The Secret Life of a Swiftie

Written and illustrated by Lionel Rakai

It feels like almost a lifetime ago when I had moved out of my hometown to start my first year at university for my bachelor’s degree. It was during this time when I got my first portable MP3 player that could probably hold a maximum of 100 songs (if I was lucky). Due in part to the influences of my mum’s love of country music, I searched for new up and coming singers in the country genre and stumbled on this song called “Teardrops on my guitar”. A sucker for ballads and acoustic melodies, I was hooked and used every cent of my allowance to purchase what would then be her self-titled debut album..
Fast forward almost seventeen years later (wow I feel old now), nine studio albums, two re-recorded albums, eleven Grammy awards and most recently, an honorary Doctorate of the Arts from New York University, I still call myself one of the biggest Taylor Swift fans. Coined the term “Swiftie” which refers to a fan of the record breaking three-time Album of the Year Grammy winner, the truth is most of us had spent our early years in the fandom keeping it in secret. The popularity of her music and diary-like lyrics meant to some that it wasn’t so cool to be a Swiftie. There would always be that one friend in your circle that sneers smart remarks when you bring her up in a conversation or try to play one of her songs.
I remember in the winter of 2018, I happened to walk through Datang Bu Ye Cheng one lonely night and found a small local indie band playing crowd-favourite Chinese songs to a small mass of listeners. As I almost started to walk away, they played an old Taylor Swift song “Back to December”. I pushed myself to the front of the crowd and sang along to it, then every night after I would return and wait for them to sing the same song. Eventually the band had recognised my face and started singing other Taylor songs when I would appear in the crowd.
During the pandemic itself, one of things that gave me comfort was the surprise release of her alternative and folk album “folklore”, then a second surprise release of a sister album “evermore” (both of which included music that reawakened my nostalgia for the country artist I first loved). So, it was around this time that I found podcasts and reaction channels of friends discussing and dissecting all things “Taylor” and I thought to myself, “I wish there were people I could do that with here – in Xi’an”. Being a foreigner in the city, I was mostly exposed to foreign friendly online groups/ activities and I remember sitting in a bar where a handful of amateur musicians were playing an acoustic set of random popular songs. I casually asked if they knew any Taylor Swift songs and there was this almost cruel reply, in the vein of “how dare you demean our music taste with that question” so I didn’t mention it again.
Fortunately, it was just my luck that a local Chinese group of fans had arranged a listening party and trivia activity at the Craic Irish Pub. I still remember seeing the advertising poster being shared in the bars WeChat group and my constant flow of excited replies to it. Could this be happening? A whole group of self-proclaiming Swifties would be at one place at one time and we would get to compete over who knew more lyrics to every song?
The night of the event, I walked into the bar and found a culmination of locals where one would ordinarily find a quaint accumulation of foreign folk. I quietly sat at the bar, sipping on an island-style cocktail and watched from a distance as the procession of activities commenced from trivia games to karaoke and sing-alongs. Being the only foreigner there, I felt out of place but the buzz of the cocktail and refills I slowly sipped on had started to kick in and I felt my confidence growing. I decided, I was here and I will sing every song they play out loud, even if it was just to myself. It wasn’t long before a friendly small circle invited me into their group and we spent the rest of the activity jamming, singing and dancing. For that moment we were in a safe space where we could enjoy what we enjoyed without judgement or condescension.
The activity had eventually introduced me to different online groups of local fans who consistently discussed recent Taylor updates and news, who got equally as excited as I was whenever there was a new song or album release (and there have been many since), and who updated everyone else when there would be a Taylor Swift related event taking place in the city.
A follow up to the first activity I had attended took place at the start of December, 2021 to celebrate the re-release of what most fans believe to be one of the most iconic albums she’d created called RED. The event drew in a crowd of over 100 local Taylor Swift fans snugged tightly into the confines of the Craic Irish bar and by this time I solidified my place as an ally to the group regardless of our sometimes-apparent language barriers. The night started with a short film (the first to be self-directed by Taylor) followed by a listening party of the new re-recordings and a playlist of her popular discography. There’s a feeling of euphoria one gets when sitting in the middle of a crowd and singing harmoniously to songs that are not widely known by the general public, or played on radio. What surprised me more was how some of these Xian Swifties could barely hold a conversation in English but could recite the lyrics to every song on a Taylor Swift playlist.
Happy, free, confused, lonely and all in the best way, I found myself in a community of like-minded people where there was no discrimination to express excitement for something you love. My inspiration for writing this piece came after I had just watched a live broadcast of the 2022 NYU Graduation ceremony where Taylor Swift was officially awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts and how she mentioned to not be afraid of showing your excitement if you’re excited. We live in a time where subduing your emotions of happiness or despair would come across more suave..
As a songwriter and a poet, she believed we are all writers in one way or another – by the way we word our WeChat moments, the emails we send out, the direct messages we send to friends or the descriptions of photos we share to social media and I would definitely accredit her to being one of my writing inspirations. While I did want to share my experience being part of a particular international fandom in Xi’an, I also hoped to bring light to the fact that no matter what/ who you have a special interest in, if you look close enough, you just might find a small group of people who share the same interests in this city. Then with it, a special foundation to build friendships.