Taylor Swift: A Modern Sylvia Plath?
Taylor Swift’s music is adored across the globe. But despite sold-out tours, chart-topping albums and legions of fans, the twenty-five-year-old is still a remarkably divisive figure. People who might be indifferent to Rihanna or Katy Perry will spew vitriol at the mention of her name.
Many of Swift’s songs are particularly confessional in nature, which seems to leave her more open than usual to personal attacks from that unseen, amorphous collective known as ‘the haterz.’ I would go so far as to say anyone moderately acquainted with her music has encountered some narrative about her falling in and out of love as peddled by tabloid media.
The October release of her chart-topping album 1989 has brought with it another wave of fangirling and hating alike. I was struck recently by how similar Taylor Swift’s image mirrors that of Sylvia Plath – two strong, talented and incredibly successful female artists whose personal lives are inextricably linked to their art. (If this connection horrifies anyone, I’m sticking clear of judgement. For now.)
The comparison has already been made, of course. Most notably, Lena Dunham, writer, director, actor and recently Swift’s bestie, tweeted, “Update: @taylorswift13’s album is triumphant. If she’d been here when I was in college I would have written papers on her, not Sylvia Plath.” Motivated by Dunham’s enthusiasm, I decided I’d start listening to every single Taylor Swift song to figure out whether or not our hypothesis extended to the level of their work, too.
And the more I ‘researched’, the more striking the similarities became. Here’s some evidence to suggest Taylor Swift has the potential to be the Sylvia Plath of our generation.
Everyone knows them
Like all celebrities, Swift is perpetually subjected to immense public scrutiny. I imagine the paparazzi circle her like vultures, waiting for their next feed – new haircuts, new outfits, old outfits, exposed midriffs and – god forbid – a new boyfriend. It’s suspected that ‘I Know Places’ is about the media’s unholy obsession with her: “They are the hunters, we are the foxes… I know places we can hide.” On a date with Harry Styles, Swift’s jumper had a fox on it (don’t ask me how I know this). I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and a tick for promoting wearable social commentary.
I reckon this charade echoes the exhaustive biographical research the academic community has undertaken into Sylvia Plath. There have been at least eight critical biographies that explicitly link her work and her personal life, including Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness and Mad Girl’s Love Song.
I’ve even heard of a PhD thesis charting Plath’s poetry alongside her menstrual cycle (that is not, by the way, an invitation to do the same to T. Swift).
The point is, both women’s personal details have become public knowledge. Swift needs to find places to hide from happy paps; Plath’s private journals and letters have been published unabridged. The only difference is that Swift is still around to deal with it.
Confessional poetry and abusive partners
I challenge you to find a Sparknotes summary of Plath’s work that doesn’t mention her marriage to Ted Hughes and her emotional instability affecting her art. It’s so easy to write off a Plath poem once we supposedly determine what it’s ‘about.’ Jacqueline Rose, author of This Is Not a Biography, stated, “If biography is relevant to the work of Sylvia Plath, this does not make the work biographical,” and if readers merely match up poems and life events, “they do her a disservice, jam her wires. They deny the transformative potential of her art.”
In the same way, a common criticism levelled at Taylor Swift is that every song she writes is about some guy with whom she fell in, and out, of love. Her own wiki links a huge list of songs to the men in her life, with five songs attributed to Jake Gyllenhaal alone.
This has resulted in a comical string of music videos in which Taylor wins or dumps Dreamboat Sexyhunk. So comical, in fact, that it’s become very easy among men to dismiss her as a desperate man-eater who can’t keep a relationship – ‘She’s a toxic bitch”; “She’s the problem, not the guys,” and so on.
From my perspective, 1989 is so fascinating because it reads as a direct artistic response to personal criticisms levelled at her. Swift and her presumably enormous publicity team are creating a discourse about her public image, perhaps to make people reassess their harshness. Swift-as-artist is engaging more and more with Swift-as-celebrity via some strange internal synergy.
‘Shake It Off’ provides the clearest example. I don’t think you can really misunderstand, “The haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate… but I’m just gonna shake shake shake shake shake shake it off, shake it off”. Swift’s gambit paid off. The song’s message that she was ignoring personal attacks and getting on with making music resonated well with listeners, and it seems to have become an anthem urging ‘dorks’ and ‘weirdos’ to be themselves. Personally, I found myself warming to a figure to whom I’d never really paid much attention. By focusing on her imperfections, the song and music video put her in a more human and endearing light.
Similarly, following the release of ‘Bad Blood,’ which is apparently about her fallout with Katy Perry, Taylor was very swift (hehe) to point out that this song wasn’t about a guy, but a ‘frenemy’. Perry’sTwitter retaliation, “Watch out for the Regina George in sheep’s clothing…” cemented a narrative for her nemesis’ song that might as well be Swift Official.
Ultimately, their work is hopeful…
Okay, fine, I’ll deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, Sylvia Plath took her life in 1963 and it was an undeniable tragedy. But it’s also tragic that this has forever altered her legacy; there’s more to her than the way she died. Upon her death, Plath left behind the manuscript for a collection of poems, later published as Ariel, which begins with the word ‘love’ and ends with ‘spring.’ Despite its dark subject matter (infant mortality, fascism, references to suicide), the collection’s overall message is stubbornly and gloriously optimistic.
In other words, it’s reductive to see Plath’s poetry as the fruit of a tortured mind. Ariel shows her dealing with intense agony before resolving to new life. If anything, it stands in devastating contrast to her death so soon afterward.
In this way, I’m not suggesting for one second that Swift’s art would benefit were her own mental health to suffer. However, her body of work charts a trajectory through suffering – primarily abusive, no-good boyfriends – that makes her stronger. And while I personally think she needs to cover new ground (more on this later), I believe the public have treated her cruelly. If even half her songs stem from personal experience, she’s had it tough. No one deserves a partner who cheats and undermines his or her aspirations.
