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is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

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Entries in alice bolin (24)

Monday
Feb112013

In Which Nobody Sees Us Glowing

Living Alone

by ALICE BOLIN

1

“Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle,” reads W.S. Merwin’s classic, tiny poem “Separation.” “Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

Some poems go through me like thread through a needle, including that one. I carry them with me, my mind snags on their lines, so that the words color the patterns of my thoughts. They form and they reflect my relationship with myself, my fantasy of myself.

2

“I am too pure for you or anyone,” I sometimes find my mind iterating on a loop. This is from Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103˚,” a famous poem, and a characteristically Plath-ian one. It combines many of Plath’s preoccupations — heat, sickness and hospitals, purity, flowers, religion, war and atrocity — with her penchant for a keen and forceful melodrama.

The poem cycles through a violent rush of images, presumably mimicking the assault of visions in a fever dream. But the lines I love best reflect a vision that Plath has of herself. “I am too pure for you or anyone,” she writes.

Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern 

My head a moon
of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

3

In Plath’s work we see a fixation on personal purity. Esther, the protagonist of her novel The Bell Jar, takes painfully hot baths essentially to re-baptize herself. But Plath’s purity is a hard thing: it is not about innocence, or religious goodness, or sexual abstinence. It is more about wholeness, being a complete and original self, unadulterated by any other personality.

The purity in “Fever 103˚” is coupled with a ravishing delicacy, the image of a body like a flower or a paper lantern. These all work to establish the speaker of “Fever 103˚” as separate from other people — both blessedly and painfully so. To think of oneself as set apart by purity, by beauty, and by delicacy is also to think of oneself as constantly being sullied, tarnished and damaged by other people. 

4

When I was in eighth grade we read Plath’s poem “Mushrooms” out loud over and over. I can hear my English teacher, Mrs. Hodgin, saying in her Louisiana accent, “Nobody sees us,/Stops us, betrays us;/The small grains make room,” pounding her fist on the accented syllables. “So many of us!/So many of us!” we shouted, and at that point in the poem I sometimes felt slightly nauseous. It was not until I reread the poem as an adult that I realized that it was actually and concretely about mushrooms.

The ritual repetition of this poem whose only meaning for me was the synesthetic evocation of an olive-brown color along with a slow, uneasy feeling has caused its lines to stick with me, as mysterious and grave as enchantments. “Our toes, our noses/Take hold on the loam” are the lines that will come creeping terribly through my mind, settling in, permeating everything.

We talked a lot about Plath’s suicide then. Plath maybe had not really meant to kill herself, Mrs. Hodgin told us. She frequently put her head in the oven on days when she knew her mother was visiting, as a cry for help.

Who knows if that story’s true. I’ve never bothered to confirm it.

5

This was around the same time that I felt my own separation from other people revealed to me. The summer after eighth grade, I was convinced I was going to die before my thirteenth birthday in August. I stopped sleeping. I turned on my overhead light one day and then it wouldn’t turn off. After a week, I cut its wires with kitchen shears. Even after I didn’t die, something monstrous followed me, I felt my heart and my brain rush, I was tense all the time. I sometimes have a perverse sense looking back that this suffering was the raw truth of my identity. “Today, recognizing it as the sadness I’ve always had,” Marguerite Duras writes in her novel The Lover, the story of a teenage girl discovering herself stricken by separateness, “I could almost call it by my own name, it’s so like me.” Eventually I was put on antidepressants and I read The Bell Jar, of course. I knew the feeling of being set apart by sadness, Sylvia and I, alone together.

6

I talk to myself often in lines from Anne Carson’s “On Defloration,” from her prose poem series “Short Talks.” “The actions of life are not so many,” Carson writes.

To go in, to go in secret, to cross the Bridge of Sighs. And when you dishonored me, I saw that dishonor is an action. It happened in Venice; it causes the vocal cords to swell. I went booming through Venice, under and over the bridges, but you were gone. Later that day I telephoned your brother. What’s wrong with your voice? he said.

I think of the scene of Esther losing her virginity in The Bell Jar, and the traumatic, torrential bleeding that follows. It makes sense that someone with such fiercely guarded purity would take this invasion of her body harder than most.

7

To be dishonored is not an action. It is a state of being, a state of insult continually renewed as a camellia’s delicate petals are bruised and bruised.

