At fifteen, I was staring down losing a career that I’d committed my short life to chasing, choosing ballet barres and bloody blisters across my toes over boys and benchmarks of a high school life well-lived. I was living for the day I’d “get out of here” without pinpointing where on the map of my mind I envisioned myself going.
I didn’t know that not just that career, but the next two, at least, wouldn’t shake out. I didn’t know that all my “somewhere elses” would lead me back home. I didn’t know that one day, my teenage self wouldn’t be the fodder of journals I tossed, ashamed by the writing, or the sort of silly eye-roll regret you have when someone mentions how you used to be in high school. I wish I’d known how much I’d come to admire about the girl, the teenage self, I was trained to leave behind.
On Taylor Swift’s Fifteen, now an anthem of enduring friendship and finding yourself, she sings “back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday but I realized some bigger dreams of mine.” It was a line that felt powerful when sung by the teenage girl who wrote it, and now, when sung by 31-year-old Taylor on the re-recorded Fearless (Taylor’s Version), it takes on a different sort of power. It’s like a wink to a teenage self — not a dismissal, not a quip on how naive her fifteen-year-old-self’s dreams were, but an acknowledgment that dreams change. I always loved that the enduring relationship in the song’s narrative was a friendship, and found myself enchanted (Swiftian pun intended) by the electricity it gave growing up. Now, listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) while being knee-deep in research about young adulthood and preparation for my book, An Ordinary Age, I love it for the power it gives our teenage selves — and the act of reclaiming them.
The decision for Taylor Swift to rerecord her original six albums, with her masters under her control, was undoubtedly a business decision — but even that felt like an act of reclaiming. On one of the bonus tracks of evermore (one of my personal favorite Swift albums), “it’s time to go,” Swift sings “he’s got my past frozen behind glass/but I’ve got me.” But Fearless (Taylor’s Version) makes it clear: Not only is she the one who has herself, unabashedly; it makes a good case for reclaiming all our past versions — teenage versions included.
I’m not a music writer and am certainly not equipped to review an album, or the ramifications of Swift’s music. I’m just a Swift fan and person who is fascinated by young adulthood, so listening to Fearless (Taylor’s Version) felt like a treat. Because the tracks stay so close to the originals (including the infamous laugh in “Hey, Stephen”), the re-recorded album doesn’t feel so much like an adult going back to her younger self and doing things differently, the way I imagine many of us wish we could, but a means of embracing that younger self as she was back then.
I’ve loved picking out the defining traits of young adulthood, the developmental stage, in Swift’s lyrics: the late teens and early twenties are considered a time of identity exploration, including deciding who you are and what you want out of life; a time of instability; a time of self-focus; a time of feeling in-between; a time of possibilities. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (of course I am!) but Swift paints with these colors on Fearless, and that’s never been clearer than when lyrics like “we were both young when I first saw you” are sung by a thirty-something adult.
At fifteen, I was unconvinced I knew anything about anything, most especially about myself. I went down too many weird internet rabbit holes, remained totally disinterested in romantic relationships until a year or so later, and mostly, was convinced that I needed to “grow up” quickly — which, of course, led to approximately 47 terrible decisions that, yes, I’d certainly do over if I could.
I love talking to teenagers today for many reasons, a primary one being I think of them less as “teens” and more as “interesting people with interesting things to say.” But one thing I’m constantly in awe of, and inspired by, is how much more informed they are about circumstances in which they’re growing up, self-possessing, and open than I was. I thought having my life and self locked down was a signal of maturity — never mind that I could feel myself outgrowing the“self” I thought I should be faster than I outgrew Abercrombie tops made for someone with a much longer torso.
It never occurred to me that growth — learning more about the world and your place in it, learning about yourself, learning what it means to be a decent human being — didn’t inherently mean growing out of myself. I thought I was supposed to leave all of that girl, her annoying habits and silly choices and try-hard-ness, behind, and in doing so, it meant the good stuff, like her sentimentality, her earnestness, her curiosity, would go with it. Grow up, as fast as possible, I seemed to think. Tidy up your loose ends, smooth out your awkward edges, never admit to everything you don’t know — most especially about yourself, in a world that’s soon going to be swift to condense that into GPAs and one-line introductions and college applications, where you’re always going to feel too messy for their neat fill-in-the-blanks.
In retrospect, it’s baffling how many times I remember hearing that, aside from good grades and “staying out of trouble,” teen years didn’t really matter — as if teenagers weren’t people, full of rich inner lives, complex thoughts and problems, endlessly interesting and important negotiations with themselves and their environments. It seems laughable now, but that mentality persists: it’s easy to shrug off how teens feel because we imagine “real life” starts later, which is fundamentally untrue, and dismisses the experiences so many young people are having while growing up. The fact that young adults are still “growing up” doesn’t mean they should be taken less seriously — if anything, looking closely at how that growth feels and how it is occurring should be a priority. Teenagers matter. Our teenage selves mattered, too.
There have been lots of conversations recently about what it means when teenage girls have power, and the line between empowering and exploiting them. That’s one reason it seems so important to talk to teenagers about their perspectives and lives and forces they feel are working against them: The narrative of their young adult lives should belong, first and foremost, to them. (An aside, there are great places centering this, including Late Bloomer, featuring awesome interviews with teenage girls; a masterpiece of a book, GIRLHOOD: Teens around the World in Their Own Voices; and Girlhood Stories, a storytelling workshops for girls and a platform for their work. You should subscribe!)
When I was fifteen, I still believed in dream jobs, I still believed in one-true-loves, I still believed being perfect was the ticket to things turning out okay. What I did not believe in was me. That’s hardly uncommon, and of course, it’s easy to look in the rearview mirror and be outright ashamed of all I didn’t know.
When I was watching Swift’s Long Pond Studio Sessions over the winter, I tweeted that I didn’t expect her to talk about transitions in young adulthood: absence of gold stars and things to chase, and making decisions and having to pave your own way. I should’ve seen it coming, because, for all Swift’s music is considered to focus on romantic love, it captures the complexity and cringe-worthy awkwardness and bounding emotions of growing up. That articulation — having to make your own path, having to discover for yourself what’s worth holding onto in a society that’s eager to tell you everything you should be chasing — has stayed with me.
Charting our own paths, which young adults today are doing in circumstances that have dramatically shifted, doesn’t mean abandoning our teenage selves as lesser. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) sounds like a version of how growing up feels — you think you’re right on the cusp of having it all figured out, especially having yourself figured out, the great myth, before we realize that happens a million little times. As it should. Because we don’t outgrow ourselves. We keep growing — but I didn’t know it at fifteen.