Here’s the thing. I am not, nor have I ever been, particularly cool. If you’ve read any of my blog posts, you have no doubt picked up on the fact that I am sentimental. I appreciate life’s simple beauties. Without sarcasm or cynicism. Though I am a bit of a pessimist, I’m not jaded; my sense of irony is well developed but kept in check by the aforementioned sentimentality. Still, I like to think that—even if I’m not cool—I have good taste. I’ll admit that I’m even a bit of a snob about things like music and design and literature.
So imagine my confusion when, upon getting together with my then college radio DJ husband at the tender age of twenty-two, I learned that the music I had adopted in high school as something of a personal leitmotif was viewed with contempt by the intelligentsia.
You see, when I was about fourteen, a dear friend sent me a mix tape that included James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” I loved the simple melody that was easy to sing along to and the wistful, evocative lyrics. So off I went to buy myself a Best of James Taylor CD at the mall’s music store. (Mix tapes and stores that sold CDs! I’m dating myself.)
I listened to a lot of music. A lot of it was actually cool. I swear. But through the happenings of my teen years—first boyfriends and family dramas and fallings-out with friends and the start of college—James Taylor was my life’s soundtrack. I remember sitting on my screened porch one early summer weekend when I was about fifteen, devouring homemade chocolate chip cookies as I read The Bell Jar for the first time. I listened to James Taylor all that weekend. As I was being introduced to this book that opened my eyes to something new, James Taylor was with me. There was an openness, an utter lack of pretension, in his music that spoke to me and fit with my own innocence, openness, and lack of pretension as I tried to learn more about the world.
Most of my memories of listening to James Taylor, though, are less specific than that early summer weekend. His music was a general background to my life. It accompanied me when I drove through the verdant expanses of Central Illinois and the winding forests of northern Vermont on summer and winter breaks, as I pondered the natural beauty around me and felt acutely aware of my youth and all that lay ahead of me. It cheered me on as I learned of about De Toqueville and British Romantic Poetry and Carolingian art. But most importantly, his music seemed to hold me afloat emotionally. I think there was a certain melancholy in his voice that especially spoke to my adolescent heart. As AllMusic points out, “Taylor didn’t break your heart; he understood that it was already broken, as was his own, and he offered comfort.” It’s trite, but his music became like an old friend to me.
Enter my DJ husband and his radio show and his expert-level coolness. He was not at all impressed with my love of James Taylor when we got together, and he still pooh-poohs him. (Although he’s now mature enough to admit that his reaction to Taylor was largely a too-cool-for-school knee-jerk reaction to all things mainstream.) Taylor aside, we generally like the same music, so I haven’t felt much need to defend my complex love of James Taylor to him. We can just listen to something else. And I needn’t write him an essay on how Taylor was important to me in my formative years…Though I suppose I’ve done that now.
I realize now that James Taylor’s music was the sound of my own growing pains. Of my own insecurities. My hopes for the future. It was the sound of vulnerability and hope and nostalgia. Listening to his music helped me recognize those emotions in myself and, more importantly, helped me be comfortable with those emotions.
Whenever I hear James Taylor’s music now, I think of myself at fifteen or sixteen, trying to make sense of the big, complicated world and how I might fit into it. And so Taylor’s music has layers of meaning for me now. In 2018 Taylor’s music acts as a lens that allows me look back at the innocence of my developing sense of self. In “Fire and Rain” he sings, “I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end,” and “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” Isn’t that the definition of being human, especially an adolescent human? Looking back through the lens of Taylor’s music, I see those sunny days and lonely times of my youth so clearly. I can remember how they felt, and like Taylor’s music, these memories are like old friends to me. They hold me afloat.