Taylor Swift — “Fifteen”

Released: 9.1.09

Peak: #23

Whenever I hear Taylor Swift’s songwriting gift credited to her youthful perspective, I think of a bygone 60 Minutes segment on studios axing older screenwriters because the bosses thought only young people could write for their contemporaries. One wizened pro who’d been set adrift on an ice floe (guy musta been forty, at least) explained that a good writer can write from varying perspectives thus: “Antz wasn’t written by ants.” I also think of Michelle Branch. She was the worst.

Still, Swift has been able to turn a young writer’s greatest weakness — lack of life experience — into a strength, by homing in on the most vivid moments of the few years she has lived, perhaps to no greater effect than on “Fifteen,” an enlightened eighteen-year-old’s counsel to her younger fans. If nothing else, the song shows up the term “teenager” as so meaninglessly overbroad that anyone who’s ever encompassed thirteen- and nineteen-year-olds in the same thought should feel embarrassed — hard to think of a six-year span where humans undergo more drastic emotional and physical changes. And Swift’s vocals capture the different character of those ages, as the eager breathless anxiety is progressively flattened by adolescent skepticism, then repeatedly returns at the end of each chorus to the songwriter’s own late teen perspective with “I didn’t know when I was fifteen.”

Despite Swift’s insistence that high school is “life before you know who you’re gonna be,” “Fifteen” never condescends. And though Anti-Swifties have simplified the song’s take on the story of her real-life pal Abigail — who, we’re told “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind” — Swift isn’t referring merely to virginity here. And she treats teen sex, non-judgmentally, as a complicated font of emotion. In fact, that verse culminates with “And we both cried,” because Swift is really concerned with two girls sharing an intense experience. Because if “in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy of the football team,” this kind of bonding with another woman may just be one of those things.

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