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Priest Responds To Gang Members' 'Lethal Absence Of Hope' With Jobs, And Love

Homeboy Industries founder Father Greg Boyle has spent 30 years working in LA with gang members and young people transitioning out of prison. His new book is Barking to the Choir.


Other segments from the episode on November 13, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 13, 2017: Interview with Father Greg Boyle; Review of CD "Reputation."



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Father Greg Boyle, has worked with former gang members in LA for over 30 years. He's the founder of Homeboy Industries, which was created to help former gang members and people transitioning out of prison create stable lives and stay out of gangs. Instead of Father Greg trying to convince business owners to hire young people who are at risk, he created jobs for them through Homeboy Industries.

Homeboy is a series of businesses including a restaurant, a bakery, cafe, farmers markets created with the purpose of hiring these young people so they can have on-the-job training. The employers come from rival gangs so they have to put aside their distrust and hatred of each other. Homeboy also provides other job training and social service programs. It's now the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the U.S.

Back in the '80s and '90s, Father Greg spent a lot of time on the streets. He's witnessed shootings, he's buried over 200 young people and he's kept on with the work in spite of being diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia about 15 years ago. He started working with gangs in 1986 when he became the pastor of the Dolores Mission Church in East LA, which was then the city's poorest Catholic parish. He's just written his second book, called, "Barking To The Choir: The Power Of Radical Kinship."

Father Greg Boyle, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you back on the show.

GREG BOYLE: Thank you.

GROSS: And I know you have a little bit of laryngitis so thank you for coming in spite of that. So you now make a distinction between employment, which is what you do with Homeboy Industries, you give people jobs for an 18-month period, and these are people who have either been in prison or have been in gangs and want to change their life.

You now make this distinction. You say that, like, employment isn't necessarily going to totally change someone's life. They might end up back in prison. But if somebody's healed, that will change their life possibly forever. What's the distinction you make between employment and the opportunity that you're giving them and healing?

BOYLE: Thirty years ago when we started Homeboy Industries, you know, the motto was nothing stops a bullet like a job, and that was a response to gang members saying if only we had work. And that was essential, but then when we discovered that, you know, we would dispatch gang members to jobs. But the minute any kind of monkey wrench was tossed into the mix, they would unravel, you know, that there was no resilience.

There was no healing. And they would go right back to gang life or go back to prison. So it was then that we kind of, probably 15 years ago, we said, you know, healing is probably more necessary along with the fact that people need to have a reason to get up in the morning and a place to go and a reason not to gang bang.

So we kind of altered in an essential way that if people don't have a foundational, fundamental healing, you know, then it's going to be really difficult for them to navigate their lives. And so we altered our kind of fundamental stance from just finding a job for every gang member or employing them with us but also trying to have them come to terms with whatever suffering they've been through and trauma.

GROSS: So that sounds great. Healing is really life changing. It's just really hard. I mean, some of the people you describe in your book who you've worked with, there's one person who, when he was a child, he took the batteries out of his father's dresser for one of his kids' toys. When his father got home and found his batteries were missing and that his son took his batteries, he took his son's arm and just snapped it in two.

You talk about people whose parent would put their head in the toilet and flush the toilet and nearly drown them. Basically that's waterboarding your child in a toilet. So when people have been brought up like this, and they're also poor and they have no real future prospects, how do you heal them? Like, what can heal somebody who's been through that?

BOYLE: Well, part of what we have at Homeboy is this irresistible culture of tenderness, you know, where people kind of hold each other. It's a place of containment, a place where people can regulate. And they all come with, you know, kind of chronic, toxic stress that's attached to them like a big, old heavy backpack. And if they can find relief then they no longer have to actually operate out of survivor brain, and then they can find our place as something of a sanctuary, and they can come to terms with what was done to them and also what they did.

