[Editor’s note: In addition to being Head of Operations at the Rabbit Room, Chris Thiessen is an eloquent and insightful music critic. On his bi-weekly newsletter, Quarter Notes, he recently completed the epic feat of ranking every single Taylor Swift song.
Amazed by his fearlessness, we share here his words about Swift’s songwriting, the way that music marks our lives, and St. Augustine’s “hermeneutic of love.” Enjoy, and find the complete list at Quarter Notes.]
No artist has so soundtracked my journey from adolescence to early adulthood like Taylor Swift. I wouldn’t go so far as to consider her my favorite musical artist (I’m certainly not a raving Swiftie). Honestly, I don’t even believe in “favorite artists” as a concept. There have been many—Switchfoot, Kendrick Lamar, Brandi Carlile, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—who have profoundly informed my life thus far. But Taylor’s music just keeps marking my life—like the bold, vertical ticks of a timeline—dividing eras, helping make sense of the world in unsuspecting ways, and offering a marvelous time of it.
As I ponder why Swift’s music has resonated within me so, all the critiques of her career come to mind. Surely there are more adventurous musicians, more substantive lyricists, less flashy entertainers. Indeed, Swift has adhered to formulas, simple arrangements, and well-worn ideas throughout her career. But despite any truth in these critiques, I can’t shake her music off. And it’s occurred to me that the reason why is this: the most important ingredient to Swift’s career—the glue that binds her trajectory from country small-town pop to synthy big-city pop to indie-inspired folklore—is love.
Yes, love. Yes, it’s cheesy. Get over it. Let me talk about love (and a little theology) before getting to the ranking (which is really why you’re here, right?).
Swift has explored every corner of what it means to be human and to embrace, desire, and even despise love.Chris Thiessen
An idea that has stuck with me over the last year is something my friend Dr. Steve Guthrie encourages: living out of a hermeneutic of love in our lives. In other words, love should be the lens through which we are meant to see the world. It’s an idea that brings to mind St. Augustine as he talks about interpreting the Scriptures in his work On Christian Doctrine: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” Love—in interpreting the Bible, music, or the everyday experiences of our lives—might just be all we need, as the Beatles suggest. Perhaps it’s the whole point.
“I wanna be defined by the things that I love. Not the things I hate. Not the things that I’m afraid of,” Swift tells us at the end of “Daylight,” the closing song on her album Lover. Years earlier, on 1989 bonus track “You Are In Love,” she paints a scene of someone finding love for the first time: “And you understand now why they lost their minds and fought the wars / And why I’ve spent my whole life tryin’ to put it into words.” Here, Swift pulls back the curtain and reveals the modus operandi of her entire career: putting words to a world where love is the purpose.
Across her 15 year career, Swift has explored every corner of what it means to be human and to embrace, desire, and even despise love. In her early albums, she writes at length about fairytale love, the stuff of daydreams and Disney films. But Swift never blindly embraces the fantasy world. For every “Love Story” with its tragedy-turned-happy-ending, there’s a heartbreak where it’s too late for her Hollywood prince on his white horse to come around. In Swiftian folklore, there are sure to be enchanted evenings, but there are also slammin’ screen doors, pictures to burn, and teardrops on guitars.
This broken world never promises a happy ever after, and Swift leans into the pain of that reality often. She understands that grief is necessarily linked to love. It’s love that informs the deep mourning for a lost child on “Ronan,” or the desperate hope of “Soon You’ll Get Better.” It’s love too that fuels Swift’s anthemic (though sometimes heavy-handed or misguided) resistance to social pressures and inequalities on “You Need To Calm Down” or “Shake It Off.” And it’s love that, ultimately, causes sparks to fly and light up the darkest night. When it seems the pain will last forevermore, it’s love that comes “alive, back from the dead.”
As I think of how Taylor Swift’s career has soundtracked my journey, I’m thankful for the way she mines the depths of love imperfectly. She “gets it wrong” perhaps just as much as she “gets it right.” But who of us could say any differently? Love is messy. I know all too well that I get it wrong on a daily basis. I too have lots of regrets, but at least I’m trying. At least there is something to reach for, to hold on to when the sun goes down. Because no matter how many times I get it wrong, I know that love will get the final word.
So to celebrate the release of Red (Taylor’s Version), I’m taking a look back at Taylor’s 179 songs to date* and ranking them as best as I can. What I love about lists like this is that everyone’s lists look so different. Much of that is linked not just with our ideas of what “good” or “bad” music is, but what this music has meant to our own experiences of life, love, and grief. Everyone’s journey is different. And so my list here is humbly submitted. Don’t at me if your favorite song is 104th on my list. Or do…I like to fight about stupid things. Alright, without further ado…are you ready for it?
*Further ado: though some lists like Rolling Stone’s include them, I did not rank cover songs. Also, this list will be updated with the new Red (Taylor’s Version) songs soon, and I’ll write blurbs for every song on this list!