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What I've Learned from 13 Years of Listening to Taylor Swift's Song, "Dear John"

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

I can still recall the whimsical, purple daydream of a display for Taylor Swift's new album, Speak Now, at my local Target in 2010. I had been grocery shopping with my mom when we came across the magnificent surprise. As we walked over to take a look, I picked up one of the CD's and handed it to her for approval. After getting the "ok," I gently laid my new prized possession in the shopping cart and watched it carefully as it made its way through check out and back to our car.

On the drive home from Target, I shoved the CD into our car's disc player and my mom and I began to listen. We get through a few songs before we arrive home and have to unload the groceries. After I help, I run up to my room to listen to the rest of the CD on my own.

As if it were kismet, the song to be played next would be a song that changed me forever. I pressed play and the looming glow of a distorted guitar string rippled threw my ears. Instantly, my excitement turned nostalgic, as the anger I had buried long ago, rose again in fury, flooding out from the gates of hell.

I listened, as Swift sang, "Long were the nights when my days once revolved around you..."

At just 11 years old, I thought I had yet to experience the true, unrelenting pain of heartbreak, but as I listened to the song, I was no longer so sure. I could understand every word she sang. Every note she bellowed. Every time she paused to take a breath. It was poetic. Purposeful. Poignant.

As time went on, I never forgot this song, nor the moment I first heard it. Throughout high school, it became my go-to, as I worked to repair my heart, after awkward and juvenile boys happily ripped it apart, and friendships I had held sacred for years, fell victim to the allure of popularity.


 

Since Speak Now was originally released in 2010, it has been almost 13 years (Coincidence? I think not). And it is only now, over a decade later, that I have begun to contemplate what it truly means to have listened and loved a song as profoundly devastating as "Dear John" at only 11 years old.


As a social worker and therapist, I have had the opportunity to work with kids from a range of different backgrounds.

It is through my work that I've been able to watch as children, much like myself at their age, fall in love with emotionally cataclysmic songs that transcend far beyond their years.

Oftentimes, these children have come from broken homes and experienced more pain than anyone ever should. With these songs as solace, they have used music to help them process emotions they were unable to articulate. They have identified with the stories shared by artists like Tupac and Lana Del Ray, that capture the insurmountable pain caused when a person who's supposed to love us, decides to hurt us, instead.

What kids take away from these songs can be the most important factor in their healing. Some songs illuminate on the "naïve" nature of people who decide to trust again after betrayal, while others describe the painful, but necessary courage it takes to continue believing people are mostly good. While we can hope kids take away the latter message, the former is usually where most of us sway. To protect ourselves from future pain, we put up walls rather than trying again, because being alone and unscathed is far easier than building back our strength, just for someone to potentially hurt us again.

What this shows me is that music can have a profound impact on both the formation and solidity of identity. While listening to sad songs can be like the chicken or the egg situation, wondering which came first - the depression or the sad songs- the same remains true regardless:

Sad songs have the power to hold us hostage in our pain.

What once was a safe haven, can also be what leaves us destined to similar hurt and heartbreak in the future.


That is, unless we re-write our story.


What once was a truth, doesn't always have to be. Just like how these artists have gone on to write beautiful and hope-filled songs after their heartbreaking hits, so too can we move on from our pain and life the lives we once dreamed about as kids. All it takes is courage.

 

So what does this all mean? Should we stop listening to sad music? Of course not! The songs that make us feel are immensely cathartic and can help us through the most painful experiences. Instead, what we need to learn is that pain does not define us. Our sadness does not have to be our only truth. Turning to a sad song in a time of misery is only natural. But instead of remaining in this place, we need to push ourselves to listen to the other sides of the story; The ones that give us the motivation to keep going.

For a long time, I believed I was destined to be bullied and pulled apart by those I loved most, held hostage by my own misery. I don't think this way anymore.

I believe that I can have the love that Swift sings about in her songs, "Lover" and "New Years Day."

I also know that I am more than what others say about me, thanks to her songs, "Mean" and "Mad Woman." I've felt powerful as I blasted, "The Man," driving to work in the morning. And I've used "I Knew You Were Trouble" to protect myself from starting unhealthy relationships again..

Just like Taylor Swift has controlled her narrative and taken back what was rightfully hers by re-releasing her first six albums, so too can we control how much we take from the songs we love. While "Dear John" has and always will hold a special place in my heart, I've learned that I don't need to be the victim anymore. I don't have to establish relationships with people who aren't kind to me. And I definitely don't need to have people in my life who push me to a place where I'm listening to depressing songs on repeat, alone in my bedroom.

I've rewritten my narrative from "the girl in the dress" who "cried the whole way home," to the girl "shining like fireworks" over the "sad, empty town(s)" of those that ever made me feel less than.


Here's to you all, as you re-write your narratives, too.


Written by: Megan Fordon

July 7th, 2023

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