And then we always say at Homeboy if you don't transform your pain, you're just going to keep transmitting it. So it breaks this cycle, and pretty soon, if they cooperate and surrender to it then they become the sanctuary that they sought there. And then they go home and they provide that sanctuary to their kids, and suddenly you've broken a cycle.

GROSS: But in addition to the tenderness, I'm sure you also and that your staff also has to say, you didn't show up for work today, and that's not good. Or, you're not really doing the job. And then what? Like, if somebody isn't doing their job, if they're not showing up on time, you know, what's the other side of the tenderness that you have to show them?

BOYLE: We don't get tripped up so much by behavior. Even gang violence itself is a language. You want to - well, what language is it speaking? You know, it's not about the flying of bullets. It's about a lethal absence of hope. So let's address the despair. And the same thing is with behavior.

I mean, we bring it up, and at some point we say, we think you're telling us that you're not ready to be here. We love you. We think you're great. Come back when you're ready. So that's the thing we do often enough. And we drug test because we don't want anyone to numb their pain as they do the work.

GROSS: Yeah. I'm going to stop you right there 'cause that's an interesting reason you've given. You're not saying, we drug test because drugs are illegal. You're saying, we drug test because that numbs the pain and we don't want them to be numbing themselves. Why are you putting it that way?

BOYLE: Because they're not going to be able to transform their pain if they're inebriated or if they're constantly smoking marijuana. And they're used to that. They're used to self-medicating. They're used to escape. They want to find that place where they can't see their pain from. And the antidote, really, is to hold them in a place where they feel cherished, and that's really compelling.

And once that kind of steady harmonizing love infiltrates the place where they show up every day and they kind of have a palpable sense of no matter what-ness, that these folks are even in my corner even if they have to let me go - in fact the people, a lot of people kind of relapse in that sense. And homies come back. You know, third time is the charm sometimes. Then it takes because it takes what it takes. People have to be responsive and fully cooperative in the healing. If it's too hard for them, well, come back when you're ready to do this. And I would say they almost always do, which is a sign that somehow they got a dose of something that they want more of.

GROSS: Part of what you've been trying to do with Homeboy Industries for the past 30 years is to get rival gang members to work with each other and to learn to stop, like, hating each other and hurting each other. You say you've buried 220 kids all killed because of gang violence. And you write, these are kids I love often killed by kids I love.

Can you give us an example of a situation where that happened, where one young person who you worked with killed another young person who you worked with and you cared deeply about both of them?

BOYLE: I think in "Tattoos On The Heart" there was a story of a kid, Beto (ph), who was only, you know, 10. And he was killed by these two guys in a van who came into Aliso Village housing projects and just started to shoot, especially at these two gang members smoking cigarettes by a dumpster. Everyone kind of ran for cover 'cause in those days this was part of the air you breathed. But this kid, Betito (ph), who was only 10, just froze and for some reason he didn't run for cover, and really high-caliber bullets entered his body. And they struggled to save them, but they weren't able to.

So later on, I found out - who as you always do - who were the two guys in the van. I love these guys. And I knew these guys. And I loved Beto. He was kind of a fixture in our office. And it's heartbreaking you, know, because you can't demonize people you know. And so as soon as you kind of say, yeah, I know the backstory of these two guys. And they just weren't able to transform their pain in time. So they kept inflicting it and transmitting it. And we have a 10-year-old kid who was just precocious and wonderful who is no longer with us.

