It’s almost New Year’s Eve, which means optimistic people all over the world are vowing that they will become better version of themselves next year. I’m quite hopeful I will, at least. Since I’m mostly thinking about music, I consider it as a force that makes my life better, and makes me better. Moral gains certainly aren’t the only reason to engage with music, but this year’s conversations around all types of art have circled relentlessly back toward a central question: When and how do we draw the line between an artist’s morality, their music’s content, and our own enjoyment? Lately, I’ve been putting myself through the wringer, struggling with the separation between the artist as a person and the artist as a creator. In some cases–like R. Kelly–it’s become impossible for me to distinguish between the two—but it’s usually not that cut and dry.
I’ve grappled with that distinction a lot this year while listening to Future’s sizable output, specifically DS2, but after reading Jack Hamilton’s response to my piece over at Slate, I felt something shift. He calls DS2 a “relationship autopsy record made by a person who, by its end, comes off as someone you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with, which is probably the only real sign of honesty in the form.” He argues that the negative qualities of the person themselves don’t discount the value of the art, and this insight immediately made me think of another artist’s public persona versus musicianship that I’ve made that argument for this year: Taylor Swift. Hamilton’s commentary just about sums up how most people who spent an extended amount of time with 1989 felt, though obviously for different reasons. It’s the first album where Taylor Swift felt less like a person, and more like a concept. But I still loved it.
If we can separate out the public persona from the artist for Future, though, then we certainly can for Taylor Swift, who, yes, has had a year centered more around persona than music, one which has included capitalism and world tours, as well as #squads and Paglia’s critiques of her feminism—everyone’s critiques of her feminism–and that careless tweet at Nicki and many, many more mistakes all courtesy of an extremely privileged, perpetually clueless 25-year-old superstar. But while post-1989 Taylor Swift tries to be all things to all people, and manages to frustrate almost everyone who has supported her in the process, a chance song came up on shuffle this weekend and reminded me of one of her most victorious moments. It’s the last song on Red, and it’s called “Begin Again.” It reminded me of the songwriter I loved before I had to parse through all the critiques of her as a person.
The song is ostensibly about a new lover, but the more you listen to it, the more “Begin Again” turns porous. It could be about anything really, new friends, new job, new perspective on life, the hard-fought, steely decision to trust yourself, to give yourself grace. Maybe because it’s the season for New Year’s resolutions that this song seemed to expand into a universal declaration of self-love, or maybe it always was, and I just wasn’t capable of giving that to myself yet. In the song, Swift begins to reclaim things she likes about herself, especially things that she hid to please someone else. She lets someone new into her life and allows their presence to serve as a reminder that not everyone will fail and hurt her in the ways she was hurt in the past. She learns to find something immensely lovable in someone new–“You throw your head back laughing like a little kid.” It’s a song about hope and recovery and delight, it dodges the bullet of blame that Swift usually fires off, focusing instead on the hazy, warm glow of new potential. The song is completely personal and anecdotal, but the songwriting functions in such a way that it easily spreads to encompass more than her own life.
“Begin Again” is an ideal song to embody our hope for the new year because it’s also a song about knowing yourself. It’s about acknowledging the way old wounds will ache a little and remind you of past pain even as you try to push forward. But it urges you to keep pushing, because there’s new kindness to balance out the pain, too. Even if old injuries twinge, they won’t ever stop you from running toward the future. Whether you’re in a relationship or single, you can investigate the way you might’ve hid things from yourself this year to please someone else. Or, you can identify people who make you feel less than you are, people who are looking to shut off corners of your life.
Resolve to remove these people from your life, and set out to find new ones who have qualities that surprise and inspire you. Resolve to be around people who make you believe in love again because they enact it in your life, because they admire things about you that you didn’t even think to value. Be around people who are so full of anecdotes and happiness that you don’t have space to wallow, that feeling sorry for yourself slips your mind. Resolve that when you begin again, it’s not in the same patterns of breaking, burning and ending. Resolve to extend the same grace you give yourself to everyone who is struggling with loss or grief or heartbreak, whether it’s a rapper or a country singer turned pop star, or your worst enemy.
That’s the kind of New Year’s resolution that a master songwriter can convey in three minutes. Here’s hoping she reemerges in 2016.