It started like any other evening at the pool where I work: chaotic, and under control. Take 20 thousand gallons of water, a bunch of almost-middle schoolers, and add in the freedom of being away at summer camp, and you’ll get a number of potential hazards. We have the shallow-end divers, the headfirst slide-goers, the overambitious breath-holders, and my personal favorite, the “I-don’t-know-if-I-can-even-swim-but-let’s-try-the-diving-boards-anyway” jumpers.
I sat on my lifeguard chair and scanned the area from the basketball hoop to the slide. It was raining—classic Oregon June—so I was huddled in a parka and had my umbrella up—not-so-classic Oregon behavior. That’s when I noticed it: singing. At first, I figured that the long day had made me mistake the typical screams for a tune. I probably had water in my ear, I thought.
To be fair, we always play music at the pool. It makes a normally enjoyable experience a little bit nicer—or turns it into something completely unexpected, as I was about to find out. Tonight’s playlist consisted entirely of a Taylor Swift collection. Go ahead and roll your eyes now; you can call her music too simple, her subjects too unoriginal, her genre too mainstream, but that’s what we chose to play over the speakers that night.
But the singing that I heard wasn’t just coming from the pool speakers. It began with the small voice of a girl to the right of my stand, joining in with her favorite song. On the next track, several of the girl’s friends were also lending backup to Swift, smiling as they sang along from the pool’s edge. From there, it spread faster than the ripples of a perfectly executed cannonball. Within minutes, Swift’s recorded vocals were being drowned out by the beltings of an unexpected children’s choir.
All of that was only the opening act. Just a few musical fairy tales later came the inevitable “I Knew You Were Trouble.” As the first verse built, I witnessed a transformation: I was no longer watching a pool, I was participating in an energetic, impromptu concert. Nearly everyone within earshot was singing along, boys and girls, campers and counselors, lifeguards, swimmers, and observers. At points—you know which ones—the crowd erupted into goat-like screams. Kids gathered around the speakers instead of the slide. A handful of girls climbed out of the pool to show off their dance moves, despite the wind, rain, and their wet swimsuits. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
The dancing and singing continued another hour, until we blew our whistles for the kids to head to their cabins for the night. From what I could tell, they all had a blast. On what could have been another rainy night in the camp pool, people were laughing and smiling. They were engaged. This, I thought, is what music is all about.
Taylor Swift is often written off by listeners with more “refined” taste in music. One criticism is that her music is too simple, too predictable, too unoriginal, too reliant on the same four chords for every song…the list goes on. But the simple fact of the matter is that when it comes down to it, most music is pretty much the same. Whether it’s a top-40 hit with shimmering production or an indie band that only the hippest hipsters have heard of, or a classical string quartet for that matter, the basic framework is the same. Even the song that Rolling Stone calls the Greatest Song of All Time, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, consists of only a handful of chords and a repeated melody. It’s simple.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that music doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. In fact, it’s the simplicity and predictability that draw people to music in the first place. That’s why it has served a means of expression and source of comfort for centuries—it has a familiarity that transcends culture differences, language barriers, and generational gaps.
That night in the pool, I witnessed the power of music to bring people together and completely engross them. That’s what makes music great—not complex chord progressions, not cryptic lyrics, or fancy instruments—just the simple ability to unite.