But that kind of stuff happened a lot, you know, in those days because there were eight gangs in the housing projects, which was my parish. And I knew them all. And in those days, they all lived in the parish. Now it's - you know, gangs are kind of a commuter reality, at least in Los Angeles. You live elsewhere, but you come into your turf. And then you leave it. But in those days, I knew everybody - every single person. So if somebody got killed, they got killed by somebody I knew. And you love them because you know what they've carried, and you stand in awe.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Father Greg Boyle. And he's the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, which is a group of nine social enterprises staffed by former gang members and people who have gotten out of prison. There's a Homeboy cafe, diner, tattoo removal service, grocery and so on. And this is in East LA. And the goal, as Father Greg puts it, is to help heal these people so they can start a new life. Now Father Greg has a new book that's called "Barking To The Choir: The Power Of Radical Kinship." So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


NELLY FURTADO: (Vocalizing).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Father Greg Boyle, the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a group of businesses staffed by former gang members and people who have gotten out of prison as a way of helping them get back into life and change their life. It was started in 1988. Father Greg has written a new book called "Barking To The Choir: The Power Of Radical Kinship."

So the people you work with have often been the perpetrators or victims of gun violence. We've seen so many mass shootings and such tragedy and so much controversy - not only about what the gun laws should be but about, is it too soon to even talk about what the gun laws should be? So having seen the results of gun violence and the perpetrators and the victims, do you have a sense of where these guns come from - how the people, you know, get the guns?

BOYLE: I think it's the easiest thing there is for homies, gang members to get guns. And, you know, there's a network and a black market and a underground ability to locate anything they need. And then there's, you know, the misconceptions, you know? Homies will occasionally come into the office, and someone will say, yeah, he's packing a gun. So we escort them outside or, you know - and then you ask them, you know, why do you have a gun? And they'll always say the exact same thing that never varies - for my protection. And you can't get them to identify a single time that they can recall in their life for anybody they know who was ever protected by a gun ever. And nobody has enough time to talk about how much destruction and mayhem and the ending of life guns have brought to the community in which I live. So it's hard to reason with folks who think that way. But no reasonable person thinks it's ever too soon to discuss sensible gun laws.

GROSS: Do you think sensible gun laws would affect the gun violence in your community since so many of the guns are being purchased on the black market?

BOYLE: I think it might, you know, in terms of the kind of high-caliber things that you see but not really. You know, clearly, we're armed as a country. And there's nothing sensible about that. But if you just talked about health, no healthy person ever, you know, is going to go into a church and shoot people up.

So if you really wanted to address things then you want to kind of get at - what language is this speaking? - so you can deliver, certainly, mental health services in a timely, culturally appropriate way. But it's about health. Even in the gang world, you know, the shooters are almost always the most damaged and mentally ill.

GROSS: With the help of cellphone videos and dashboard videos, Americans have seen with their own eyes how some police officers assault or kill black men. And is that something that gang members you've worked with - ex-offenders that you've worked with have complained about? And if so, have you worked with officers - with police officers and spoken to them about your concerns?

BOYLE: Well, for the first time in 30 years, you know, we've had police officers in training at the police academy. They're brought over to Homeboy Industries to kind of spend the day. And it's a softening of, who are these people? And it helps, you know, to have gang members stand up in front of a roomful of police officers who are in training and allow them in - you know, invite them to the difficulties of their own growing up and what they had to endure. And if you can lead them to a place of awe, which is a great leveler - and then pretty soon they stand in awe at what these folks have had to carry rather than in judgment at how they've carried it. So it's softened the demonizing.

GROSS: You describe a meeting you had, like, years ago with a police officer. And you expressed your concerns. And he told you - the police officer told you that the police strategy is to make life as miserable as possible for the gang members. And your response was life is already miserable for them. So where did that leave you in your conversation with him? Do you remember?

BOYLE: Well, then it became let's shoot the messenger. So then there was this really great outpouring of hostility towards me from the local Los Angeles Police Department. I was the fraternizer with the enemy. I was, you know - I co-signed on bad behavior - and then wild things, like, I held their guns and their drugs - crazy stuff.

But this was - this is ancient history. This was when they would take kids to the factories and beat them down for purposes of interrogation or intimidation. And I was naive because I grew up on the other side of town in LA. Because when the cops arrived, they - you were relieved. They got the cat out of a tree, you know? So here I would go to the captain - I'd say, I think you'd want to know that this is going on. And so then pretty soon, it turned. It was - I knew not to go to the cops and tell them this because it just exacerbated their hostility towards me.

