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For a time, the most indelible cultural artifact of this moment was a parenthetical bit of metadata, “(Taylor’s Version),” which Swift appended to the titles of her newly recorded songs, and which became a meme anyone could use to signal a prideful ownership of their own cultural outputs, no matter how slight. But in November, Swift’s immersion in her past built to a breakthrough, as she released a 10-minute extension of her beloved 2012 breakup song “All Too Well.” With the new version, she interpolates the wistful original with starkly drawn scenes that play almost like recovered memories, recasting a romance as a site of trauma that so reduced her that she compares herself to “a soldier who’s returning half her weight.”
Nostalgia is derived from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain,” and before it referred to a yearning for the past, it was a psychopathological disorder, describing a homesickness so severe it could actually kill. Nostalgia itself represented a form of traumatic stress, and now pseudo-therapeutic treatments have made their way into our cultural retrospectives. So while Serena Williams appears on MasterClass to teach tennis, and Ringo Starr to teach drumming, Clinton arrives to school us on “the power of resilience.”
Resilience suggests elasticity, and there is something morbidly fascinating about watching Clinton revert to her pre-Trump form. The victory speech itself reads like centrist Mad Libs — a meditation on “E Pluribus Unum,” nods to both Black Lives Matter and the bravery of police, an Abraham Lincoln quote — but at its end it veers into complex emotional territory. Clinton recalls her mother, Dorothy Rodham, who died in 2011, and as she describes a dream about her, her voice shakes and warps in pitch. Dorothy Rodham had a bleak upbringing, and Clinton wishes she could visit her mother’s childhood self and assure her that despite all the suffering she would endure, her daughter would go on to become the president of the United States.
As Clinton plays her former self comforting her mother’s former self with the idea of a future Clinton who will never exist, we finally glimpse a loss that cannot be negotiated, optimized or monetized: She can never speak to her mother again. Soon, Clinton’s MasterClass has reverted back to its banal messaging — she instructs us to dust ourselves off, take a walk, make our beds — but for a few seconds, she could be seen not as a windup historical figure but as a person, like the rest of us, who cannot beat time.