Friday, June 21, 2024

This Taylor Swift Song Encapsulates Grieving A Christmas Under Covid

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Before everyone forgets with the buzz of her second surprise album, Taylor Swift still has more material coming. She is currently re-recording the music that she released while signed to the Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) so as to gain the master recording rights to her songs. She recently teased this project because a snippet of ‘Love Story’ appeared in a commercial. Swifties are, of course, vibrating with anticipation, but the music industry is also interested. Depending on the project’s success, it could have a ripple effect on artists’ rights and master recordings, inspiring others to re-record their music. 

But what has always been lost among the re-recording hubbub is Swift’s rights to her non-album music. This music, separate from her six long-play (LP) albums, includes soundtrack singles and the two extended plays (EPs) that she released early in her career. Her first EP, The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection, remains her only Christmas album to date. That EP includes two original songs, ‘Christmas Must Be Something More’ and ‘Christmases When You Were Mine’. For this melancholic season, I recommend our readers update their Spotify playlists to include ‘Christmases When You Were Mine’ (CWYWM). With all of our holiday traditions disrupted and everyone isolated, I think this breakup song will ease some of that isolation, if just emotionally. CWYWM captures the grief of Covid because Swift vocalizes the unspoken grief associated with the holidays. It marks one of the earliest songs that demonstrate her focus on the intersection of memory, expectation, and distance as elements in heartbreak.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Swiftmas over here at The Fandomentals!

Taylor Swift Has Always Wanted Sad Prose:

Before I delve into Covid and CWYWM, I would like to outline how the song fits into her lyrical development.

Swift has gone on record several times (*pun not intended*) that she loves a good breakup song. Since the beginning of her career, she has creatively embraced the more vulnerable, morose experiences of life. And as I mentioned earlier, many of her beloved ballads deal with memory, expectation, and distance to varying degrees. These thematic centers began with her debut single all the way back in 2006, the lost-summer-love song ‘Tim McGraw’. The Nashville-name dropper built on a country music trope about the nostalgia of the genre and how songs affect memory. Written in her freshman year, as she processed the fact that her older boyfriend would leave her to go to college, Swift describes a summer romance and whose narrator asserts she “was right there beside him all summer long”. 

The narrator obsesses over how stimuli triggers memory as the song’s chorus lists out specific details in the relationship: Tim McGraw’s music, moonlit nights and lakesides, a little black dress, and a pair of “old faded blue jeans”. She asserts, “When you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think of me.” In the second verse she describes the aftermath of the breakup as the narrator cries alone, and the mention of ‘September’ implies the love interest left for school, knowledge that the characters suppressed until it was too late. Physical distance precipitates the subsequent emotional distance as the narrator gets on with her life. The song then culminates in the narrator returning to her ex-lover’s town in order to leave a letter on his doorstep, and this focus on geography — how time changes a place — accentuates the emotions for the bridge.

Even as she began to incorporate more pop, rock, and R&B into her oeuvre, Taylor Swift retained her country-based storytelling. These elements (memory, expectation, and distance) are most prevalent on RED, her “true breakup album”, as the record follows Swift processing a dead relationship, and Swift explores these themes in different ways on songs like ‘All Too Well’, ‘I Almost Do’, and ‘Sad Beautiful Tragic’. ‘All Too Well’ is arguably the central song on this album and in Swift’s songwriting. For example, Swift sings about a memory before admitting she pictured a future with the love interest, and during the extended bridge, she contrasts matching ‘plaid shirt days’ and intimate nights to the emptiness of walking home alone in the cold. The narrator obsesses over mundane details like in ‘Tim Mcgraw’, including past clothing, and Swift turns Chekhov’s gun into Chekhov’s scarf. 

Her subsequent full transition into pop was no different with the likes of ‘Wildest Dreams’ and ‘Getaway Car’.

Overall, Swift compares emotional distance to physical distance, thereby showing how they affect and/or exacerbate one another, especially when human vulnerability like memory and expectation color the story.

In addition, a recurring theme in her work focuses on the expectation woven into parties and the high life, how this expectation requires people to perform the ‘proper’ emotions. CWYWM is actually when she started to write about this theme, and as the isolation of celebrity began to seep into Swift’s life, coloring her lyricism, it has only become more prominent. On the deluxe edition of RED, she shatters listeners’ hearts with her song, ‘The Moment I Knew’. The song details her twenty-first birthday party and how her partner never showed, abandoning her to a humiliating night, fielding her friends’ questions about him. Then in her 2016 soundtrack single, ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’, Swift sings, “I’ve been looking sad in all the nicest places/I see you around in all these empty faces”. And in this year’s ‘this is me trying’ she asserts, “[I]t’s hard to be at a party/When I feel like an open wound.” Throughout her work, Swift implies the paradoxical immediacy of memory, the struggle to adhere to the performance baked into tradition.

The holidays provide the perfect backdrop for emotional juxtaposition as characters plaster smiles and well-wishes over any grief. Swift added that tension to ‘The Moment I Knew’ by mentioning Christmas lights, and last year’s original holiday song ‘Christmas Tree Farm’ opens with her singing about the stresses of adult life during this time of year, including the “holiday shopping traffic.” As I will lay out, CWYWM is not just a Christmas song, but a Swiftian song about Christmas. One that can ease emotional isolation for listeners.

