Kase Johnstun shakes it off.
“The people say! Sing it, dad,” my three-year-old son shouted his request from behind me — he sat in his car seat and wiggle his head. I did my best to ask for more clarification than simply, “The people say.” I even tried to make up a song that repeated, “The people say, the people say, the people say,” to amuse and, maybe, satisfy him and, hopefully, move on. It didn’t work. He called my bluff. He requested it multiple more times until I pulled the car over and called my wife. She didn’t answer her phone.
I knew it was a pop song, one that I wouldn’t be able to recognize because I loath pop music, having not purchased or downloaded or streamed contemporary pop music since the late 1980s. I’ve tried to get my son to sing along to Paul Westerberg or Neil Young or Neko Case, and I’ve even thrown in some Band of Horses and Kings of Leon, thinking their rhythmic tunes might convert him to the left of side of the dial, but none of them took. In return, he requested, “It’s All About That Bass,” and we sang that together for the previous two to three months while on the way to grandma’s house or preschool, but he’d moved passed it, and he was now requesting, “The people say.”
That morning, on the passenger seat of the car, lay a Taylor Swift CD case. My wife must have bought it. I scanned the title list on the back but couldn’t see “The People Say.” My son, however, from the backseat pointed to the album and said, “That one, dad. Sing the people say.”
As Louis C.K. would agree, trying to reason with a three-year-old makes you an idiot, but I tried, “I don’t see the people say on here. Are you sure, buddy?”
“That one, dad,” he said. His finger pointed to the case. He stared with an absoluteness at the disc in my hand.
“But I don’t see the people say, buddy,” I said.
Then he began to get upset. If I only knew the song, I could find it on YouTube and plug it into the car and he would no longer be upset and we could sing together and I could feel good at work after I dropped him off and all that yadayada.
Luckily, my wife called me back.
“Did you call? Are you guys okay?” she asked. Her voice was worried.
“Yes, what’s the people say?” I asked. “I have no idea what song that is.”
“Shake it off, Taylor Swift,” she said. “Is that why you called?” She laughed and hung up the phone.
Taylor Swift. Yes, the album was in my hand, but I sat at a crossroads. Did I really want to listen to it, to introduce Taylor Swift into my life? Would she be a gateway artist to pop life? Would I be part of the masses? Before becoming a father, I’d avoided boy bands, pop sensations, teen-angsty musicians, American Idol, all the stuff that had been over-produced artistically, and I knew that I had never listened to a Taylor Swift song in its entirety in my lifetime — and, if prodded, couldn’t pick one of her songs out of musical lineup.
But the decision didn’t take me long. If the boy wanted to listen to “The People Say,” who was I to deprive a three-year-old of happiness through Taylor Swift. I want to raise my son to listen to whatever he wants to listen to, to play with whatever he wants to play with, to date whoever he wants to date, to vote…well maybe not. I wasn’t going to change my entire fatherhood philosophy because I hate pop music. So I put the disc in, scanned to song six, and let it play.
Immediately, I heard the line “That’s What People Say,” after Ms. Swift had listed off — with use of my keen deduction skills I figured it out — what the tabloids had said about her: that she has no brains, that she goes on too many dates, and that she can’t keep a man. I was on her side immediately. Who were they to talk this way about this successful, young woman. Jerks. Shake them off, Ms. Swift!
Then I heard it. It came from the back seat. “That’s what people say, mm mmm.” As the song rolled on, “Players gonna play and the haters gonna hate — shake it off, shake it off.” I turned around, disregarding traffic and putting both our lives in danger, to see a huge, wrap-around smile on my son’s face as he turned his head sideways in his car seat and sang, “Shake it off, shake it off.” He garbled the lyrics, a young boy still grasping at language, but it was beautiful and real and genuine and innocent wrapped into his little, soft, singing voice. And my heart leapt up into my throat. His little lips moved and smiled and sang. It’s moments like these in a father’s life that he wishes he could wrap up and unwrap whenever he wants to, to feel the joy of true love at any time.
Later that day I would ask my wife why the “bakers” got a line. She would tell me that it was “fakers.” It made more sense to be fakers; I guess.
The next day, I got into my car after a long day of work. I had meetings. As an argument and rhetoric lecturer, I discussed the Ferguson verdict with my students for hours, draining all of the part of the brain that facilitates and moves and redirects difficult discussions. My brain was fried, and being a writer, it was one of those days when the writing world likes to kick you in the nuts with multiple rejections in one day. I put the car into drive and drove toward home in the dark, an hour’s commute stretching out ahead of me. I usually listen to NPR, but I drive through a radio-voiding canyon to get home, so the only thing I had with me was the Taylor Swift album in the CD player.
“What the hell,” I thought. “I’ll just listen to it through the canyon then turn on spotify to my favorite stuff.” I scanned to song six. It began. And like my little boy and the moment from a few days earlier had been resurrected, when Ms. Swift began to sing, I imagined him sitting behind me, and even turned to look at a boy who wasn’t there. But it was enough. Like we all wish for, I had reopened a beautiful moment and felt the joy and love and innocence again — my difficult day had passed away between the players playing and the bakers baking (because I just can’t undo bakers in my mind). I played that song over and over and over until I got home an hour later, and I felt good when I walked through the front door.
And Taylor Swift gave that to me through the happiness of my son. Thank you, Ms. Swift.
Photo credit: Jana Zills/flickr