About 25 years ago, the company I was working for turned me into a COBOL programmer. It involved about four months of full time training with a training contractor the company brought on site. The principal trainer owned the contracting company and was significantly more well off than any of us in the class, but he had middle class Baltimore roots and was usually able to connect with us. In fact, he had a real knack for noticing when his class was losing focus (not uncommon in eight hours a day, five days a week classes). Almost every time, he had some anecdote about his days as a programmer or his life in general that lightened the mood, allowed us to decompress and then refocus. It really was a gift. Except for one time. That one time, instead of sharing some funny programmer tale that helped us imagine a pretty fun future or a light-hearted story about his hilariously wild pre-school aged son, he shared a story about his Rolex. The story wasn’t untrue or lacking authenticity. He really did have a Rolex and it really did keep notoriously bad time. But it was lost on all of us. We were more the Casio or Timex set.
What does this have to do with a Taylor Swift song? Well, in this case, everything, because Taylor Swift’s confessional song has all the trappings of being true to her life, one of extreme wealth, privilege and good fortune, despite her well-documented romantic difficulties. Most of the song is relatable with memories of churches, schools and bad perfume and muddy truck tires, much like most of the COBOL trainer’s stories, but she throws away all of that common ground when she sings, “So I’ll go back to L.A. and the so-called friends / Who’ll write books about me.” At that point, riff raff like us can’t see to the other side of the tracks where betrayal means someone you trusted gossips not on Facebook or Twitter, but in a published book that people in general will read.
In Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen candidly jokes that he’s made a heck of a living singing songs about working folks when that residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre is the first steady job he’s ever had. What’s interesting is that Taylor Swift’s song probably reflects her reality better than Springsteen’s reflect his own. But what he gets and what she fails to grasp is that the songs are not for him. They’re for the listener. Unlike Swift, Springsteen has eschewed fact in favor of truth, a truth his listeners, over several generations, can grasp.