GROSS: But you think things are different now?

BOYLE: But that's - oh, way different now - just absolutely way different. Now, there isn't a gang member in LA County who doesn't have a bad story to tell, not one - and multiple ones at that about how, you know, they were mistreated or picked up and dropped off in enemy territory. They all can reach back and have those stories. But now, again, it's part of the fabric of how policing happens, that they go out of their way not to do this stuff now, at least in LA. And that's progress because it was quite bad 30 years ago.

GROSS: So Father Greg, how are you? You were diagnosed with leukemia about 15 years ago. After treatment, you went into remission or something close to it even though it's a chronic condition. So how are you doing now?

BOYLE: I'm good. You know, the homies still say, I hear your cancer's in intermission...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOYLE: ...That it has apparently stepped up to the lobby to buy popcorn. You know, past two years, I have had to go through immunotherapy and radiation recently. But it's - you know, I would not trade this for anything because it allows homies to be tender in a way that's different than the usual thing, you know? They just - they would just do anything for you. And they express it constantly in my presence or on - usually on a text and very sweet, very kind. And you feel cherished, you know? So I mean, again, my health has never been kind of on my top 10 list of things I ever worry about.

GROSS: Why not? Why hasn't it?

BOYLE: Meeting payroll always has been.

GROSS: That - I understand that. But I also understand...

BOYLE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That, you know, like, if someone has any form of cancer, that usually rises pretty much to the top of the list of concerns.

BOYLE: Yeah, I think the only answer to that is I'm probably weird.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

BOYLE: But I think part of it, too, is that you have to put - a kid who I buried used to say right after his brother died in his arms - also gunned down. And he was gunned down two years after that. He said death is a punk. And I said, yeah, you know, you're right. And so I think a lot of it has to do - people are kind of stunned that that none of us will get out of this alive. And that kind of startles me. I want to say, where you been, you know? And it's kind of an indicator of, you know, the work that everybody has to do is no one gets out of this life. So once you know that then, all of a sudden, death as a punk.

You know, the Dalai Lama - somebody asked him about his own personal death. And he just laughed. And he said, change of clothing. And yeah, I'll have what he's having, you know, because I think that's what it is. So the minute you're freed from not just the notion of death but you're freed from the fear of it - and I know that cancer and death is not the worst thing that could ever happen to somebody. And once you know that, then you can compile the lists - you know? - the list of fates worse than death and the things more powerful than death.

GROSS: My guest is Father Greg Boyle. His new book is called "Barking To The Choir." After a break, we'll talk about what the meaning of prayer is for him. And Ken Tucker will review Taylor Swift's new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Father Greg Boyle. He's worked with gang members and former gang members trying to start new lives since 1986 when he became the pastor of Dolores Mission Church in East LA. In an attempt to find jobs for former gang members and young people transitioning out of prison, he founded Homeboy Industries, a group of businesses that hires these young people as part of Homeboy's job training program. It's become the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the U.S.

Did you feel called to be a priest? I mean, how did you know you wanted to be a priest?

BOYLE: I was giving a talk the other night and somebody said, when did you feel called to priesthood? And I said the day of my ordination.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOYLE: I don't even know why that popped out of my mouth. But I think it's probably true. I was educated by the Jesuits. And I loved the Jesuits. And they were hilarious and prophetic. And this was during the Vietnam War. And they just, you know - let's hop in the van, and we're driving to San Francisco, to the biggest anti-war protest in the country's history. Yeah, let's do it. I love that stuff.

That's why I became a Jesuit. And they were the funniest damn human beings I'd ever been around. And for me, that was the - just the combo burger that made me want to become a Jesuit. Priest was kind of later. You know, I guess I should become a priest, too, so - you know, so - but Jesuit was my first and foremost thing.

