I used to hate Taylor Swift, and for no reason other than the fact that she “annoyed” me. I put annoyed in quotation marks because it was an arbitrary annoyance—I neither listened to her songs nor followed her whereabouts and goings-on, so my disdain for her was baseless. I thought I knew who I was: unequivocally cynical. And, from the looks of it, T-Swift was the opposite. I saw her as a whine-y, self-loathing complainer and also a proponent of a genre of music that I simply had no time for.
In Changing My Mind—Zadie Smith’s collection of essays—Smith writes of her first exposure to Zora Neale Hurston. Smith’s mother had recommended she read Their Eyes Were Watching God, but Smith immediately dismissed the book without even turning the first page. “I knew what she meant, and I resented the reference,” Smith wrote—the reference being that, as a black woman, she should like this black female writer. And I can’t say my feelings for T-Swift were much different. She so obviously, so blatantly, addressed feminist issues that it irritated me. As someone who represented all of the qualities I should look for in a role model, T-Swift threatened me, and so I rebelled.
We believe what we want to believe. Smith wanted to believe that Hurston’s shameless black vernacular didn’t speak to her, and I wanted to believe that T-Swift’s boy problems—stamped so obviously on her forehead, and problems that could apply to practically any girl in the world—didn’t resonate with me. No, I had darker, more Fiona Apple ways of dealing with these issues.
“I disliked the idea of ‘identifying’ with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she represented ‘good writing,’ not because she represented me,” Smith wrote, but this outlook, which I also shared, proved fruitless (as it often does). It closes one off to new experiences, to what Smith finds so admirable about John Keats: “He devoured influence. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own,” she wrote. Learning to transition from hate to love requires detaching oneself, compartmentalizing. Like a writer learning to edit his or her own work: “The secret to editing you work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer,” Smith imparts.
Like my aversion to T-Swift, Smith grew up with an aversion to Joni Mitchell. I can hear echoes of my own stubbornness when Smith admits, “The first time I heard [Joni Mitchell] I didn’t hear her at all.” We both thoughtlessly shunned these white voices, kicked them to the curb. When asked why she didn’t like Joni Mitchell, Smith said, “[I] very likely went on to say something facetious about white-girl music, the kind of comment I had heard, inverted, when I found myself called upon to defend black men swearing into a microphone.” And again, I can hear echoes of my own experience. At a certain point, my opinion of T-Swift was just a blind regurgitation of what I had been saying all along; an opinion I thought I believed, but really just had memorized.
Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, friends would reference her songs and play them in my presence while I sat on, usually in a corner, scoffing, my eyes permanently rolled. Then, my boyfriend dumped me—or diarrhead on my heart, to be more precise. I sulked, I ate pizza, I smoked weed, I read The Feminine Mystique and re-watched all seasons of Girls and Louie. Then one day, my friend sent me this: “Trouble,” the music video. Nothing else was working, so I gave it a whirl. I know what you’re thinking: trite. But I had never heard this song before, and it spoke to me when nothing else could.
Zadie Smith describes her sudden love for Joni Mitchell as revelatory as William Wordsworth’s epiphany upon re-visiting Tintern Abbey. Because it’s not so much the content of Joni Mitchell’s or T-Swift’s songs that matters here, but the actual transformation we went through: from hating to loving.
These days, when Smith listens to Joni Mitchell she has nothing to hide. “I can never guarantee that I’m going to get through the song without being made transparent—to anybody and everything, to the whole world.”