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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Taylor Swift, Otherness, and Passive-Aggressive Writing


Earlier I was reading this article over at the Paris Review that I later shared on Facebook. It had a bit to do with Taylor Swift and her style of songwriting -- the way she draws from real life experiences and real people she's known to write her songs. Particularly people like exes that she feels have wronged her or experiences that left her hurting. As anyone familiar with her music already knows, she does it in such a way that it's never spelled out in so many words who she's writing about, but enough clues and hints are given that it's not terribly difficult to figure out.

Miss Swift was merely the framework for what the article was really about though. The author went on to address the way this type of writing is something like therapy for writers and artists that feel like they don't (or didn't) fit in for whatever reason. At one point, such writing was confined to paper journals and personal diaries. However, here in the Internet age, each of us has a public platform from which we can say what we want about whomever we want and a lot of us choose to do it the Taylor Swift way -- passive-aggressively. 
Writing is first born of a need to explain oneself, and it is comorbid with the desperate loneliness of an ostracized, chubby middle-schooler, like she was and, well, like I was. The popular kids can explain themselves to each other. Only the lonely are left to their writing.
It’s through the tools of observation that we learn to hone an otherness…we begin to define ourselves from the way we are different. And slowly, slowly, we spend so much time pretending that someone is listening that we often don’t know how to change modes once people are.
I wasn't a chubby middle-schooler the way the author of the original article may have been, but I was most certainly someone that didn't fit in. I was one of those kids that was miserably awkward and unattractive when I was younger. I was painfully shy and had no real idea how to talk to people or make friends. I was also mixed race at a time well before it was considered cool to be so and certainly before you saw a lot of diversity in the media you consumed, so I had the added challenge of  literally feeling like a freak of nature -- something that many actual people I knew at the time felt shouldn't exist at all.

My writing was really the first thing that gave me any kind of peace as far as how much it hurt to feel so universally rejected at such a vulnerable time in my life. I'd come home from school, open my diary, and fill it with all the pain, fear, and resentment I felt because of all the bullying I was experiencing. I'd tell it all about my issues with my family, my worries that I'd never have a boyfriend, my hatrid of school, and my real feelings about all of the people I knew.

I'd also fantasize about getting to enjoy my revenge on all of the people that hurt me one day. Some of my fellow outcasts saw themselves becoming wildly successful, going through a drive-thru in their Ferrari, and being handed fries and a shake by the very person that bullied them throughout their childhood. My fantasy was a little different, but only as far as the details. I pictured myself growing up to be drop-dead gorgeous and ridiculously witty. I imagined literally everyone wanting to know me, having all my former tormentors come crawling, and then metaphorically spitting in their faces. In the meantime, my writing would provide me with a place to live out some of those fantasies in different ways.

Sometimes I just cried things out Dear Diary style in my journal, but I also wrote Taylor Swift-style stories and poetry that directly addressed some of these people -- not by name, but by nuance and implication. I liked being able to actually show this writing right to the people I was so irritated with (or let them find it on their own) without them being sure it was about them because of how vague it was. It was especially gratifying if they seemed worried it might be about them -- doubly so if they were actually worried enough to ask. It was nice to feel like other people might be worrying about what I thought for a change. That was probably the only time I did feel like my feelings mattered to others, so it's not surprising that it was something I stuck with.

I continued to use that type of writing as a sort of therapy -- a way to not only get certain poisons out of me, but to make other people consider certain things about their own relationships with me or with other people they knew. I didn't just do it in regards to ways I was hurting either. I used the same methods to express feelings of love, attraction, or admiration that I couldn't quite bring myself to express in plain English. I'm sure a lot of other writers can describe similar experiences.
Taylor exists as our id. She alone possesses the chutzpah to play innocent as she boldly winks at what she’s done in a forum more public than even the most viral article. But it’s also through her that we can continue to fantasize about a revenge most perfect, an aggression so passive that no one sees it coming, that no one can confirm it once they’ve been hit. 
That day might be around the corner, and it’s Taylor who allows us to dream of it: dream of a time when the stings of the past are made better through the public hanging of dirty laundry, a time when we say the perfect thing in the moment when it most counts, a moment when we finally get the last word. It’s on that day that we, too, will have our most perfect aggression realized. It’s on that day you will find us shining like fireworks over their sad empty towns.
In a way, I did get to live out my elaborate fantasies of becoming someone everyone wanted to know. I was one of the lucky ones in that I eventually grew into my looks. The wonky mixed race features that had gotten me pelted with spitballs and tortured daily when I was a kid developed into a brand of beauty that most people considered not only unusual, but very alluring. I learned how to talk to people and use my wonderful mind to hold their attention. People started paying me compliments all the fucking time. I was not only being stopped on the street so I could be told how beautiful I was, but told pretty much daily that I was funny, smart, and cool -- things I never thought I'd hear from anyone.

As a result, I finally got to find out what it was like to be wanted and desired by every guy you work with or go to school with. (College was a much different experience than high school for sure.) I got to be the heartbreaker for a change. I even had the delicious experience of being asked out by some of the boys that hated me so much when we were younger and turning them down. I got to make the queen bees around me feel paranoid and inadequate because they didn't feel they measured up to me while other girls beat themselves bloody trying to become my next best friend. Most of the things I fantasized about once upon a time not only came to pass, but did so while I was still young enough to think those things were the be-all and end-all of human existence. I enjoyed every sinfully delicious second of it too.

And then I got older and grew sick of such games. I started to value substance over form. I met someone I truly cared about and settled down. I built a business. I started getting my validation from my relationship, my career, and -- eventually -- from my spiritual beliefs. The attention of perfect strangers stopped meaning anything much to me to the point where it actually began to irritate me. I stopped wanting to be mean and manipulative to just about everyone around me for no real reason other than I felt like I was making up for all the acceptance, love, and respect I should have had growing up, but didn't.

I never grew tired of that strange variety of satisfaction passive aggressive writing has given me ever since I was a little kid though. I obviously still do it, although it's not necessarily always aimed at anyone specific. (Often, it starts with an actual person or experience I'm bothered by or irritated with, but mushrooms into a much bigger, broader idea.) On the rare occasion it is aimed at someone in particular and they actually are bothered by it enough to generate their own passive-aggressive butthurt writing in response, I still get that old feeling. That naughty little zing of validation that I remember from my childhood. That zing that tells me I successfully tipped someone off their high horse or embarrassed them in retaliation for something they did or said, but shouldn't have.

When you were once someone people threw away, when they noticed you at all, it's hard not to want to roll around naked in the bliss that is finally mattering. Mostly I use that power for good -- to lavish security and love on those I care about, as well as to encourage others who might be where I used to be. But every so often, the urge to use those same powers to put the smackdown on people that tick you off is irresistible. Luckily, some damn good art gets created in the process either way.