a late-night love letter to taylor swift’s folklore

for taylor swift

when was the last time I listened to an album from the first track to the last, no pauses, no skips, no shuffling, no multi-tasking, and with my eyes closed? maybe it was six years ago when “1989” came out on my graduation night from nanyang.

folklore,” in its entirety, is sixty-three minutes. i can’t imagine trusting another artist this much, to take her hand and enter into a sonic world of her making, leading me through sixteen snapshots of her stream of consciousness. i can’t imagine either caring enough to discern each lyric in a song, afraid to miss a word. it isn’t often that words move me in a song; i’ve always been more of a melody person. but when it comes to taylor, her lyrics are everything.

i still remember at the age of ten when my classmate called me on the landline and screamed over the phone that i had to watch the music video for a song called Love Story this very instant — not a moment more, she was going to hang up now, and i had to do so in the next breath. i did. i fell in love instantly, with how i could hear an entire story in a handful of verses and how iconic a bridge could be (Romeo proposes, thank God). even now, i close my eyes and the flashback starts.

her lyrics have done more than simply accompany me through my childhood and teenage years; they amplify the highs and the lows, putting into words what i don’t know how to say — I’d Lie for how I would never confess a word about my crushes in elementary school, The Way I Loved You for new year’s eve resolutions, Come in With the Rain and Cold As You for angsty bus rides and fights with best friends, Long Live for vibrant encounters and nostalgic goodbyes, Breathe, If This Was a Movie, Back to December and All Too Well for nonexistent heartbreaks and youthful melodrama, Enchanted and You Are in Love for moments brimming with attraction and racing heartbeats. taylor isn’t the most poetic lyricist out there but the most relatable.

folklore” is a complete pivot from “Reputation” and “Lover,” in a good way. no more trap, slick synth-pop, EDM, radio-friendly bubblegum pop! taylor’s quiet storytelling is back, stripped to the bare minimum, the closest we can get to hearing how the song sounded in her head. it’s no longer as angry or dreamy as her previous two albums. it’s a sad, moody album — contemplative, introspective, and strangely (for a swiftie) no longer as autobiographical. as taylor herself writes, in her prologue letter below, these songs are an escape into fantasy, history, and memory. this time round, she inhabits characters, excavates their untold, innermost thoughts, and writes them out in the sky for all to behold. and maybe because she is in the skin of these characters, the lyrics are more vulnerable than ever — subtle but still plaintive, unencumbered enough to be truly intimate. the lowercase aesthetic of the album (every track is in lowercase!) suggests a chill nonchalance: at last, taylor swift doesn’t care; at last, she eschews the ‘I’ (à la bell hooks). she frees herself from the intense scrutiny on the self to simply tell a story.

the hazy mistiness of “folklore,” from its black and white album image in a forest (taylor diminutive amidst giant tree trunks) to the dusky piano by the flickering fireside in Cardigan, permeates the lyrics too. her songs this time are rambling, no longer as precisely engineered.

i love the ambiguity, the messiness, the open-endedness. what matters is not the kernel but the haze, as Joseph Conrad tells us:

…to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine

Heart of Darkness

my favorite points of the album are those hazy moments, lingering on the periphery of a chorus, hitting me in the gut.

***

the 1

the best taylor swift album opener since State of Grace (“Red”).

“In my defense, I have none / For never leaving well enough alone.”

the last great american dynasty

the delicious tidbits!!!

a life story in three minutes and fifty seconds. the devil’s in the details, truly — i guess when you own an infamous mansion with provenance, you can write a hella good song about even your house? reminds me of Starlight (“Red”), which is about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy.

i can tell that taylor admires Rebekah Harkness, her unabashed wildness, shamelessness at being called the maddest woman in town, and most of all, how she had a marvelous time ruining everything.

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

the neighbor is Dali. i rest my case. she is a genius.

exile

one of my favorite songs on the album. the duet with Bon Iver is devastating. the analogy of exile for heartbreak is pitch-perfect.

I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?

You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out

I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

seven

the folksiest, most spectral song on the album. also a solid favorite. i love the whimsical whispers, the garden and space imagery (“Love you to the moon and to Saturn“), the wilderness and nostalgia. gives me sad, wistful Bridge to Terabithia vibes, which i cried over as a kid.

Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me

Please picture me in the weeds
Before I learned civility
I used to scream ferociously
Any time I wanted

august

surprisingly, the line that guts me the most isn’t the gorgeous sentence in the chorus— “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine” — but the part in the bridge.

wanting is enough. so true, isn’t it?

Wanting was enough
For me, it was enough
To live for the hope of it all

this is me trying

And it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound
It’s hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you
You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town

the cinematic motifs have been constant throughout her career — If This Was a Movie! — and the line above is like a one-horse town moment.

and this one line: “I got wasted like all my potential.” oof.

illicit affairs

the last verse saves the song. i wish i came up with this line: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this idiotic fool that you made me
You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else
And you know damn well
For you, I would ruin myself
A million little times

invisible string

in chinese folklore, the lunar god of matchmaking connects a red thread of fate between soulmates (千里姻缘一线牵,万年修来共枕眠), no matter the distance — an invisible cord that may tangle (knots symbolize hardships and obstacles) but will never break, leading lovers to their destined encounter. the mythic imagery pulsates in this song, winding through curious, mystical, wondrous time.

also, the bridge is taylor swift at her peak:

