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Feeling So Gatsby That Year: Rich Literary Influence in Taylor Swift's Reputation
Examining "reputation" and Swift’s literary references, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Fitzgerald
We continue to take a look at the classic literary 📚 references in Taylor Swift’s catalog. Make sure to check out Part One of this series, where we explored her work from Debut to 1989.
Part Two: reputation
“End Game,” an irresistible anthem from the Queen of Modern Songwriting’s eponymous sixth studio album, reputation, provides an aural examination of her public image. Taylor Swift repeatedly alludes to the magnitude of the personas she and her partner have cultivated in the line, “Big reputation, big reputation/Ooh, you and me, we got big reputations, ah.” She further acknowledges her public adversities in the lyric, “And you heard about me, ooh/I got some big enemies,” a concept that parallels Shakespeare’s commentary on reputation. As illustrated by the Bard in Othello, reputation can often be acquired “without merit, and lost without deserving,” a sentiment echoed in her lyrics, acknowledging the vulnerability of one’s image to external threats.
Analyzing her lyrics in the context of classic literature offers intriguing parallels. Shakespeare’s portrayal of reputation, as voiced in Othello’s lament, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial,” resonates with Taylor’s experiences, particularly during her public dispute with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
Shakespeare’s Richard II further explores the concept, describing reputation as “The purest treasure mortal times afford/Is spotless reputation; that way,/Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.” These lines parallel Taylor’s own journey, where her reputation was seemingly swept away. Yet, in the aftermath of this upheaval, author Margaret Mitchell’s wisdom in Gone With the Wind, “Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is,” holds true. The loss of reputation has granted Taylor newfound freedom, enabling her to redefine herself without the constraints of public expectations. This produces a rebirth and reinvention. Interestingly, the mention of the Ouroboros in the “Look What You Made Me Do” lyric video adds another layer to this symbolism. Originating in Ancient Egypt, the snake 🐍 of the Ouroboros eternally consumes and regenerates itself, suggesting she continues to evolve and revitalize her image and music.
An observation from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, “By this curious turn of disposition, I have gained the reputation of deliberate heartlessness; how undeserved, I alone can appreciate,” aptly describes Taylor’s predicament. Like Bronte’s character, she has been accused of being cold-hearted and manipulative, an assessment she alone understands to be unjust.
“Look What You Made Me Do” and Hamlet
The song “Look What You Made Me Do” and William Shakespeare’s 🎭 play Hamlet share an intriguing exploration of self-transformation following personal trauma. In each, the protagonists are driven to reshape their identities as they confront the unsettling events that have disrupted their lives.
Though the two have long since buried the longsword, the symbolic use of medieval imagery in Katy Perry’s lyrics from “Swish Swish” might have been a key influence in Taylor’s lyricism in “Look What You Made Me Do.” Perry’s assertion, “And I’m a courtside killer queen/And you will kiss the ring,” casts herself as a reigning queen and presents a metaphorical narrative of power and dominance in the music industry.
The line “You’ll all get yours” carries a tone of retribution and justice, reinforcing the theme of vengeance that is also prevalent in Hamlet. It underscores Taylor’s determination to confront those who have wronged her and assert her narrative, just as Hamlet eventually avenges his father’s murder. “Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time,” references her recurring capacity to rebound and transform after various public disputes and setbacks, such as her feuds with Katy Perry and Kanye West.
Taylor seems to respond directly to this medieval imagery with the line, “I don't like your kingdom keys. 🗝 They once belonged to me,” suggesting Perry’s apparent reign in the music industry was built on Taylor’s absence. This narrative of stolen power resonates with Hamlet’s story, where Claudius seizes the throne 👑 that once belonged to Hamlet’s father.
Further deepening this parallel, Taylor re-released her music on Spotify the same day Perry's album Witness dropped, reclaiming her presence on the music charts. Like Hamlet, who counters Claudius’s usurpation by directly confronting him, Taylor counters Perry’s supposed reign by reasserting her presence in the music world.
The lyrics and the visual narrative of the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do” present a multifaceted exploration of betrayal and reclamation of power. Taylor’s assertion that “the old Taylor can't come to the phone… she’s dead” signals her rebirth and determination to confront those who have wronged her. The carving of “Et tu, Brute?” into her hand rest in the music video reflects a clear link to Julius Caesar’s infamous betrayal by his friend Brutus.
