Discover more from All The Songs
Overdramatic and true
We're emerging from a whirl of Taylor Swift songs; we'll return to being young, ambitious and broke listening to Martha Wainwright; then we'll be older and contented listening to The Rolling Stones
In this edition of All The Songs: we will get A Taylor Swift Song stuck in our heads (which one? All of them) and realise the problem with her was our own internalised misogyny (let's look past the sequins and appreciate her artistry); we’ll read a Pulitzer-prize winning memoir about friendship and mixtapes; let’s watch a theatre adaptation of a Hanya Yanagihara novel; we will make a French chicken dish with no less than forty (40!) cloves of garlic; we’ll be a young and broke writer in Sydney listening mournfully to Martha Wainwright; then suddenly we’ll be older, contented and listening to an easy song by The Rolling Stones to soundtrack our Saturday.
Welcome to All The Songs. We use “soundtrack” as a verb here.
All The Songs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Take your trauma on holiday with you
In case you missed it, I wrote an essay for The Spinoff about how experiencing violence as a child continues to impact me as an adult. Read it here. It was an honour to be published as The Sunday Essay again, supported by Creative New Zealand.
An amorphous blur of all the Taylor Swift songs has been pulsing through my brain since seeing the concert film Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour at the cinema. They are swept up together in one never-ending symphony of Swift.
I wouldn’t have called myself a fan before watching the film but now I’d have to say I am a Swiftie. It wasn’t the concert footage itself that swayed me. It was the way her music has lived with me all through the week after viewing it. That intimacy with her work both forced me to consider her more seriously as an artist and encouraged me to feel the joy her music brings. I went in to the concert film skeptical. A few days later I was moving the furniture so I could dance to her songs.
It was like I had this music in my mind.
After seeing the film, when I went to refill my water glass before reviewing a document at work, I heard “Nice to meet you, where you been?” in time with the rhythm of the stiletto heels on my black suede ankle boots striking the office kitchen floor.
As I lathered up shampoo in my hair the next morning I heard “I could be complex, I could be cool” from ‘The Man’ on her 2019 album Lover. I heard “Have you ever thought just maybe, you belong with me?” as I drifted off to sleep, from ‘You Belong With Me’ on 2008’s Fearless.
Slicing carrots for dinner I heard “I know it’s long gone and I know it’s not there” from ‘All Too Well’. Walking with my colleagues to eat our Duck Island ice cream in Frank Kitts Park, I heard “standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset babe” from ‘Wildest Dreams’ on her album 1989.
On Friday afternoon when I was at home doing the last tasks of my work for the week, considering someone else’s tracked changes on a Word document, I heard “I’ll be just like Leo, in St Tropez” from ‘The Man’, then my cat started shredding the layers of packing paper protecting a piece of artwork to get my attention because it was almost his dinner time.
I decided I had to take action to end the loop of Taylor Swift songs in my head, so on the way to a restaurant I played ‘Kiss You All Over’ by Exile, and it worked for about an hour.
When I got home I looked up the Apple Fitness dance offerings to see if there was an artist-specific workout on Taylor Swift songs, like they do for some big artists. There was! I dragged the ottoman in to the hallway to clear space for a living room dance floor then had the time of my life dancing to ‘Message In A Bottle’ from her album Red. While I cleaned the house the next day, I listened to several hours of podcasts about her albums and the theories about her personal life. I watched her Tiny Desk performance where she plays ‘Lover’ on piano, captivating and arresting in its simplicity, and I got it: she’s an artist, and an entertainer, and so god damn good at her job.
If I’m honest, my own internalised misogyny wrote her off earlier.
It bothered me that all she seemed to sing about was romance or revenge. I couldn’t get past seeing her as a country girl singing about boys turned, in calculated fashion, into a pop sensation singing about boys. Her hard work is obvious. The earnestness and intensity behind her achievements seemed somehow off-putting. She is clearly trying very hard. She was the kind of 12 year old kid who practised song writing until she perfected it and played guitar until her fingers bled instead of just talking to her friends for hours like most tweens - but that’s most serious musicians.
I didn’t understand her motivation. I thought she didn’t have anything radical to say, that her songs were just more tales of boys who enchanted her then ultimately let her down. Fairytales gone wrong set to catchy tunes. Part of me still saw her as the cheerful teenage country singer she had once been.
Her everygirl nature can seem disappointing in a pop star: she’s not interested in pushing fashion boundaries or expressing herself much more than her feelings about romantic interactions.
Seeing how catchy and skilfully written her songs were after having them in my head for a week, I challenged my thinking: if the exact same songs were delivered in a less sparkly tone by another artist - piano only like Carole King or darker in tone like Mitski - would I love and respect them? Yes. Not to reiterate the point Ryan Adams (ew) made by re-recording 1989 as a sadboy record, but she simply makes great songs - she just dresses them up as pop.
I had dismissed her as a young girl singing about boys, and that was unfair. Frankly, it was bitchy of me.