“If he’s attracted to you,” my friend Matt said this winter, in a booth near the door of a freezing dive bar, “it’s probably because you have a way of identifying things about people. You can sort of say… what the situation is.” Any man who would be attracted to me, if I understand what Matt was saying, is the kind of man who enjoys the negative attention of being told what his problem is.

8

Many of the poems I have stuck in my head are badly misremembered. “One day I will say to you how all mixed up I am because of you” is my brain’s mangled version of a line from John Ashbery’s “Worsening Situation”: “One day I’ll claim to you/How all used up I am because of you.” But the song remains the same — the tone is injured, self-pitying, accusatory, the complaint of the dishonored.

Richard Hugo’s poem “Living Alone” tells the story of an eccentric and possibly sinister “animal man” who lives a solitary life in a cabin in the woods. My deep association with this poem is sort of inexplicable; although when the animal man describes how he has named the deer near his cabin, there is the wonderful line, “Alice, I liked best.” It is the poem’s simple title that reverberates for me. “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion writes. My deepest image of myself is of a person living alone.

9

In my romantic disappointments it is always the problem of being drawn to people who are “unavailable,” meaning in a relationship, newly out of a relationship, or living in a different state. The coarsest armchair psychology can explain that when a person is attracted to unavailable people, it is because they themselves are unavailable — because they fear intimacy, because they feel must avoid threats to their individuality, because the self is a secret they do not want to disclose, or because they have fetishized their loneliness.

In Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, Mary, played by Diane Keaton, has just been dumped by her married boyfriend, so she goes to visit Allen’s character, Isaac. “You pick a married guy, and when it doesn’t work out, it confirms your worst feelings,” Isaac tells her. “What worst feelings?” Mary asks. “You know,” Isaac says, “your feelings about men and marriage and that nothing works.”

If you are convinced that nothing works out, you can choose a romantic situation that’s already broken. You can confirm your existential separateness by choosing situations where alienation is assured. You can seek to be dishonored because it reinforces your purity.

10

“Only connect…” reads the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s masterpiece Howards End, his sprawling examination of turn-of-the century London and the effects of industrialization on the national soul. This is the motto of the novel’s innocent and strident and soulful heroine, Margaret Schlegel. She insists that it is a mistake to favor either the abstract or the concrete, the romantic or the practical, the rural or the urban, tradition or progress — it is the marriage of opposites that gives life its meaning and provides true insight. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon,” Forster writes. “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no more.”

It is a rejection of purity — no one is set apart, and no one’s identity is completely their own. She seeks to connect life’s diverse aspects and to connect with other people. Margaret’s mission is always to be more trusting and less suspicious, even if it means she gets hurt, even if it means she is dishonored.

And I saw that trust is an action.

11

In Carson’s short talk “On Sylvia Plath,” she writes, “She said plain, burned things. She said I thought it an excellent poem but it hurt me.” This is a helpful frame for Plath, because it is an image not of a woman but of work — work that is marked by its terrible purity.

12

I am devoted to Plath, but I still cannot cultivate much interest in her biography, meaning mostly her marriage and death. This is because the portrait that her biography paints — of a fragile, overly emotional, unstable desperate housewife — does not line up with the portrait that I have developed of her through her work. I see Plath as a skillful and deliberate craftsperson, dominant over her words and her subjects. The extreme sentiments displayed in her work were a calculated performance. Lines as exquisite as “All by myself I am a huge camellia/Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush” simply could not have been written by a person who was completely out of control.

That Plath wrote fiercely about difficult emotions should not be ignored, but an idea of her as a figure of tragic separateness is really beside the point. I have learned to let go of thinking of her as pure and damaged and set apart, and I’m trying to stop thinking of myself that way. Now I love Plath not for her sadness, but for her strength.

13

It is complicated — there is the persona of Plath herself, the mature and technically gifted writer, and the persona Plath creates in her work, who I still sometimes cling to as a totem of resentment and bad-girl energy. Her diaries are so bitchy and self-pitying and dramatic that they are often very funny. The line from her diaries that I say to myself most is “I don’t care about anyone, and the feeling is quite obviously mutual.”

There is freedom in self-parody: the freedom to see that an extreme and romanticized vision of yourself does not account for all the complexities of who you are or could be. At one point I wrote in my eighth grade diary, “I am exceedingly sensitive, but I never let it show when someone hurts my feelings.” This is hilarious because it could not have been less true. It is complicated — the interaction of who you are and the lies you tell yourself about who you are.

