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On Misunderstanding Taylor Swift

True innovation in literature is hard to achieve — the same is true of music. But we can still see the value in certain stories and works. If we were to begin applying different metrics to music, we might be able to see a new value in what we listen to today. With that in mind, by looking at the ancient Greek literature of Homer from c. 800 BC, and using Taylor Swift as a case study, I hope to change the way you think about musicians today.

The poems of the earliest Greek poets, such as Homer, were not original in content; they were innovative in the way they drew together multiple different sources. When we consider that all stories can arguably be boiled down to seven basic plots, it is not hard to imagine why even the Greek poets struggled to come up with something new. 

This is demonstrated by Homer’s Iliad, one of the oldest Greek poems that we have today. The story of Achilles would have been familiar to Homer’s audience, who would have been acquainted with the broader narrative context of the Trojan Cycle, a key theme in the songs of many contemporary poets. 

One of the central aspects of Homer’s Iliad is the grief of Achilles over the death of his loved one, Patroclus. This is borrowed from the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh (a twelfth century BC text from Ancient Iraq) – the titular hero suffers great anguish at the death of Enkidu, his loved one. Thematically, even Homer’s considerations such as tragedy of mortality set against the backdrop of immortal gods are borrowed from Gilgamesh. In a longer piece, further extensive correspondences could be highlighted (and caveats included), including those found in other ancient Greek texts. None of this diminishes the value in reading the Iliad, but it is worth noting that Homer is leaning heavily on precedent texts. 

The way these poems have been constructed constitutes a large part of what makes them so impressive. Looking particularly at the Iliad, we see the central framework of the story: there is a tripartite structure, with Books 1-9 constituting the setup of Achilles’ wrath, Books 10-16 being the consequence of Achilles’ continued wrath, and Books 17-24 constituting Achilles’ return to battle and the ramifications. This is the basic core of the poem.

The text is then overlaid with ring composition to bind the whole poem together and underlined with sub-narratives of anger to reflect the overall plot of the poem. Another distinctive structural feature is how pairs and triplets of events build into each other, such as the deaths of Sarpedon, Patroclus, and Hector all making the next one more intense, each with an emotional setup, build-up, and climax. Most of these events fit into three categories: either stock stories like the ‘anger cycle’ taken from Homer’s tradition, real events including the death of Hector lifted from their shared tradition, or parallels to earlier traditions, such as the Gilgamesh. These influences were distilled into a framework handed down to Homer, and the bard was able to process it all into a finely woven composition. 

Again, this is not to deny the value in analysing the themes that occur in the poem, nor to suggest that it is not a joy to read for its in-depth characterisation, engrossing descriptions, and exciting passages of narrative. Instead, I am merely trying to highlight another metric by which to analyse the poems: intricacy of composition. 

Innovation in music is also arguably difficult: it suffers from the same narrative constraints as literature, and there are limitations imposed by the sonic form. For instance, across a set of parameters, every melody has been produced by a computer and copyrighted, while there are only 243 combinations of 3 notes by 5 notes, demonstrating that there is a limit to the potential of sonic innovation. Admittedly, we may be far from this ceiling, but I think that the existence of limits should prompt us to consider new ways to analyse song writing. One way could be the same as epic literature, exploring the way musical precedent is used to weave intricate and complex compositions. 

A quick example of this is the use of sampling: often, musicians take other musicians’ work and incorporate the sounds into the fabric of their own song to great effect – consider Kanye West’s sampling of Daft Punk’s ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’; and ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ sampling Edwin Birdsong’s ‘Cola Bottle Baby’. In all these cases, musicians have been able to take songs from completely different genres and work them into their own compositions. Similarly, the ancient poet Hesiod included didactic literature, apocalyptic prophecies, and catalogue poetry in his Works and Days. But this should not be viewed as negative: instead, artists have and continue to draw on different genres to produce masterful works.

