Thursday, 1 June 2017

Taylor Swift Broke My Heart

On Drugs. All of them. Look at those eyes!
I used to be a Music Teacher. Now then – let me stop you there. Before you start the “Endless holidays, short hours, not a proper job” gubbins, I’ll just put you straight. Imagine this deliciously nightmarish scenario: You are alone in a room with 26, 11 year old children. All of them are standing behind cheap, Yamaha keyboards. Well maybe not all…three or four have got electric guitars plugged into unfeasibly large amplifiers. You have the task of teaching them all, at once, how to play a 12 bar Blues.  You cannot show fear. That is their food. Instead you gavotte around the classroom, forcing prepubescent fingers into the shape of a C chord whilst counting out loud “1..2..3..4” in an attempt to give the piece some sense of pulse. Whilst you do this, you are breaking up fights, praising the ones that are getting it and encouraging the ones who will, quite frankly, never be able to play the Blues if John Lee Hooker came back from the dead and gave them a series of one-to-one lessons. Possibly with a boxed set of instructional DVDs thrown in. And the noise. It makes Ornette Coleman sound like Boyzone. 26 slightly wrong versions of the chords C, F and G played slightly out of time. But loudly. Always loudly. 50 minutes later, mercifully it ends and the instruments are abandoned and off they scurry to terrify another poor teacher. Still think the jobs a doss…?
Now I know what Taylor Swift looks like!
But there were surprises. A lot of my job was the technical stuff. My colleagues were all properly trained classical musicians and (through no fault of their own) hadn’t much of a clue about how music got from the instrument onto a disc. That was left to me. This meant I got to listen to hours of student’s performances, ranging from the “pretty darned good” to the “do you even know what that thing you are pounding with your fist is called?” I recorded nervous, angsty compositions, thousands of covers of “Wonderwall”, drum rudiments, bass solos, lush piano ballads and an a Capella version of “Wild Thing”. Teacher would wheel ‘em in – I’d mic ‘em up, be encouraging and off we’d go. Something (often not, strictly speaking, Music) would be recorded. 

Here comes the point. Teacher drops off a 14 year old girl to record a performance. This meant she could pick any appropriate material for her range or instrument. “So, what are we recording?” says I, friendly but with just a hint of authority (I wish…) “Taylor Swift”. Taylor Swift. What’s a Taylor Swift? It sounds like a bird found only on the Isle of Man. “Oh, Taylor Swift”, says I, already massively out of my depth. “And what’s the song?” “Never Grow Up…and can you play the Guitar for me please?” I silently prayed that this Taylor Swift wasn’t someone who’d played for Frank Zappa for years that I’d forgotten about and mumbled something about chord charts. She had the song on her phone. Of course she did. At the time, every teenage girl came pre-packaged with a pink Nokia, bristling with low res, Pirate Bay supplied, Avril Lavigne knockoff tunes. So I settled back to listen to a bad version of song I’d hate through a speaker smaller than a penny. Sigh. Keep smiling…lunch next period and it’s Rogan Josh Lasagne today. No, really. They did that at my school. Multi-cultural much? She pressed the tiny button and some rather nicely played acoustic guitar forced its way out of the Poundland speaker. Then the vocal…how old is this girl? “Taylor Swift wrote this didn’t she?” The student nodded. By now, she knew I was bluffing, I’m sure. But something really struck me about the lyric. Even in the least salubrious circumstances, I was finding this quite moving, For you non-Swifties (cough), the song is about wishing that your child would stay three years old forever and never have to deal with all the trials and tribulations of modern life. As a father of two children (7 and 9 years old at the time), this sounded like perfection. Can you imagine – days full of simple wonder, everything new, every object a toy, every person a playmate? I got three quarters of the way through the song. “I’ll have to get a Guitar from the storeroom”. And when I got to the storeroom, I had a little cry.
A lot of my response was due to the fact that it was such a surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting what I got by a country mile. Diligently, I grabbed the schools’ only working Guitar, got the chords via Ultimate and off we went. She did a bang up job. While I artlessly plunked away, she sang in a light, breathy alto voice, with just the right amount of vibrato. Not showy. Not X Factor. Just right. She left a few years ago. I hope she’s still singing. She had a gift. And good taste.
We forget how powerful Music is. No matter what you think you are and how you think you should react, Music will always find the truth in you. You can claim you hate U2, but when you hear the opening notes of “I Will Follow”, you’re strumming your belt before you can stop yourself. I could leave my chair and pull out recordings by Neu! Miles Davis, The Clash and the MC5. These are recordings that I love…but none of them has ever made me cry. It took Taylor Swift to do that.

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