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September 04, 2018 - Image 33

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The Michigan Daily

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The Michigan Daily — michigandaily.com
Fall 2018 — 5D

Disclaimer: Yes, it’s a little
embarrassing how thoroughly I
researched this article and how
many pages of lyrics I obviously
had to go through to come up with
this list. It’s ridiculous to care this
much about Taylor Swift when
everybody knows cool people
with Good Music Opinions don’t
do that. But consider this: My
apathy toward having a Good
and Cool Music Opinion is equal
and opposite in strength to how
deeply I care about chronicling
the evolution of the Dress as a
motif in Taylor Swift’s music.
Also, for the pedants out there,
yes, “Love Story” has a dress in it
but I left it off of this list because
it’s a wedding dress and I just
don’t think there’s much deeper
meaning to it (I still <3 you, “Love
Story”). We good? Good.
1. “Tim McGraw”
Key lyric: “When you think
happiness / I hope you think ‘that
little black dress’”
Taylor Swift has built a career
out of weaponizing memory. Her
gift is in the details: conjuring
up tiny moments so specific
and intimate that they become
universal enough to stab you in the
heart. She reveals just enough so
that it feels real, but not too much
that it feels like it’s only Taylor-
applicable. When a Taylor Swift
song comes on the radio, we’re
invited to not only to listen to her
story, but also to understand how
it’s our story, too. It’s no accident
that this was the first song Taylor
ever released, all about how
memory can turn heartbreak
into something a little gentler, a
little more bittersweet. In “Tim
McGraw,” she turns moments of
their time together into relics of
a time long gone: the song they
used to dance to, a pair of jeans
and, of course, a dress. Really,
she’s repurposing these memories
to construct an image of herself:
“When you think Tim McGraw / I
hope you think my favorite song...
/ When you think happiness / I
hope you think that little black
dress.” It’s about the power of a
reminder. Just like that, it’s not
any old dress anymore. And in
his memory, that’s how she’ll be

forever: wearing that black dress,
dancing to that old song. What’s
funny though is how that image
stuck, not just in his memory, but
in ours. Taylor in a dress is one
of her defining images, and it’s
embedded deep in our cultural
databank. Because the Dress isn’t
just a piece of clothing: It’s Taylor
2. “Fearless”
Key lyric: “I don’t know why /
But with you, I’d dance in a storm in
my best dress / Fearless”
Sometimes the Dress is a
distillation of Taylor herself, and
sometimes, like we see here, it’s a
shorthand for a certain grandness
of feeling — the Dress as a way
to externalize the process of a
heart swelling. The album art
that accompanied this song in
the lyric booklet is appropriately
Swiftian fashion, a completely
unsubtle and literal reenactment
of the lyrics), Taylor in a fabulous
blue evening gown with her back
arched as she dances on a rain-
soaked street. The Dress signifies
an emotion here, a ridiculous,
almost embarrassing-to-say-out-
loud emotion that doesn’t make
sense in words, it only makes
sense in actions (or in a Taylor
Swift song). Saying it isn’t enough
— dancing in a storm in your best
dress might cut it, though.
3. “Today Was a Fairytale”
Key lyric: “I wore a dress / You
wore a dark grey t-shirt / You told
me I was pretty when I looked like a
mess / Today was a fairytale”
Taylor is so good at picking
details. She offers no commentary
here, she just presents these
precious and tiny memories like
facts. Today was a fairytale —
that’s not her opinion, it’s just
what today was. Again, the Dress
is a way of creating an image of
Taylor in an aftermath. She writes
in the first person here, but it’s like
she’s imagining herself as part of a
story, reflecting on an experience
from a comfortable third-person
distance. At this point in her
career, it’s “Today was a fairytale
/ I wore a dress” but later it’ll
become “It was rare / I was there /
I remember it all too well.” In both
cases, her memory is sharp, and
it’s used as evidence of a feeling.
Somebody else might try and deny

