My hatred for Taylor Swift is the stuff of legend. I kid you not. Ask anyone I went to college with. Taylor Swift’s songs – especially “Fifteen” – contain views of gender roles that troglodytes would be proud of. But that is neither here nor there. Today I will be aloof, dignified, scholarly, and talk about Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, and the Iliad. An odd combo, but that’s what’ll make it fun. We’ll start with Taylor; the specific song that I want to analyze is “Love Story,” from her album “Fearless.”
The most terrible thing about this song is that I absolutely love it. I’ll come back to that in a minute. First of all, I want to note the things which the movie – both explicitly and implicitly – makes reference to:
Fairy Tales. This is an implicit reference; however, we do have Taylor Swift standing on a balcony in a tower. (Rapunzel anyone?) The song’s title, “Love Story,” is also a gesture towards the fairy-tale genre, as is its opening line, “We were both young when I first saw you.
Romeo and Juliet. The classic love story, no? Swift is Juliet, Dashing Man With Very Styled Hair (I’ll call him DMV) is Romeo.
The Scarlet Letter. Not a good idea on Swift’s part. The line: “Cause you were Romeo, I was a Scarlet Letter, and my Daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet.'”
Jane Austen. Here I am not talking about any particular Jane Austen book, movie, or other adaptation, but rather the sort of romantic “brand” that Regency England has become, and which is often talked about under Jane Austen’s name. This sort of Jane Austen has several things: waistcoats, lovely dresses, women with diamonds and/or gold in their up-dos, country dances of the like shown in Swift’s music video. In fact, that dance is basically just a flashier, more polished, less witty version of the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth from the 2005 film (which in turn was a flashier, more polished, less witty version of the same dance from the 1995 mini-series). You’ll find the video after the jump:
See what I mean? Especially that bit when they are dancing by themselves. Also, the scene near the end of Taylor’s video is a flashier, brighter, more fancily costumed and less complex version of this scene from the same movie:
OK, so the music video makes visual links to Jane Austen style love stories; it borrows the tropes with which we are familiar, even if it doesn’t explicitly quote Pride and Prejudice or any given adaptation. Why does Swift do this? We’ll come back to that in a second.
First, let’s look at the other items on the list. The Scarlet Letter. Why the heck would Swift reference that? It is *not* a happy story, people. It is not even really a love story. The “letter” in question is a scarlet “A” that Hester is forced to wear, which is for “adultery,” not “apple” or “ambrosia” or “aphrodisiac.” Why, then, does Taylor Swift reference it in a tale about pure, young, shinysunnyperfect love? Either she hasn’t read it – which is possible, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt – or something else is going on.
Let’s move on to Fairy Tales/Rapunzel. It’s an iconic image, isn’t it? Girl locked in tower, waiting for her love to rescue her. It’s a trope, something that we’re super familiar with, classic.
Hmmm, what was that word? Iconic. Classic. Same goes for Romeo and Juliet. The story is in a class by itself. It isn’t just a story, it’s a symbol for something: perfect love. In fact, the story is so well known, so over-used, has embedded itself so deeply into our culture that it has in fact become empty. And that is exactly the point.
Fairy Tales have always had a special sort of property: their glaring unspecificity. They always begin “once upon a time,” never “ten years ago in Brooklyn.” For the most part they star nameless Princes, Princesses, Miller’s Daughters and Youngest Sons, never a Sally, Hildegaard, or Jayma. They are *types.* Most fairy tales follow the exact same storyline; the differences in individual tales are just variations on a theme. And this, in part, accounts for their enduring appeal. If a story and its characters are unspecific enough, it can purport to be universal. This story about a Young Girl is a story about every young girl! This story about a Princess is everyone’s story (if they were a princess)! The stories are therefore, in a sense, empty: they have little specific content. They are waiting to be filled with the hopes, dreams, and projections of those who read them. (If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend that you read this post about fairy tales and psychoanalysis).