The Most Haunted Time of Year:

On October 14th, 2007, Swift released her six-song Christmas EP as a Target and online exclusive under the name Sounds of the Season: The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection. Big Machine would later re-release the EP under the name it has now to other retailers. Nathan Chapman, with who she co-produced several albums, produced the entire EP. Swift wrote CWYWM with him and with Liz Rose, her longtime country co-writer. Before her Christmas Day performance on The Today Show, she explained that she wrote CWYWM specifically for the EP and to explore a different side of the holidays: 

“This song I think is really different because it’s a different spin on a Christmas song. My favorite kind of thing to write about is, you know, heartbreak or something like that. And a lot of times at the holidays you’re reminiscing about holidays past, maybe with people you’re not around anymore. And so this song is really special to me.”

In other words, memory’s power over us does not dissipate during the holidays; instead, it’s even more powerful due to the significance we put into the holidays and the traditions built around relationships — romantic or otherwise.

In the era of Covid-19, there’s an added layer of stress to the holidays as humanity has endured social and psychological isolation in order to flatten the curve. And this stress includes the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the selfish few who refuse to follow mask mandates or quarantine, leading to an uptick in cases after each holiday. The pandemic is, by all accounts, long-term trauma on a global scale. While heartbreak does not map exactly on to something as massively unfathomable and tragic as this pandemic, art and its flexible relationship to meaning means people can bring their interpretation to a piece. Losing an intimate relationship of any kind requires the grieving process, and art that validates the process helps listeners feel less alone. CWYWM as a breakup song provides that catharsis while also leaving enough distance from current times as Swift does not detail the specifics of the couple’s separation in the song. Listeners can fill in the blank (space) or not.

With that in mind, it’s been interesting to witness this pandemic, as I am a survivor of child abuse and haven’t spoken to my family in years, so I’m used to having readjust decades-long traditions. Seeing the world experience similar hypervigilance and its version of solitary celebrations has been validating. Professor Kristina Scharp, an expert in family estrangement, once discussed such dissolution as intangible and thus incomprehensible in our cultural understanding of family:

“It’s something we call ambiguous loss, where even though the person isn’t physically gone, they’re psychologically gone. And it’s extremely difficult, because it accompanies something called disenfranchised grief, which is where this grief isn’t acknowledged by people, so oftentimes, these people aren’t getting any support because it’s very hard to talk about.”

Scharp’s comments remind me of the narrator in CWYWM: her grief haunts her as she stands alone in crowded rooms, disconnected from the festivities.

‘Christmases When You Were Mine’ Reckons With Ambiguous Loss:

CWYWM sounds like a wintery night. The country-pop song is driven by acoustic guitar and Swift’s solo vocals, and the song’s sparseness in instrumentation and lyrics echo the narrator’s feelings of loneliness and emptiness. The steady yet heavy thumbing of the guitar provides a solid backdrop to Swift’s vocals and almost acts as a sonic representation of snowfall. And from the opening lines, Swift highlights the tension between memory and expectation. She sings, “Please take down the mistletoe/Because I don’t want to think about that right now.” The narrator doesn’t want to be reminded about Christmases past and past kisses, the related physical sensations, and memories. Expectation is wrapped up in tradition, and we relive memories in those traditions; comparing and contrasting the dinners, the jokes, the familial rituals. For those grieving, the expectation wrapped up in tradition serves as another reminder of the loss. Distance accentuates this tension.

After this set-up, the narrator then explains, “Because everything I want is miles away/In a snow-covered little town.” She has thus added detail to the scene and the theme of distance, the difference in location between the narrator and her ex symbolic of their breakup. Swift goes on to deepen this theme: “My momma’s in the kitchen, worrying about me.” So the narrator is also experiencing physical and emotional distance from her mother too, and for whatever reason, she can’t provide the support that the narrator needs.

The first verse concludes with the narrator addressing her ex: “Season’s greetings, hope you’re well/Well I’m doing alright/If you were wondering/Lately I can never tell.” Swift sings the first line as if singing by rote, reflecting the performativity of Christmas greetings. In the last line, the narrator also reveals her insecurity about the state of the relationship, and her anxiety is reminiscent of the silence when a person has been ghosted by another, the texts left on read. 

Here anyone processing the pandemic can find emotional resonance. We’re all missing someone who is miles away — we’re actually missing a whole social network of loved ones. And though the narrator and mother occupy the same building, there is the implication that they are disconnected emotionally, as they do not communicate. The pandemic isolation runs closer to home and the heart too, as people remain quarantined in their homes. At socially-distanced meet-ups, friends refrain from physical touch, their social skills eroded by isolation, while everyone marinates in awkwardness. In today’s world, people also have been reporting a growing disinterest or inability to keep up with loved ones, too exhausted for any level of digital social interaction.

