If you told my twelve-year-old self that the thing I’d be thinking about most the week before my freshman year of college was Taylor Swift, she wouldn’t even find you credible enough to warrant telling off. She was the kind of girl who wrinkled her nose when Swift’s music played during gym class and complained that Swift “only sang about her boyfriends.” If you then told her that I would write part of my Princeton application essay about arguing with my math teacher because he made the same complaint, she’d ask you first whether I got in, and then why I wasn’t paying attention in class.

To be fair, I didn’t only dislike Taylor because I thought she was boring and too obsessed with men. I also thought her music was bad. And it’s hard for me to defend her now, when she does things like release “ME!” And things like release “Look What You Made Me Do”. And things like release “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”. And… you get the point. I’m still not sure how much of Taylor’s discography I genuinely enjoy.

So then why am I here? Why have I listened to Taylor’s tracks thousands of times–more than any other artist? Why do I care so much about someone who’s so embarrassing, and whose music is so frequently mediocre?

It started the year after the gym-class mocking, when “1989” was released. I was newly thirteen and needed an alternative to my parents’ music in order to appropriately soundtrack my angsty bus ride to and from middle school. Naturally, I chose the best-selling, chart-topping, critically acclaimed #1 album of the year. In my defense, “1989” is really, really good.

But it wasn’t just that. For the first time, I’d found an artist who made me feel special. Taylor creates a world for her fans unlike anyone else in pop. To them–to us–she’s the ultimate best friend. She’ll invite you into her home, bake you cookies, and hug you for an individual Polaroid photo that you get to keep. She cares, she remembers, and she wants you to do the same; in fact, one of her most fascinating traits is her tendency towards hidden clues and Easter eggs. Every lyric, every Instagram post, and every speck of glitter on her sequined tour outfits is part of a larger, interconnected whole: a Taylor Swift Cinematic Universe, if you will. She’s confirmed that she does this, and so to follow a Taylor Swift album cycle is to enter into a puzzle-solving game with about half a million other players. It’s exhilarating. Taylor’s fans even feel so connected to her that they’ve concocted an entire genre of conspiracies: it’s been rumored, at one point or another, that she travels inside a giant suitcase to avoid paparazzi, fakes relationships, and has no bellybutton. There’s also a corner of the internet convinced she’s a closeted lesbian and secretly dating the model Karlie Kloss–remarkable considering that Taylor didn’t make her LGBT allyship or any political views, really, clear until the past year. None of this comes from a cruel or suspicious place, though: if anything, these conclusions are drawn from a sense of personal knowledge that she encourages.

At thirteen, I fell hard for this world. But as I grew older, I started to look down on my middle-school self. The earnest enthusiasm that compelled me to do things like sing “Blank Space” at a cousin’s wedding was embarrassing. It was cooler to be calm about my passions, and cooler still to be critical of them. And there’s no shortage of worthy criticisms to be made about Taylor. In my now-cynical eyes, the closeness she cultivated with her fans was reduced to a marketing strategy and a way of manipulating the feelings of alienation and anxiety that attracted them to her music in the first place. This opinion of Taylor persisted through the rollout of 2017’s “reputation”. By then, I thought myself beyond the approval of a power-hungry popstar, especially one who was releasing some seriously questionable music.

Something changed, though, the fall of my senior year. Writing my college applications, I was forced to reckon with who I’d become and decide what version of myself to present to the world. With my future up in the air, I wanted to believe that I was creative and independent and didn’t need external validation. I wanted the assurance that I’d be fine no matter how successful I was. But honestly? I also wanted to be the best. Amidst all this pressure, I felt I needed to be reminded of who I really was beneath the veneer of 650-word essays and drop-down standardized test menus. So, I started listening to Taylor Swift again.

What I found was someone even more like my seventeen-year-old self than my thirteen-year-old one. Taylor is a singer-songwriter, and she’s a girl just like us!, and she’s a ruthlessly ambitious superstar. It’s clear in her career trajectory, and she even admits in the journals she’s released to being incredibly committed not only to art, but to selling, and to winning. Maybe it’s bad of me to celebrate this blatant flaunting of capitalist triumph, but in a way, I relate to it. Taylor’s simultaneous sincerity and laser-focus on making money is not so different than the life I led as a teenager who thought of herself as a writer but also really, really cared about her GPA.

Although “reputation” didn’t become good because of my realization, it reminded me that it’s okay to have fun and to embrace what makes me feel happy even if it wasn’t “good” from an objective perspective. It taught me to care less about what others thought of me, and pretty much got me through senior year. It even lent a hand in the college process: I decided that the episode when I defended her against a vaguely sexist complaint of my math teacher’s was enough of a demonstration that I stick to my principles to include it in my Princeton application essay. See, Taylor does help her fans!

When I met my roommates for the first time and had to admit to them that I was a Taylor Swift fan, I told them that she was my guilty pleasure. But that’s not quite true. She’s the person who allowed me to stop thinking of myself as lesser for the things that I love, even if those things are kind of bad sometimes. I really did love Taylor Swift when I was twelve, and when I was thirteen. I loved her when I thought she was dumb, and I loved her when I listened to her album all the way through (even ME!) on repeat during the five-hour flight to New Jersey. I always loved her. I just didn’t always think highly enough of myself to justify this love.

Taylor’s music, and Taylor’s world, exists at the core of a contradiction. She’s not cool: she posts blundering, meme-able notes app apologies, she’s an obnoxious dancer, and people will look at you weirdly if you sing along to her white-girl rap in “End Game” at a party. But she’s also a star unlike any else of her generation. If she can embrace the cringey parts of herself, why shouldn’t I? So, here goes. Taylor: I love you. Everyone else: Stream “Lover” now.