In the not-so-distant past, I mocked Taylor Swift way more than any adult should ever mock a teenage girl they have never met. In my defense, she was an aw-shucks princess who equated a woman with her hymen and slut shamed a brunette version of herself. So she kind of had it coming. But that was circa-2009 Taylor Swift—the Taylor Swift whose ideas about high school all seemed to come from watching reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 on the Soap network. Then John Mayer started holding her hand on the cover of US Weekly and, suddenly, there were no more songs about floppy-haired boys asking for permission to marry her. Now there were songs about assholes, or, more specifically, assholes in fedoras. So Taylor Swift ditched the peasant blouse for short shorts and stopped being America’s perfect country princess. In the process, she became something much more useful. She became our nation’s batshit crazy spirit guide.
People assume that everyone listens to Taylor Swift because her songs are so ridiculously catchy—and yes they are. Anyone who can listen to Red without repeating a song is probably a sociopath who shouldn’t breed. But the real reason she’s so popular is that she taps into the part of your brain that is perpetually stuck at some junior high dance in 1995. It’s the part of your brain that makes you read old text messages months after the relationship ended because you enjoy torturing yourself with this digital cutting ritual. It’s the part of your brain that makes you sleep with the guy who told you, while you were breaking up, that you shouldn’t be angry with him because he always bought you such good take-out. Listening to Taylor Swift’s over-the-top romanticism doesn’t make you feel insane; it makes you feel as though you are part of a really large club that just happens to be kind of crazy. You can even use her catalog as a barometer of how bad the breakup is going. If you stick to Red, you’ll probably be fine, but if you find yourself listening to Fearless, it may be time to admit that you’re not very good at having a vagina.
There is, obviously, no dearth of breakup music out there, but Taylor Swift gives us uniquely childish break-up music—and I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s kind of exhausting being a real live adult with a job, a tiny bedroom, and far, far too many spreadsheets. More mature singers may write songs that don’t include the lyrics, “And I was like, this is exhausting. We’re like never ever getting back together…like ever,” but it’s comforting to listen to someone who isn’t asking you to be a grown up—not even a little bit. She’s just asking you to be as melodramatic and ridiculous as you were in 1995 when Jeff McVeigh said he wouldn’t dance with you. You certainly have more perspective now than you did then, but perspective is kind of bullshit when you’re leaving your ex’s apartment for the last time, knowing that this time it’s actually over. Perspective is not going to get you through that long subway ride back to Brooklyn. But “I Knew You Were Trouble” totally will.
Now, I don’t think Taylor Swift is actually crazy anymore than I think she’s actually promiscuous. Honestly, the poor kid has like two boyfriends a year, and people—or at least 13-year-old Harry Styles fans—are running after her with pitchforks and brocaded vowels. But the Taylor Swift persona is modeled around the various archetypes of female crazy: from the puppy love texter to the serial stalker. As a good feminist, I realize I should shun her and everything she represents. I mean, she did insult Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, which is kind of like sleeping with Rush Limbaugh and saying you liked it. But even feminists—hell, even men—have to admit that the girl writes great songs for the dramatic, self-indulgent id that we can’t fully suppress. So listening to Taylor Swift is healthy. Because I think it’s silly to pretend that a degree in gender studies somehow renders you immune from relationship crazy. I love Judith Butler as much as the next girl, but I’m not going to turn to Gender Trouble after a breakup, imagining that the concept of performativity somehow gives me the power to say, “I’m fine,” and magically make it true. Sometimes you just need to put on some cat ears and dance like a drunk teenager.
The most important thing to remember about Taylor Swift is that she’s only a year younger than Adele. Think about that for a second. They’re not that different—these two massively successful singers of breakup ballads. They’re like two sides of a really rich, really white coin. Adele is what you listen to when you want to pretend that you’re totally okay with the fact that your ex, who couldn’t commit even though he was well into his forties, is now getting married. Adele is your well developed cerebral cortex, whose all, “I wish nothing but the best for you two.” Taylor Swift is not your cerebral cortex. Taylor Swift isn’t even your amygdala. She’s that reptilian part of your brain, screaming, “I’m going to cut your face off.”
So this is why we need Taylor Swift. Because we’re not actually going to maim anyone or dress like a ringmaster or make a video with a band of furries. We’re adults. We’re going to go on with our lives and continue pretending we know how to use Excel. Because Taylor Swift will do it all for us. Perhaps not the maiming but everything else. So keep it crazy, Tay Tay. The rest of us are depending on you.