GROSS: As a Jesuit priest, how much say do you have about where you're going to be assigned to work and what your work will be like? Did you ask to work with gang members? Was that just the outcome of the neighborhood you were assigned to?

BOYLE: Well, I was ordained a priest in '84, and then I went to Bolivia to learn Spanish, really. And then it just turned me inside out. I was - it's what you would call being evangelized by the poor. I just said, I want to cast my lot with the poorest folks I can find. And it felt to me the fullness of where my life had led me to that point.

So I was supposed to go to Santa Clara University to work kind of in the campus ministry there, and I just couldn't do it. So I went to my provincial. Please send me to the poorest place you can. And then by luck, they sent me to Dolores Mission. And I figured I'd be the third guy on the totem pole. But nobody was there when I got there. So I was the pastor. I was the youngest pastor in the history of the diocese. You didn't make people my age pastor.

And then it was a vocation within a vocation within a vocation. And then '88 started when I started to bury kids. And then it was - I feel connected to these folks. So then I knew every gang member. And we had the highest concentration of gang activity in all of Los Angeles - was my parish. So you could bury your head in the sand, or you could roll up your sleeves. And so it was all an evolution.

People come to our headquarters now, which is our fourth headquarters, and it's huge in Chinatown in LA. And it serves the whole county. And you know, people say, did you think this up? And the truth is, nobody could, you know? But you're faithful to putting one foot in front of the next. And things evolve. And you add things like tattoo removal and therapy, and you listen because, you know, the stance is humility.

If you're humble, you'll ask the poor, what would help you? But if you're led by hubris, then you tell the poor, here's what your problem is; here's how you fix yourself. And so Homeboy has sort of stayed humble in as much as it's listened to the formerly gang-involved and has responded at every turn, what can we do that is concretely helpful?

GROSS: What was your home life like when you were a child? You had - you were 1 of, like, 8 children in your home.

BOYLE: Yeah. You know, again, people always say, you know, gang members need to know how to make better choices. And a homie said, what choice did I have? You know, I was born into this mess. And it's true. You know, and I won all these lotteries - parent lottery, sibling lottery, ZIP code lottery, educational lottery. And that's a fact. And the fact that I didn't join a gang is sort of a preposterous notion. I wasn't even in the ballpark of joining a gang. I wasn't in the city where the ballpark's located.

GROSS: So it's not like you made the wise choice of not joining a gang (laughter).

BOYLE: Yes. I was able to choose. What's your problem, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

BOYLE: And so I think that's important to underscore because then you start to go, wow, this isn't about right and wrong. This isn't about good choices. This is about the fact that the field is not level.

GROSS: What class were you born into?

BOYLE: Well, I'd say we were middle-class, you know? I don't think we lacked anything, but we didn't - we weren't rolling in it, you know? And we were comfortable. But you know, we weren't - I wouldn't say we were rich or upper. We were pretty middle-class. But we were always comfortable and happy. And my household was hilarious. And to this day, we all get along. And I mean, again, I just - I'm lucky. And other folks aren't that lucky. And the poor have to navigate things that I never had to navigate.

GROSS: What was your understanding of prayer when you were in parochial school compared to what your understanding of prayer is now?

BOYLE: Well, you know, in those days, it was rote, and it was petitionary. And it was - I know I didn't study for the math test, but please let me pass it, you know, craziness, which led people to go, yeah, he didn't - I didn't pass the math test - so much for prayer. So I mean, again, it was third grade. And - but I had experiences when I was in high school where it was profound and unitive and really feeling held and loved and worthy.

GROSS: Is prayer for you a quiet recitation, you know, of prewritten prayer or moments of reflection that have no text attached to it?

BOYLE: Yeah. I don't have any text. I have mantras all the time. But I try to meditate twice a day and in the morning and then if I can do it during the afternoon or when I steal away some time for lunch. It's...

GROSS: Yeah, mantra is a Buddhist concept and not (laughter) a Jesuit one...