Just as certain sounds recur, certain themes are repeated in song writing. There are an incredibly large number of songs about heartbreak revolving around themes of affairs, falling out of love, and lovers being taken too soon. World Peace seems to be a popular subject too, just consider ‘Imagine’, ‘Give Me Love’, ‘Heal the World’, ‘We are here’ and the like.

Sometimes, motifs are also shared between songs, including singing from the perspective of the devil. This is common to the rock genre, demonstrated in  ‘Devil’s Child’ (Judas Priest), ‘Friend of the Devil’ (Grateful Dead), and, of course, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (the Rolling Stones). While these examples are inexhaustive, they should demonstrate how, in thematic terms, songs tend not to innovate but rather build upon motifs and tropes with a broder universal appeal to produce something intricate and unique, much like the incorporation of other sounds through sampling. ‘Devil’s Child’, for example, uses the Devil motif in combination with those of heartbreak – thus drawing on different genres, motifs, and traditions. Instead of focussing on the artistic talent of innovation and creativity, we should focus on the composition, like we do for the Iliad

Taylor Swift’s music is indicative of this sort of composition. She has been lambasted for the use of repetitive motifs and themes, particularly those surrounding heartbreak. However,her work is highly versatile, if not on thematic terms then in composition. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ (LWYMMD) highlights Taylor’s ability to use structure, contemporary events, and narrative to create complex musical pieces. She has successfully performed the transition from the country genre through to pop, gaining mastery over the latter genre’s song structure. She has consistently incorporated different ideas and influences into her music, even as she shifts again into the alternative genre. This is where we can see artistic value: the composition of her music is intricate and complex.  

LWYMMD is a useful starting point to highlight Swift’s understanding of different motifs, and how she uses them to derive meaning. Classic FM analysed LWYMMD from a music theory standpoint, and came to the conclusion that the song consistently leads the listener’s expectations in ascertain direction before failing to satisfy these expectations. After hearing this lead single, pundits from news outlet NPR predicted Taylor would play the victim on the rest of ‘Reputation’. Upon the release, it became clear the album is not a bitter collection of vitriolic songs, but actually mostly explores her feelings in a new relationship. Throughout ‘Reputation’, Taylor points to what she could have done – a grand chorus, or a bitter revenge album – but instead takes it in a different direction. In the opening section of the Odyssey, Zeus discusses justice and revenge, leading the audience to expect a story centred around these themes. However, Homer instead goes in a different direction: he has hinted at what he could explore but instead proceeds to write about different subject matter. In the same way, LWYMMD points to certain themes and techniques that she could have chosen to use, the rest of the album is almost completely different. 

The weaving of different themes and qualities into her music is best seen in  her transition through to pop. By the publishing of ‘1989’ in 2014, Taylor had dropped her country accent almost completely, increasingly conforming to the standards of pop in spite of criticism. However, she has not dropped her country roots. Firstly, she still sings of troubles specific to her, a motif common to country music and has also borrowed tropes such as escaping the small town. As she progresses to pop, Taylor keeps hold of the emotional energy of country, with all its personal power. 

When she does reach pop music, she exerts an extreme amount of control and mastery over commonly used sonic structures. ‘Blank Space’ parodies both the narratives surrounding her and general pop structures. This is done by the marking out of the chorus and the excessive use of four chords that are commonly used throughout music. The basic structure of a song is tripartite: setup, build-up, and climax, often corresponding to the sections verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge-chorus.‘Shake It Off’, as basic as it may seem, is one of the most complex songs on the album ‘1989’. This is because each sub-setup, build-up, and climax have their own setup, build-up, and climax. We praise Homer for his ability to expand on his basic structural frameworks: to appreciate the artistry of the compositions, we should look at Taylor’s songs in the same way. 