2013’s ‘We are Never Getting Back Together’ is in itself an act of regeneration. Instead of singing about mending, the song enacts it. Happily, it can be read as a definitive ‘no means no’ in popular culture. In an interview in 2014, Swift said, “I think the goal for the next album is to continue to change, and never change in the same way twice” – an apt metaphor for the way she seems to bounce back from her apparently infinite string of bad relationships.
…But they address complex issues
In 1961, Plath said that her poems explored “such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight and nature.” Happy, buoyant emotions were tempered with darker, more melancholy issues – far too many to list in detail here.
In my YouTubing, I came across one of Swift’s early works, ‘Mean’. Interestingly, while she wrote the song about a critic who hated her, its music video champions any victims of bullying and abuse. It features an effeminate boy and frumpy girl achieving their dreams – becoming a fashion designer and businesswoman respectively. Underneath its innocuous country/pop veneer, ‘Mean’ also contains an astonishing reference to domestic violence:
“You can take me down
With just one single blow…
[But] someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me.”
And here are a few lines from Plath’s (in)famous ‘Daddy’:
“Every woman adores a Fascist
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”
The fact that the song was never intended this way is arguably irrelevant. By transcending her personal experience and speaking about broader issues, in my opinion it’s the most impressive and important song of hers to date. Incidentally, it’s one of the only produced songs she wrote solely herself.
Taylor Swift is currently the Princess of Pop, but popularity does not necessarily mean bad art. Sure, “We-ee are never ever ever getting back together” just sounds trivial next to something like this:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.”
But objectively, they’re just different forms of self-expression. Swift’s YouTube videos frequently soar to over 100 million views, so she must be doing something right. With catchy rhythms and memorable tunes, she has made an indelible impact on Western popular culture, whether you like it or not.
And if you’re still unconvinced, in 1958 Plath literally said she enjoys making her poetry sound nice: “Technically I like [my style] to be extremely musical and lyrical, with a singing sound… And I like just good mouthfuls of sound which have meaning.”
The colour red
The title song of Swift’s 2013 album Red was a masterful attempt at ‘owning’ a colour. Swift sings:
“Losing him was blue like I’d never known
Missing him was dark grey all alone
Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met
‘Cause loving him was red.”
Red features strongly in Plath’s later works. In Ariel, nearly half of her poems mention it. But it is no longer the colour of shame (as in The Scarlet Letter) or of death and gore, but a symbol of vitality, as with Swift. ‘Lady Lazarus’ is perhaps the most fabulous example:
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
In the words of Germaine Greer, awwww yissss! Plath took that man-eater idea and made it an image of incredible power… just like Taylor Swift is doing now.
A feminist icon?
Which brings me to feminism.
Many of Plath’s poems reconceptualise historically masculine iconography as feminist symbols. The phallic arrow, for example, becomes emblematic of female energy and creativity in poems like ‘Night Shift’ and ‘Three Women’. She is widely regarded as a feminist icon par excellence, a champion of gender equality.
Herein lies the biggest setback for Swift. She had a rocky start, explaining in 2012 why she wasn’t a feminist: “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
In 2014 she adjusted her stance: “Becoming friends with Lena [Dunham, who is widely seen as a leading feminist voice]… has made me realise that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so.”
Could this be the start of Taylor Swift as a new feminist icon?
Already, she’s very rightly pointed out that few people criticise Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars for writing about their relationships. But despite all this negative criticism, she’s actually made a pretty significant accomplishment that I haven’t really heard anyone talk about.
Any Taylor-haters (Taters?) generally attack the fact that she’s using exes as fodder for her art, that she can’t hold down a relationship. But I haven’t heard one person call her a slut for having, in her own words, “a long list of ex-boyfriends”.
Po-Tay-To is an enigma for misogynists because she doesn’t fit neatly into the Madonna-whore complex: she’s maintained a squeaky-clean image (she alone controls who sees her body, and how much they see; not drinking until she was twenty-one and so on) but sings about flings and relationships with a whole heap of men.
Swift’s early work focused very heavily on heartbreak, constructing her as wronged victim, but recently she seems to be reversing this dynamic – but here’s where it gets messy. In ‘Blank Space’, she revels in the transience of her relationships, building a more impulsive, spontaneous figure. “Oh my god, look at that face, you look like my next mistake,” she sings. “So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames.” And it literally does; as a guy, the music video is frankly terrifying. I suspect in the absence of depth – being beautiful, talented, white and outrageously wealthy, Swift wallows in privilege – she’s opting for the “nightmare dressed as a daydream” image, and this needs to change.
If Taylor Swift is to be a role model for women worldwide, I believe she has to create a different image for herself. The psychotic, jealous girlfriend persona is predicated on measuring herself in relation to men, and it need not be. If she plays her cards right, she could successfully become the Strong Independent Heroine of Pop without playing into the damsel-in-desperate-need-of-love archetype. Swift is in a rare position that lets her communicate to girls around the globe that it’s okay to speak up and have a voice and dream big and not settle for less than they deserve. I just haven’t seen enough evidence that that’s what she’s trying to do.
I acknowledge that as a pop star, Swift must necessarily balance on a knife’s edge. Pushing the boundaries too far risks alienating her fan base, but if she keeps rehashing the same thematic material over and over again, I think – heck, even fear – she’ll fade into obscurity.
Taylor Swift is not yet a Sylvia Plath for our age. But she has the potential to be.
About the author:
Kim Ho is the kind of overeager Arts student that does all the required AND recommended readings. He loves theatre and film, and is currently working on a play. He basically knows nothing about anything so he’s learnt to listen a lot. But occasionally he rants.