BOYLE: Don't tell anybody (laughter).

GROSS: Buddhism comes up a lot in your book. So you obviously see some connections between, you know, the Jesuit approach that you follow and Buddhism.

BOYLE: Yeah, definitely I do. You know, I think it's very helpful to my own kind of centering prayer. And again, my mantra at the moment is, resting in you, resting in me. And I kind of breathe it in, and I breathe it out. Actually a homie taught me that one.

GROSS: Really?

BOYLE: Yeah. I have a homie named Sergio (ph) who is kind of - I call my spiritual director. And he goes to work at some ungodly hour, at 4. He's been in recovery for, like, nine years. And he's my hero. I call him my spiritual director. And every morning, sometimes in real time, but, you know - because I get up at 3:30 in the morning. I get up really early. And so he'll email me. And he'll kind of - this is what I'm thinking, and this is what happened to me in prayer. And then I tell him what happened to me. And it's a profoundly rich thing.

But I look back at him, and you know, he was a meth addict and a drug dealer and a gang member. And now he's like a spiritual guide to me. But anyway, so we were talking about this kind of breathing in and breathing out and resting in you, resting in me. And so that's my current one thanks to him.

GROSS: So one more question. One of the services that Homeboy Industries provides is tattoo removal, which is really important because a lot of the tattoos are gang-related. And if you want to get out of gang life and if you want a job (laughter), it's probably good to remove the visible tattoos. So have tattoos changed in the 30 years that you've been working with former gang members and current gang members?

BOYLE: Well, you know, certainly, you know, there are non-gang members who get quite a number of tattoos. And I'm not even sure it's an impediment so much, you know, to somebody who's not a gang member who is going to work, you know, for NPR and has tattoos, you know? I'm not sure it's an issue.

GROSS: It would probably - is not an issue, yeah.

BOYLE: Yeah.

GROSS: But...

BOYLE: But if you're - if you have alarming tattoos and your face is covered with tattoos and they're provocative and they, you know, are obviously gang-related - and so we still have a waiting list of a thousand people who want this service.


BOYLE: And we go 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. So we have one paid physician assistant, and we have, like, 47 volunteer doctors all trained and certified by our office to remove tattoos. So the demand is there. It was never a thing - we don't demand it or ask it of our workers, you know? But it - the moment comes when they feel like this is too alarming. And I'm with my kids, and this one is a provocation. And so they chip away. And it's very painful and very time-consuming and can take upwards of 18 to 23 treatments before it's gone. And that's tough. But they do it.

GROSS: Well, Father Greg, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much. I wish you good health.

BOYLE: Thank you, Terry. Always good being with you.

GROSS: Father Greg Boyle is the founder of the gang intervention and re-entry program Homeboy Industries and author of the new book "Barking To The Choir." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review Taylor Swift's new album. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Taylor Swift's new album, her sixth. It's called "Reputation." It's her first album since her 2014 album which was called "1989." "1989" represented Swift's move away from the country music genre where she started her career, and Ken says "Reputation" pushes her even further into pop music territory.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) No, nothing good starts in a getaway car.

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) It was the best of times, the worst of crimes struck. I struck a match and blew your mind. But I didn't mean it, and you didn't see it. The ties were black. The lies were white and shades of gray in candlelight. I wanted to leave him. I needed a reason. X marks the spot where we fell apart.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The pulsing drumbeats, the surging keyboards, the distorted or multitracked vocals - Taylor Swift has relocated herself far from country music on her new album, "Reputation." Three years ago, she called "1989" her first official pop album. This one is her move into electronic dance music, and the EDM instrumentation and rhythms seem a comfortable framework for her songwriting. I like the way she makes synthesizers do the work of church organs on the gospel pop of "Don't Blame Me."


