Taylor Swift's Novel Influence: An Exploration of Hidden Literary Treasure
Examining Taylor Swift’s lyrical odes to books and literature, from Debut to 1989
Across the vast and diverse expanse of the contemporary music scene, there exists an artist whose creative output far exceeds the boundaries of her genre. That artist is Taylor Swift, a pop culture icon known for her deft lyricism ✍️ and compelling storytelling abilities. Taylor is revered for her storytelling prowess. Her songs paint vivid pictures with words, and many listeners revel in the poignancy of her lyrics. But not everyone may be aware of the depth and the classic literary influences that often permeate her work. Her artistry goes beyond catchy tunes and radio-friendly hits; it navigates the intricate channels of literary allusions and intellectual exploration.
Throughout her extensive discography, Taylor has often engaged with works of literature, 📚 incorporating them into her songs in ways that redefine their themes within a modern context. Even before she was casually evoking Brontë’s Jane Eyre on Midnights, she was a provocative Gatsby devotee with a penchant for Frost and Plath.
Over a four part series, we seek to explore these literary references and trace the golden threads that weave Taylor’s songs and the world of classic literature together. Here we will attempt to delve into the depths of Taylor’s discography, exploring her intersections with great authors from various eras and multiple genres – from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens to J.M. Barrie and F. Scott Fitzgerald, from Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Brontë to Emily Dickinson.
Part One: Debut to 1989
Taylor Swift (Debut):“The Outside”
Taylor was influenced at an early age by Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” She weaves in references to it one of her earliest songs called “The Outside.” Twenty years later she’s still marked by the poem and it shows up in folklore. We can see the early impact in “The Outside,” as she sings, “I tried to take the road less traveled by/But nothing seems to work the first few times.” This reflects her experience of feeling like an outcast and the challenges she faced in finding her path.
Pablo Neruda’s Influence in Red
In the liner notes for her album Red, Taylor Swift includes a quote from the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses. Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her. Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
This poignant quote resonates with the themes of fleeting love and lingering heartbreak 💔 that permeate the album. The choice of Neruda’s words as subtext further underlines the depth and poignancy of love’s ephemeral nature and its lingering aftermath.
Neruda’s notion of love being “so short” and forgetting being “so long” echoes in Swift’s tracks, especially in songs such as “All Too Well,” “I Almost Do,” “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “The Moment I Knew.” These songs explore the painful process of moving on from someone, the lingering feelings of love, and the haunting memories that make the act of forgetting so challenging.
Neruda’s assertion of “maybe I love her” also plays into Swift’s exploration of the indecisiveness and confusion that often follow a breakup. This sentiment finds echoes in Swift’s lyrics, especially in songs like “Red” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” where she oscillates between love and resentment, unable to let go entirely.
Fearless: “Love Story”
Taylor’s songwriting skill is demonstrated in her lyrical rendering of key scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For instance, the famous balcony scene is painted with the lyrics “And I was crying on the staircase/Begging you ‘please don’t go’/So I sneak out to the garden to see you/We keep quiet ‘cause we’re dead if they knew.” Here, the anguish of their forbidden love is palpable, reflecting the poignant emotions of Romeo and Juliet’s clandestine meetings.
Similar to Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film),” yet with a twist all her own, the scene of Romeo and Juliet’s hasty marriage is beautifully reimagined with a modern twist in Taylor’s version. She sings, “He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said/ ‘Marry me, Juliet. You’ll never have to be alone/I love you, and that’s all I really know/I talked to your dad. Go pick out a white dress/It’s a love story. Baby, just say Yes’.” Here, she introduces traditional symbols of modern weddings like a white dress 👰 and a ring, 💍 not found in the play, hence subtly infusing her contemporary perspective.
1989: “Blank Space,” “New Romantics” and the Echoes of The Scarlet Letter
In “New Romantics,” Taylor seems to be engaged in a dialogue with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, drawing on the narrative’s underlying themes to underscore her experiences in the public eye. The song’s refrain, “We are too busy dancing to get knocked off our feet,” could be seen as a symbolic nod to Hester Prynne's resilience in the face of her puritanical society's scorn.
The parallel between Hester Prynne and Taylor extends beyond the initial connection of being judged harshly by society. Just as Hester reshapes her narrative by transforming the meaning of the “scarlet letter” from a symbol of shame to one of resilience, Taylor has crafted her narrative within the music industry. She flips the script on the media’s portrayal of her, using her songwriting as a platform to reclaim her story and dismiss the critiques thrown at her.
By choosing to engage with her portrayal in the media and the public’s perception of her, Taylor mirrors Hester's audacity to live unabashedly despite societal judgment. In “Blank Space,” she uses irony to highlight the absurdity of her portrayal in the media, subverting expectations and taking control of her narrative. Like Hester, she turns the intended symbol of shame — in this case, the media's criticism — into a source of power.