Spending more time with her art, I see the themes and the structural patterns. I appreciate the clever lines that reveal so much about a person or relationship in a few short words - “I was ridin’ shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car” on her early work ‘Our Song’ shows how a girl who usually has her hair tied up lets loose and gets flirty in her boyfriend’s car where she takes priority in the space next to him; “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” on ‘Mine’ shows how a girl can lose herself in a persuasive love. On later songs like ‘tolerate it’ from evermore, she records with chilling accuracy what it feels like to be in a fading relationship. I noted how she often flips the perspective of a song towards the end - on ‘Dear John’, she changes the words from “I should have known” to “you should have known” for the final chorus, on 'All Too Well’ she changes the chorus from “I remember it all too well” to “you remember it all too well” at the end. I see how she’s written about her evolution through all the relationships she’s experienced, capturing how her worldview has changed with age. I value how she has taken the emotions of young women seriously and made those feelings worthy of high art.
Now I see she’s a deliberate, thoughtful, heartfelt artist who has used highly crafted, sharp, moving lyrics to trace the course of how growing up chipped away at her naive belief in romance over ten albums.
She also likes to wear sparkly outfits on stage and chooses to get her records produced in to pop-tastic soundscapes by Jack Antonoff rather than presenting them more simply. I relate easier to artists who are raw, rather than polished, so the package of Taylor Swift as an entertainer didn’t appeal to me until I took the time to learn more about her work.
I respect her now. I see the professional effort and personal struggle that has taken her from a girl singing back up on stage for her older boyfriend John Mayer’s biggest hit in front of 20,000 people to a woman striding in sequins down a stage at a 70,000+ seat area that has sold out and everyone is there to see her sing. She is the main act.
New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu has written one of the most touching and devastating depictions of friendships I have ever read. In the memoir Stay True he writes about his friend Ken, who was a pal during teen/university days and who was brutally murdered one night when they were still young.
The book isn’t about his friend’s death, it’s about his friend’s life and the lasting impact it left.
He writes about the way they connected as young people:
“Back then, your emotions were always either very high or very low, unless you were bored, and nobody in human history had ever been this bored before. We laughed so hard we thought we’d die. We drank so much we learned there was a thing called alcohol poisoning… I remember listening to The Fugees. I remember the chill of the air.”
He writes about how music formed such an important base to their friendship. He would ask his friends if they wanted to come drive half an hour to that place with great ice cream just so he could make a mixtape to soundtrack the drive. They used to listen to The Beach Boys together, so even now he still can’t bear harmony. It’s about grief, growing up in California in the 1990s as an Asian American, and how hard it can be to move on. It’s the most elegant eulogy ever penned. Plus it won a Pulitzer so, you know, it’s probably quite good.
Sparkles and pop songs aren’t the only thing I’ve been seeing at the cinema.
A theatre production of Hanya Yanagihara’s heart-wrenching novel A Little Life ran on the West End in London this year. It was filmed and is playing in some cinemas - the ones that play French movies and don’t serve popcorn.
Having read and been broken by the novel, I was interested to see how it was translated to the stage. The film of the play is LONG - over three and a half hours. There was an actual intermission. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about four friends, one of whom - Jude St Francis - struggles to overcome the immense pain of childhood trauma. As the promotional flyers said, “to know Jude St Francis is to understand the limitless potential of love in the face of life”.
If you know and love the book or were at all moved by the book, it is worth seeing. Bring tissues. You know that.
Nigella Lawson’s recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic sounds like a challenge. You have to get all that garlic ready and then bake it for an hour and a half, this is not a casual weeknight meal. It’s a weekend commitment. The garlic goes soft and its taste sweetens. You’ll want bread on the side to mop up the sauce.
On a recent holiday to Oamaru, I visited a craft beer bar that also served natural wine. It had a fridge full of interesting bottles you could buy to take home. The one that caught my eye was a locally made tipple someone seems to have created in their backyard. The label was handwritten and on the back it boasted that the grapes were stomped by foot. I’d love to tell you more, but that’s all the information I have about this sweet effervescent pet nat wine. Who is Renzo? How long have they been making wine for? I’ll return to the bar and ask more questions next time I’m in Oamaru in November. I’ll report back. Stay tuned!
Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me Of Them
For this memoir-by-playlist project, I write 500 words on my memories of a song. These vignettes offer a glimpse in to the rich and varied emotions we all experience in our lifetimes through showing a brief slice of my life at a particular time, in how I relate to a certain song. What the music brings up might be shallow or it could be intense. The memory may be joyful or thick with sorrow, a reflection on pleasure or a heavy exploration of fear. Whatever emotions a song dredges up from the spectrum of human feeling, they are true.
I remember snippets alongside songs. This is the soundtrack to my life. Let me be clear: Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me Of Them is not a curated selection of the coolest songs I want to associate myself with. Some of them are my jam, others are trashy and catchy - all manner of music has been part of my life.
