Taylor Swift won’t survive the labyrinth. She has decided to take the left turn every time she has a choice, because that’s fun. And while that’s as good a strategy as any other—if there’s no way to solve a puzzle, an arbitrary choice is as good as a reasoned one—the truth is that there’s no way the builder of the labyrinth has made it that easy to navigate. There will be at least one place where you are supposed to take a right. But Taylor Swift keeps taking lefts and remains remarkably cheerful, despite the fact she will almost certainly die in this labyrinth. She’s just walking and humming. It’s nice, really.
Every once in a while, she sets off a trap and surprises us by living. Taylor Swift has ridiculously good luck. She has such good luck that she doesn’t even seem fazed when something happens that would have spelled almost certain doom to anyone else, like when a trap door opened over a pit of spikes (filled with the skeletons of past contestants) a second after she traipsed onto safe ground. She just looked back and twinkled. And when poisoned arrows shot out of the wall and one went right in front of her and the other went right behind her, Taylor Swift just tossed her hair goldingly, as if she were always fending off barbs and arrows. We watch those arrows again and again in slow motion because it seems impossible. And then we watch her smiling face again and again in slow motion because we just like looking at it. Jimmy swears that she danced a little after the crushing rock got stuck on some labyrinth debris. People are beginning to believe that Taylor Swift might make it out of the labyrinth, designer skirt and all. Except that she keeps taking a left turn.
Of course the public is shifting to her side. We told the Generals that it was a bad idea to put such a popular figure in the maze, but they were more worried about having such a popular figure outside of the maze. She is too happy. Anyone who is too happy in an unhappy time is suspect. These are the ways we are shortsighted. Isn’t it always the case that we stoke the fires we are trying hardest to blow out?
We in the control room are left to sort it out. Babs suggests that we play up the fact that Taylor Swift seems unconcerned that members of her team are dying off. Tree, her publicist, is eaten by crocodiles. Jason, her make-up artist, gets lost and is currently starving to death in a remote corner of the labyrinth. And Taylor Swift just smiles. Can’t we turn that against her? But we run it past focus groups, and they see it as cheery perseverance, not indifference and self-obsession. At the end of the day, who cares about Jason and Tree when you have Taylor Swift?
It’s when she keeps finding food that we begin to wonder. Yes, the maze-makers sometimes place small stashes of food but it’s usually just to give contestants false hope. But when Taylor Swift finds stash after stash we begin to think that either the gods are on her side in some serious, unheard-of way or that someone on the staff is secretly on her side. It wouldn’t surprise me. I think many of us are secretly on her side.
The moment the public really turns on us is when Taylor Swift meets Justin Timberlake. Their entourages run into each other in the 44th quadrant, one of the deadlier ones. The malaria quadrant. Their teams are sweaty and feverish, but Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake seem to glint. They chat amiably, like old friends. The microphones pick up what they’re saying, and we all agree that their conversations are remarkably interesting. We thought they would be shallow, but they are the opposite of shallow. They’re deep. They put their experiences in the labyrinth into the most interesting perspective. They aren’t angry about being here; they’re curious. Of course they’re curious.
What to do? We want to try harder to kill them. We feel like we could kill them if only we tried harder. The Generals just want to let them go because they’re worried that killing them will make them martyrs. We disagree. We think that if we just kill them everyone will forget quickly. People always forget the dead quicker than you think they will. The Generals say, No, no martyrs. So we let them keep turning left and left and left.
One cultural commentator argues on television that Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake are sharing a carefully coded political message advocating leftist revolution. Left left left, the commentator says. How else are we supposed to take it? And I, for one, welcome it. It’s only because of the last part that the Generals tell us to kidnap her and put her in the labyrinth too. It’s one thing to notice a pattern and another thing to advocate it.
Luckily there have been few calls to release Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake. As much as people want them saved, they want to watch them 24/7 even more.
It’s when we start trying to make it easier on them, to protect them, that they begin to get hurt. It’s as if they are permanently living out opposite day. The day we disable the deadly traps and enable the slightly painful traps in their way, Taylor Swift trips and twists her ankle. The day we start officially leaving food out for them, Justin Timberlake gets diphtheria. The more we try to protect them, the more they wither.
We don’t know how people will react. Will they hate Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake for their weakness? Or will they hate us for causing them pain? Or will they hate themselves because this proves that life is awful for everyone, no matter what?
But then the impossible happens.
Taylor Swift is in bad shape. Taylor Swift is limping. Taylor Swift has lost her left eye (not permanently, just cosmetically). Taylor Swift has not stopped smiling. Taylor Swift is pulling Justin Timberlake in an improvised stretcher and he, too, is smiling. Impossibly. And she is still taking every left turn. And then in our control room, Vanessa suddenly sits up straight with an expression like she just came across an ice cream truck in the middle of a desert. We look at her and look back at the screens. And then one by one we all realize what Vanessa realized. A ripple runs through the room.
Taylor Swift is five left turns away from the exit. Taylor Swift is going to win.
Of course, Taylor Swift doesn’t know that she is minutes away from victory, so she does the most Taylor Swift thing ever: she decides to set up camp. She sets down Justin Timberlake, collects wood, makes a fire, cooks dinner. They begin to sing by the fire like they’re by a god damn campfire. They’re actually harmonizing on “Hang Down your Head, Tom Dooley.”
And that’s when Ted, one of the producers in the control room, can’t take it any more. He stands up and says, “Oh for fuck’s sake.” He walks out of the control room, across to the labyrinth, and through the exit. He takes a couple rights and finds their little campfire.
“Come the fuck on. You’re almost out,” Ted says.
He grabs Justin Timberlake’s stretcher and lugs him towards the exit.
“Follow me exactly,” Ted says. “You don’t want to step on the last few landmines.”
The Generals weren’t happy—are the Generals ever really happy?—but I think they were just glad to be done with her.
Months later, a couple of us from the control room (not Ted…Ted isn’t with us anymore) invite Taylor Swift out for a beer. She accepts. We tell her that the labyrinth hasn’t been the same since she left. She smiles and says she misses it. We tell her that she’s not supposed to miss it, that it’s supposed to be the worst experience anyone has ever had. We tell her that it is supposed to create fear and fascination in the population so that they stay in line. She says she knows this but that she has always felt that hardship only makes us stronger. We say that the labyrinth is more than just hardship, it’s a totalitarian house of horrors. She laughs and says totalitarian houses of horror only make us stronger. She says that maybe this will be the title of her next album if the Generals let her release another album to take advantage of her popularity. She is more popular than ever. We recommend that she make it very patriotic. She smiles and says she can do that. We have no doubt that she can. We feel like Taylor Swift can do anything she wants.
© Jeffrey S. Chapman
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Jeffrey’s interview]