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What Taylor Swift taught a 39-year-old ex-jock

Taylor Swift performs on stage at the British Summertime gigs at Hyde Park on June 27, 2015, in London, England.
Taylor Swift performs on stage at the British Summertime gigs at Hyde Park on June 27, 2015, in London, England.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

I should have been watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday night.

I'm a former college baseball player. I've attended two Midsummer Classics — Camden Yards in '93 and Fenway Park in '99. I even went to a major league stadium on Tuesday night: Nationals Park in Washington, DC. And if you follow pop music the way I follow baseball, you just discovered my secret.

I charged a Taylor Swift ticket to my man card. And it was worth it.

She's a class act who puts on a great show and manages to deliver messages about self-worth and self-empowerment while touching on universal struggles that anyone can relate to, no matter their demographic. Yeah, I'm proud to call myself a Taylor Swift fan.

"Don't say I didn't, say I didn't warn ya'"

I should start at the beginning.

My wife was a little surprised last winter when I called to say I was planning to buy four seats to see T-Swift, or TS, or Shifty Swifty, or whatever the kids are calling her these days. We've been together for a dozen years and had never been to a major concert together. The last act we'd seen as a couple was Gordon Lightfoot.

At first, I lied to her — and to myself. I had priority access to buy the tickets because I'm a Washington Nationals season ticket holder, and I reasoned that it only made sense to take advantage of the opportunity. Surely we could hock them at a profit, I told Stephanie. Or perhaps sell them to friends at face value.

Worst-case scenario, I said, we'd just go with another couple and chalk it up in the "new experience" column. Stephanie was all in for the Taylor tickets, and I suspect she knew something that I wasn't fully ready to admit to myself: I wanted to go.

"What you're looking for has been here the whole time"

Taylor Swift performs at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, July 14, 2015.

Jonathan Allen/Vox

The recurring device of Swift's big hit songs is a character who is shunned, and whose love is often unrequited, because of her perceived flaws. Usually the character ends up comfortable in her own skin, whether or not she gains the acceptance she seeks. This theme isn't unique to Swift; it's a staple of music, literature, and film. There might even be a Gregorian chant along these lines.

I think the main reason I like Swift's lyrics is that I find her characters so easy to identify with. That may sound strange because she's usually writing about women, or at least from the perspective of a woman. But her characters' struggles are universal, and she's vivid in her descriptions. The contrasts between high heels and sneakers, or a cheerleader and a fan, are evocative.

I can remember, back in high school, wondering why a certain girl was head over heels for another guy when I thought — and prayed — we'd make a better match. I suspect most adults have similar experiences and now smile at the memory of what was once so painful because it has been overcome, because they've grown more comfortable with themselves.

In the music video for "You Belong With Me," Swift is looking in the mirror when she sings, "What you're looking for has been here the whole time."

Don't get me wrong: I don't want to ascribe some super-deep meaning to pop songs. Just the opposite. Swift is an effective messenger because what she's saying is simple, straightforward, and inclusive. That gives her a lot of influence, particularly with girls and young women, and she should be applauded for reinforcing positive messages about self-worth.

"On the outside looking in"

I already mentioned that I felt a little dent in my man card when I bought the tickets. As the date of the show approached, I became a little more apprehensive about what going to a Taylor Swift show said about me. That's all tied up in the politics of masculinity. Guys spend a lot of time trying to out-macho each other, and one way in which they do so is to challenge each other's manliness.

For example, I played American Legion baseball with a guy who, every time one of his teammates failed on the field, would shout at the top of his lungs, "Lift your skirt, Alice." None of them was named Alice, and all of them were on his team. Thankfully, this behavior stopped abruptly when he struck out one day and was greeted by a chorus of "Lift your skirt" from the mothers of his fellow players.

I suspected I would take some gentle ribbing from my friends for volunteering to go to teenybopper land to hear a pop diva, and I did. Usually just a smirk or a raised eyebrow. When I tweeted a picture of the stage Tuesday night, one of my friends tweeted at me, "Taylor Swift > all star game?" None of it was ugly. We're all adults. But the risk that testosterone levels will permanently drop upon entrance to a Taylor Swift show is as commonly understood among many men of my demographic as it is untrue. Though I did notice that when I went to a restroom equipped to handle about 40 men at a time, only three were there. At the same time, lines for the women's bathrooms spilled out onto the concourse.

There were other signs that Stephanie and I — who were joined by Stephanie's friend Erika and my sister, Amanda — were a little out of place heading into the concert. For starters, when I picked up Steph at home, she was wearing a Diane von Furstenberg dress. I guess DVF will "never go out of style" — but to a ballpark for a pop concert? We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant near the stadium, like good little yuppies. Before the show started, Stephanie and Erika started talking about leaving early. And the merchandise stands didn't have any T-shirts in my size.

"A place in this world"

I haven't seen a lot of live musical acts, but I can say I've never seen anyone — not the Dead, not U2, not the Who, and not Lenny Kravitz (all of whom are great at crowd interaction) — put as much energy into wrapping the audience into the show as Taylor Swift did.

There were threats of severe thundershowers. Swift came out on stage almost an hour earlier than we expected, having asked her warmup acts to truncate their performances to try to get in the show before the rains. One fun wrinkle on this tour is that she keeps bringing out other stars to sing their top hits. We got to see Jason Derulo perform "Want to Want Me."

For "You Belong With Me," she grabbed a guitar and made her way out to the end of an enormous plank that ran deep into the crowd, playing and singing without accompaniment. She knew how to emphasize a top hit by letting the crowd join her in singing.

She played for two hours without any real lull. I didn't care for the interludes when she spoke to the crowd about self-worth, but, as I noted above, I see the value in them. And she ended on an electric note, punctuated with fireworks, by singing "Shake It Off" as her encore.

By the end of the concert, this 39-year-old ex-jock felt pretty included. So, as I think about the All-Star Game I missed, and the potential humiliation of calling myself a Taylor Swift fan, this is what I've concluded: "The players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate (haters gonna hate). I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off."

And when I attend the 2018 All-Star Game at Nationals Park, I'll have a fond memory of the Taylor Swift show I saw there.


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