So once a week I’m going to analyse a pop song, because I think it’s fun and might be a nice change from the heavy duty fantasy stuff. Also I think pop songs are the future of academic criticism, which has pretty much exhausted everything else. Presenting, example one: Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’,
Taylor Swift’s relationship to feminism has long been suspect, like that of many popstars not named Beyonce. People have dissed her for being ‘conventional’ and ‘anti women’ because of her early song lyrics (pieces like ‘Ours’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ come to mind), and the fact that she’s a white, obviously attractive young woman makes her guilty of incredible privilege. I suppose the fact that she sings about love and heartbreak doesn’t help her either, in more than a few people’s eyes. Whatevs. I’ve loved her and continue to love her and unlike all those hipsters who are discovering her ‘feminist politics’ now, I rather think she’s been at it for a while.
I think Taylor’s first brush with ‘feminist’ lyrics and hitting back at the music industry began with ‘Red’ (2013), the album that signaled her shift from country to pop music. I’m going to analyse one of the songs in this collection, and interrogate its complicated politics.
I Knew You Were Trouble
There are four main points that jump out at me and complicate any reading of this song:
The Fairy Tale trope – Taylor opens with the classic line ‘Once upon a time’, immediately claiming a universal, fairy-tale like space. Her experience, or that of her protagonist, is one that should act as a cautionary fable for all those listening. By using the phrase and literary genre, Taylor also casts herself as a fairy tale character—most likely, based on the events of the song, a princess who’s lost her way. This is not new for her, since she famously used the trope in ‘Love Story’, her first big hit.
Taylor’s relationship to the fairy tale has changed considerably—from a naive, waiting–for-rescue princess in ‘Love Story’, she’s become one who narrates her past ‘mistakes’. She should have known this particular prince was ‘trouble’, she says, and not fallen into his arms. The next step in this journey has been taken in ‘Blank Space’, where she’s graduated to becoming the ultimate powerful woman of the fairy tale: the wicked witch.
The audience – Most pop songs are addressed to a generic ‘you’. If you’re a female pop artist, your audience is usually going to try and figure out who the ‘you’ is. This is particularly common with Taylor’s music, thanks to her very publicly-documented relationships with various celebrities. The first comment on many of her romantic songs (or break up songs) is ‘who is this about?’, and the good tabloid journalists (and music critics) will try to provide the answer.
I’m not going to go into the sexism that’s inherent in this kind of reporting and reception (I’ll save that for some other time). Instead, we should turn our attention to how Taylor, in ‘I knew you were trouble’ shifts between addressing a specific ‘you’ and talking to a larger, general audience. She refers to a ‘he’ who is ‘long gone’, one who’s left her—the same ‘he’, presumably, who she should have known was ‘trouble’. This indicates that she’s already pulled out of her self absorption/heartache (at least in short bursts) to address the larger audience and make a cautionary fable out of her experience. This is pretty strong for a female pop artist, or any artist, who’s writing a break up song.
The ‘I’ factor – What really struck me about this song was how very driven it was by Taylor’s insistence on using ‘I’, on blaming herself for falling for this sham prince. In the voiceover that accompanies the music video, she says, ‘the worst part wasn’t even losing him; it was losing myself’. Taylor is claiming agency for her own mistake—while some may see this as a victim blaming herself for the misfortune that has befallen her, I prefer to see it the same way Taylor does, using it as an empowering experience that she will, in the future, avoid, and help her listeners avoid. ‘Shame on me’, she says, for hoping to be a princess again. That won’t be happening any more.
The music video – The video for the song (posted here) is downright disturbing. It opens on a blasted landscape, which we later figure out is the aftermath of a big concert where Taylor was cheated on by her boyfriend. Through the course of the song we realise that this boy came in with problems, possibly owed money to the wrong people, and gets roughed up while he’s out with her. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what exactly is going on in his life—just has a vague idea that he is perhaps bad news, a premonition that’s only borne out later in the song.
The desert-like setting (small town in an arid landscape) and the boy’s evident problems remind me of Enrique Iglesias’s 2003 hit, ‘Hero’. There, a man and a woman have made a break with ill-gotten cash, and the man winds up being dragged away for it while the woman watches, weeping. In ‘Hero’, Enrique asks in a rather sentimental fashion whether his girlfriend will ‘save [his] soul’; in ‘Trouble’, which I choose to read as the female response to this plea, Taylor realises that saving any man’s soul is a hell of a lot of trouble, and probably not even worth the emotional investment. The video shows her trying to help her boyfriend out as he’s being pushed around, and then being cheated on for her pains. So much for trying to be there for him, she should have known he wasn’t a hero worth the saving, just more ‘trouble’ and yet another ‘mistake’.
Jennifer Love Hewitt probably came to the same conclusion after all that broken hearted weeping.
It’s also interesting to note that what really pushes Taylor away from the boy is not his money problems or his evident ‘bad’ company, it’s the fact that he cheated on her in public. What drives her away is this final, physical betrayal. Who knows, if Enrique had acted the same way in ‘Hero’, might JLH have walked away? His ‘trouble’ is also therefore of his own making—not something that he once fell into and then was unable to walk away from. The sympathy the audience, and Taylor, might have had for him evaporates with this final image of his smug smile vanishing into the strobe lights.
‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ negotiates a complicated terrain. On the one hand, the break-up song is traditionally seen as a victim’s plaint, the lament of someone who has been left behind to scoop pieces of themselves together, and thus automatically relegated to the ‘weak’ party. In this case, it’s very clear that Taylor is the one piecing herself together, who has ‘lost’ herself along the way.
On the other hand, the break up song, through its very existence and its assertion of feelings, acts as a self-affirmative medium. It gives its protagonists a chance to explore their residual feelings and come to some sort of catharsis, work through the remnants of relationships that sound (from the lyrics) intense and more than a little emotionally draining. The messy clearing away of these feelings is something that the protagonists do individually, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with the absent other in order to come to terms with their own feelings. It is an entirely self-driven and self-rewarding/abusing exercise, with the absent other as nothing more than a convenient prop on which to deflect abundant emotion.
Taylor’s song straddles this contradictory reading, positing her as both victim (the stray princess, the hunted object) as well as rueful learner, the burned hand who ‘should have known better’. She both denies and grants herself agency, veering from stance to stance within a few brief verses. The reading of the lyrics is only complicated by the music video and the accompanying voice-over. Though she starts the video prone on the bare ground, obviously recovering from some sort of emotional and/or physical blow, she pulls herself upright and ends up traipsing all over that site, heedlessly singing her story. Ain’t no one going to trouble her no more.