After the debut of Taylor Swift’s album 1989 last October, a whole subindustry of investigative journalism took shape around the question of whether the song “Bad Blood” was, in fact, about a heated feud between Swift and Katy Perry, as some sources claimed. Twitter timelines were scoured; photographic support was amassed; offhand comments were overanalyzed; and whole dossiers of “evidence” were collected to reconstruct the events that were allegedly behind the song. There was a strong resurgence of this discussion in May 2015 after the song’s release as a single and the premiere of the accompanying music video.
This was hardly the first time this kind of analysis had bubbled up around Swift’s music. Almost since she first came to prominence, her songs have been read autobiographically: Their lyrics have been seen as narratives of her personal life. Indeed, matching up Swift’s past and present romantic partners with her love songs based on “clues” of varying persuasiveness has become a kind of Internet bingo game. The pop star herself has fueled this kind of interpretation (though she usually stays well clear of saying anything definitive). Her autobiographical leanings have become part of what we “know” about Taylor Swift—but responses to this knowledge have been mixed.
Earlier this year, The Paris Review featured an essay by Taffy Brodesser-Akner that claimed Swift’s “passive-aggressive” lyrics are personal attacks that achieve “the perfected realization of every writer’s narrowest dream: to get back at those who had wronged us, sharply and loudly.” While the term “passive-aggressive” certainly carries heavy connotations, Brodesser-Akner is ultimately a T. Swift defender.
Other critics have not been so celebratory. In Sady Doyle’s early take on this aspect of Swift’s songwriting, featured in The Atlantic in 2010, she threw the following shade at the topic:
Although Swift is coy in interviews, she leaves plenty of clues as to the identities of her subjects…making listening to Speak Now more like reading an extremely emotional issue of Us Weekly than taking in a new, soon-to-be-hit album. … Which isn’t to condemn Swift totally, or to say that her much-publicized dating life or much-published feelings are entirely artificial. It’s just hard to believe that the most important emotional moments in Taylor Swift’s life line up, so very closely, with the most important moments in her tabloid narrative.
Doyle opens her critique by calling Swift “the confessional female singer/songwriter of her generation”—and clearly doesn’t mean that as a compliment—but doesn’t connect that key word, “confessional,” with its most obvious referents: the confessional poets.
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The term “confessional” was first used to characterize a particular style of poetry in 1959. Literary critic M. L. Rosenthal defined this style as “the way [the writer] brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems…usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author himself.” Later critics labeled the confessionals as a group “determined not to lie in verse.”
Compare Doyle’s critique of Swift’s style and subjects to this passage from Charles Molesworth, a critic writing in 1976 about another female artist with perceived autobiographical leanings in her work: Sylvia Plath.
[W]ho but a supreme egoist could take the plight of the victims of genocide as the adequate measure of her own alienation? Perhaps if we didn’t know the relatively comfortable bourgeois background of Plath’s family, perhaps if we could say the poem was about authority “in general,” perhaps the feminists’ need to make clear the far-reaching power of chauvinist “enemies” could be used to soften the barbarity of the poem’s rhetorical strategy. But the petulance of the voice here, its sheer unreasonableness masked as artistic frenzy, finds ready acceptance among a large audience.
This critique alleges that the biographical details of Plath’s life undermine her art, since they reveal the gap between what’s presented and what’s real. This short passage also contains several disparaging comments about Plath, her readers, and “the feminists.” While the definition of confessionalism as a genre originated in a review of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, it has come, in the decades since, to be much more closely associated with female artists like Plath and Anne Sexton—a particularly gendered kind of judgment.
Early critics demanded absolute veracity from the confessional writers. They acted as biographical detectives, seizing upon minor details in poems and using their truth or falsehood as a measurement of the art’s worth and the artist’s trustworthiness. When Sexton writes poems featuring a brother but turns out not to have a brother, her whole poetics become suspect because the critic has already decided that the power of the confessional mode is predicated on honesty. In addition, many of the early criticisms of Plath and Sexton are based on the idea that, because their work is anchored in lived experiences—specifically their embodied experiences as women, including romantic love, sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood, and menstruation, frequent subjects in their writing—it is therefore limited and narrow, and it will never achieve the universality or transcendence needed for truly great, lasting art.
