I’ve never kept it hidden that Taylor Swift’s Red is my favorite album of all time. Its supremacy is no secret to Swifties — the album is an established fan favorite, housing anthem “All Too Well” and exploring the complete range of emotion that accompanies a relationship, from the trepidation before you leap to the seemingly never-ending pain once it’s over. Widely regarded as the quintessential autumnal album, Red is something I break out to kick off my sad girl fall each year or sprinkle into my playlist when I need an emotional reset. Red has been an integral component of my life since its reveal during a livestream Q&A. It shed light into corners so dark I didn’t know they were there, helping me process grief I didn’t recognize. My freshman year self – the one who declared a major she knew was never going to make her happy and still jumped without a net – would never believe that nearly a decade later, I’d get a fresh start with the release of Red (Taylor’s Version).
When I think of Red, I’m transported back to Upstate New York late at night in mid-October 2012, sitting cross-legged on my twin-sized mattress surrounded by cinder block walls, reminiscent of stacks of dry ice. My eyes are closed, but not clenched shut. My shoulders are relaxed for the first time in days. My head is tipped back, EarPods securely in place, and “we learn to live with the pain, mosaic broken hearts” tickles my brain for the very first time.
A few songs later, I’ve shifted to my stomach, my ankles crossed in the air and my chin resting in my propped up fists. I’ve replayed the line: “Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it; I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it” 20 times, my face resembling the color of a sheet, and my eyesight suspiciously blurry. By the end of the record, I’m rigid on my back. My pillow is over my face, hiding from the darkness for no real reason when we get to, “Look at you, worrying so much about things you can’t change – you’ll spend your whole life singing the blues if you keep thinking that way,” followed shortly by, “Don’t you see the starlight? Don’t you dream impossible things?”
She craved the starlight, but had no clue where to find it.
Red came out when I was a freshman, suffering in silence over whatever was happening inside my head. I thought I should be grateful for the opportunity I had and suck up the despair I felt thinking about the years to come. And then little freshman Samantha – who had never been in a relationship, who had barely ever been kissed – was left devastated by an album explicitly written about love and loss. Somehow, it made perfect sense. If there’s one thing I love most about Taylor’s lyricism, it’s how vividly she paints the storyboard of what she’s relaying. I’ve devoured fantasies and fairytales for as long as I can remember, and Taylor’s ability to tell what equates to a full-length feature in a three-minute song has always felt like I was living in her memories or taking up arms alongside her. “Cold As You”? “Change”? “Long Live”? I was ready for war and everything that comes after it – even if I didn’t have the experience to explain why.
But while freshman Samantha may not have ever had her heart broken by the love of her life, in a way, she’d broken her own heart by pursuing a childhood dream that no longer felt like her future. She was desperate for a way to turn back time, to have the forewarning she needed to make what she felt, at the time, would have been better choices. She craved the starlight, but had no clue where to find it.
Already buried six feet under the loss of my passion, and constantly obsessing over all of the what-ifs past and present, I wanted to feel something – anything. When Red arrived two months into my freshman year, beginning again felt impossible. I fought to stay grounded, but struggled to maintain control. As I sat on that creaky twin bed, calm for the first time in weeks, I found myself not only reliving Taylor’s memories, but my own alongside them – memories that had nothing to do, at their core, with the story she was sharing. Somehow I could so easily translate them into my own sorrow.
I realized that growing up, moving on, and learning your lessons were themes that could be contextualized in any and all parts of life, not just love. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put into words the storm that raged within me for so long, but looking back, it feels like it was probably the teenage equivalent of a mid-life crisis. I already felt like I’d never accomplish what I wanted to. I couldn’t even buy alcohol yet and I felt like I’d irreparably failed both myself and those around me. College was the first time I was entirely responsible for myself — nobody would notice if I skipped meals or didn’t come back to my bed one night. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about how easy it would be to just run away into the night and never look back, but it was the first time I thought I could get away with it.
Red stuck with me as I tried to point myself in the right direction. The album poked holes in my grief and embodied emotions I couldn’t quite articulate. Listening to someone else detail the hope in their heartbreak helped me look for my own. I kept going back and forth about being honest with my family about how I was feeling, and Red helped me process these events. My own struggles were unrelated to its themes, but I held onto that thread of connection. And we’ve moved through life together ever since.
After graduation, I entered a completely unrelated field, later moving across the country alone. Each step of the way, Red was there, blasting in the background. The album was there for me when I wallowed in self-pity and didn’t know how to get ahold of myself. Taylor Swift was there when the seasons changed, and I felt the chill wrapping slowly around my spine as the sun set at 4:00 p.m.. And she was there when the cold finally dissipated.
Nine years and one month since that late night, I find myself once again living in a brand new place, with brand new storms battering brand new fantasies. The difference now is that I don’t keep them to myself. I know it’s not selfish to feel the things that I do, even if other people think my feelings are unfounded. While Taylor went on to release five more albums, for me, it’s always been Red. Almost a decade later, its impact has never once wavered. I don’t know what the next nine years and one month will look like, but I know I’ll have Red, in all its iterations. I can’t wait to hear Taylor relive these stories through both of our interpretations, as people who are no longer fractured into tiny pieces. And wherever I go next, it’ll act as my soundtrack.