Literary references abound in the lyrics of Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift, a global pop phenomenon, has a career nearing 20 years in the industry. She boasts 10 albums, spanning a multitude of genres, and while her songs may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is impossible not to acknowledge her talent. Her music reflects her own life, and with it, what she reads. Sifting through her catalogue of 200+ songs, I have curated a list of some literary references she employs; a perfect culmination of my long-standing love for her music and my appreciation for literature.
Love Story, one of Swift’s most popular songs from her sophomore album Fearless, is a take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. With lyrics that directly call out to the titular characters of the play, Swift tells a tale of a forbidden love between two young people. Her interpretation of the play is indicative of how young she was when writing this song, as it results in a hopeful conclusion, wherein the two doomed lovers evade their fate and find a happy ending.
Shifting from this optimistic view on romance, as Swift matured, her engagement with literary sources became more nuanced, including in the themes she picked up on. I found that one of the more referenced literary texts in Swift’s albums is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. In the song This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, from reputation, Swift describes herself “Feeling so Gatsby” before the fallout of the Kanye West debacle. She sings of “throwing big parties” and entertaining a host of friends, very much like Jay Gatsby. Heightening her comparison to Gatsby, Swift too finds herself doing good deeds for friends, only to have them talk about her behind her back and speculate on her past actions.
In 2020 she takes a different approach. The song happiness, from evermore, contains phrases from The Great Gatsby, but repurposed such that they apply to a long-term relationship. Swift seems to have taken on a fictional perspective while writing the song, explaining that although the relationship has ended, it is still a cherished part of her memories. Here, she writes: “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool / Who takes my spot next to you”, utilising Daisy’s famous phrase. She also references “the green light,” a motif from the novel.
Another text that is referenced multiple times is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In the song invisible string from folklore, Swift’s metaphor of the invisible string seems inspired by Rochester’s lines, “…as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you.” Swift sings of an invisible string of fate, which ties her to her lover, and helps them find each other through various trials and tribulations. This sense of a fated love that nonetheless endures feels like Jane and Rochester’s love for each other. The song mad woman, from the same album, borrows its title from the motif of “the mad woman in the attic,” a prominent figure in Jane Eyre. Although Brontë villainises Bertha Mason, Rochester’s “mad” wife, Swift’s song turns the concept of madness on its head, transforming the song into a feminist anthem. Swift challenges the tired, overused gender stereotype of calling women crazy to discredit their anger, revealing the misogynist undertones to such phrases.
As well as novels and plays, Swift hides references to poetry in her songs. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is perhaps her most referenced piece of literature. Her first reference to the poem dates back to her debut album, where she writes “I tried to take the road less travelled by” in the song The Outside, which talks of the loneliness of adolescence. Her later works contain iterations of this line, such as “Take the road less travelled by / Tell yourself you can always stop” in illicit affairs, a song about infidelity and the guilt it brings about. The line also features in tis the damn season, where Swift mentions that “the road not taken looks real good now,” circling back to the idea of taking risks.
Though this is in no way a complete list of all the literary references hidden in Taylor Swift’s songs, these are some of the most prominent ones. It may be easy to dismiss Swift’s music as generic pop, but I have always thought of it as layered. There is so much more buried under the surface and you are bound to find it if you go digging.