Blank Space, Taylor Swift, and Borderline
Musical artists survive and thrive by building a singular, recognizable, identifiable persona. This fronted identity is always cartoonish, sure. But it is their brand, the same as any actor. You remember who Jack Black is, because nobody else can play a part that was written for Jack Black.
The same is true for singers and musicians. Could you imagine Nikki Minaj covering a song by Adele? The song, the artist, and the brand are all inextricably linked. Taylor Swift is a superb songwriter, but I believe her success is fundamentally dependent on her ability to cultivate a deeper and more nuanced persona than most. It’s an incredibly powerful tool, but it only works if she is in control of her own narrative. This is why the song Blank Space, the second single from 1989 released in 2014, is key to understanding Taylor. The rest of 1989 is excellent, sure, but this song is Important with a capital I. Blank Space is an acknowledgement of the separation between her public persona and her private self, the beginnings of an epic power struggle, and a glimpse into the gender politics of pop music.
So it’s important to define exactly her persona here. Taylor started by presenting herself as a small-town girl just like you or me who was just so in awe of all the success and just so thankful that people liked her music. Her lyrics are grounded, simple, and perfectly capture big, specific feelings with charm. As she grew up, she began to date famous actors, other pop stars, and the like. She dated every dreamboat you could name, while still maintaining this awestuck-country-girl routine, just so bubbly and excited to be hanging out with the Jonas Brothers or Tom Hiddleston or whoever the boy of the week is. Every time, she got her heart broken but pulled herself back together and wrote a song that reclaimed the breakup as part of her personal narrative as a sympathetic underdog.
But by 2014, people knew the pattern. She was a man-eater, they said. She dated people to be sad to write songs about how sad she was. She was losing the narrative, and in the process losing her superpower. Blank Space was her answer to her critics, her response to the rumors. It was her pushback against all the haters.
If only it was that simple. The implications of Blank Space go much deepert.
At the time of release, Taylor was 25. She was old enough that she couldn’t sell the innocent act much longer. She was being told that she should be able to hold down a man by now. “I go on too many dates, but I can't make 'em stay, that’s what people say” she writes in Shake It Off. The narrative, the belief, was that she should not be this volatile anymore. That she needed to settle her ass down and be more chill.
Blank Space was a way for her to begin putting distance between herself and the whole narrative arc she had so carefully laid out. That arc, from the innocent girl in her 2006 debut to the sexually awakened 20-something in 1989, ends either in comfortable, neutered, contentment if she “finds a man,” or in a hyper-emotional Brittany Spears-esque collapse if she consumes all of the bachelors in her orbit and finds herself alone. In the first case, she is left unable to express the full palette of emotions available to her. In the second, those emotions aren’t taken seriously. Blank Space was Taylor’s trial balloon, probing the limits of an uncharted third way.
And she must have felt it was successful. This expedition kicked into gear with the video for 2017’s Look What You Made Me Do (and its subsequent album), where she specifically calls out and mocks the younger version of herself that used to geek out at award ceremonies. She gleefully exclaims “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? She’s dead!” The artwork, the singles, and her new wardrobe are all drastic, dark evolutions of her style and brand. She has bought herself the room to acknowledge her past and yet paint with a new palette.
In essence, Taylor built a strawman version of herself and burned it in effigy, nodding and winking to the audience the whole time. “Of course of course, I would never actually feel as strongly about someone as I do in that song. That would be silly if I loved him that much, or got that angry. To do that I would have to be a horrible horrible person. Did you actually believe that was REAL?”
By going completely off the reservation, by taking things six steps further than anyone expected - she literally split screens one of her current personas making fun of her younger self for being emotional and filming her crying - she reclaims the narrative. The predictable courses, where she either settles down or flames out, are subverted and averted. She has taken the arc of her career off the beaten path and into the brambles and thorns and mud. Because at least down there, she’s still allowed to have a few feelings.
In a lot of ways, “Blank Space” represents a power struggle over knowledge. As rumors and gossip circulate about what Taylor Swift is really thinking, what is really going on inside her head, the public is in some ways making a series of knowledge claims. “She thinks she can fool us but she can’t,” they say. “We’re onto her.”
In other words, this is a struggle over who has access to the correct information about Swift’s true intentions, thoughts, and feelings. Knowledge is power, and the public wants Swift to know that she is not the only one who has this knowledge about what is going on inside her head. The public knows, too, and through their rumors and gossip, they want to assert that they know. They want to proclaim that know her intentions, thoughts, and feelings so well that they almost know it better than she does. “We know her inside and out,” the rumors say. “There’s nothing mysterious about her behavior at all.” In reducing her intentions and behavior to something knowable, predictable, reducible to mere gossip, they gain power over her. In asserting their knowledge about her, they reverse the power imbalance. It is now the public who holds information about Swift, discussing it behind her back - deceiving her - not vice versa.
And in “Blank Space,” Swift strikes back. It is her way of saying, “I know what’s going in your head. I know exactly who and what you think I am. I know your true intentions, thoughts, and feelings about me. You haven’t fooled me one bit. You haven’t deceived me one bit.” The lyrics of “Blank Space” make the public’s perception of Swift knowable, predictable, reducible to words. “I know you inside and out,” Swift is saying. “There’s nothing mysterious or unpredictable about the way you’re thinking of me.” In setting up this strawman version of herself - this effigy - she is showing how ultimately simplistic and caricaturistic the public’s perception of her really is. It’s almost taunting.
In a lot of ways, this felt very similar to the Mad Pride movement for me. The power dynamic between the mad person and psychiatry/the general public is, in my opinion, ultimately a power struggle over knowledge. The mad person acts in a way that is strange or unpredictable, that induces fear into those around them; in an attempt to gain control over the situation, to assert dominance, the public makes a knowledge claim about the mad person via the use of psychiatric diagnoses and medical prognoses. “We know exactly what is going on inside this person’s head,” they say, reassuring themselves. “We know their diagnosis, their prognosis, their symptoms, their severity. There is nothing unpredictable or unknowable about their behavior - thankfully we have science to explain it all away to us.”
So much of the time, the public does not only claim to know what is going on inside the mad person’s head, but to know what is going on inside the mad person’s head better than the mad person themselves. Often, mad people are said to be “lacking insight” or “in denial” of their “illness.” There is even a scientific term utilized to describe mad people who disagree with their diagnoses - anosognosia. This is frequently used as the justification to use violence against mad people “for their own good.” Mad people are often pressured to agree with their diagnosis, to “confess” to being sick - in other words, to admit that the public’s knowledge about them is correct, that the public/psychiatry has a more accurate claim to knowledge about their thoughts, feelings, and behavior than they themselves do.
The Mad Pride movement is a way that mad people have developed to strike back. It is a way of saying, “Yes, I know exactly what you think of me. I understand your perception of who I am inside and out. I understand perfectly how I look to the outside world.” In reclaiming the slur of “mad,” we take power over the deception and concealment inherent in scientific jargon and euphemisms. Mad Pride is a way of saying, “Yes, I know all the scientific words and terms you are using to describe me. But I see right through it. I know your true intentions, thoughts, and feelings. You see me as a mad person. There’s really nothing that complicated about it.”
The key difference between Swift’s approach in “Blank Space” and the aims of the Mad Pride movement is that while Swift aims to parody the public’s perception of her, the Mad Pride movement aims to reclaim the public’s perception of them. Swift asserts her knowledge over the public’s thoughts and feelings about her in order to distance herself from how they perceive her, in order to show how far from that she really is. But the Mad Pride movement asserts its knowledge over the public’s thoughts and feelings about mad people in order to reclaim it, to say, “Yes, we are mad, and that still doesn’t mean we need to be cured.”
After listening to “Blank Space” a few times and reflecting on my own involvement and aims in the Mad Pride movement, though, I have to wonder if the line between reclamation and parody is blurrier than one might think. Is the Mad Pride movement not still, in some ways, parodying the public’s perception of “madness”? In reclaiming the experience of madness as something positive, isn’t the Mad Pride movement in some ways distancing itself from the negative, stereotypical perception of madness that the public holds? And isn’t the Mad Pride movement still asserting knowledge over madness - reifying the idea that madness is knowable (albeit through a different type and source of information than the public’s so-called scientific understanding of madness) and therefore distancing itself from the stereotype of madness as unknowable, unpredictable? On some level, is the Mad Pride movement sending the message, “It’s okay that we’re mad because we know we’re mad,” therefore distancing itself from and parodying the mad person who does not know they are mad?
And, even if Swift has every intention of distancing herself from the strawman she has laid out in the lyrics of “Blank Space,” doesn’t laying out that strawman - making her knowable - lead the strawman to be more acceptable? By virtue of singing proudly and unabashedly about this version of herself, don’t the traits, thoughts, and feelings she feigns become more normalized?
Now it’s about to get personal. When I was in high school, I had one of those super obsessive, intense crushes that teenagers (and particularly borderline teenagers) tend to have...on my Spanish teacher. I was so ashamed and embarrassed about the whole thing that I was absolutely determined not to let it show - I went to great lengths to deny my feelings, including asking a boy I met at writing camp to be my “fake boyfriend” and pretending to be a lesbian. Despite all my efforts, I failed miserably. I ended up in my headmaster’s office, where I was told over and over again that I just needed to admit my big, intense, inappropriate feelings - to my headmaster and to myself - because if I didn’t, I could become dangerous and make up a false rape allegation.
After the meeting, I went to my dorm room and played Ke$ha’s “Mr. Watson,” a raunchy, lewd song about a woman who is trying to come on to her teacher. I turned the volume all the way up and set my computer near my door so that as many people as possible would hear. At the time (and for the past few years), I couldn’t figure out what the heck I was doing. But now, thinking about Swift’s “Blank Space,” and thinking about Mad Pride and other reclamation movements, I believe that I was asserting a claim to knowledge. Somewhere between the line of parody and reclamation, I was shouting from the rooftops, “Yeah, I know all about these big, intense, inappropriate feelings you think I have. Trust me, I know all about what you think of me.” I believe my intended message was a mix of reclamation and distancing: “I have admitted my feelings to myself, but I’m not ashamed of them like you want me to be, so now I’m going to share them with my entire dormitory” and also “I know that you think my feelings are like Ke$ha’s in this song. But come on, we both know that at least I’m not as bad as the character in the Ke$ha song.”
And I think that, to some extent, Swift is sending both of those messages in “Blank Space.” Both “I’m not as borderline as you think I am” but also “And if I am...so what? Do you think I actually give a shit what you think?”
But Swift goes even further than my attempt at reclamation with “Mr. Watson.” In “Blank Space,” Swift implicates others in her alleged behavior and characteristics. A possible interpretation of the song is, “So what if this is who I am? That didn’t arise out of nowhere.” In the song, Swift argues that others enjoy and even desire her manipulativeness. “You know I love the players, and you love the game,” goes one poignant line in the chorus.
Specifically, Swift implicates men in the lyrics of the song. On the surface, the lyrics seem to be directed at a potential lover - a man - whom she is attempting to manipulate into caring for her. “Love’s a game, want to play?” she asks at the beginning. And then she answers the question: yes, “I can read you like a magazine...I know you heard about me, so hey, let’s be friends.” She goes on to tell the potential lover, “You’ll come back each time you leave.” In these lyrics, Swift seems to hold the potential lover responsible for his participation in her game, as well as his desire to engage in a relationship with the version of her he has heard about. “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” she says. I.e., men confine women to the role that Swift is purported to play.