SWIFT: (Singing) Don't blame me. Love made me crazy. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right. Lord save me. My drug is my baby. I'll be using for the rest of my life. I been breaking hearts a long time and toying with all them older guys, just playthings for me to use. Something happened for the first time in the darkest little paradise, shaking, pacing. I just need you. For you, I would cross the line. I would waste my time. I would lose my mind. They say she's gone too far this time.

TUCKER: Swift remains a master at creating the sound of yearning, the push and pull of romantic attraction versus emotional conflict. She's working once again with some of the biggest pop hit maker producers - Jack Antonoff, Max Martin and Shellback. But listening to the music, you never think for a second that she has ceded control to them. There's a reason she's billed as executive producer above them. Listen to the way she makes her breathy vocal sound sure and strong as it surges around the melody of the gorgeous song called "Delicate."


SWIFT: (Singing) Dive bar on the East Side, where you at? Phone lights up my nightstand in the black. Come here. You can meet me in the back. Dark jeans and your Nikes - look at you. Oh, damn - never seen that color blue. Just think of the fun things we could do 'cause I like you. This ain't for the best. My reputation's never been worse. So you must like me for me. Yeah, I want you. We can't make any promises now, can we, babe? But you can make me a drink. Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you're in my head 'cause I know that it's delicate. Is it cool that I said all that?

TUCKER: Swift has a new song called "Gorgeous." The lyric presents her as a woman flirting with a guy while her boyfriend isn't looking, enjoying the kind of social privilege usually reserved in pop songs for men. "Gorgeous" finds swift half singing, half talking the verses only to break into a lovely falsetto croon on the chorus which has an irresistible bubblegum pop hook.


SWIFT: (Singing) You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk. You should think about the consequence of your magnetic field being a little too strong. And I got a boyfriend. He's older than us. He's in the club doing I don't know what. You're so cool. It makes me hate you so much. I hate you so much. Whiskey on ice, sunset and vine - you've ruined my life by not being mine. You're so gorgeous. I can't say anything to your face.

TUCKER: One reason why Swift felt it necessary to move on from country music is that she found its myth of authenticity constraining for the size of her pop stardom. For a previous generation of confessional singer songwriters, this dilemma used to represent a crisis point, but Swift need not worry.

For her audience, the lyrics of a new song such as "This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" may sound like a thinly veiled reference to her public arguments with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. It operates as a joke on the glory of success, and the song also works on a more straightforward level. I hear it as, sometimes friends betray you.


SWIFT: (Singing) It was so nice being friends again. There I was, giving you a second chance. But you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand. And therein lies the issue. Friends don't try to trick you, get you on the phone and mind twist you. And so I took an axe to a mended fence. But I'm not the only friend you've lost lately. If only you weren't so shady. This is why we can't have nice things, darling.

TUCKER: The usual rap against the kind of electro-pop Swift is deploying here is that it can too easily sound chilly and distancing, robotic. This is the exact opposite of how Taylor Swift sounds on "Reputation." She comes across as eager with an enjoyable theatricality. She's found a way to echo the teen vulnerability that first brought her success while demonstrating how an adult can process those emotions with a control that does not negate passion.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Taylor Swift's new album "Reputation." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Dee Rees. She directed the new movie "Mudbound" about two families - one black, one white, both poor - in rural Mississippi just before, during and after World War II. Rees also wrote and directed the film "Pariah," which she says is based on what her life might have been like had she come out when she was 17 instead of in her 20s. I hope you'll join us.


SWIFT: (Singing) Our secret moments in a crowded room - they've got no idea about me and you. There is an indentation in the shape of you, made your mark on me, a golden tattoo. All of this silence and patience, pining in anticipation - my hands are shaking from holding back from you. All of this silence and patience, pining and desperately waiting - my hands are shaking from all this.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


SWIFT: (Singing) Take it off. Carve your name into my bedpost because I don't want you like a best friend. Only bought this dress so you could take it, take it off. Inescapable - I'm not even going to try.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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