Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Speak/Now: Feminism, Language, and Taylor Swift

In "Our Song," Swift asks god to give her a "song" made up of sounds from her everyday life; in the promotional art, this becomes a serious of words on a classroom chalkboard.In a piece written in 1990, Judith Butler writes of defensive feminist responses to postmodernism, in which postmodernism is the sign of “an impending nihilism” with “dangerous consequences” because politics, and particularly feminist politics, “requires a subject, needs from the start to presume its subject, the referentiality of language, the institutional descriptions it provides” (Feminist Contentions, 36). According to the view Butler is criticizing here, feminist politics needs to be defended from postmodern theory because postmodernism undermines “the referentiality of language,” that is, the idea that the meaning of language is fixed and under our control, or that language is a medium through which we can express our intentions. Two developments of the past few years make me think it is worth re-opening this discussion of the relationship between feminist politics and the referentiality of language: the feminist blogosphere and the lyrics of Taylor Swift.

Feminist blogging makes the question of postmodern theories of meaning particularly relevant again because it draws attention to the importance of language to the feminist movement. In most discussions of feminism and postmodernism in the 90s, the main criticism of postmodernism tended to be that postmodernism rejects the idea of the subject, and thereby prevents us from understanding women’s agency, but, as Butler suggests, what supports this concern about the subject is a particular view of language, specifically the idea that it is possible to exercise agency through the employment of language, and that postmodernism promotes a radical instability of language which renders this agency impossible. The power of language has always been important to feminism, perhaps because language has been one area in which women whose capacity to act was constrained was constrained were nonetheless able to exercise a modicum of agency and thereby marshal their forces for further action: think of Wollstencraft’s and de Gouge’s writings on the rights of women, or the 60s “rap sessions” in which talk between women grew into consciousness raising and radical organizing. In these cases, though, there may be a tendency for language to recede into the background, because it can be thought of as (merely) preparation for “real” action.

Things may be different with feminist blogs, leading to a reversed visibility of the importance of language, as a medium for agency, to feminism. This is not because feminist blogs have no connection to action off the internet, but because these connections are less visible, less likely to dominate our field of view, and so are more likely to let the importance of language appear in its own right. Bloggers in general are known for taking pride in their writing, but I think among feminist blogs this often particularly takes the form of a particular pride in the strategic use of language to accomplish political effects, which might be the logical evisceration of an opponents arguments, or the snarky dismissal of the unthought affective structures of misogyny (and I’m also reminded of the recent debate on “ladyblogs,” which turned largely on questions of the political effects of the writing style adopted by various blogs). Because of the visible importance of linguistic agency to feminist blogs, then, we might expect to see some of the same anxieties around postmodernism in feminist blogging that Butler identified in academic feminism of the 80s. One possible site of this anxiety is the lyrics of Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift’s music, her persona, but especially her lyrics, have been much discussed from a feminist perspective. When Swift is criticized on feminist grounds, the criticism is usually that the stories she tells in her songs endorse, or reinforce, patriarchal norms such as women’s subordination to men (“I talked to your dad / go pick out a white dress”) or the immorality of female sexuality (“She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”). I’m not really going to address the substance of these debates, but instead I want to point out that they are bound up with a certain understanding of language, and to show how Swift undermines the view of language in terms of which she is often criticized. To criticize the effects of Swift’s lyrics suggests a fairly direct model of language: the lyrics put forward a certain description of how women are or ought to be, which is transmitted to, and taken up by, the audience. This criticism needn’t be made in terms of Swift’s intentions, but depends on her words having a definite meaning which, at least in the usual case, is transmitted unchanged to those who hear it. This view of language is reinforced by Swift’s own stylistic choices, inasmuch as most of her songs adopt a narrative structure, and we tend to interpret narrative (particularly a narrative presented by a woman) as a sign of authenticity; at its most reductive, this would assume that Swift’s songs tell us the literal truth about the actual person Taylor Swift, while a more sophisticated version would assume some continuity of the persona portrayed in her various songs, or at least that within one song the character being performed is more-or-less telling us the truth.

