I've tried to hold my ground against the onslaught of pop music. It slithered its way into our house three years ago, when my then-five-year-old daughter, Hannah, fell in love with Justin Bieber. How those inspired lyrics came into contact with her impressionable ears, I'll never know. What I do know is that even though she'd fallen asleep every night of her life to the likes of Nina Simone, Patti Griffin and The Swell Season's Glen Hansard (in an attempt at my own brand of subliminal infusion therapy) she was not provided a firm-enough musical foundation to put up a fight.
Her repertoire has evolved a bit since those painful Bieber days, but our iTunes library is still inundated with G-rated Katy Perry tunes and Taylor Swift's entire discography. "Is it my turn?" she'll ask from the back seat of the car. We cringe at the prospect of letting her choose the radio station, but we relent. Her insistence on having her own musical identity (even if it's clear to us that it's the same identity of every other 8-year-old girl in the world) has infected this family. Against our will, we know every Taylor Swift song by heart.
Recently, my love for my daughter—this amazing, brilliant, funny, captivating girl, the sun around which our family revolves—somehow convinced me that I wanted to see T-Swift in concert. Bad. I spent six solid days listening to U 104.5 in order to win tickets to see her in Salt Lake City. I count their sister station, The Trail's 103.3, as one of the very best things about living in Missoula, which makes me feel a little less terrible saying that for nearly a week, my ears bled with the sounds of Carly Rae Jepsen and One Direction. I had to wash my brain out with Jack White's Blunderbuss every night.
When they called to tell me we'd won, I became a screaming maniac—their ideal radio reactionary. We were going on a mama-daughter adventure to see The Red Tour, named for Taylor Swift's Red album, with its hit songs like "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together." Three weeks before the concert, I was hit with the reality of just what an adventure it was going to be. We would be taking a bus to Salt Lake. In all my excitement I'd missed that part: 1,052.6 miles on a Greyhound bus in the space of two days, with an 8-year-old.
The Saturday of the concert, we set out at 6 a.m. for a full day of cramped, diesel-fume-soaked seats, dirty Band-aids and used gum in window wells. I had to talk Hannah into peeing in the sloshy bus bathroom flying 70 miles an hour down the highway. We ate lunch sitting on the littered median between Pay Day Loans and Burger King in Idaho Falls. Hours and hours went by in a sanity-threatening blur of tic-tac-toe, coloring, Princess Diaries, clapping games, cards and the incessant, relentless questions of a second grader. The people across the aisle pulled out an enormous bottle of rum at 11 that morning. It made me nervous. Also, jealous. For nine hours, underneath all of the other things trying to capture my attention, one thought prevailed, rolling through my head like a pop song hook: This better be worth it.
I'd like to think I was cool enough even as a second grader not to be ensnared by pop music's catchy clutches, but the truth is, when I was a kid, pop music was mostly a vapid mess of synthesizers, neon and meaningless hooks. When I was eight, my musical tastes were still untethered, managing to miss the mall tours of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson. The '80s were too busy being fooled by Milli Vanilli to provide anything substantial enough to get me to stake my claim. I must not have heard the Beastie Boys for all the New Kids on the Block. My music obsession wasn't activated by those songwriters, with their "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" and their "Sunglasses at Night." I floated around in the ether until I heard "Close to Me," at which point I landed firmly on a ground littered with The Cure and The Smiths, all the delicious, angsty music of which pre-teen dreams are made. My daughter, however, was fully immersed in that pop music wonderland by the time she was seven.
And so it was that at 7:30 that night, we took our seats at the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City. I was enjoying the opening act, Ed Shereen—just a guy and his loop pedal. All Hannah could do was ask me when Taylor Swift was coming out. And then she finally did. The lights went down, that stage lit up and the stadium erupted—fireworks raining from the ceiling around Taylor Swift, the roar of 14,000 fans trying to transmit their adoration. Hannah was right there with them. She stood up on her seat and screamed, "THAT'S TAYLOR SWIFT RIGHT THERE!" finger pointed, amazed they were in the same room.
Two solid hours were filled with pyrotechnics, ballet dancers on pointe, bridges and platforms that lifted Taylor Swift 50 feet in the air so she could sing to us face-to-face, and an explosion of confetti that covered the stadium, a torrent of tissue paper hearts. Hannah screamed every word of every song, so earnest and mature. She kept looking at me, eyes glistening, "Can-you-believe-this-is-really happening?" plastered all over her face.
And, finally, I saw what she saw. Taylor Swift, all flowy arms and hair flips, heartbreak and healing, embodied the drama and wonder that often comes with being a girl. She is the one you listen to, dancing around your room with a hairbrush handle held up to your mouth. She is the one you put on full blast when your young heart is shattered, grateful that someone can speak the words on your behalf.
In between songs she talked about how mean people will always exist and that it's her job to find out how to rise above their words and deeds. She talked about being scared, about thinking too much, having a mind that was not always on her side and about how writing the truth is healing in real-time. Here was a girl with a gift for putting her teenage heartache into words so that my daughter might connect to the universal experience. And much to my surprise, my cynicism melted.
While I hope this spectacle of a concert has not ruined Hannah for just a guy and his guitar, while I hope one day she comes to love Bob Dylan, that some tiny fragment of Jeff Buckley hangs on in the recesses of her mind, I think I've surrendered. If Cyndi Lauper can go from "She Bop" to winning a Tony for best score, there's hope for my daughter yet.