I’ve been wanting to put together some thoughts on this song for quite some time now, ever since I heard it for the first time three or four months ago. I’m inclined to think I like it, though its mixed and problematic messages stop me pretty much every time I hear it. This is not an argument that the song should not exist, that it should not be listened to, or that Swift and her listeners are somehow stupid. It’s an exploration of the messages that could be pulled from the lyrics in the hope that this will inspire thought and discussion about those same issues. The lyrics can be found here and the music video, here.*
First, I want to address the most obviously problematic part of this song: The myth of the love story. This idea that love can be perfect (once two people overcome the obstacles and finally end up together) is not reality, though it is a commonly accepted myth in this world, even claiming an entire genre for itself in romance novels. Now, I’m not arguing that we should do away with everything that presents love in this sort of light–I’m not a fan of censorship–but I do believe we need to be aware of the impracticality of this belief.
Now Swift does not make explicit statements in her song about living happily ever after, but that idea hangs over the entire piece by repeating her title throughout the song. And I do not think that Swift needs to address this type of issue in her song (just as I do not believe a romance novel needs to), but the listener (and Swift herself) needs to be aware of the fantasy of such a reality.
Another problematic aspect of this song is the final verse. The girl in Swift’s song gets “tired of waiting” for her Romeo to “come around.” Her “faith in him” fades as she wonders when he will “come around.” When she does find him, she asks him to “save” her. Here she not only becomes a passive member in her own love story (which is especially odd since it seems a bit of a role reversal) but also an archetypal damsel in distress. She needs to be saved, but from what? The only problem that seems to occur in the song comes from her family’s (actually, father’s, but that’s an entire other issue) dislike of her Romeo. It’s unfortunate, but it hardly seems a dire situation from which she needs to be rescued.
Finally, there are the references to Romeo and Juliet and, once, to The Scarlet Letter. Here I’m going to mainly discuss how I feel these stories have been misinterpreted and/or distorted in order for Swift to tell her story. (Not that, as a writer, you cannot appropriate.) Romeo and Juliet was not a love story but rather a tragedy that developed out of love. They were not able to be together in the end (save through death, but I doubt Swift intends to send a message supportive of teen suicide). This misinterpretation seems to come–and this is something that really bothered one of my old roommates, so the credit all goes to Lauren–from a misunderstanding of the phrase star-crossed lovers. It’s not a pretty thing; it was not written to call up pictures of lovers with stars in their eyes. It means doomed by fate, by the stars. And since Romeo and Juliet is the story of two star-crossed lovers…well, you can fill in the rest.
The Scarlet Letter mishap is more minor, but still interesting to look at. Hester Prynne was marked with the scarlet letter to shame her, as punishment for her crime (assumed adultery, since no one save Hester knows if her husband is alive or dead). Hester cannot have a relationship because she is married whereas Swift’s speaker cannot because her father says so. And I doubt Swift is forbidden because she committed adultery.
*Eventually I want to embed things like videos, but I do want to do some more research on fair use. I’m pretty sure it’s okay, but I do want to check. I also want to find some way to use something like an LJ-cut for lyrics, but I haven’t explored this theme enough to see if something like that is supported. So for now you’ll have to follow my links.by