This is not, however, an interpretation that Swift’s lyrics support; her songs have continually shown a concern with and a performance of the unreliability of narrative. As Alex Macpherson points out, the first lines of her first single announce as much (“He said the way my blue eyes shine / put those Georgia stars to shame that night / I said that’s a lie”), but it becomes a particular concern on her third album. Indeed, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that Speak Now is an album about the unreliability of language, the power language can provide and the risks involved in attempting to master it. We can hear this in the anxiety of the title, and, in a different way, in the opening lines of “Mean.” Swift is attacking a critic for the way he has chosen to use the power of his own words: “You / with your words like knives / and swords and weapons that you use against me.” Here Swift is performing her own innocence of the power of language; while her antagonist wields language with the cruel precision of a fencer, Swift assures us she is defenseless, inarticulate, piling up the ungainly tautology of “knives and swords and weapons.” But of course this performance is so extravagantly performative that it immediately undermines its own claims, a contradiction the song seems joyously unconcerned about. While its fun to watch Swift slice pieces off this jerk of a critic, though there’s also something uncomfortably brittle about the song, as if Swift feels compelled to exert this level of control over language and is aware that that she can never be assured of success, that her language may fail her, leaving her to be impaled by the knives of critics (I’m reminded, perhaps incongruously, of Subashini’s suggestion that awkwardness for a woman is always the risk of bleeding all over the place).

The melancholy which attends the power of language is on display more clearly in “Better Than Revenge.” Swift starts to undermine herself right from the title, which suggests that the song will describe something better than revenge, but as we listen we soon hear that this “thing” is nothing. And that seems to be the point, as Swift engages in an enthusiastic tearing down of her rival in which the joy she gets from the superiority of her verbal barbs surpasses anything she got from the boy they’re nominally fighting over: “you might have him but I always get the last word.” The identity of the “I” wielding this verbal dexterity is drawn into question, though, because the song features a second Taylor, a distorted whisper that at first repeats, but begins to engage in dialog with, the main vocal line, goading the singer into ever greater efforts at revenge. But the kicker comes at the end of the song: after all these verbal efforts aimed at getting the last word, Swift’s “last word,” the last words of the song, are “she took him faster than you could say sabotage”; a restatement of loss rather than a declaration of triumph.

Many of Swift’s songs are about a loss that has already happened, they tell a story built around an absence, and this is another way  she wrongfoots our assumptions about narrative. If narratives are authentic, they are authentic because of the narrator’s presence, or rather simultaneous copresence, in that the person who is here telling you the story was also there where the story took place: “I know, because I was there.” Swift loves to dramatize the the way a song always violates this implied guarantee of authenticity. “Back to December” is a song about absence, indeed the lyrics form a list of absences; but it seems to be structured as a direct address, face-to-face and here-and-now: “this is me swallowing my pride / standing in front of you saying I’m sorry.” Except, of course, this is a song, and Taylor certainly isn’t standing in front of the person it’s supposedly addressed to every time it’s performed; and the song knows this, as the last verse reveals the authentic declaration that makes up the rest of the song is a rehearsal, and the question of whether the intended recipient will ever hear it is suspended. This distance and delay is made even clearer in the video, where Taylor’s “standing in front of you saying” takes the form of writing a letter, which she hides in the guy’s jacket; in this case, the time between the enunciation and the delivery of the message is completely indefinite – who knows when, if ever, the message will be read?