14

If, like Matt said, I have a way of identifying what’s going on in other people’s heads, then that insight could lead me to be more open, to connect more, rather than making me more wary, more unavailable. I am a person who, when giving advice, has been known to repeat Bruce Springsteen lyrics like they are ancient and profound koans: “Don’t make no difference what nobody says,/Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”

The importance of Margaret’s ethos in Howards End is that in connecting, she is not flattening or simplifying the shades of human experience — she is more aware of the varying and contradictory elements that make up our lives and ourselves. “It is part of the battle against sameness,” she says. “Differences — eternal differences, planted by God in a single family, so that there may always be colour; sorrow perhaps, but colour in the daily grey.”

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula.. She last wrote in these pages about Taylor Swift. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"What's Your Name?" - Carillo (mp3)


Monday
Dec032012

In Which Lindsay Lohan Is Almost Preternaturally Alive

The Lindsay Lohan Problem

by ALICE BOLIN

The internet’s collective anticipation of the Lifetime network’s Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton biopic Liz & Dick was palpable — it was meant to be Lifetime’s culminating achievement in low-budget ill-considered melodramatic crap cinema, with the grand and legendary movie star Taylor played by bedraggled former child actor and tabloid train wreck du jour Lindsay Lohan. The incongruity was sublime, and viewers were eager for the failure that Liz & Dick would be.

Sure enough, Liz & Dick did serve up some of Lifetime’s signature camp. It begins with a title card that reads “The Last Day of Richard Burton’s Life,” and its plot is scaffolded by interludes in which Taylor and Burton, sitting in director’s chairs and dressed all in black, reminisce about and explain the movie’s action, an expository device that is supposedly taking place in the dying Burton’s mind. It ends with a title reading “Elizabeth Taylor kept Richard Burton’s letters for the remainder of her life,” choosing to leave off on a “no duh” note.

Along the way it chronicles Taylor and Burton’s epically obnoxious love affair. “I’m sleeping with your wife,” a drunk Burton, played by Grant Bowler, shouts at Taylor’s husband Eddie Fisher after she and Burton begin their affair. “You do know I’m shagging him senseless, don’t you?” Taylor says to a hotel employee, randomly. In a triumphant curtain call after his successful performance in Hamlet, Burton brings Taylor up on stage. “In the words of the immortal bard: there will be no more marriages!” he says. A producer pitches Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Taylor at a party but says Burton wouldn’t be right for the male lead because he can’t picture them fighting — so naturally they make a scene staging a mock fight to convince him. They really are insufferable.

And the script clunks along nicely. Toward the beginning of the film, Burton tells Taylor he can’t leave his family for her, and she is beside herself. “I don’t loathe you,” Taylor says. “I hate you.” Later, he calls her “miss pudgy digits” in a fight, and she has a fit, staring angrily at her hands. “They are fat! And they’re pudgy!” she screams. Of course, subtlety was never a hallmark of the biopic genre. “We were meant for each other,” Burton tells his brother shortly after the affair begins. “That’s what she said to Conrad Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, and Eddie bloody Fisher!” his brother replies. If I understand all of this statement’s implications correctly, Elizabeth Taylor was married many times.

Still: Liz & Dick looks lovely. It is set mostly in Switzerland and along the coast of Italy, and its sets are adequately luxe. Lohan has had some unfortunate plastic surgery, but her styling was good — at many moments she looks genuinely fierce. And her and Bowler’s performances are low-energy, but not ridiculous. Comedians took to Twitter the night Liz & Dick premiered, giddy to live-tweet this televised disaster, but many of their tones turned grudging quickly after the movie began. Sure, they got shots in when Lohan, portraying 1984-vintage Taylor, dons an absurd salt-and-pepper wig and enormous glasses, but for the most part the fun Twitter had with the film seemed halfhearted. Liz & Dick was ultimately a disappointment. As Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times noted, “The film’s real failure is that it’s not terrible enough.” It could have been worse, and when viewers are expecting so-bad-it’s-good, that is a grave fault.  

Liz & Dick’s failure as a failure was surprisingly frustrating. Its mediocrity was so dissatisfying because it disrupted the narrative — Lohan’s descent through eating disorders and substance abuse and jail time from the accomplished ingénue she once was. And she was certainly set up for a monumental fall from grace. When she starred in the remake of The Parent Trap at the age of twelve and the remake of Freaky Friday at seventeen, she was favorably compared to Hayley Mills and Jodie Foster. The Parent Trap’s director Danette Meyers likened her to a young Diane Keaton.