it happened but she was there.
Today was a fairytale and this is a
fact, as concrete and airtight as the
fact that she wore a dress.
Also important to note is that
Taylor knows the connotations
of a dress — the way the vision
of a pretty girl in a pretty dress
can make a story immediately
softer, more romantic. And I
mean, Taylor’s work has always
built on this distinctly feminine
association — all hand hearts and
red lipstick and kittens. Emotional
and messy, pretty and soft, a
close examination of the whims
of a teenage heart. I think this is
why people tended to write her
off, especially in the early years,
because, well, there’s nothing
especially important about a girl
in a dress, right?
4. “Dear John”
Key lyric: “The girl in the dress
wrote you a song”
Yeah, so there’s a lot that’s
important about a girl in a dress.
“Dear John” is a culmination
of sorts. Taylor spent the first
five years of her career-defining
herself by a fluttering, deeply
“Dear John” is, I think, a defining
moment in Taylor’s evolution
as an artist: It’s the point when
shit started getting really, really
real. Not that I think there’s
anything light or frivolous about
her earlier work (“Fifteen” packs
a hell of a punch and “Forever &
Always” is full of enough vitriol
and spite to kill a dozen Jonas
Brothers, let alone the one it was
written about), but “Dear John”
is almost seven straight minutes
completely hollows you out before
lighting your heart just a little
bit on fire. It’s the Dress, though,
that really kills me. “The girl in
the dress wrote you a song” could
easily be a one-line manifesto
for Taylor’s entire career. It’s an
acknowledgment that there are
strings attached to being a girl in
a dress, a thing the world sees as
meaningless, effeminate, stupid.
The Girl in the Dress isn’t taken
seriously, not ever. Nobody ever
expected her to fight back — to
write something as sharp and
painful and true as “Dear John.”
Nobody expects the girl who wrote
a song like “Love Story” to write

lines like: “And you’ll add my name
to your long list of traitors who
don’t understand / And I’ll look
back in regret how I ignored when
they said, / ‘Run as fast as you
can.’” But that’s the whole point.
The Girl in the Dress is a fragile,
frilly thing who’s pretty and gentle
and has her heart perpetually
broken. Well, she’s angry now, and
she has something to say. There’s
a reason this song resonates so
well, a reason that the crowd is
full of shining tear-stained faces
every time she performs it. Taylor
knows that what it’s like to feel
underestimated and small — but
she also knows how to turn her
The Dress, something that once
coded her to the world as soft
and feminine and weak, becomes
her weapon of choice. “Don’t you
think I was too young to be messed
with” sounds like an admission
of hurt, and it kind of is, but the
way she sings it makes me think
it’s more an attack than anything
else. You hurt me, she seems to say,
and that’s on you. “The girl in the
dress cried the whole way home /
I should’ve known” becomes “The
girl in the dress wrote you a song /
You should’ve known.”
On the Speak Now tour, Taylor
used to act out this transition in
vivid color. She would perform this
song wearing a purple dress and a
ponytail, and sang part of the song
hunched over her microphone,
sitting on the stairs in a grand show
of heartbreak. But somewhere
between “I should’ve known” and
“You should’ve known,” she would
always stand up, the song building
in momentum. When she got to
the line “I’m shining like fireworks
over your sad empty town,”
massive sparks would shoot from
the stage, and for a minute all you
could see was her shape against
the lights — the silhouette of a girl
in a dress, singing you her song.
5. “Better Than Revenge”
Key lyric: “They didn’t teach you
that in prep school so it’s up to me
/ but no amount of vintage dresses
give you dignity”
So we’re gonna ignore the
shaming that permeates this song
and instead focus on the fact that
Taylor Swift wears more vintage
dresses than like 99 percent

of people in this world, so this
insult is either a self-aware many-
layered joke or a deeply hilarious
self-burn. Either way, it makes me
really happy. Also, Taylor refers
to boys exclusively as toys and
property in this song and I am very
proud of her.
6. “Holy Ground”
Key lyric: “Spinning like a girl in
a brand new dress / we had this big
wide city all to ourselves”
Like in “Fearless,” the Dress
is a shorthand for a sparkling
feeling. A girl in a brand new dress
spins and it’s a signifier for the
wide open emotion of first love
and youth. She’s so happy that
she twirls; she can’t contain it. In
“Holy Ground” memories stack
on top of each other, the words
coming quickly and breathlessly
as if she can’t help herself, she just
has to get this off her chest. I don’t
think it’s a coincidence that this
song is the perfect tempo to spin
along to (not that I’ve tested it out
or anything — ahem). The whole
song sounds like a rush of emotion
— it sounds the way spinning in a
brand new dress feels. It’s notable
here, though, that Taylor herself
isn’t the Girl in the Dress anymore.
She’s spinning like the girl. The
image of herself as the fluttery
romantic girl is a past tense thing
now, a self-created archetype
relegated to memory. “Darling it
was good / never looking down /
and right there where we stood
was holy ground,” she sings, and
you get the feeling that the brand
new dress is a piece of that ancient
history. The old Taylor isn’t dead
yet, but she’s fading away.
7. “Dress”
Key lyric: “Only bought this dress
so you could take it off”
I don’t know if Taylor Swift
wrote “Dress” using every single
narrative device I love most in this
world specifically with me in mind,
but I am very grateful it exists
anyway. After spending 10 years
building a distinct image off being
a Girl in a Dress, she quite literally
throws that dress on the floor.
Reputation may not have been the
image overhaul we expected based
on its marketing, but “Dress”
is a quiet deconstruction of the
Taylor she used to be. “Dress” is
what happens when a hopeless
romantic grows up. Instead of