This uncertainty about the receipt of a message – that we never know by whom or even if it will be received – is inherent to writing, and philosophers have traditionally taken this as evidence of something troubling or defective about written language. If language is about transmitting meaning from the mind of one person to another, the physical copresence implied by spoken language can act as a guarantee that this transmission will not go awry; with written language, there is no such guarantee, and it is at best a matter of luck if writing communicates anything; written language is a derivative and at best partially successful copy of speech. Derrida, however, disagrees with this view of language, which he calls “phonocentrism” because it insists that speech has priority as the proper form of language. Derrida argues that the problems identified in written language (failure to communicate through misunderstanding, theatricality, irony) are features of all language, and so apply just as much to speech as writing. Indeed, if spoken language really was transparently communicative, it wouldn’t need the “guarantee” that is supposedly provided by the presence of the speaker; the argument for the priority of speech over writing undermines itself, which Derrida takes as evidence that the phonocentric theory of language is an attempt to contain the fundamental uncertainty of language by pretending it can be dismissed as a derivative feature of writing.

“Speak Now” is such a perfectly Derridean title because it exemplifies the link between speech and presence that Derrida sees in phonocentrism: speech, on the phonocentric model, must always happen now, in the present to someone who is present. In this respect, the song lives up to its title, because it tells the story of an act of speech that doesn’t take place, and it tells this story through instances of speech that aren’t happening now. Early in the song, Swift imagines what she will say, and at the end of the song she reports what was said, but the moment of speech itself doesn’t appear in the song. It’s important, of course, that this ambiguously present piece of speech happens (or doesn’t) at a wedding, a location where the power of language is apparently at its strongest. Marriage vows are “speech acts,” words which directly produce effects. Or which, as Derrida and Swift know, sometimes don’t: a speech act only works in the proper context (in a church rather than on a stage or in a song, say), but it can also always be detached from that context, so the possibility of failure is built into the concept of a speech act. In this more complete and explicit recognition of the way language is haunted by failure, “Speak Now” is a revision of Swift’s earlier “Love Story.” “Love Story” previews the temporal device Swift will employ in “Speak Now,” in which the song ends with her reporting her earlier words being spoken back to her, but “Love Story” (while it is hyper-aware of its own fictionality; the clue is in the title) sees this repetition as producing a more straightforwardly happy ending: Taylor’s problem can, in the end, be solved by saying the right words, resolved with a felicitous speech act, if she just says “yes.” “Speak Now” has a happy ending of a sort, but a much more tenuous one: disaster (for Taylor; not, presumably, for her rival) is averted by the failure of a performative, but nothing is assured.

We see another precarious return to an older theme on Speak Now‘s (appropriately) final track, “Long Live.” On Swift’s first album, “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” is built around Swift retelling us a story told to her by the Mary of the title looking back on her relationship (perhaps Swift chose this structure to allow herself to narrate an adult relationship while still appearing in the song as a sixteen year old, as she was at the time). The song ends with this fictional Mary imagining her future (“I’ll be 87 you’ll be 89”), in which, she assures Taylor and us, she will continue to feel the same love she describes in the song. “Long Live” repeats this prospective retrospection, but this imagined future has become something more uncanny than reassuring, a future in which Taylor is dead and listener is enjoined to “tell [her] name” to their own children, to “tell them how the crowd went wild,” that is, to allow Swift’s music to speak for her after her death. Swift is confronting the ultimate instability inherent in language, vocalizing the ability of language to survive even her own absence. The priority assumed by classical theories of language is reversed here, and it is no longer the speaker authorizes and so deploys language, but rather language which provides whatever fleeting scraps of persistence Swift can grasp at.

But isn’t this, you might ask, an extended exercise in letting Taylor Swift off the hook? I’ve written a lot, here, about how Swift never means exactly what she seems to mean because no-one, no language, can ever mean precisely that, but isn’t that just a complicated way of refusing to hold her responsible for the effects of her language? Perhaps, but I’m not so sure; I think, rather, that these complexities of unstable meanings and anxious, partial disavowals themselves need to be taken into account in understanding the effects of language, and so also considering them is a precondition for any critique. The fundamental honesty of Speak Now is that Swift never disavows the desire to control language and so to control her own destiny through language, but it begins to raise the possibility of the failure of this desire, and what this failure might cost. Swift is taking a genuine risk in exposing her desire in this way, and her critics owe her the honesty to take this same risk themselves.