turned to Liz and asked, “Is he doing a bit?”

So where am I now, as my first Taylor Swift anniversary approaches? In addition to Wordle, I play Taylordle. I’m on the Taylor Swift subreddit. I’m still happily rotating through my Taylor Swift playlist. After being oblivious to the releases of all previous albums, I’ve been watching her daily Instagram posts whetting our appetites for Friday’s Midnights release, and I’m confident that it won’t disappoint. Maybe KCSN will even find something on it to play. And I’m expecting to see a lot of promotional TV appearances in which she uses the opportunity to implore her fans to fucking vote!

Obviously, I think Taylor Swift is one of the all-time greats. Her lyrics, her voice, her phrasing, her hooks, her musicians, her producers, her stage presence, her politics, her business acumen, her refusal to take shit — and on top of it all, she’s genuinely funny. There’s a scene in Miss Americana where she’s painting a friend’s nails and he says, “This is one of the best mani’s I’ve ever gotten,” and she says, “Give me a good review on Yelp.”

The culture has trouble applying the word to someone who looks like her, but she is, on many levels, a genius. She has been singing directly into my head for almost a year now, and I’m not even slightly bored. An American sweetheart who’ll say, “Fuck you.” She seems almost too good to be true.