Monday, 24 August 2015

现实 | Behind the music: Taylor Swift

Posted by: Ryan O'Riordan

Taylor Swift. She's currently the world's most popular musician and one of the most influential women in music. To date, she has sold over 40 million albums worldwide and in 2015 was ranked 64th on Forbes' list of 100 most powerful women in the world, the youngest ever to be on the list.

However, despite this incredible fame, can any of us really claim to understand her? To most, I assume, she appears as a lighthouse on a dark night. From the rocky shore on which we stand she is a comforting light in the distance, defying the stormy seas below. But where is this lighthouse guiding us?

Swift is perhaps best known for focussing on relationships in her songwriting; exploring the ups and downs of them with infinitely powerful lines such as:

"My ex-man brought his new girlfriend
She's like "oh my God", but I'm just gonna shake it"


"We are never ever ever getting back together,
We are never ever ever getting back together"

A medium which I feel is often overlooked when examining an artist's work is the music video, and this is no different for Taylor Swift. Without doubt, the video for 2009's 'You Belong With Me' is a work of art in itself. It challenges us to consider the themes explored by Swift in the song, and asks whether music videos can be a genuine means of expression.

Superficially, the video presents a traditional tale of unrequited love, with the traditional happy ending. We see our heroine get the boy, the villain is defeated and there's a nice song to listen to along the way. So far, so conventional. Or perhaps not. 

One of the most striking decisions made for the video is Swift's portrayal of both the stereotypical "good girl" and the equally stereotypical "bad girl". In this way, it explores the duality found within many people, and how it is possible for each of us to harbour seemingly incompatible personalities/attitudes at once. In this way Swift is able examine how people can respond to different societal pressures by altering their personality. The early scene in which the good girl tries on the stereotypical outfits of various subcultures can be understood as a comment on both the power of peer pressure and the desire to fit in.

Swift's playing of both roles can also lead us to conclude that the two girls in the video are one and the same. The fact that the girls are identical is the most obvious reason for this conclusion, but watch the video again and notice how the good girl is only present in private or isolated environments: her bedroom, an empty park bench, lost in a crowd of people dressed as she is. Conversely, the bad girl takes centre stage in more public environments like the sports car, as a distinctive cheerleader or at the prom.

We only see the two girls at the same time when they are acting in opposition to each other and therefore I feel that the central story of 'You Belong With Me' is that of the good girl, who we can assume to be the 'real' version of the girl due to her status as the heroine of the video. She is desperate for her boyfriend to appreciate her as who she actually is, rather than the superficial popular girl she is forced to pretend to be at school. Here Swift lays the irony on thick by having the good girl wearing glasses, when in fact it is her boyfriend who is unable to see correctly, to understand and accept the real her.

Perhaps the final scene of the video, where the 'real' girl is revealed to be just as beautiful as the her alter ego represents this acceptance taking place. The two girls become reconciled in a way that combines both of them - She is as attractive as the bad girl, but with the happiness of the good. The fact that Swift wears a white dress in this scene is a classic visual indicator of purity, and therefore can also be interpreted as a symbol of unification.

However, we can also interpret the video's end in a rather less positive light. It's true that the heroine got the happy ending she desired, but it's certainly justified to ask ourselves if it was worth it. In order to achieve what she wanted, the heroine had apparently no choice but to abandon the features that set her apart and made her unique in the first place. She is for all intents and purposes the same as the villain. Therefore perhaps in 'You Belong With Me', Swift isn't advocating seeking what you think you want without hesitation, but instead asking us to consider whether indulging our every desire will really ever make us happy. Note how the heroine takes off her glasses to complete her transformation. Is she wilfully blinding herself? Dispensing with her ability to see what makes her special in pursuit of misplaced desire?

Overall, the video for 'You Belong With Me' is a masterclass in combining both the visual and the audial to deliver one cohesive message, enhancing the extent to which Swift is able to convey her attitudes to listeners/viewers.

I hope we can walk away from this post with a greater shared understanding of Swift's stance on themes such as identity and peer pressure. Undoubtedly, these are important topics of discussion for most people at some point in their lives, and the music video allows Swift to approach them in a mature and unique way.

This was actually quite fun to write in a stupid way. Maybe I'll do it again some time in the future. Anyway, thanks for reading!

PS: I don't actually believe any of what I just wrote in case you were worried.

Ryan's listening to: 'Holland, 1945' by Neutral Milk Hotel

Read my previous post here.

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