Taylor Swift as Greek Chorus

Photograph c/o 2017, Billy & Hells for TIME.

I am thirteen, squished in the back rows of the bus on the way to middle school, when I hear the song for the first time. We only have two turns left until we park and climb off for another day. I am in the seventh grade. In the mornings, I buy two chocolate chip cookies, freshly-baked, from a friend’s mom who works in the cafeteria. They are breakfast; they are delicious. The song is playing on the local pop station our bus driver stays tuned into—it’s a happy medium for the mess of music tastes teenagers have—but this sounds like country. A girl croons about “teardrops on her guitar” and not getting a boy’s attention. She understands me. Her name is Taylor Swift.

Her album, Fearless, becomes my high school anthem. One cold morning, a group of my friends huddle for warmth near the gym and breakout into “White Horse” for no reason. They are predominately guys, but they don’t care. This is before Kanye. I will make mix-CDs for my boyfriend with “You Belong with Me” and “Love Story” on them; his CDs will heavily feature ska. For some reason, I associate “Fifteen” with the scent of laundry detergent, clothes warm out of the dryer, the soft feel of fabric. I will sing this album over and over again in the shower.

We go out of order for a bit. I take Red with me on my first trip to New Zealand and it becomes my favorite album. I meet a guy from OkCupid who reminds me of my crush on Ed Sheeran. He can’t remember the chorus to “I Knew You Were Trouble” so I finish the words, voice warbling a little because singing in front of people makes me nervous. He cooks me eggs; later, I write him a song. I am inspired by “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, which I still associate with that affair to this day. I listen to the album on the drive to Tauranga. The sun shines through the windows, the greenery passes by, and this new country welcomes me with open arms.

I am nineteen. I’ve checked out Speak Now from the local library. I listen to it on my drives to and from campus. I’m still a freshman, but I love college. I have a crush on another student in my literature class. I play tabletop games with my friends during breaks. Every day, I write short entries on a blog, a lot of which is me pining for a boyfriend. But I’m happy. In April, I go on a date with a guy I meet online; after, I listen to “Enchanted.” It was enchanting to meet you. I listen to “Safe & Sound” a lot because I’m writing a Harry Potter fan fiction and it’s a mood. For now, everything is okay.

For Christmas, my sister and I both get 1989. Despite being different generations, I’ve indoctrinated her into loving Taylor Swift. I’m excited, yet nervous, for this album since I know it will be a new sound. Over Thanksgiving, I made my first solo drive to Oregon, blasting her single “Blank Space.” I, too, think the lyrics say ‘Starbucks lovers.’ I leave the album in my car for whenever I need it—which turns out to be often as I’m having some roommate troubles. She and I have “Bad Blood.” “I Know Places” turns into my personal escape anthem. “Shake It Off” tries to soothe the anxiety that won’t let go. This spring is the worst one yet. My grades suffer and my emotions are all over the place. I get engaged.

Taylor disappears and so do I. I graduate and am accepted into an MFA program at my alma mater. My best friend, M, a fellow Swiftie, lives with me now. We sit in shocked horror, watching the lyric video for “Look What You Made Me Do” on the leather couch in our living room. Our other roommate is clueless. “We killed Taylor Swift,” I say. A few weeks later, I use the song in one of my first lessons as a teacher at the university. The students aren’t as aware of the intricacies of the backstory as I am, but they learn how to analyze all the same. Once again, the album is on repeat in my car. I’m amplified by the beats, the confidence, and her songs. Until, I listen to “New Year’s Day” while moving out. It’s fifteen minutes to midnight and I won’t be kissing my fiancé tonight. Instead, I drive to a different destination—car full, phone dead, tear-streaked cheeks—and begin the worst year of my life.

I am twenty-five when the relationship ends. The first song that plays when I hit shuffle is “All Too Well.” I drive home, crying.

I’m cleaning out my grandparents’ home in Oregon for the summer. The phone service is terrible but, on a trip into town, I manage to load the music video for “You Need to Calm Down.” I want brightness. M and I send tracks back and forth as they’re slowly released, amping up excitement, and type in all caps. I listen to “Lover” on repeat, convinced the chorus is a rhetorical question even though everyone is treating it as a given. When the album is released, I sit in my bathroom, headphones on, and listen. It is not quite what I expected, but, somehow, what I wanted. I cry to “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” Gave you so much, but it wasn’t enough. I singalong to “False God” and worship at its saxophone sex appeal. I watch the music video for “The Man” too many times to count and chat about it with the other girls in my cohort. This is moving on.

It is the summer of 2020. I’ve only left the house for groceries, gas, the occasional drive, and to visit my family. I haven’t seen my friends in months. I’m depressed again, but trying hard not to be. My anxiety is trying to creep back in. I haven’t written anything new since I “graduated” with my MFA, except for a few scraps of poetry. I move from the bed to the couch and back again. I’m scared of getting sick because I spent a lot of my teenage years with illnesses that had no cure but time and patience. In July, I wake up in the afternoon to Twitter messages and texts from M. “WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHERE ARE YOU” and “WHY HAVE YOU NOT RESPONDED TO MY TWEETS THIS IS A WHITE GIRL CODE RED.”

Taylor Swift is releasing a new album. Today. My group chat is alive with excitement and speculation. What will it sound like? How much we need this. What kind of vibe we hope it has. A little after folklore’s release, I turn off the lights, slip on my headphones, and lay on my bed. I want to actively absorb this album—no distractions. As I predicted, the sound is reminiscent of most of the ‘softer’ tracks on her other albums but, lyrically, it’s the best of Red and all the hurt and emotional catharsis I need in this moment. Every song slides into the next. I want to light a candle and wrap my hands around a mug of tea, but can’t move after “Cardigan.” My hands go weirdly numb before “Exile” begins playing, like I’m literally having an out of body moment, as if I know this song will hurt from the first few notes. By the end, I’m holding in sobs, flashbacks fading in my mind but never truly going away. I calm down through the next few tracks but am hit again with “Illicit Affairs.” Look at this idiotic fool that you made me. I’m bolstered by “Mad Woman” and touched by “Epiphany.” Then I spend the next five minutes listening to the most Sapphic song Taylor Swift ever-penned, and I don’t care if it’s from the male perspective. I like it better that way; “Betty” is a highlight of the album. At first, ending on “Hoax” makes the album feel incomplete, but by my fourth listen I can understand the catharsis of ending there—an explanation, an acceptance.

I am twenty-six when folklore inspires me to begin a new novel. It’s been haunting me for two months. I’m scared, but I know the work will be worth it. And, no matter what, I’ll still have Taylor Swift to provide the soundtrack to my life.