TAMPA — The Florida sun burned through my black pleather top as I hurried around Raymond James Stadium. I tried to grip a set of metal plates used at the Tampa Bay Times printing press, but my hands kept slipping. The sweat had little to do with the heat.
Days before, I had published a project in the Times called "Look What Taylor Swift Made Me Do," analyzing lyrics of her six albums over three years. My quest was to learn about my favorite singer, who is notoriously private, by decoding her lyrics.
I knew many people had read it in print and online. I'd spent Tuesday morning before her Tampa concert interacting with some of those readers on Reddit about my methods and why I did this. But I didn't know if one reader — the reader — had seen it at all.
Then, I'd gotten a text. It was Jay Cridlin, the Times pop music/culture critic: Hey, can you call me ASAP?
My heart pounded. Did I mess something up? I called immediately.
"Taylor's publicist called me. They read the project. She invited us backstage tonight to meet her."
The sweating began.
• • •
The security team at the stadium eyed the plates. A supervisor came over. There was no way I was allowed to bring them in. They were sharp, they were metal. I sputtered, knowing the words sounded pitiful.
"I'm meeting Taylor. Her publicist said to bring them."
That was a hard no. I felt defeated.
When the article went to press the week before, I'd called the printing plant to see if they could save the plates. The sheets of metal are not only a tangible form of my project, but also symbolize the work I do at the Times as a news page designer — a job dependent on the health of print newspapers, which so many people around the country claim are on their deathbeds.
The operators at the plant gave me two copies of the plates. One set will be framed and hung on my wall at home.
Now dejected, I started to set the other by a trash can near the box office. Maybe someone would stumble upon them and wonder why anyone would make metal posters that looked like newspapers featuring the face of Taylor Swift.
• • •
The project started from a desire to learn about Taylor, to support the connections my brain made with her lyrics. It resulted in collaborations with nearly every corner of the newsroom. Only after it was published on tampabay.com did I really start to think other fans might truly find it interesting.
I briefly entertained the idea that one day the project would reach its subject through social media, and she would tweet or blog it. But I never expected her to read it, much less before her concert in Tampa. I certainly never expected an invitation to meet her.
It's not the reason I wrote it, not at all. But now that I had the chance, I had to put an ending on this story.
• • •
As I turned back toward security, my friends yelled solutions at me. The heartbreak on my face was plain.
I saw Jay raise his hand. He was on the phone. Take the plates to the media entrance, he said. I whipped around and hurried them to a confused doorman, who, after a phone call, promised to get the plates where they needed to be.
I breathed, and gleefully glided through security.
Taylor Swift's publicist appeared out of nowhere as I stood gaping at the crowd on the floor level of the stadium. She led us through just a couple doors and then a curtain, and there she was.
Taylor gathered me into a hug. I was vaguely aware of how sweaty I was and how not sweaty she was. We had a brief, but real, conversation.
Her team asked us to keep exact details of the meeting off the record, so I'll honor that. In fact, it makes sense. This practice of keeping Taylor private is what led me to try to decipher her the first place.
But strictly from my perspective, the entire experience had a dream-like quality.
I was able to explain the gift of the newspaper plates, describing them as stamps that print the newspaper.
And it was my understanding that she saw the story in print. For a project intended for online and all the ways it was pushed on social media (I am now a member of no less than 22 Taylor Swift fan groups on Facebook), Taylor Swift saw it in our local newspaper.
The memory of meeting Taylor still feels like a dream, but it's also reality now. If my reporting proved anything to me, it's that there's a little room for both.
We took a glistening photo together, with a backdrop of her name on newspaper pages behind us.