The praise for Lohan’s acting ability continued so profuse that one might have begun to sense some hyperbole. Meryl Streep, her co-star in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, said, “She is very present and alive, almost preternaturally alive, on camera.” Tina Fey said of Mean Girls, “I would watch Lindsay to learn what it is to be a film actor.” Around the same time, her father, Michael Lohan, an abusive cocaine addict who had been arrested multiple times for assault, began to seek the media spotlight. She wrote a hit song about him, “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father),” which Tommy Mottola described as “one of the best I’ve heard in my career.”

By 2006, when she was nineteen, the train wreck narrative was already beginning, as her heavy partying and dramatic weight loss made her a constant figure in the tabloid media. She gave an interview with Evgenia Peretz in which she may have admitted to having an eating disorder — though she later claimed she was misquoted. Lohan and her management were outraged by how she was portrayed in the Vanity Fair article, but reading it now, its take on her is remarkably positive and optimistic.

“She may be the most compelling and charismatic and real of all the actresses on the very young A-List,” Peretz wrote, and also called Lohan “a serious and emotional young woman” who “clearly has great reserves of strength.” This was around when Lohan began several years of living in hotels, and Peretz spun this wholesomely as well, calling her “the Eloise of Chateau Marmont.” Lohan talked about how she had a quiet dinner with some friends for her nineteenth birthday — “That’s how much I’ve changed,” she said. “When I turned 18, I had a party at Avalon with an ‘I'm a Slave 4 You’ theme.” The Peretz article thinks it’s telling the story of a star who has made missteps, but is ultimately back on the right track.

The next year Lohan had two DUIs and the first three of her four stints in rehab. She had cocaine either on her or in her system during both of her DUIs — a drug she had denied that she was ever involved with, sensitive because of her father’s history with it. “It’s a sore subject,” she said about cocaine in the Peretz article. For Lohan the four years following have mostly been violated probation, car accidents, shoplifting, jail time and community service, and getting dropped from one movie after another.

Despite all this, people want to believe that there is something brilliant about her, if only to make her current situation appear even more dismal. Many still buy into the narrative of her potential — Richard Brody called her performance in Liz & Dick “thrillingly immediate.” The myth of her prodigious talent has played a part in enabling her destructive behavior. As Ken Tucker says in his review of Liz & Dick, Lohan has “been cut so many breaks, it’s difficult to root for her anymore.” Her entitled attitude is clear, with stories of her being constantly late to movie sets, skipping court dates and community service, even stealing a necklace from a jewelry store. “I think the root of the problem,” said an anonymous source in Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair story about Lohan, “was every single person telling her how amazing she is, kissing her ass all the time.”

In 2007, an executive on Lohan’s film Georgia Rule wrote a cranky open letter to Lohan about her behavior onset. “We are well aware that your ongoing all night heavy partying is the real reason for our so-called ‘exhaustion,’” he wrote. “You have acted like a spoiled child.” This is probably a realistic assessment of Lohan — she is someone who got too much money, fame, and praise too young, who has never been expected to grow up in any meaningful way. After Robert Altman died in 2006, Lohan wrote a long, strange tribute to the director, filled with spelling and grammatical errors. “He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do,” she wrote, and concluded bizarrely with the closing phrase “Be adequite.”

The letter revealed Lohan not as a movie star of rare talent or as a legendarily troubled public figure, but as a young woman who had been making movies while she should have been going to school. But this picture of Lohan — as an undereducated and spoiled party girl — doesn’t wash with what she had been set up for, with what she was supposed to become. After her film work post-Prairie Home Companion did not live up to the hype surrounding her talent, the story couldn’t just be that she had disappointed. She had to have disappointed because of some darkness in her soul — if her life wasn’t going to be a legendary success, it had to be a legendary tragedy.

This is where the “old Hollywood” connections start coming in. Lohan has done photo-shoots re-creating ones done by her idol Marilyn Monroe twice — one for Playboy that was inspired by Monroe’s nude pictorial from the magazine’s first issue, and the other for New York that was a re-creation of the last photo-shoot Monroe did before committing suicide. It’s as if it is already decided: Lohan will lead a sad, destructive life before facing a tragic and untimely death — and she’s complicit, helping to create this narrative.

