Today We Are Talking About Grief...and Taylor Swift
Swift's "marjorie" is a tender reminder that we never really lose anyone
Taylor Swift has always had an innate gift that allows her to perfectly imbue songs with distinct emotions by using hyperspecific details to create the sound of a feeling. It’s one of the things that has made her songwriting stick so hard and for so long, and it mostly recurs in her love songs – it’s difficult not to be affected by the momentary lovestruck fantasies of “Enchanted,” the intense passion of new romance in “Fearless” and “Sparks Fly,” and the touching partnership on display in “Lover.” But it’s when Swift dares to dive deeper into love and the things it attaches her to that her music adapts a true, shattering vulnerability. The most affecting Taylor Swift songs are the ones that ruminate on things that can’t come back once they’re gone: childhood, deeply toxic relationships, loved ones who are sick or have been lost to death.
On evermore, Swift’s ninth studio album and her third in just sixteen months, she doubles down on this kind of songwriting to conjure images more detailed than she ever has before. Her pen has never been quite so sharp – each song is its own world to sink into and, arguably, there is no filler material. Track 13 of evermore, “marjorie,” is named for Swift’s maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay, who died when Swift was just a teenager. To put it quite plainly, it’s one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking tracks Taylor Swift has ever written – not because it’s simply a tribute to her late grandmother but because it willfully expresses blunt grief and regret. The song remains relatively sparse on lyrical detail until its bridge when Swift launches into those trademark specificities to paint the finishing details on a portrait of their brief time together. “I should’ve asked you questions, I should’ve asked you how to be, asked you to write it down for me/Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt, ‘cause every scrap of you would be taken from me.”
This month marks three years since my own maternal grandmother passed away. Her name was Phyllis. Like Marjorie, it’s another kind of name that nobody really has anymore. She was a remarkable person, full of stories and rich memories from a life lived well. After raising five kids of her own, she was always actively involved in the lives of her grandkids, present for holidays and birthdays and special events. Christmas Eves were spent at her house, the members of my mom’s side of the family who were in town that year would gather for a long night of dinner and laughter, percolators of coffee passed around with cookie plates while my sister, my cousins, and I would sit at the kid’s table plotting that year’s Christmas program, a longtime requirement that had to be performed before a single present could be opened. We’d stand before my Grandma’s “Charlie Brown” tree, a moderate but modest fir adorned with ornaments that all had their own stories behind them. Our whole family would find themselves strewn about the living room, spread on cozy old couches (one called “The Davenport” by my Grandma) and sitting on the familiar mustard shag carpeting leftover from decades before. These are among my favorite and most tender memories, the kind I conjure up first whenever I think of my happiest moments being young.
Ten years ago was the last Christmas Eve spent at my Grandma’s house. She was getting older and the home was getting harder to maintain on her own. She lived alone after being twice widowed, but she was active and had her routines. As she grew older, though, she began to have troubles with her memory, somewhat occasional at first, but enough to be concerning. It was a hard thing to accept, our memories of our grandmother were so lively – it was difficult to reconcile that the woman who was sledding down snow-covered hills with her grandkids into her 70s might not be able to always keep up the way she had before. She moved into an assisted living home and Christmas Eve moved to our house, with Grandma Phyllis still in attendance, still present, and still as kind, sweet, and full of the same love she always was.
Time passed and I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, only coming home to visit once or twice a year, always at Christmas. By the holiday season in 2017, my Grandma’s dementia had worsened exponentially after an injury. In the weeks before her death, my mom asked me if I wanted to come to the hospital to see her. I thought about it for a long time but ultimately declined for the fear that it would be too hard for me to see her in that state, a far cry from the same person in so many memories. I’ve had trouble processing loss my entire life, and at this point I had been left raw after some long, trying years. I desperately wanted my memory of my Grandma to remain the thing that it always was, and I was afraid that if she didn’t recognize me that it would break something deep inside of me. But the thing I can see so much more clearly now is that I should’ve gone. I should’ve taken the chance to see her one last time and to say goodbye. I should have had more acknowledgment for my mom, who bravely spent months doing the very thing that I was afraid to do just once.
When I listened to that bridge in Swift’s “marjorie” for the first time last week, parts of it resonated deep within me. I wish I would have taken more time to ask my Grandma about herself and about life before I couldn’t anymore. I wish I would’ve had the foresight to write it all down and keep it with me so there wouldn’t be so much regret attached to relinquishing my final moments with her. When you’re young, it can be difficult to decenter your worldview to see your grandparents not just as family but fascinating figures who have endless stories and their own wisdom to impart. If I had known what lay ahead maybe I could have asked more. But I am fascinated by the brain’s ability to fill in the gaps, giving us the chance to see vivid scenes while dreaming that we can’t quite conjure ourselves when awake. Dreams are a chance to reconnect with lost loves and long-forgotten, fleeting scraps of memories that would be impossible to remember under the daunting weight of waking life.
A few weeks ago, I had a dream where my Grandma and I were seated around a dinner table with the rest of my family, everyone sharing stories together. I can’t remember anything that was said, but I remember her talking and laughing, and the warmth I feel from knowing that I could hear it in my dream lasts. In “marjorie,” Swift softly expresses a similar sentiment: “What died didn’t stay dead/You’re alive, you’re alive in my head.”
It reminds me of this old song by Bloc Party called “Signs” from their 2008 album Intimacy. It’s one of my favorite songs ever but in the kind of way where I have to quickly skip past it on shuffle because if I listen, I risk losing the whole day to it. In the song, a steady current of glockenspiel sparkles behind lead singer Kele Okereke’s thoughtful detailing of all the things he holds as evidence that a dead lover is still with him. “I can sleep forever these days, ‘cause in my dreams, I see you again,” he sings moments before the song unfurls into its trenchant lament. “At your funeral, I was so upset, so up-, so upset/In your life you were larger than this, statue-, statuesque.” It’s a devastatingly beautiful track, one that manages to convey grief’s full spectrum, just as Swift’s “marjorie” does. Both songs work to catalog and celebrate the smallest details of memories, the fragments that reappear briefly in dreams to let us know that the people we’ve lost are never really gone.
There’s a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, which I discussed on Monday, where Meryl Streep’s character is having breakfast with her nephew and telling him about a dream she had the night before about a friend who had died. “I was aware that I was dreaming, I was aware that this person was saying to me, ‘This is how we’ll communicate now.’ We never lose people.” It’s a quiet moment, almost inconsequential until the end of the film, but a powerful one nonetheless. I am always fascinated by how we all process everything differently depending on our experiences, but we’re defenseless against our dreams, sometimes to our detriment. We have no control over the images that our minds conjure while we sleep, we’re just simply a captive audience. It’s somewhat frightening, but also undeniably beautiful. Reconnecting with the past through lifelike visions helps us process grief, to learn from people we’ve lost while keeping them close to us when we can’t be with them anymore. I love songs like “marjorie” that detail this sensation so astutely. They serve not only as a reminder that no one is ever really gone but as an encouragement to hold your loved ones closer, to ask them questions, to hear their stories, to archive all of it. It’s one of the few moments on evermore where Swift returns to her own life to mine experiences that are transcendent enough to become staples in the hearts of listeners forever.
Thanks for bearing with me for a short essay about grief this week! Originally, I had some other topics in mind to write about today, but I just couldn’t stop sinking into this song while listening to evermore. Next week’s Friday letter falls on Christmas, so it will be pre-written and scheduled to go out Friday morning. I hope you all have a great weekend, and I’ll see you again Monday for another Top Shelf, Low Brow weekly ranking!