Furthermore, her assertion in “New Romantics” that she finds strength in living her life authentically, despite criticism, shows Taylor’s understanding of the value of individuality. This perspective parallels Hawthorne’s exploration of the individual versus society in The Scarlet Letter.
Taylor’s music is not just a platform for sharing her experiences; it is also a space where she can engage in broader societal conversations. By drawing comparisons to literature like The Scarlet Letter, she effectively contextualizes her experiences within a larger historical and cultural narrative, ultimately encouraging listeners to question societal norms and expectations. In this way, she takes on a modern-day Hester Prynne role, challenging societal assumptions and redefining her narrative through her music.
1989: “Wonderland” and its Connection to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Taylor Swift’s “Wonderland” is heavily inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Taylor uses “falling down the rabbit hole,” which leads Alice to the whimsical world of Wonderland, as an extended metaphor for the disorientation, surprises, and challenges faced in a relationship. Much like Alice’s journey, Taylor portrays the initial phase of love as enchanting and bewildering. This fantasy-infused allegory is a testament to Taylor’s ability to juxtapose classic literature with modern themes in love and relationships.
The Cheshire Cat, with his unsettling grin, becomes a symbol of the charming but elusive individual who, despite their enchanting aura, causes confusion and frustration. Taylor finds herself in a similar situation with her ex-lover. Much like Alice, she became perplexed and frustrated by the Cat's riddles and seemingly enigmatic behavior, she emotes that she became, “too in love to think straight” and states that “we both went mad.”
Performing this as a surprise song during the recent Eras Tour, Taylor elaborated on the metaphor of the rabbit hole, explaining it as a descent into madness driven by love. This is particularly true when one's partner bears similarities to the Cheshire Cat, as mentioned earlier. The delight in make-believe can be captivating, but it often leads to a harsh awakening like the song suggests.
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“Wonderland” asks, “Haven’t you heard what becomes of curious minds?” or in other words, that curiosity frequently invites trouble. Another line, “Didn’t you calm my fears with a Cheshire Cat smile?” relates back to the builds on this. Lines like “Too in love to think straight,” “We both went mad,” and “It’s all fun and games till somebody loses their mind” further emphasize the theme of love-induced insanity.
The song “Long Story Short” revisits the rabbit hole metaphor from “Wonderland.” In this song, she appears to double down even more on the consequences of “falling.” Taylor continues her exploration of the “rabbit hole” metaphor initially brought to life in “Wonderland.” Just as Alice falls into a realm of uncertainty, chaos, and insanity in Lewis Carroll’s novel, Taylor describes her own descent in love, marked by a similar disarray. This connection aligns with her broader discourse about the destabilizing effects of romantic entanglements, framing love as a journey that can lead one into a labyrinth of emotional turmoil.
The lyrics, “And I fell from the pedestal, Right down the rabbit hole, It was a bad time,” evoke an image of Taylor being dethroned from her own sense of self, tumbling into an abyss of chaos and despair — a sentiment that mirrors Alice’s disorienting tumble down the rabbit hole. This compelling metaphor serves to illustrate Taylor’s emotional and mental state during a tumultuous period of her life, reflecting on how the impact of a toxic relationship can lead to an identity crisis.
1989: “Bad Blood”
Traces of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can be found in Swift’s “Bad Blood,” a testament to the enduring influence of the Bard on her work. As Taylor’s often referenced Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar provides a rich context of friendship, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties, which she masterfully translates into the modern pop landscape.
Julius Caesar tells the story of Brutus’ betrayal of his friend Caesar, driven by his belief that he is serving the greater good. This intricate interplay of personal ties and political motivations echoes through “Bad Blood,” a song about the wreckage of a once-close friendship. As Brutus swiftly pivots to conspire against Caesar, the treachery that Swift sings about in “Bad Blood” seems to draw a parallel. In both narratives, the characters feel a sense of surprise and betrayal as those they trusted turn against them.
Moreover, both narratives share a certain dramatic intensity. Just as Brutus’ quick decision to join the conspiracy against Caesar adds a snappy energy to the unfolding tragedy, the brisk tempo and resolute lyrics of “Bad Blood” lend a comparable dynamism to Taylor’s song.
The line from “Bad Blood,” “Did you have to do this? I was thinking that you could be trusted” could very well have been Brutus’ lament, underscoring the shared theme of violated trust. Similarly, Taylor’s assertion that “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes” harks back to the mortal wounds inflicted upon Caesar, a vivid reminder of the irreparable damage betrayal can cause.
Additionally, the high-stakes drama and public spectacle of Caesar’s murder, which sets off a brutal power struggle in Rome, find their modern counterpart in the media-fueled feuds of today’s entertainment industry. Swift, who has often been at the center of such public disputes, channels this atmosphere of escalating conflict and ensuing chaos into “Bad Blood.”
Next, we’ll explore Taylor Swift’s classic literary influences on her reputation album.
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