And this is where Lohan playing Elizabeth Taylor starts to take on significance. Lifetime was most likely trying to cash in on the similarities between Lohan and Taylor’s lives — and they do have points in common. Both were promising child actors with controlling stage mothers. Federico Fellini invented the term “paparazzi” to describe the photographers who followed Taylor, and Lohan has been continually hounded by the paparazzi for nearly ten years. But their stories are more different than they are alike. At the time that Liz & Dick begins in 1963, Taylor was twenty-nine years old, had been married three times, and had three children and one Academy Award. Importantly, Taylor was the rare child actor to become a genuine adult movie star, which Lohan so far is not.

Even in her scandals, Taylor was in different league from Lohan. The boozing and shouting and bottle-throwing portrayed in Liz & Dick are endlessly more dignified than the weird, sordid situations Lohan’s gotten herself into recently. She is known for being so unreliable that a producer on Liz & Dick described her as “the most insured actress ever to set foot on a Hollywood sound stage.” She has hosted slumber parties at the Chateau Marmont with Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey where they “watched old movies and played board games,” which is a euphemism for I don’t know what. Charlie Sheen, whom she became friends with when they worked together on Scary Movie 5, reportedly gave her $100,000 to settle a tax debt. And she was recently arrested for punching a woman in a club after attending a Justin Bieber concert.

Lohan was an incredible talent whose personal demons have turned her into a Hollywood tragedy — that is what many people want to be see as the scenario. Instead, she may just be another child actor whom the system permanently fucked up. When Lohan hosted Saturday Night Live in 2005, Amy Poehler posed as Lohan’s future self during the opening monologue — she came with a message of warning, cautioning Lohan to stop partying and drinking so much Red Bull.

When Lohan asked what movies she would do in the future, Poehler responded with weird accuracy: “Well, let me see. We did Herbie: Fully Loaded, then we did Mean Girls 2, that was a suck bomb, then we did National Lampoon’s Jamaican Vacation, and then we did like eight Lifetime movies, and now we host a Cinemax show called Night Passions.” Lohan’s future was predictable because we’ve heard her story so many times before — not in Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, but in Corey Haim, Gary Coleman, and Danny Bonaduce. Lohan’s life and Liz & Dick are not the epic catastrophes they were meant to be. They’re just run-of-the-mill messes, which makes them even sadder.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula.. She last wrote in these pages about Taylor Swift. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Patient Heart" - Heidi Happy (mp3)

"Dance With Another" - Heidi Happy (mp3)


Tuesday
Oct302012

In Which We Get Taylor Swift Alone

See Red

by ALICE BOLIN

“Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast recently asked country-pop girl wonder Taylor Swift, a simple question that Swift predictably dodged. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she responded. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Sigh. I read things like that and I wish more than anything that homegirl had been allowed to go to college.

There are obviously troubling things about Swift’s prim, old-fashioned, virginal persona—she defines herself by her relationships with men, and she’s in danger of arrested development, a permanent girlhood. There is also the fact that her public persona is so resolutely composed that her only recourse to address pain is passive aggression, so that anger leaks out at every corner. This is why the popular image of Swift is a fascinating contradiction: a perfect princess who is also a total mess.

But I think I’ve gone beyond the point of finding Swift merely fascinating, an interesting public figure. If my iTunes is to be believed, I have listened to the songs on her last album, Speak Now, an average of fifty times. I karaoked the teenage revenge anthem “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album two weeks ago. I play her songs on my ukulele, just like hundreds of thirteen-year-olds on YouTube. I am not an interested observer of her constructed celebrity — I am an enthusiastic fan of her music.

Swift’s albums have the quality that I love about all pop music: that it is fake, commercial, even cynical, and somehow it still speaks in real ways about what it’s like to be human. This is as true about mass-produced music from the days of Phil Spector and Motown, the cubicles of the Brill Building that made it like a literal hit factory, as it is about today’s mega-producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin—a song’s sound is engineered to be perniciously memorable, and a song’s sentiment is engineered to be universally relatable. Pop music is manipulative in so many ways.

