Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rocktober: "The Monsters Were Just Trees"

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me


My nomination for the Song of Halloween 2014 includes the lyrics above. The song is one of doomed romance, doomed by fears of fate, fears of failure, and just fears. Allegorically, it captures an essential part of our psychological zeitgeist.

That song? "Out of the Woods" by Taylor Swift.

Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet? Good.

It's repetitive, with good reason. The song pounds along in a minor key. Everything about it feels a bit paranoid and dark. 

It speaks for our evolving nature of romance, where no relationship ever feels completely safe. You ask this question after the first date, after the first kiss, after meeting the parents, after he gets down on one knee, after you say "I do," after that first four-month stretch of no sex, after the baby weight won't shed quickly enough, after his work becomes his second wife, after the kids move away to college. Hell, it could be the song for the closing credits of Gone Girl, the ultimate twisted fable of our modernized middle and upper class relationship values. 

It speaks for parenting in the 21st Century. It's removing swings from playgrounds for being dangerous. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's not allowing your child to go into the backyard beyond your eyesight lest something awful happens. (Are we in the clear yet?) It's attending all their practices lest the coach does something mean or insensitive. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's worrying whether they know enough math, whether they'll get into a good college, whether they'll be straight, get married, have kids, a job they enjoy but that lets them be comfortable. (Are we in the clear yet?) 

It's our worries about health. It's avoiding the wrong foods lest we get cancer, and it's the six-month MRIs to see if we're still in remission. It's processed foods and gluten and shellfish. It's Ebolanoia. It's our fear of vaccinations.

It's the economy, and our job security, and our fears that we're not completely in control of ourselves, much less the circus and chaos that surrounds us and morphs daily.

It's how a lot of Christians treat their relationship with God, as if there's some checklist of behaviors or attitudes that will guarantee their safe passage, but they're always just a little bit scared that they're not quite in the clear yet. It's that realization that maybe we've been raised to worship a God who is a scary and vengeful mofo rather than a parent who wants to give us a hug, who wants to give us shelter no matter how many times we've screwed up.

The lyrics to "Out of the Woods" aren't scary, exactly, but they are haunting, and the narrator is haunted. "Oh I remember!" she repeats toward the end. Memories are a big deal to Taylor. If "forgive and forget" is the rule, Taylor is rarely interested in forgiving anyone for anything lest she lose the fuel for another hit. Ultimately, though, is there much difference between refusing to forget and being haunted?

Some will dismiss OotW as just another song Taylor wrote about a short-term boyfriend, likely inspired by her fleeting romance with Harry Styles of One Direction. Please, however, take a moment to consider that perhaps Miss Sure Thing Pop Queen is being just a tiny bit more ambitious. Because OotW is a bold and impressive pop gem.

Intentional or not, she has expressed our modern paranoia, our fear that anything and everything is out to get us, bound to ruin us or devour us or kill us. We're doomed, and we're just waiting for the bell to toll.

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me

We're scared of nothing but our own shadows, of one another, of frappin' trees. And even when we see the truth in the harsh clear light of day, we still can't convince ourselves that we're safe.

Our desperate need to be afraid of and worried about everything, constantly, is surely what will kill us.

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