The transformation Taylor undergoes mirrors that of Hamlet, who, after witnessing Fortinbras’s fearless determination, resolves to avenge his father’s murder, casting off his previous indecisiveness. “I will not let that sleep,” he states, mirroring Taylor’s commitment to not stand idle in the face of betrayal and conflict. She embodies the spirit of Julius Caesar reborn like a phoenix, or eternal like the Egyptian snake, confronting her perceived betrayals head-on, just as Hamlet confronts Claudius, and Caesar confronts his assassins.
The line “you locked me out and threw a feast” seems to be an indictment of those who took advantage of her hiatus to celebrate their success, potentially tying in with her feud with Perry. The music video for Perry's “Bon Appétit” showcases her being served as a feast, providing a fitting visual metaphor for Taylor’s lyrics. Taylor seems to suggest that while she was locked out—absent from the music scene—others were feasting and benefiting from that absence.
“This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things” and The Great Gatsby
“This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things” is a track that opens with a picture of grandeur, hedonism, and seemingly unlimited luxury, reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel The Great Gatsby.🍾 Taylor’s specific mention of “Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year” serves to establish a direct link between her song's milieu and the opulent atmosphere of Gatsby’s Jazz Age New York.
The 1920s New York City of The Great Gatsby was marked by an atmosphere of exorbitant wealth, 💵 free-flowing alcohol, and rampant self-indulgence, setting the stage for the economic collapse of 1929. Jay Gatsby, the book’s enigmatic protagonist, epitomizes this culture of excess. His lavish, hedonistic parties, where guests were free to engage in unrestrained indulgence, were legendary.
When Taylor comments about the song, she expresses how it explores the concept of people taking “nice things” for granted – friendship, trust, openness, and respect. In much the same way that Gatsby’s generosity and openness were disregarded by his so-called friends, Taylor’s experiences reveal a parallel narrative. Her generosity was met with skepticism, her openness was returned with betrayal, and her trust was shattered.
This theme of deception is reflected aptly in Taylor’s song. Her lyric “Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year” encapsulates not only the outward glamour but also the underlying disloyalty. The song portrays her experience with a false sense of security, shaped by the dazzling illusion of fame and companionship. She speaks of a betrayal, metaphorically describing being stabbed in the back, indicating that she, like Gatsby, was deceived by the glittering artifice of her environment.
“Don't Blame Me” and The Great Gatsby
We remain with Fitzgerald, delving into the epic narrative of Taylor’s “Don't Blame Me,” a track that lyrically paints another transformation and look behind the facade. Taylor’s self-identification as “your daisy” 🌼 in “Don’t Blame Me” is a multilayered statement. On the surface, it indicates a transformation from being “poison ivy” –an allusion to a harmful, toxic presence–to “daisy,” a symbol of purity and innocence. However, when seen through the lens of The Great Gatsby, it takes on a deeper significance.
Much like the Gatsby idolizes the character Daisy Buchanan, Taylor Swift often has been placed on a pedestal, idolized and romanticized. She’s been the “golden girl” of the music industry, her name synonymous with success. However, just like Daisy, she too has experienced the pressure and the disillusionment that accompany the golden image. Taylor’s music industry struggles, particularly her fight for her masters, echo the darker side of the gilded world Daisy inhabits.
Moreover, Taylor’s characterization of herself as “daisy” could also hint at the power dynamics in relationships. Daisy, despite her seemingly docile persona, wields considerable power over Gatsby. His love for her is his downfall. Her assertion, “now I’m your daisy,” could be an exploration of the power she holds in the relationship she’s singing about. In addition to this, Taylor’s work often explores the theme of the illusion of innocence and the loss thereof. This aligns with Daisy’s character, who appears innocent and pure but is ultimately revealed to be self-serving and reckless.
“So It Goes…,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” and Slaughterhouse-Five
It’s essential to discuss the implications of the track “So It Goes…” Borrowing a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s famous work Slaughterhouse-Five, Taylor incorporates a potent literary motif into her own narrative. The usage of “so it goes” by Vonnegut is a recurrent theme signifying death, reinforcing a Tralfamadorian concept of time where death is not a tragic end but merely a different state of existence. This reference serves to deepen the impact of her narrative, merging the literary motif with her own story of metamorphosis.