Swift is clearly shrewd about how to construct a perfect pop song. When she was a teenager in Nashville, she was not only scouted as an artist, but Sony/ATV publishing house also hired her as a songwriter. She has always written the bulk of her own music, and with Speak Now she had sole writing credit for the entire album. On her new album, Red, she is working with co-writers again, including Shellback, who wrote some of Britney Spears’ best hits, and pop songwriting legend Martin, the man responsible for a baffling amount of top ten singles including Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” 

Her collaboration with these pop giants initially appeared as an alarming departure for an artist with country singer-songwriter roots, especially because Martin has such a reputation for writing surefire hits that working with him is often seen as an act of career desperation. But the songs on Red that Swift wrote with Martin and Shellback are brilliant to a one: the album’s lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a pop-punk revenge tune that’s as snotty as it is catchy, and the party anthem “22” features a gleeful and glorious chorus, not to mention Swift doing her best Ke$ha impression. The most surprising song on the album, “Trouble,” is heavy and synthed-out with a dub-step (!) chorus.

These songs are distinct from Swift’s typical output, but the partnership was fruitful because Swift, Martin, and Shellback understand pop’s most important quality: it is addictive. In a New Yorker article about Ester Deen and Stargate, the songwriter and producers who are responsible for most of Rihanna’s hits, Deen’s manager is quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” It’s not only the overtly pop songs on Red that follow this prescription — “Treacherous,” a sexy acoustic ballad Swift co-wrote with Dan Wilson of nineties music footnote Semisonic, is tightly composed from a soft verse to an almost chant-like chorus, swelling to the bridge where Swift sings intently, “I will get you/Get you alone.”

Swift’s savvy about how to write a hit feels almost at odds with her reputation for writing autobiographical lyrics — people speak as if her songs are emotional and filter-less, when in reality her songwriting is anything but “raw.” With each new album, theories emerge about which of Swift’s celebrity ex-boyfriends each song is about. Swift claims to be bemused by this guessing game. “There are a lot of songs that people think is about this dude, but it’s really not, it’s actually about this guy you have no idea I even dated. Or you’ll sit there and go ‘that song was inspired by three different situations with three different people,’” she told VH1 recently. “I never really talk about who my songs are about,” she insisted.

But Swift plays into this speculation. She has a practice of encoding secret messages in the lyrics portion of her albums’ liner notes, which fans use to conjecture about the songs’ subjects. Songs on Red bear messages like HIYANNIS PORT, clearly referring to her summer beau Connor Kennedy; FOR ETHEL, a slightly embarrassing ode to Kennedy matriarch Ethel Kennedy; and MAPLE LATTES, a nod to a famous photo op she had with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is the confusing thing — by all appearances Swift’s brief relationship with Gyllenhaal was a blatant publicity stunt. Their maple latte outing was documented by the paparazzi and written up in People magazine; as Vulture notes, “‘Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal Share Thanksgiving Maple Lattes’ is the third result when you Google ‘maple lattes.’” If their relationship was real, why did she use the most famous detail about their time together as a clue, rather than a less public one? Swift has never publicly discussed any of her relationships, other than her teenage romance with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, but she purposefully capitalizes on the publicity they generate in subtler ways.

“All Too Well,” the song with the MAPLE LATTES clue, exploits a media-driven celebrity relationship for the sake of sensation, and it is also probably Red’s greatest triumph. It is the only track on Red that Swift wrote with her original songwriting partner Liz Rose, with whom she wrote hits like “Teardrops on my Guitar” and “You Belong with Me,” and it is filled with classic Swift details in lyrics like “We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” “All Too Well” also contains the line “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” which, scaling for what could conceivably heard on Top 40 radio, is the best lyric I’ve ever heard.

I don’t know how to rectify this — that the song on Red that feels the most authentic is the one that cashes in the most cravenly on media narratives that Swift herself controls. Clearly, Swift’s reputation as a crazy ex-girlfriend skewering her former loves in her lyrics is something that she cultivates — she, Adele, and Alanis Morissette are only a few of the female artists who have learned that this is a gimmick that can take your albums multi-platinum. It also seems that her code of propriety, her desire to be a “classy” celebrity, is what dictates her reticence about her relationships — writing songs that allude to them and then baiting fans to guess who is a way that Swift acts out.

With Swift’s constricting good-girl image, she performs the transgressive acts available to her, and she releases her considerable aggression in controlled ways. “Tell all your friends I’m obsessive and crazy./That’s fine,” Swift sings to an ex on “Picture to Burn.” “I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” The height of her vindictiveness might be “Dear John,” the nearly seven-minute diss track to her ex-boyfriend John Mayer off Speak Now. The John Mayer-signature blues guitar solo on the song is both witty and stone cold. She talks about her temper in many of her songs, as in “Stay Stay Stay” off Red, where she sings, “I’m pretty sure we almost broke up last night./I threw my phone across the wall/At you.” In “Stay Stay Stay” as in her hit “Mine” from Speak Now, she daydreams about a man who will stick by her after the fights, in spite of her anger.