“Today was a fairytale / I wore a
dress” it’s “Flashback when you
met me / your buzz cut and my
hair bleached / even in my worst
times / you could see the best in
me.” These are still gentle, tender
memories, full of love, but they’re
less about using retrospect as a
way to construct a romanticized
version of the past, and more an
admission of honesty.
For the most part though,
“Dress” is a completely different
kind of Taylor Swift song in that it’s
written in the present tense. She’s
careful to say it’s a “flashback”
rather than the usually unspoken
agreement between listener and
singer that the whole song is a
memory. With the exception of
maybe “Sparks Fly” I don’t think
she’s ever written a song about
wanting somebody in the now.
But the Girl in the Dress is getting
older, and so she turns all of her
old habits on their head in “Dress,”
a song all about the nuances of the
now. “My hands are shaking from
holding back from you,” she sings,
and there’s nothing bittersweet
about it, the way her details
usually are. It’s unfiltered, clean,
straight to the vein emotion, no
hazy layers of memory between
the Taylor singing and the Taylor
Up until this very moment,
the Dress has been a marker of a
Taylor long gone, a Taylor alive
only in a memory. The Dress has
been in dusty pickup trucks, it’s
gotten ruined in the rain, it’s been
worn on first dates and last dates,
it’s been a sign of weakness and
a spectacular show of strength
— but it has never made it into a
present tense song before. The
Dress has been a distillation of
Taylor herself and it has been an
image Taylor sees from a distance,
watching herself wearing it. But
in the end, it’s always been part
of a story. It’s a way of turning her
life into a narrative, a process that
grants her a kind of immortality —
because an image can live forever
in the memory of someone long
It’s powerful stuff, writing
yourself into a story, into someone
else’s very heart. But if Taylor
Swift has taught me anything, it’s
that the Girl in the Dress is a lot
more than a memory. She’s real.

I love Taylor Swift, and a couple other concerns

‘A Fantastic Woman’ is a
triumph thanks to Vega

Chilean foreign film “A Fantastic
Woman” completely lives up to its
title, proving itself to be fantastic,
if not outstanding. “A Fantastic
example of giving minority gender
identity stories a voice in film,
especially with visionary direction
by Chilean-Argentinian director
Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria”) and
a breathtaking performance by
Daniela Vega (“The Guest”). It
is no shocker as to why it rivaled
American films this past season,
resulting in an Oscar win for Best
Foreign Language Film.

A story to be revered and
admired, “A Fantastic Woman”
underscores the complexities and
complications of love and loss, and
the quest for personal and gender
identity. Marina, played by Vega,
is a transgender woman living
as a singer in Chile, dating an
older, wealthier divorcee, Orlando
(Francisco Reyes, “Neruda”). But
despite some tropes of relationships
with a vast age difference, Marina
doesn’t use Orlando for his money.
Marina doesn’t care about any of
that. In fact, the only possession
she desires after his passing is the

dog they share. Orlando provides
her with one thing that no one else
can: He sees her. When Orlando
suddenly suffers an aneurysm and
dies, Marina is forced to confront
prejudices and suffer abuse from
Orlando’s family. They try and tear
her down, but she perseveres.
“A Fantastic Woman” is also a
tale about self-preservation and
resistance. Lelio doesn’t give us
much of a glimpse into Marina’s
require it. The film’s dialogue is
simple and deliberate. Based on
Vega’s performance — its nuance,
tenderness and strength — we
can infer it hasn’t been easy for
her, but it’s not overly sentimental
and it doesn’t make us feel pity for
her. She is ridiculed by Orlando’s
ex-wife, who calls her a “chimera,”
or a fire-breathing monster in
Greek mythology. The investigator
who questions her after Orlando
dies refuses to call her Marina
because he knows she is trans.
But none of this surprises Marina;
she doesn’t expect anything from
anyone, which makes the loss of
her love, her one piece of hope,
all the more heartbreaking. Vega
fortitude to life, is a big trans
rights crusader in South America.