This project invites the reader to consider, where does this song take you? What does it remind you of? Where were you in your life when you last listened to this track?
‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ by Martha Wainwright
When I see an advertisement for an editorial assistant job at a craft magazine based in Potts Point, I decide to call them on the phone. I am desperate for work on print magazines and want to stand out from other applicants.
I have written down an organised journalist’s bullet points, outlining what I want to say. I explain I’ve just moved from New Zealand and previously did all the tasks this job requires on another magazine, and more. The editor clicks her tongue. You’ve just moved here? She groans, and says, I don’t want to work with someone who is still getting their life together, and hangs up.
I have only spent fifteen dollars and sixty cents on food this week. A loaf of sandwich bread, a bag of baby spinach, some tomatoes, tinned plums, one block of chocolate. I have cheese and mayonnaise leftover from last week. I make toasted sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and have porridge with plums for breakfast. Each night, I nibble four squares of chocolate and drink boiled water because I don’t have any tea bags. I’d prioritised buying the cheapest brand of ground coffee I could find at Coles for mornings, willing to sacrifice tea.
Yesterday I stayed up til midnight handwriting my CD reviews for a newspaper but that doesn’t pay me any money. To use the internet so I could file my copy, this morning I walked an hour to the library on Macquarie Street, thereby saving on public transport.
My laptop broke two weeks ago. I sure can’t afford to fix it, but I can save eventually if I keep writing freelance articles for the property magazine that pays me AU$0.80 a word. I tried to buy a new laptop on a hire purchase payment plan at the new Apple store. It is the first one in Australia, it just opened its doors this winter. They explain I have no credit rating in this country yet. So I write by pencil then type up my work quickly in the library.
The privilege of being cool and creative is supposed to be enough payment, I think bitterly, as I email the editor four hours of my hard work in return for nothing but the thrill of seeing my byline in print and the honour of holding on to the promotional copy of the new Kings of Leon album, Only By The Night, that I’d been sent for free.
I walk the rest of the day, wearing pink Skullcandy headphones that were a birthday gift from an ex. On George Street, as night falls, I stop outside the Town Hall building. Worn out and so worried, I listen to Martha Wainwright’s rage-filled anthem for the under-appreciated, ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’.
I watch the office workers who have finished for the day heading to the train station and hit the back button to play the song again.
I listen to it six times.
Then I rally, for the long walk home.
‘Beast Of Burden’ by The Rolling Stones
I wake without an alarm on Saturday morning, energetic and eager to be alone. It has been a long week at work and I am in need of quiet time after a series of weekends full with social and family commitments.
This morning my partner will take his daughter to her drama class, then they’ll continue on to a friend’s birthday lunch that I’ll be an apology for, then they’ll drive out to his parents’ place. I will walk my dog down to the farmer’s market half an hour away by foot, where I hope to buy flowers and assorted vegetables, then I’ll clean.
I’ve got it all planned out.
I want to clean the dust behind the potted plant in the bathroom, I want to mop all the floors. I’ll change the sage green linen sheets for crisp white cotton ones. I’ll scrub the kitchen surfaces. The dog will reluctantly get a bath, with lemongrass shampoo and peppermint conditioning oil, and I’ll trim his little grey eyebrows.
After the silence and physical labour of a day spent spring cleaning alone, I’ll be renewed and ready to participate in my family, my workplace, my friend groups.
A Team Management Profile exercise on a leadership course once told me I’m more introverted than 99% of the population. This is how the introversion presents itself: a yearning for solitude, a need for uninterrupted peaceful time in my home with just my pets for company.
I dress in workout leggings from Rebel Sport and a Jenny Lewis tour t shirt. As I gather my phone, house keys and dog leash my partner shares he is feeling unwell. His face reveals dread, he isn’t up to driving right now. He needs rest. Stay home, I say, I’ll take her to drama. The dog can come with us. I say it twice, then he agrees.
My stepdaughter practices following the dance instructor’s choreography to ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’. She looks around and smiles when she sees me at the back of the class as they’re singing ‘I Love The Mountains’ in a round. I wave to her.
We have a post-drama class snack at a cafe (pizza scroll and juice for her, coffee for me), when she notices a superhero exhibition is on at the gallery next door. Can we go? Yes.
Statues of Superman, The Incredible Hulk and The Black Panther loom over us. She makes five minute friends with a boy needing a Player 2 for an arcade game.
I won’t let Saturday morning slide by without flowers.
The Rolling Stones song ‘Beast of Burden’ starts to play in the car as I drive us to the independent grocery store. Hearing the “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, girls” refrain, I wonder if Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good” bit is a nod to this tune. The laidback soul-inspired song fits my tone. Plans have changed, but my mood remains easy. I buy irises then calmly clean all afternoon.
Previous instalments of Everyone I’ve Ever Loved & All The Songs That Remind Me of Them
All The Songs is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.