Monday, September 21, 2009

Swift current

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to make sense of a pop song – and her life

The Maria Chronicles, # 12

“Back in sixty seconds with Taylor Swift,” the deejay says between commercials.

All right then, Maria thinks as she sits in her Prius at a red light at 7:46 on a Monday morning, I’ll stick around. I’m curious about this Taylor Swift.

Maria has a vague notion of her. Some song about Romeo and Juliet she hears now and then on the light FM radio stations she’ll put on when she isn’t listening to NPR. Pretty hackneyed; Daddy has to give the girl away and the happy ending doesn't quite square with the Shakesperian tragedy. But the melody is undeniably catchy. Maria was surprised recently when the Times ran what seemed like a pretty respectful review of a Taylor Swift concert at Madison Square Garden, written by one of the male reviewers.

The thing that’s really piqued her curiosity, though, is the whole Kanye West brouhaha at that awards ceremony. She saw the clip of him interrupting her acceptance speech to say that Beyoncé should have won best video. What a jerk. Couldn’t quite accept the possibility that a white girl doing country deserved an award. (Beyoncé was a class act when she won something else, handing over the microphone to Swift like that – Maria has always liked her.) As a Latina, albeit a relatively culturally conservative one, Maria knows plenty about white privilege, having witnessed it up close for much of her life, long before there was a term for it. But sometimes she finds herself wondering if there isn’t such a thing as black skin privilege, too. That toxic combination of entitlement and aggrievement she hears in the voices of those rapper guys. She can’t say she pays attention to the lyrics blaring from cars and hallways before and after school. But that’s what she hears, and Maria considers herself to have a pretty good ear for voices.

She realizes her irritation is distracting her from the song, which is well underway.

She wears high heels, I wear sneakers
She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers
Dreaming bout the day when you'll wake up and find
That what you're looking for has been here the whole time

Maria is charmed. Nothing remarkable here in what the singer is saying, but there’s an emotional directness she finds appealing (she’s reminded of Miley Cyrus and that clichéd extended metaphor of mountaintops – give me a break). And the ache in that voice when she sings "you belong with me": Maria loves the power of the emotion. Like the exasperation in Avril Levigne's "So Complicated" or the anger in Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know." It's true.

Of course she’s inclined to like the song because she can relate to it. She thinks about a boy she knew in tenth grade, Johnny Hoffmann. Johnny was in the middle of this intense relationship with Erica Fass, but Maria was crazy about him – she can still see those crystalline green eyes whose very elusiveness made him maddeningly attractive. They became friends, even confidants. Maria pretended to be interested in the conjunto music her mom played all the time because she knew that Johnny liked it. They talked about it at the end of that year at a party at Connie Alvarez’s house when Johnny and Erica were in the middle of one of their big fights. Maria and Johnny must have kissed for an hour in the laundry room at Connie’s – Maria smiles at the memory – but the next day Johnny pretended it never happened and she later learned that Erica and Johnny got back together again over the summer. God, that hurt, and the hurt of his cool distance lingered until she graduated two years later. Does Taylor Swift have a song about that, too? She’ll have to ask Felicia next time she calls. Evan will tell her that she should just download the album on the iPod he bought her for Christmas – “Time to enter the 21st century, Mom,” he told her, a dig that undercut the generosity of his gift – but she’d rather have the CD so she can play it in the car. They probably have it at Barnes & Noble; she can get it when she picks up her drycleaning after school.

Johnny. That was a long time ago – before Roy, before Brian, before Mark, from whom she expects she will be officially divorced any day now. She heard a couple years ago that Johnny is living in San Antonio with his wife and two daughters, running his dad's old Ford dealership. She thinks of the man she’s seen a couple times in the cafeteria, balding but trim, slacks and dress shirts, sleeves partially rolled up. Clean-shaven, and a kind face that breaks into a smile quickly for students and colleagues. She doesn’t even know his name, much less whether he’s married. But this is not the time for any of that, she reminds herself as she makes a right and approaches the school.

As she does, she sees her star pupil, Wilhelmina, a.k.a. Willie, heading up the sidewalk to the main entrance. Willie’s hunched over a backpack that looks like it’s crushing her and bears a grim expression in marked contrast to the animated child Maria typically sees. Apparently Willie is like Maria herself, most fully alive in the classroom. Not really a pretty girl, tall, pale, flat-chested and a little scrawny, Willie’s warm personality has always made her appealing in Maria’s eyes. But will the boys see it? “Hang in there, Willie,” she says aloud. “Time is on your side.” Yet even as she says this she sees a melancholy middle-aged Willie, tired and a child no more.

Maria pulls to an abrupt stop in a parking space at the back end of the school, and lurches a bit from hitting the brakes too hard, killing the ignition and cutting off John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” midstream. The queasiness of this hard landing sticks with her as she grabs her briefcase and slams the door. What -- like it has for you? she asks silently, unexpectedly bitter. Has time been on your side, Maria?