This particular element resonates with Taylor’s artistry in reputation, where she confronts her own metaphorical death. Following the crucifixion scene and death imagery in “Look What You Made Me Do” video, her declaration of the old Taylor’s death hints at a transformation. It’s a rebirth of sorts, a shedding of previous identities in favor of a new persona, which is explored further in “So It Goes…”
Much like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, who grapples with the trauma of his past, Taylor also presents herself in a period of isolation and emotional turmoil during the reputation era. Her lyrics in “So It Goes…” such as “Cut me into pieces/Gold cage, hostage to my feelings,” reflect a sense of entrapment and powerlessness, underscoring the loneliness and misunderstanding that comes with public vilification.
“Look What You Made Me Do” and Sylvia Plath’s verses in “Lady Lazarus”
This compelling juxtaposition between Taylor Swift’s lyrics in “Look What You Made Me Do” and Sylvia Plath’s verses in her poems “Lady Lazarus” and “The Applicant” presents a powerful exploration of the transformation of women under the male gaze. In both Taylor’s song and Plath’s poems, women transform from victims to victors, from consumed to consumers, all the while maintaining a degree of self-awareness that serves to highlight the performative nature of their roles.
This transformation is embodied in Taylor’s chorus: “Ooh, look what you made me do/Look what you made me do.” As she delivers these lines in the music video for the song, Taylor is shown in various exaggerated and fantastical scenarios, each one more surreal than the last. Much like Plath’s “living dolls” from “The Applicant,” these “fantasy girls” represent an exaggerated critique of the roles women are expected to play in society.
In the refrain, Taylor asserts her resilience, echoing Lady Lazarus’s claim: “Dying/Is an art, like everything else/I do it exceptionally well.” Taylor boasts: “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time.” Both women are no longer passive victims, but active participants who are able to turn their hardships into strengths.
As Lady Lazarus turns the tables on the “peanut-crunching crowd” by monetizing her trauma, Taylor is also depicted flipping the script on her critics. The line, “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” highlights Taylor's newfound power and control over her narrative.
Finally, the concluding sequence of Taylor’s video, where fourteen versions of the artist appear, is particularly striking. It can be seen as a representation of the diverse female identities one woman can possess, similar to the multitude of female figures found in Plath’s poetry, (queen, lioness, Godiva, murderess, etc). This diverse cast, though seemingly at odds, speaks to the complexity and multifaceted nature of womanhood. It reinforces the message of both Taylor and Plath’s works: women are not one-dimensional beings to be consumed, but complex individuals capable of transformation and resilience.
“Getaway Car” and the shadows of A Tale of Two Cities
One of the standout tracks from Taylor Swift’s reputation album, “Getaway Car,” is replete with intense imagery and narrative that resonates deeply with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The classic novel portrays a character willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the one they love, which aligns with the desperate, romantic narrative of “Getaway Car.”
The song’s opening line, “It was the best of times, the worst of crimes,” immediately evokes Dickens’ iconic opening in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” This line lays the foundation for the theme of duality in both the song and the novel.
In “Getaway Car,” Taylor Swift sings, “We never had a shotgun shot in the dark,” indicating the inevitable end of a relationship started on a whim or in haste. The song is a narrative about a passionate and spontaneous love affair, much like the star-crossed romance between Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. Both narratives underscore the idea that decisions made in haste or under pressure can often lead to heartbreak and disappointment.
The getaway car, 🚙 a symbol of a hurried escape, mirrors the tumultuous environment and quick decisions made by the characters in Dickens’ novel. In the wake of the French Revolution, the characters must make quick and significant choices about their loyalties and actions. Taylor’s iconic song captures a similar urgency and desperation as the singer decides to leave an unfulfilling relationship, describing, “I’m in a getaway car/I left you in a motel bar/Put the money in a bag and I stole the keys/That was the last time you ever saw me.”
Moreover, both Taylor and Dickens portray characters that are neither wholly good nor bad. In “Getaway Car,” Taylor takes on the role of a person who betrays her lover to escape, depicting her own character flaws. Similarly, in A Tale of Two Cities, characters like Sydney Carton are deeply flawed but capable of great self-sacrifice and love.
In the same vein, both narratives complicate the notion of love. Taylor’s song suggests that love can sometimes be selfish or reckless, much like the love between Lucie and Charles, which ultimately leads to Sydney’s sacrifice. In both works, love is neither purely blissful nor wholly destructive but a complex, multifaceted emotion that can lead to both joy and suffering. “Getaway Car” and A Tale of Two Cities parallel each other in their exploration of the complexities of human nature, love, and decision-making. Both works delve into the gray areas of human behavior and emotions, challenging the binary perception of good versus evil and offering a more nuanced understanding of human experiences.
Next, we’ll take a look at the classic literary references in folklore.
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