See where this is going? There is method in Taylor Swift’s mash-up madness. Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter and Jane Austen all have one thing in common with Fairy Tales: their status as iconic classics. And as such, they derive their meaning not so much from themselves – their plots, what they are as works of art – as from the way they are used in our culture. Saying the words “Jane Austen” seldom actually means Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice anymore; it means Perfect Romance. Same thing with Romeo and Juliet. The Scarlet Letter is trickier; it does enjoy status as a classic, but it is more obscure. However, many of those who have heard of it think that it ends like the Hollywood film version with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, in which there is a happy ending and love prevails.
“Love Story” takes all these things, mixes them together, and comes out with a love story. Not love stories. But a love story. The video, by referencing so many classic tropes in one single story line, implies that all these love stories are in fact one single love story. They are all just variations on one single fairy-tale theme. All love stories have the same trajectory, they are all part of one single love story, The Love Story, the epic one.
This is why Ms. Swift, apparently, feels justified in changing the ending of Romeo and Juliet. To make it happy. Romeo just talks to Taylor’s dad, and everyone’s cool. The Scarlet Letter stands for love, man, not adultery. Oh, and fairy tale characters hang out in towers because it looks awesome, not because anyone locked them up there.
This is part of what makes the song, and the music video, so appealing. By “flattening” everything out and making all these stories into mere “types” – a classic technique, even if Swift doesn’t know it – Swift empties her song of any content. It isn’t about Taylor and DMV and how they met 3 months ago in Detroit and got to know each other by discussing a mutual love of geckos. The story lacks all specificity, making it empty, making it easy for listeners/viewers to insert themselves into the song and vicariously live out its story.
Of course, this is a really scary, dangerous thing. First of all, it implies that there is only one way to be in love. It’s called “Love Story” after all, not “Love Stories.” You mean that your story doesn’t fit into this mold? It’s wrong. Change it. What, you say you don’t want to change it? Hey, if you can change Romeo and Juliet – maybe the greatest love story of all time – so it can better be a part of the love story, anything’s possible. Stop being different and conform.
Songs like this bug me. They are problematic. True, fairy tales – which I adore – are often problematic in the same way for many of the same reasons. They, too, have “empty” story-lines which beg to be called “universal,” and which beguilingly invite readers to insert themselves into the otherwise “empty” plots. (For more on the good/bad of fairy tales, see this post).
Fairy Tales have this problem, but Taylor Swift’s song goes a little bit too far. It goes beyond fairy tales and tries to make just about every love story *ever* conform to a pattern. The problem is that I actually like the song quite a bit, as far as the music bit of it goes (I could leave the lyrics; they’re boring). So what can I do? How can I possibly enjoy this song without being a total hypocrite?
Well I can’t; I’ll always be a little bit of a hypocrite. But! When this song first came out I decided that I would balance out its saccharine simplicity with some excellent specificity. The first time I heard this song, I knew exactly what it was about: Achilles and Patroclus. That’s right. The Iliad is one of my top-five favorite books of all time, and it is at least partly because I think Achilles and Patroclus were meant to be. I cry every single time when Patroclus dies. I lose it every time I read about Achilles stretching out his hands to embrace Patroclus’s ghost yet left with nothing but air.
So, when I started writing my thesis about a year ago, I read the Iliad multiple times, sometimes for 8 hours at a time, and when I did it I would always listen to “Love Story” on repeat. Yeah, I’ve probably spent a grand total of 30 or so hours of my waking life listening to that song and crying over an old greek book. ‘Tis a strange life that I lead.
But! I draw from this a valuable lesson. Non-specific, “universal” love stories like Swift’s version of, uh, every love story on the planet might be tempting. They tempt us to identify with them because of the illusion of perfection they present. But we also know that this view of the world is a lie. The stories that we find the most touching are actually apt to be the specific, flawed ones, since those are apt to have more in common with our lived experiences. They’ll never be quite as iconic, since they’ll never have that claim to universality, but they’re super enjoyable all the same.
…And besides, no one will ever make a painting this beautiful and tragic bout a Taylor Swift song: