We all miss vulnerable Taylor Swift. How we long for the eager and bespectacled tween of “You Belong with Me,” and how we rebuff the chainsaw-wielding dominatrix of “Look What You Made Me Do.” The tedious narrative of Taylor’s career devolves in this fashion, depicting her as a once authentic muse of heartbreak who has lately transmogrified into a bitter, feuding diva. Yet even in “You Belong with Me,” the song which launched her stardom, Taylor readily acknowledges the role-playing which makes her music possible. Perhaps more than any other contemporary singer, she recognizes the artifice of her persona and how it extends to her most favorite subject — love.
The music video of “You Belong with Me” makes for a telling case study. Perpendicular-jawed Lucas Till plays Taylor’s inamorato, handsome with his boyish bowl cut, but sporting a rather prominent and potentially cancerous mole on the right side of his neck. They are that classic dichotomy — she a nerd and he a jock. It begins in a suburb at dusk, with a voyeuristic Taylor gazing out her bedroom window. Her unrequited love lives conveniently next door, and his own bedroom happens to be directly across from Taylor’s. As he argues on the phone with his girlfriend, Taylor tries on a variety of outfits in the mirror. This sequence is a condensed version of the shapeshifting which will consume the entirety of “Look What You Made Me Do.” She is a headbanded hippie, then a crepuscular goth, then a skater and then a nerd again. The mirror, like the love which the video eventually presents, is one-dimensional, reflecting only what Taylor wants to see. In her ultimate guise as a nerd, she dances on her bed, holding a hairbrush as a microphone. She thinks her beau has gone to sleep, only for him to peek out his window and catch her in this unguarded ballet, this ostensibly vulnerable moment. He laughs in appreciation of her authenticity. The saccharine moral of this scene is clear: She need not pretend to be someone she is not, as he likes her just the way she is.
Yet the next scene complicates, and even contradicts, this simplistic message. Nerd Taylor sits on a bench, naturally reading a book, when the boy appears and sits beside her. They chat and laugh and he coquettishly tucks her hair behind her ears. Then his girlfriend pulls up in her sports car, he hops in with only a meek wave for a goodbye and they make out right in front of poor bookish Taylor. But Taylor Swift herself also plays this girlfriend, donning a straightened brunette wig and sorority girl sunglasses. Taylor is now both the unrequited sonneteer and the callous but stunning woman preventing that sonneteer’s pure love from taking hold. Girlfriend Taylor is a vision of nerdy Taylor in the future. It is a prophecy that her propensity for changing identities might lead her to become the very thing she abhors once she has attained the object of her love. This Shakespearean double casting is a visual metaphor for the reality of love, that the sonneteer and the girlfriend are one and the same person.
The scene at the big football game bears out this interpretation. Nerd Taylor is now band nerd Taylor, standing in the bleachers with her clarinet and her ridiculously plumed tophat. She watches the field as girlfriend Taylor, now cheerleader girlfriend Taylor, tousles her pompoms on the sideline, and as the boy, now football star boy, scores the game-winning touchdown. As he trots off the field in testosterone-drenched ecstasy, football star boy finds cheerleader girlfriend Taylor flirting with another football player, to band nerd Taylor’s disgust. The scene is most obviously a set up for the video’s apogee, as it makes possible football star boy’s asking Taylor to prom. But we must wonder why self-defeating band nerd Taylor has selected a boy with a girlfriend as her love. We could argue that there is no such thing as choosing in love. But band nerd Taylor has, presumably, decided that the indecently sideburned sliding trombone player beside her in the stands is not quite worthy of a heartache ballad. She, too, has rejected others to set her sights on the one she wants, has broken hearts as much as she has bared her own.
The music video’s conclusion reveals the logic behind nerd Taylor’s love for the football star boy next door. He asks her to prom, she demurs under the excuse of studying, only to show up at that glittering dance which represents the climax of high school romance. She has discarded her glasses and her books; she wears an elegant white dress and diamond earrings; and her blond hair cascades over her shoulders in waves. The crowd on the dance floor parts like the Red Sea. Her love gallops over to her. Miraculously, they embrace in a sultry kiss. But why did she have to shed nerd Taylor and become beautiful Taylor to win the boy she loves? The scene, like Taylor’s love, is a fantasy. Nerd Taylor fell in love with the football star because she did not want to be nerd Taylor anymore. She confirms the anxiety about her identity which she so aptly expresses in the serial-costume-change first scene. Love simplifies the multiplicity of her personhood. She is not so interested in making herself vulnerable, in having the boy fall in love with the “real” her, as she is in realizing an inner vision of what she wants to be — glamorous, powerful, in love. Yet this vision contradicts the boy’s earlier interest in her when she is, as he likely conceives of it, vulnerable, that is dancing and singing alone in her bedroom like a fool. This, the music video suggests, is the real Taylor. But the real Taylor does not end up with the boy of her dreams; beautiful Taylor does.
Who, then, is the “me” in the song’s title, “You Belong with Me?” Taylor herself does not know the answer to this question. She loves insofar as love can affirm the version of herself she most wants to be true. Her entire career, she has practiced a kind of transmutation, with love as its catalyst. Certain sad people only bemoan it now because she has ceased to apotheosize as a beauty in a blanched dress and instead prefers to be a cynical shit-talker. What we ought to criticize is not the fluidity of Taylor’s identity, of which she is very much conscious, but her inability to find a love which embraces the entirety of her. Like the lover, love itself contains multitudes capable of obscuring who we are but also of comprehending our totality. Love is a hiding place where we hide from ourselves. But love, we must hope, can also embrace the litany of our possibilities: the lover, the lonely, the loser, the brash, the brave, the bitter, the boring, the betrayer, the beautiful. We are most vulnerable and most beloved when we recognize that we are, at once, all of these people.
Joshua Baize | firstname.lastname@example.org