Her use of the bridge is a good example of structural frameworks being adapted to great effect. Though others might be regarded as the “classic” Taylor Swift bridges, such as ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ and ‘All too Well’, the bridge in Illicit Affairs (IA) is demonstrative of this. The song discusses an affair from the perspective of “the other woman”. Throughout, Swift addresses how affair partners are forced to hide their trysts, resulting in the need to deny the feelings they have. This is echoed in the bridge where she writes about how she was shown “colours you know I can’t see with anyone else” and taught “a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else” – there is nothing she can do about her feelings. She disrupts the ordinary song structure by having the bridge fade into the outro, and not another chorus. Here, the bridge leads nowhere, just like an illicit affair, in which you must deny all your true feelings and hide it from everyone you know, cannot lead anywhere. Through her song structure, Swift supports the narrative thesis of the song. 

Another example is the use of set phrases to convey meaning. Homer does this to an extent: while his use of epithets is often dictated by metrical constraints, it can sometimes derive meaning. This happens in Iliad Book 22, where the phrase “swift-footed Achilles” is used to foreshadow Achilles’ eventual catching of Hector, enabled by his speed. The use of the phrase foreshadows the eventual event. 

This use of phrases to derive specific meaning can also be seen in Swift’s music. For example, in ‘Hey Stephen’, she sings the line ‘I can’t help it if you look like an angel / can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain’: on a surface level it is easy to see how the use of angel imagery evokes a positive impression of love. On ‘White Horse’, she sings, ‘Say you’re sorry, that face of an angel / comes out just when you need It to’: on the next track of the album, the angel imagery has been twisted to produce opposite feelings of heartbreak. The way of using this image is not new – consider the angel motif in ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ – but just because the motif is repeated or inherited does not reduce its value: the use of the phrase gives meaning within the song. Just as Homer adapts stock imagery to his needs, here Swift uses a common motif in multiple ways to offer value. 

Swift is also able to draw on a wealth of ideas and influences, further highlighting her artistic talent. It is certainly true that in the past she was considered to have written solely about love, or ‘silly’ themes like teenage heartbreak, but enough people, even national newspapers like the Washington Post, have acknowledged the versatility in her themes. A few examples of this versatility include social anxiety in ‘Mirrorball’, dealing with her mother’s illness in ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’, her love for her late grandmother in ‘Marjorie’, or discussing teenage love from different perspectives in two consecutive singles, ‘White Horse’ and ‘Love Story’. With over 150 songs in her discography, it would be surprising if she had not written lyrics across a broad spectrum of themes. 

However, it is worth noting how she draws different ideas and themes into the makeup of her songs, such as in cardigan. Here, she explores affairs (“chase two girls, lose the one”), growing up (“when you are young, they assume you know nothing”), and heartbreak (“chasin’ shadows in the grocery line”). The imagery combines fairy tales (“Peter losing Wendy”), fashion (“high heels on cobblestones”, etc.), and broken families (“leaving like a father”). These are very brief examples that highlight the way in which Swift has returned to the realm of high school love triangles to give a much more nuanced perspective. At this point, rather than simply providing an in-depth exploration of one theme, or a completely innovative narrative, she layers in all manners of imagery to craft a reflection on cheated on whilst young. 

With examples like IA, LWYMMD, and cardigan in particular, I hope to have shown how value and meaning can be derived from the way the songs are composed. There are many other features of her music I could have explored, such as the sampling of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ in LWYMMD or of her own heartbeat in Wildest Dreams. However, this past section has aimed to show there is an inherent artistry behind Taylor Swift’s songs in the way different themes and structures have been layered into what we hear. 

I believe this analysis could be fruitful for music in general. True innovation is possible, but it becomes increasingly difficult and rare to find. Instead, we can derive value from the way music is composed. Of course, a song could be the most impressively intricate and complex song ever created, and people would not be obliged to enjoy it. This exploration is not a demand for people to start enjoying music on these grounds. Certainly, I listen to Taylor Swift almost solely because I enjoy listening to the sounds and lyrics of her music. However, I believe this sort of analysis could lead to a new appreciation of different songs. The poems of Homer have value outside of their composition yet analysing the poet’s craft reveals their true skill in writing. Similarly, by analysing modern music on these terms, we might reach a new level of appreciation for modern artists.

Image Credit: Eva Rinaldi / CC-BY-SA 2.0

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