Discover more from Don't Rock The Inbox
Issue #6: TAYLOR SWIFT
The Eras Tour, folk music and where we actually find country music's "family"
Hello Don’t Rock The Inbox family! I post this newsletter from a hotel in Iowa City, where I’ll be hanging with Lyz Lenz at Prairie Lights bookshop tonight, May 9th (yes, I played Hailey Whitters as soon as I crossed the state line). Come on out if you’re in the area. Anyway, welcome back to DRTI — we are excited to be here, and to be launching a paid subscriber model (more information on that if you scroll down a bit).
In this issue:
I went to a Taylor Swift concert and all I got was this lousy sense of happiness
We’re going paid (if you want)!
Taylor Swift is Folk Music
Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images
On Saturday night, I took my daughter to our first Taylor Swift concert. Because we live in Nashville it was not her first-ever concert (she heard Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price and Jason Isbell from her Baby Bjorn at six weeks old, it’s obnoxious and awesome at the same time, I know), but her first for Taylor, and certainly the biggest deal of her short, six-year-old life. I made her a flowered white skirt and black top modeled after what Taylor wore in the opening of the “ME!” video (though she changed into a more comfortable cat-print dress after). We threaded endless friendship bracelets. We wore heart sunglasses and not enough glitter. We had an incredible time, even if I broke several parenting codes by letting my kid walk down Woodland Street at nearly 1 a.m. with no shoes on, eating handfuls of M&M’s. This writing is probably more sentimental than you’re used to, but innocence and joy in a terrifying world is something I like to sit with these days, an epsom bath for the soreness of life.
I’ve written about Taylor Swift before here — about “Cowboy Like Me,” one of my favorite songs from evermore — and explored her relationship with country music and the idea of whether or not women can ever be country enough (and why the person deciding what that is is usually a cishet white male with a very narrow metric for what exactly qualifies). I think about Taylor Swift a lot, actually: about her influence on country music, her lyrical and melodic genius, her impact on Nashville and on pop culture at large. I think about how frustrating it is that I saw major news outlets in town start their coverage or social media posts with phrases like “however you feel about Taylor Swift” — that subtle sort of dig — or the framing around her asking the right questions about a cryptocurrency deal, showing that people still think it’s news when smart women are…smart. I think about lines like, “You call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest” because, holy hell, that’s a lyric.
The show was unlike anything I’d seen before in scale, execution and spectacle, and I’ve seen plenty of stadium shows and pop acts before. Even though it was a fairly in-stone setlist and you knew what albums were being covered when, it still veered away from Vegas-like pagentry: this was most immediately apparent when she went from the sonically massive “Bad Blood” to the surprise songs, where she was standing at the end of the catwalk alone with her guitar and piano. For my night, this was “Out of the Woods” and “Fifteen,” and with the exception of the 70,000 people singing along, it felt like a writer’s round that could have been happening just across the river, with intimacy and the simple act of sharing a song and a lyric as the ultimate goal. It’s nominally a tour about eras, except I left nearly forgetting that was the premise at all — because it was about songs, at the heart of things. And with an artist like Taylor, it doesn’t quite matter how you package or categorize them: I had a vision of her playing some of these same songs 40 years from now alone on a piano, and my daughter taking her own kids, maybe to a gold-gilded theater somewhere. It felt not like pop, not like country, but folk music. Lessons and life passed down through simple song, shared between generations, from generations. At stadium show where I danced and sang and watched fireworks above my head, but folk music.
I opened my email Monday morning to a press release about a new Jason Aldean song called “Tough Crowd.” Aldean describes the song as one “that talks about our fans…about us onstage getting a bird's-eye view of our fans that come in all shapes and sizes and colors. It's just really cool to look out and just see those people from all different walks of life come together for a show and have fun.” I haven’t listened to it, because my ears don’t need that, and I know what I’d be getting. This struck me, though, because I once watched clips of an entirely white arena of people boo Maren Morris at a Jason Aldean show for standing up for trans kids, and because a friend of mine always leaves festivals before Aldean comes on — because, as a Black person, they don’t feel safe there. I thought about all the country shows I’ve been to where the goal is to get blackout drunk, where people talk through songs that aren’t on the radio, where people push and shoot you dirty glances or worse. Country music is supposed to be a “family” and people like the Aldeans love to lecture about their own specific, myopic brand of (transphobic) family values, but there are very few mainstream country acts I’d feel comfortable taking my daughter to, and that’s the truth.
The second my husband and son dropped us off near the stadium for the Taylor show, two women, crossing the street, instantly latched on to us. One wore a caftan with sequins the size of half-dollars, the other in fringe. Walking near the highway, they wanted to make sure that my little girl got there safely. They took family photos for us, gave her a pair of pink sunglasses and disappeared into the crowd to find their seats. Person after person stopped my daughter, kneeling on the dirty stadium floor, to load her wrists with friendship bracelets. Once in our seats, the woman behind us — in a graduation cap — snapped pictures of us from behind, embracing as we waited for Taylor to come on. The people to the left of us did the same, capturing video. They all thought we might want to have these mementos of a special occasion.
And they sang every single word of every song. Everyone did. People cried but all at different times: Someone sobbed during “Out of the Woods,” while another did during “Champagne Problems” and another during “Look What You Made Me Do,” a song that you wouldn’t imagine inducing tears. A person lifted a trans flag during “You Need to Calm Down” and hugged their partner, the stadium in rainbow lights. The media will have you believe that Swifties are made up of a cult of personality, of obsession with a person, and sure, those fans exist: the internet can be wild and cruel. But I don’t think those were the fans around me at this concert. They took care of us and they took care of each other, and they were there for the songs.
Country music is a “family,” but I don’t find much family there lately, in the machinery of Music Row. The Taylor Swift show felt more like a family than any mainstream country show I’d ever been to in my life. It felt like folk music. Taylor Swift is folk music, I think.
Did you know we are launching a paid subscriber model?
Help us keep the lights on while keeping DRTI going. We’re doubling down on delivering a regular newsletter with essays, interviews and reviews that reflect what’s happening now in country music, using that term’s broadest possible definition, and we’re launching a subscription option to help support the work. More information here.
I am thoroughly obsessed with Natalie’s piece for Billboard on FGL, Nelly and “Cruise”: “How Florida Georgia Line & Nelly’s ‘Cruise’ Teamup Made (Controversial) History.” If you know us, and this newsletter, you know that we have a definite soft spot and committed interest in looking deeper beyond the often dismissive attitude offered to the bulk of “bro country.” Plus, “Cruise” slaps.
Marissa just did an exceptional profile of Joy Oladokun for the New York Times (about as spiritually far from “Cruise” as you can imagine, thank goodness) — and appeared on the NYT Popcast to talk about divorce albums. — Natalie
Friend of the newsletter Jonathan Bernstein talked to Miranda about Emmylou, which would be an instant click even if the title weren’t “Miranda Lambert on Emmylou Harris: ‘This Girl’s Here to Party and Not Take Sh-t’.” — Natalie
Always read the legend (and friend of the newsletter) Ann Powers, especially on Nashville’s Love Rising and We Will Always Be trans rights benefits for NPR (an aside to give some props to the endlessly fun Vandoliers — still more friends of the newsletter — for their decision to perform in drag in Tennessee the day its governor signed a drag ban bill). — Natalie
Happy Belated Birthday, Willie:
Don't Rock The Inbox is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.