A string that pulled me
Out of all the wrong arms, right into that dive bar
Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire
Chains around my demons
Wool to brave the seasons
One single thread of gold
Tied me to you

mad woman

makes me think of Wide Sargasso Sea (reviewed in on my desk) and Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. women and hysteria are perennially linked themes — madness is often essentialized as a female trait, a defiant subversion of the patriarchy that must be suppressed, and dubbed a “wrong” in the face of scientific rationality which grounds modern civilization. the mad woman, as a literary character that haunts the texts by numerous female authors and now taylor, is the author’s double, the incarnation of rage that finds no easy release without violent protest.

an excellent essay on the topic is Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

betty

teenage me would gobble this up. now, it just makes me nostalgic for the Tim McGraw and Our Song days, when i had short hair and was anxious about bumping into certain boys from across the bridge.

hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason'” — listen for this single line.

another go-to breakup ballad for the ages. i love this song so much, gets better with every listen.

and thus “folklore” ends with these final lines:

My only one
My kingdom come undone
My broken drum
You have beaten my heart
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do

***

like taylor, in isolation my imagination has run wild. how to pull from solitude the utmost depths of ardor? taylor confesses, weaving magic: embody other lives, dream about past selves, wonder about missed turns and broken glances, delve into parallel universes, brush the dust off aged secrets and forgotten desires, and follow the thrust of emotion towards its unfinished expression.

thank you, taylor, for your music.

and also, thank you to your music for always being so crushingly, achingly, gloriously romantic.

lots of love,

Thanksgiving with Books and BBQ

Professor David Carrasco

With Profé Carrasco (from Hum 10)!

What’s in your magnitude?

What’s in your library?

What’s in your details?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

This break, I’ve been on campus: empty cobblestone streets, a handful of lit windows in the wintry night, closed restaurants and libraries, vacant laundry machines — solitary, quiet, and kind of really nice.

I’ve been reading and reading and writing and writing. I’ve been to Widener more in the past two weeks than I have in my entire college career. Belated discoveries, two years late to be exact:

  1. Harvard libraries have no borrowing limit.
  2. Most books can be automatically renewed, up to five times.
  3. Each loan has the duration of an entire semester.

A heap of 13 library books on my desk.

What’s on my mind: Arjun Appadurai’s postnational imaginary, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, globalization theory, nationalisms (trojan nationalism, spectral sovereignty, long-distance nationalism…), cosmopolitanisms (plural!), migration statistics (the world on the move; a future where migration would be the norm), and my novel-in-progress which I’ve snubbed for the past few days (urgh).

Thanksgiving Day is in the details: 7 plates of beef, 238 new photos on the camera roll, the smell of barbeque on my scarf and my hair, tongs and chopsticks poking sizzling ribs and lean cuts on the charcoal grill, 3 types of matcha desserts, flushed faces under a red lantern, cool noir outside the timber panes, belting out Mamma Mia on ghostly pavements, and continuing the freshman tradition with Marwah. ❤️

marwah and selina 1

Thanksgiving. I think of things ending and starting. A semester that flies by too fast. We can’t even catch five days and cup them in our hands long enough to count them. I blink and everything is over. Two days later, Cambridge will snow. Two days after, classes will end.

The lantern burns bright. The glow accompanies me into the dark night. Thank you, you, and you for the rosy warmth and the guiding light.

And thank you for reading ✨

Selina thanksgiving

Lots of love,

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Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

IMG_6775

LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

selina marwah mamma mia

MAMMA MIA! ❤

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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[Late night thoughts] October is unraveling…

First things first: I’m listening to Lana Del Rey’s The greatest on loop.

No other song has been able to put me more immediately in the mood of my novel than these guitar strums. The tint of melancholia conjures to mind the moment of nearly unbearable light, the breath right before sunset.

On Sunday, I was padding around my room in socks. A tragedy would ensue. I hereby reconstruct the scene for you:

I lounge on my purple floor chair. I get up to grab my phone on the desk, slightly out of reach. My fingers graze the Le Petit Prince phone case. The next thing I know, the world tilts on its axis. My socked foot slips. My weight bears down entirely on my left ankle. My phone lands next to me. But all I can think of is: Holy, I’ve not been in this much pain. Ever. 

For a few moments I don’t even breathe.

Two minutes or twenty minutes later, the blinding tide subsides. My fingers fumble for my phone and I play The greatest. My nails dig into the soft flesh of my palms. The world quivers, but there’s no demolition. I’m not pulverized or crucified. Hell, it’s only a sprain. But as the music fills the heady space, and a foggy, forlorn voice washes over me, I am baptized.

***

Let me indulge in melodrama now that we’re halfway through the Fall.

At first, just a loose thread or two. Now, with that fall, I might have wrested a thread from its knots and the entire tapestry comes apart at the seams.

My parents say, “Don’t look at things as a series of unfortunate events. They aren’t related. If you ponder one thing, holding it alone on your hand, you see the way it glints under the light. If you pick and choose all the bad things and gather them in a pile, you will feel overwhelmed with the sheer thought of that soggy mass.”

I guess they are talking about silver linings. Or compartmentalization. Or seeing a glass half full.

But I just feel lost. Everything is at a standstill or hazily in progress. My procrastination never gets better. My novel doesn’t get written. I have no idea what I’m doing next summer. I fall asleep at 4am. I received a bad paper grade. I submitted two things late. I’m actually on crutches for the first time ever in my life.

I want to pinch each of them and dangle it before me. Murmur to it fiercely: Disappear! Run far far away.

Still, right now, I’m humming and suddenly in a good mood.

Weird.

sprained ankle

Good night, with love,

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