For me personally, this rings very true. In the media, women are usually portrayed as the object of desire - as something to be pursued and won - while men are portrayed as the pursuers. Women who are perceived as worth dating by these standards “play hard to get.” The dominant narrative is that the process of pursuit is supposed to be one that is difficult and arduous for men; if it is too easy, then the woman must not be worth pursuing. Even worse than an easy pursuit would be a reversal of the roles - a woman pursuing a man. The idea that women might have romantic or sexual desires that they choose to pursue of their own volition and act upon in an initiator role is seen as laughable and pitiable (think Miss Piggy and Melissa McCarthy), dangerous and predatory (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), or some combination of both (think Carrie Fisher in Blues Brothers). So, it makes sense that Swift would feel confined to play the role of the elusive, hard-to-get seductress who expresses her romantic feelings through manipulation or hysteria. What other option does she have? She certainly is not allowed to express her feelings honestly and directly. I think the song can be read as a valid critique of patriarchy and of the madonna-whore dichotomy that women are confined to.
I also feel that the song is implicating the audience. The message of the song could also potentially be read as, “So what if this is me? You love it. You’ve bought all my albums, you’ll buy this song, you’ll go to my concerts, you’ll use my songs to sell your products. You are responsible for this.” The aforementioned lyrics could just as easily be directed to the audience.
And we know it’s true. We love celebrity gossip. We love celebrity romances, break-ups, weddings, scandals, all of it. We especially love celebrities that we can bash, hate, and feel superior to. We love to create versions of celebrities in our heads and develop parasocial relationships with them, loving them and hating them, idolizing them and devaluing them. This song could be read as Swift telling us that she is just responding to that part of our culture. She is giving us a character that we can engage in these dynamics with. “You love the game,” she seems to be saying to us. “Come on, you know you do. You couldn’t live without celebrities you can play this game with.”
The song made me wonder about what kinds of roles we as a culture confine artists to. How do we as an audience compel Swift to perform the role of the manipulative, hysterical borderline in order to maintain her capital? Of course, celebrity culture intersects heavily with patriarchy. What roles are female celebrities specifically forced to perform for us?
I’ve always wondered what it must be like to feel as strongly as Taylor does, or at least as her persona does. There is so much emotion and empathy in her songs. She feels every high and every low just as strongly as the first. Through her lyrics and her songwriting I still feel that same rush with each new boyfriend, each new song. Songs from her newest album Reputation like Gorgeous, Delicate, and Dress still make me feel that rush of giddy flirtatious energy while Getaway Car brings the frustration and wistful what-ifs of a whirlwind relationship. When her songs land, it is because they tap into real emotions.
That’s a problem for her, because we try very hard to confine and restrain the people who feel. To exist in the highest echelons of pop culture you have to be defined somehow. You have to have a claim to self-knowledge. If you know you are a sad girl, or a mature feminist, or a flirty lover, just tell us that so we can know it and hold you to it. We want to be able to summarize our idols in a sentence or two. Any messier than that and you can’t fit it in a tweet.
All this is to say that people with strong emotions don’t have a lot of options or room to maneuver. Taylor expends a tremendous amount of energy walking this very careful line between overwhelming feelings and a controlled “cool girl” kind of attitude. That’s unfortunately necessary, because the feelings can be sort of passed off as the B-plot to her narrative. Her growing-up narrative is supposed to result in a wealth of self-knowledge that ultimately calcifies around her personality. Baby bones start off all rubbery but ultimately harden into a skeleton. Celebrity personas start off malleable and end up as flat caricatures of themselves.
Taylor Swift’s sensitive side is heavily counterbalanced by her developing heel-turn, dark side, badass feminist bitch persona. In the race against the calcification, it is in this second role that she seemingly wishes to be preserved. Taylor knows that she can’t outrun the calcification. I believe she has made the choice to turn and face it, in the hopes that in doing so she can shape it into something that still leaves her with a little room to breathe. The feminist bitch is allowed to have a soft side. The emotional woman isn’t allowed to exist for long.