I’m not a big fan of long prefaces, but I think it’s warranted here because I’m breaking from tradition. When I started this blog, I often analyzed songs but for over a year I stopped. Now I am returning to song analyses. Basically, I quit because I thought music was prohibited in Islam and I am back because I now reject that view. I probably should do a post where I really break down all the arguments in my head, for and against, but this is not that post. I hope my readers realize the many challenges of writing to a mixed audience of Muslims and non-Muslims. I suppose I have some readers who could stop following me from now on because they disagree with me. Of course if they do so, that’s their prerogative. To put my position simply, the position that Islam bans all music strikes me as inconsistent with what I know of Islam. There is far too much musicality in the recitation of Quran, the calling of the adhan, and the poetry of the Companions for me to accept that a good Muslim eschews all music. Added to this is all the music in the natural world from the songs of birds, to the chirping of crickets, to the haunting melodies made by whales. I think humans have a musical impulse and Islam proposes to purify that impulse by urging people to choose the best of music. I think we are to reject the music that is crude, crass, offensive, and distasteful. What this means is that I choose to write about music, but only music that does not encourage drug (including alcohol) abuse and sexual abuse.
“All Too Well” as written by Liz Rose and Taylor Swift
I walked through the door with you, the air was cold,
But something ’bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister’s house,
And you still got it in your drawer even now.
Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze.
We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate.
The autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place,
And I can picture it after all these days.
And I know it’s long gone,
And that magic’s not here no more,
And I might be okay,
But I’m not fine at all.
‘Cause there we are again on that little town street.
You almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over me.
Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well.
Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turning red.
You used to be a little kid with glasses in a twin-size bed
And your mother’s telling stories about you on a tee ball team
You tell me ’bout your past, thinking your future was me.
And I know it’s long gone
And there was nothing else I could do
And I forget about you long enough
To forget why I needed to
‘Cause there we are again in the middle of the night.
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well, yeah.
Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much,
And maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.
Running scared, I was there, I remember it all too well.
Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise.
So casually cruel in the name of being honest.
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well.
Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it
I’d like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it
After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
‘Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can’t get rid of it, ’cause you remember it all too well, yeah
‘Cause there we are again, when I loved you so
Back before you lost the one real thing you’ve ever known
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well
Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all
Down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well
Here is a heartbreaking, evocative love song from Taylor Swift. In actuality, Swift shares creative credit here with Liz Rose, Grammy winning songwriter and frequent Swift collaborator. For better or worse, many of our favorite artists do not compose their work alone. But let’s not get so lost in assigning credit that we lose sight of the aching beauty of this piece.
What’s striking here is how these little pieces of memory are what makes this love so special in her eyes. There is the wind in her hair, the wild abandon of getting lost on a road trip, the photo album he showed her with pictures of him as a boy, an evening spent dancing in the kitchen, and the scarf, oh the scarf. As a scarf sometimes ties an ensemble together, the image of the scarf ties this song together.
At the beginning of the song, the scarf seems like a trifle, a throwaway. She mentions leaving her scarf at his sister’s house and it just seems meaningless. Yet the way she says he still has it “even now” makes me think she feels he’s held on to it more than a little too long. It’s like one shoe dropping making you listen intently for the other shoe to drop.
Also, she catches my attention when she says, “Maybe this thing was a masterpiece ’til you tore it all up.” She’s a very clever songwriter, perhaps the greatest of her generation, but I wonder if even she is aware of all she’s implying here. Yes, she thinks her love is something beautiful and she’s blaming him for ruining it, though the “maybe” makes her a bit kinder than she’s been in past break-up songs. It’s so easy to play armchair therapist and you rarely ever know if you’re right or wrong, but doesn’t it seem like she’s saying she wants her relationship to be something she can show off? You don’t make a “masterpiece” to make yourself a happy. You make it to show the world what a genius you are.
And then she just blows me away when she wails like a banshee on the line “And then you call me again just to break me like a promise.” You really have to hear this with your own ears to get it. This is the line that I anticipate for the whole duration of the song. It’s so confessional, it’s so vulnerable and yet it’s laced with venom. His words make her feel miserable, “breaking” her. But she’s gotten so used to it because he broke promises to her all the time. And then she hits a passive-aggressive home-run with “so casually cruel in the name of being honest,” using the assonance of promise/honest. He’s probably telling her things like she’s needy or she’s superficial which are probably what he honestly feels, but it’s so insulting to her that she classifies it as cruelty.
Now the scarf comes back. I wish I could pore over all of these details because there’s so much to be said for them all. But the long and short of it is that he nicked the scarf the first week they were together and he’s still holding on to it even though they’ve broken up. I love the way she says “’cause it reminds you of innocence.” I suspect he’s not even aware that he’s keeping it because it’s a symbolic token of an ideal that he has in some ways betrayed. He just knows he can’t let go. I can’t even quite pinpoint the emotion she’s feeling about it, though she seems much more self-aware. Does she pity him for needing her, or at least a piece of her, so much? Does she treasure the sweetness of a boy whose love extends past her, to even the objects she has touched? Or is she numb and analyzing this like a cold clinician, seeing the symptoms of a boy who now realizes the mistakes of his past? It could be any or all of those.
As she closes the song, the memories come flooding back. She sees the wind in her hair on their road-trip. She sees him dancing on her downstairs kitchen floor. “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.” The three-part structure of this line oddly reminds me of Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered.” And though Caesar was triumphant where Swift seems defeated, there’s something about the boom-boom-boom form of this that makes you think it’s just way too fast. Closing with “I remember it all too well” and of course using the title itself as a coda is just stellar writing. But also she’s vividly illustrating this thorny human problem of memory. By saying she remembers “too well,” she’s implying that she would like to forget. Perfectly understandable as the pain she feels is clear as day. But would she really? These moments seem so special, so dazzling in their beauty, that it seems like such a shame if she were to lose the memories of them. So what do you choose – do you forget even the best moments because they lead you to pain or do you remember even the worst moments because they’re wrapped in a bittersweet joy? Blue pill or red pill?