Her aggression isn’t only limited to her songs — after Jonas allegedly dumped with eighteen-year-old Swift with a twenty-seven-second phone call, Swift took to YouTube. In the video she posted, she is holding collectible dolls of both her and Jonas. “Oh look,” she says, examining the Joe Jonas doll’s packaging. “This one even comes with a phone. So it can break up with other dolls.” As demure as she may be, this girl is also intense and out for blood — of Red’s title, Swift said, “All those emotions — spanning from intense love, intense frustration, jealousy, confusion, all of that — in my mind, all those emotions are red.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in this she echoes another passionate artist constrained by traditional expectations of femininity: Sylvia Plath. Red was Plath’s favorite color, and in her work it often has the same meaning that Swift assigns it on Red. “Their redness talks to my wounds, it corresponds,” Plath writes in “Tulips.” In “Lady Lazarus” she transfigures herself as a wrathful Fury — “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair,” the poem famously ends, “And I eat men like air.” It seems like Swift could relate. (The song “Higher Ground” off of Red contains the lyric “Back when you fit my poems like a perfect rhyme,” and I think we as a public must demand to know more about these poems.) There are numerous reasons why Swift will probably be better able to achieve her goals as an artist and a healthy human being than Plath was — but like Plath, Swift’s life seems to be about oscillating between acting out and falling in line with what’s expected of her. I can’t help but think, “Taylor, maybe if you were a feminist, all this would be easier for you.”

I cling to evidence that Swift is moving slowly toward more comfort with herself, more freedom. Granting that her schtick is that she is not a girl, not yet a woman, as they say, Red is distinctly more womanly than any of her other releases. She has let go of some of the narratives that she subscribed to in the past, particularly her obsession with fairytale love — tracks from previous albums bear names like “Today Was a Fairytale” and “White Horse,” and her hit single “Love Story” describes a Romeo-and-Juliet style pairing, except everything turns out fine in the end.

More than ever before in her work, Swift is acknowledging that love is not a fantasy—on “Treacherous” she makes the stunning acknowledgment that sex and sexual desire can complicate things. “I’ll do anything you say,” she sings, “if you say it with your hands.” She has also turned away from some of the persistent nostalgia for childhood that marks her previous albums. “Fifteen,” from Fearless, remembers in sentimental detail what it was like to be a freshman in high school. On the schmaltzy ballad “Never Grow Up” from Speak Now, our female Peter Pan advises a child, “Oh darling, don’t you ever grow up/Just stay this little.”

In contrast to “Fifteen,” “22” refers to the age Swift is now, not an age she longs to be again. The story “22” describes is as far from her fairytale songs as possible, as Swift sings about going out to a club with her friends and trying to pick someone up — “You look like bad news./I’ve got to have you,” she sings. This is such a welcome departure: on Red, Swift is acting her age, and even, for the first time, acknowledging her celebrity. In “The Lucky One,” she sings enviously of a young woman who gains success in Hollywood, only to abandon it all for a return to comfortable anonymity. I am relieved by these developments. If Swift were still making high school records at twenty-two, this would be a sadder story than it is.

A number of songs on Red display a chip on Swift’s shoulder about her goody-two-shoes image — on “22” she talks about dressing up like a hipster and complains that the club has “too many cool kids.” She tells an ex-boyfriend on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” The fact that Swift is not a cool kid is one thing I like about her — she is, after all, a gawky dork who grew up on a Christmas tree farm. I hope she realizes, though, that just because she isn’t “alternative,” that doesn’t mean that she has to be a Disney princess. She should take a lesson from her former nemesis Kanye West, whose persona seamlessly encompasses varying types including “sensitive genius” and “annoying egomaniac.”

The Swift-versus-Kanye West meme is a chance binary that is incidentally instructive — they have a lot in common as rigorous artists with volatile personalities. West is able to perform a public self that is stylish, nerdy, vulnerable, powerful, smart, sympathetic, and irritating. I wish Swift could do the same and be viewed as complex, not schizophrenic. For anyone who was wondering, that’s what feminism is. 

Alice Bolin is a senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Isaac Mizrahi. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.

"Back to December (acoustic)" - Taylor Swift (mp3)

"If This Was A Movie" - Taylor Swift (mp3)