When it comes to the chorus, Swift drops one of the shortest chorus sections in her discography: “I know this shouldn’t be a lonely time/But there were Christmases when you were mine.” The first line is about expectation, the second about memory. She distills the thesis of the song into two lines: expectation and memories speak to each other, sharpening each other over Christmas. This succinctness hints at so much, the narrator’s emotional glacier as she goes through the motions of celebrating, her mind constantly wandering away to happier times. It’s a fight to remain present in the moment, and CWYWM makes clear that Christmas doesn’t distract from the fight, it exacerbates the struggle.

With that in mind, the second verse develops on the first verse and chorus. It reinforces all the previous concepts while highlighting physical intimacy again but in a new way. Swift sings, “I’ve been doing fine without you, really/Up until the nights got cold/And everybody’s here, except you, baby/Seems like everyone’s got someone to hold.” The focus on a lovers’ embrace builds on the mistletoe imagery because the narrator can’t escape reminders (hence being fine up until the nights got cold) because expectation is omnipresent. Holidays, as a cultural phenomenon, teach us to associate celebration as exclusively social. Even birthdays, designated as a special day for an individual, centers around parties. We’re a social species after all. Accordingly, Swift follows with a second chorus to match: “But for me, it’s just a lonely time/Because there were Christmases when you were mine.” The slight change in wording means that this chorus is an explanation of the narrator’s loneliness: heartbreak and how the holidays are not experienced equally. 

As the pandemic drags out the remainder of 2020, people who minded quarantine have begun to socialize again, the comfort of the holidays added motivation to see loved ones. Those who found a way to be ‘fine’ this summer are beginning to kowtow to tradition. The cold, dark nights really do take their toll, especially since memories that can keep us warm can also burn with white-hot nostalgia.

Finally, the devastating Swiftian bridge comes and shreds listeners’ hearts because Taylor Swift enjoys tormenting her fans. Once again, the narrator alludes to the mask she wears by reminding listeners that she is socially obligated to perform: “Merry Christmas, everybody/That will have to be something I just say this year.” Swift sings the first line with an ounce of gusto as if to mimic the narrator’s vocalizations before her vocals restrain themselves again. Here Swift’s lyrical focus on memories takes over, as the narrator begins to recite personal details about her ex’s Christmas traditions, revealing how much she invested into the relationship: “I’ll bet you got your mom another sweater/And were your cousins late again?/When you were putting up the lights this year/Did you notice one less pair of hands?” And when listeners hear these details, they picture their own families, their own messy traditions.

The last memory about a ‘pair of hands’ hurts me every listen. In this moment the concept ‘ambiguous loss’ crystallizes for me as Swift demonstrates how the narrator may not have lost a partner to death, but the narrator still mourns a death. She has lost an entire way of living and must make new traditions. The lyric is also a continuation of the narrator’s doubt over her worth in the relationship, and it is the emotional inverse of her sentiment at the beginning of CWYWM. Rather than her wondering about his well-being, in these two lines, the narrator worries whether she mattered enough to her ex for him to think about her. Fittingly, the final chorus shows this progress of vulnerability: “I know this shouldn’t be a lonely time/But there were Christmases when I didn’t wonder how you are tonight/’Cause there were Christmases when you were mine.” The song drifts away as Swift repeats, “You were mine,” and the guitar reverberates as the strumming settles. In the end, that small town is miles away, but for the narrator, she wonders if she’s even further away in her ex’s thoughts. If her grief is disenfranchised, it’s partially because she’s no longer anchored in her partner’s love.

Since her debut album, Swift has balanced the personal and the universal in her writing, and CWYWM is an excellent example of this. This trademark gift of hers, honed in the Nashville tradition, thrives because of the human condition to compare, to contrast, and to insert ourselves into a narrative. We project ourselves into the stories in order to better understand ourselves. The pandemic has proven that — how we retreat into art for reassurance and for guidance. Overall, the CWYWM story shows how a person can experience disenfranchised grief at Christmastime. The narrator struggles with all the baggage wrapped up in tradition, and the world is now reckoning with the baggage we’ve all accumulated over the holiday season. 


Though her early Christmas music tends to be forgotten in the discourse, it has a solid legacy. For example, her cover of ‘Last Christmas’ remains a radio staple in December. And as part of its ‘21 Best Christmas Albums of the 21st Century’, Billboard ranked The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection at #18 and in another article named ‘Christmases When You Were Mine’ as the best Christmas song of 2007.

When praising folklore as quarantine art, Vulture noted, “[folklore] is an album populated by the kinds of thoughts we try to keep to ourselves these days – the pining for someone you can’t see, the wondering if you peaked in life as a child. Loneliness was the great equalizer in 2020[.].” Loneliness is definitely a main feature this December. CWYWM, even though it came out early in Taylor Swift’s discography, expertly cuts to the core of grief during the holiday season. Hopefully, Swift will re-record her two original Christmas songs and gain complete ownership over them, because her music truly has resonance forevermore. No matter the circumstance, there is a Taylor Swift song for that hurt.

Have strong thoughts about this piece you need to share? Or maybe there’s something else on your mind you’re wanting to talk about with fellow Fandomentals? Head on over to our Community server to join in the conversation!

Images courtesy of Taylor Swift Productions, Big Machine Label Group, and Entertainment Weekly

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