This will not be Vega’s last stellar
Vega tells the story through
her acting, while the rest of the
story is told through avant-garde
cinematography by Lelio that
into an artful and abstract piece
of work. Despite some sleepy
moments, daytime shots are met
with sensual, dream-like night
sequences with colored lights
and glitter that reflect Marina’s
deepest desires of peace — to be
met back with her love and be on
the stage. Sparkly choreographed
sequences of Marina dancing and
singing, breaking the fourth wall
and distancing from the reality of
the piece, don’t allow us to forget
about her suffering. And the
quite striking and unusual shot
of Marina walking as the wind
pushes back on her, used in the
trailer, is an in-your-face visual
allegory of her defiance in a world
that repeatedly tries to knock her
Really, “A Fantastic Woman” is
about not judging others. It urges
us to be accepting and to open
our minds and our hearts. It’s
heartbreaking, at times too tragic
to even watch, but by the end,
we’re all on Marina’s side.

Summer Editor in Chief


What’s better than a story about
a man and his dog? A story about
a man and his horse. Er, a boy and
his horse, in the case of “Lean on
Pete,” the most recent film from
that is A24 and director Andrew
Haigh. Adopted from the novel of
the same name, written by Willy
Vlautin, “Lean on Pete” tells the
story of working-class, 15-year-
old Charley Thompson (Charlie
Plummer, “Boardwalk Empire”)
who has just moved to Portland,
Oregon with his single father and
is looking for work. “Lean on Pete”
is at once a coming-of-age story
and gut-punching drama that
forces its protagonist to grapple
with problems that most people
will never have to face. Above
all, though, it never glamorizes
its characters’ troubles or inflicts
trauma without intention. “Lean
how strong the desire for self-
preservation can be.
The film begins simply: Charley
alone in his house, hearing through
a door the sounds of his father and
his girlfriend having a flirtatious
chat in the bedroom. He leaves

to go run, presumably used to his
father’s behavior, and discovers
Portland Downs nearby. There’s a
magnetic connection. Charley goes
to work for Del (Steve Buscemi,
“Neo Yokio”), a racer who owns the
eponymous horse, to make a little
money. With it, he buys food, which
reveals the family’s financial need.
Haigh illustrates how Charley’s
literal hunger, a recurring problem
in the film, motivates almost all
that he does. There are multiple
scenes involving food that serve as
punctuation for Charley’s journey:
His home kitchen, the restaurant
at the tracks and the gas station
where he steals a map and a pastry
wrapped in plastic.
Although “Lean on Pete” does
do good work with basic wants
and needs in its beginning third,
it can occasionally feel robotic.
Scenes involving more than two
characters are stiff and staged,
and they stick out in a film that is
so good at capturing the emotional
experience of a person alone. This
is evident when Charley has to
interact with both Del and jockey
Snowman”) in the same scene. The
dialogue seems uneasy, as if the
film knows that it’s about Charley’s
internal experience.

however, “Lean on Pete” blossoms
in to a journey of survival and
self-discovery, as Charley goes
on a quest to find his Aunt Margy
(Alison Elliott, “20th Century
Women”). En route, he is forced
to make some difficult decisions,
some of which lead him to lie, steal
and harm others. By the same
token, his motives are pure — he’s
looking for safety and comfort
in a dangerous world. The film,
however, never places a moral
judgment on Charley’s actions. It
never strays from emphasizing
Charley’s will to complete his task.
Above all, Charlie Plummer
gives a performance that borders
on greatness. Plummer’s ability to
convey Charley’s vulnerability and
resilience is never cartoonish or
ham-handed, and he knows exactly
when to channel which trait.
The film’s emphasis on Charley’s
interiority requires an actor that can
display a wide range of experience,
and Plummer is up to snuff.
Without him, the film could have
fallen prey to overdramatization
or sentimentality. “Lean on Pete”
keeps its focus tight, demanding its
audience to witness the tenacity of
the human spirit.

‘Lean on Pete’ reveals
the tenacity of the spirit


Daily Arts Writer

Summer Managing Arts Editor

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