Fortunately, critical discourses can change. In recent years, the conversation about the confessional poets has shifted toward self-examination, or, “why readers feel the desire to know and judge a poem’s relationship to ‘truth,’” as Melissa A. Goldthwaite writes. In her 2011 study, “‘Confessional’ Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination,” Miranda Sherwin puts it this way:
[T]he confessional label must be explored not as a product of the authors’ desire to be read autobiographically, but of the readers’ desire to attribute truth claims to their poetry. The question arises, then, of what is at stake, culturally and historically, in the confessional poets’ work that engenders such a desire on the part of the reader.
This is also one of the most interesting questions to ask about Taylor Swift. Why do we so want her songs to be autobiographical? What does the whole critical apparatus that has popped up around researching the “facts” of Swift’s songs tell us about what she means to her listeners, to her fans, and to the pop-cultural milieu she reigns over? Isn’t it noteworthy, to say the least, that those “facts” belong to the gendered realms of sex and relationships?
There seems to be a double-edged sword wielded in the response to these female artists: They are required to be both completely honest and open, giving freely of themselves and their emotions, and also to be more than just faithful diarists of their individual lives. We fault them for their lack of transparency or their artistic license with the material we assume to be “true” and for the perceived pettiness of their subjects. We, via BuzzFeed and Billboard and Us Weekly, construct the narrative of what “Bad Blood” is about (just as Plath and Sexton’s readers have done for decades using journals, letters, and other “nonfiction” sources) just so we can roll our eyes and declare that, well, it all seems a little overdramatic and, I mean, it’s hard to enjoy a really good jam when all you can think about is how Taylor turned her poor hurt feelings into an epic three-and-a-half-minute, chart-topping bitch slap (not to mention the video, which is bonkers enough to be the basis for whole graduate theses).
We trivialize artistic creativity by focusing on the autobiographical—clearly these women write about their own lives because it’s the easiest and most obvious subject. What else could she possibly have to talk about? It’s simplistic, it’s self-obsessed, it’s solipsistic—in a word, it’s feminine.
Of course, pop music—from both male and female artists—has always focused on themes of love and heartbreak. Swift’s art may never approach the lyricality, depth, or complexity of Plath and Sexton’s poetry, but a simplistic understanding of her as an autobiographical artist limits the conversations we can have.
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Anne Helen Petersen’s BuzzFeed essay on Swift’s female friendships argues, quite compellingly, that Swift is a master of controlling her public image and the narratives that circulate around her work and her self. Shouldn’t this obvious artistry and artifice push us to reassess what we so often take to be the uncomplicated autobiographical simplicity of Swift’s songs? Aren’t there more productive counter-narratives about what she “means?” What can the pop star teach us about current constructions of girlhood? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to think about the progression from the eponymous Taylor Swift to the recent 1989 in terms of an evolving, performative commentary on the myth of post-feminism? And seriously what about the visual semiotics of that “Bad Blood” video?! Let’s have those conversations instead.
This is not to say that reading Swift autobiographically is necessarily wrong or bad, rather it is to call attention to the fact that is often the default mode of interpreting female artists. The autobiographical critique pretends to simply be about plain facts and straightforward truth but is itself an interpretative system full of unexamined assumptions and implications. Autobiography, in other words, is a mode of reading, and our desire for it says something about us and about what we want from the culture we read (and listen to).
Will Taylor Swift be studied, analyzed, and remembered in the same way poets like Sylvia Plath have been? Only time will tell, but it seems unlikely that the writer of “Shake It Off” will leave the same legacy as the voice behind “Lady Lazarus.” Still, we might do well to look more closely at the way autobiographical readings have become the unexamined default way of thinking about pop in general and female artists in particular.