While going to art school in San Francisco, I was surrounded by pretentious music snobs. My music taste was sometimes in step with theirs, and I quickly learned to pretend I was a more discerning music connoisseur than I really was. I drooled over the newest music video from that duo in Sweden; I traded my carefully curated collection of mash-ups for gigs and gigs of electronic folk albums. I waited until I was back at home to indulge in my favorite albums from middle school.
But now I am no longer in art school, and instead spend my days working retail. The differences in music taste between my former classmates and current coworkers is jarring. My coworkers, fully grown women, sing and dance along to Justin Beiber. Others swoon whenever Madonna comes on. One laments the lack of Britney Spears. I feel as though I fell through the rabbit hole; my admission to listening to music from Glee is now met with enthusiasm instead of disgust. At some point, I stopped yearning for the more adult music in the men’s and women’s departments and started to enjoy repeated listenings of “Isn’t She Lovely?” and “Wake Up Little Susie.”
One song that caught my attention was Taylor Swift’s “Fifteen.” My knowledge of Swift was limited to “blonde pop princess who still sings about being in high school; got on Kanye West’s bad side; this chart.”
But after listening to “Fifteen” again and again and again, and even enjoying it, I started to wonder—was she really the unicorn-and-cupcake-sprinkled feminist nightmare I had heard whispers of? Was she really a perpetual adolescent stuck romanticizing high school experiences she never had (for the record, Swift was home schooled)? I pondered the little snatches of lyrics I caught while folding shirts.
In reality, the song “Fifteen” is a level-headed message from a woman to teenage girls, urging caution towards the throes of young love. In the lyrics, Swift describes the feeling of being noticed by boys for the first time, and the exhilarating feelings that come with dates and first kisses. She also warns in the chorus:
“‘Cause when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
You’re gonna believe them
Count to ten
Take it in
This is life before you know who you’re gonna be”
Swift goes on to explain how she too was in love at 15 (“back then I swore I was gonna marry him some day”), but as she grew older she “realized some bigger dreams of mine.” She acknowledges how at fifteen, you feel like there’s nothing left for you to learn, and you feel as though you know exactly what you want. Swift encourages her listeners to not get so caught up in boy drama and to instead focus on growing and bettering themselves.
Anti-Swift articles mention the song’s few passages about a character named Abigail; described as Swift’s best friend, Abigail also falls in love at fifteen. The difference is that “Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” The general interpretation of this line is that Abigail’s “everything” is her virginity, therefore implying that a girl’s most prized procession is her unbroken hymen. I don’t agree with this. I interpret “everything” as trust; Abigail trusted and opened up to a boy for the first time, only to be let down. Maybe that includes sex, maybe it doesn’t. Her virginal status doesn’t matter; Abigail bought into the myth of young, true love, only to find out the worst way possible that life usually doesn’t play out that way.
Swift makes Abigail’s heartbreak serve as a warning against deeply investing in a relationship “when all you wanted was to be wanted.” She avoids describing the end of her own freshman year love, only demurely noting that time can heal almost all wounds, and that the experience helped her mature and refine her identity as an adult.
What Swift does repeat throughout the song is that she wasn’t fully grown at fifteen. Only after getting a little older has she realized that she has dreams beyond snagging a boy on the football team. I have no problem with that sentiment, or with young girls hearing it. It’s actually a very feminist message: relationships are not the path to fulfillment.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am grossly unfamiliar with Swift’s body of work. Maybe this song is an anomaly, and all of her other songs are about teenaged shotgun weddings attended by puppies and kittens. But “Fifteen,” at least, gets my seal of approval. So while I’ll continue to rave about my favorite obscure Cambodian band, I will also have no problem with admitting that there is a Taylor Swift song on my iPod as well.