Book references in Taylor Swift’s songs: Lyrical masterpieces
Taylor Swift has dominated the music industry for over ten years. She has ten original award-winning studio albums, with her most recent one, Midnights, breaking Spotify records.
Swift’s love of books is no secret, especially when considering the many books she has recommended over the years. This includes Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, recently adapted into a show starring her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. However, the number of bookish references in her songs may come as a surprise to many.
The song that many people point to first is ‘Love Story’ because of its clear inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragic play, Romeo and Juliet.
In a thrilling and nostalgic chorus, Swift as the distressed Juliet begs “Romeo save me.” Written when she was a teenager, she took inspiration from the story of the star-crossed lovers to reflect her own feelings of frustration at her parents not allowing her to date a boy. The song (amazingly) only took twenty minutes to write and topped the charts.
Swift continues her references to English literature with her song ‘Wonderland’. As the name suggests, it mirrors the adventures of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Swift uses the idea of Alice toppling down the rabbit hole and her curious adventures in Wonderland as a metaphor for her dysfunctional relationship.
Just as Alice discovers the maddening but whimsical world of Wonderland, Swift describes the highs and lows of her passionate relationship. Ultimately, she realises that she cannot carry on. Like Alice, she wakes up to reality and realises that “in Wonderland, we both went mad.”
‘Wonderland’ is part of her 1989 Deluxe album so often gets overlooked. However, the level of intertextuality in the song shows her wondrous songwriting talents.
The 1925 American classic, The Great Gatsby by William Fitzgerald, is referenced in several of Swift’s songs. She has also recommended it many times over the years.
The Great Gatsby was written as a criticism of the social classes in the twenties and focused on the illustrious millionaire, Jay Gatsby. It is a novel complete with unscrupulous characters, extravagant parties, and above all a tragic love story. It is not hard to see why Swift is so drawn to this novel.
In her song ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’, from her Reputation album, she describes “Feeling so Gatsby that whole year.” Swift uses the novel to symbolise her own indulgences and how, like Gatsby, it led to her detriment.
‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ is interwoven with snarky comments to ‘fake’ friends making the reference to Gatsby very apt. Gatsby, although renowned for his parties, is surrounded by shallow people taking advantage of him. He ultimately finds himself very alone. Luckily the comparison between Swift and Gatsby ends there. In a hopeful turn to her song, Swift credits her “real friends” and fortunately doesn’t meet the same fate as Gatsby.
The bitter love story between Gatsby and his long-lost love Daisy Buchanan seems to have inspired her song ‘happiness’ from the album evermore. In ‘happiness’, Swift quotes one of Daisy’s most famous lines: “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool.”
The title of ‘happiness’ is misleading, it is actually a bitterly heart-breaking song that shows Swift in the process of healing after a challenging relationship. She tries but fails to find happiness. The same can be said for Daisy in The Great Gatsby who tries to find happiness with Gatsby but realises that she won’t.
Swift confessed in an interview her love of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca. She claimed that it inspired her song ‘tolerate it’ (evermore) because it’s about ‘trying to love someone who’s ambivalent.’ Rebecca is a beautiful gothic novel full of jealousy and mystery, although it was written in 1938 it is still very influential today.
In ‘tolerate it’, Swift focuses on the struggling marriage between the protagonist of Rebecca Mrs de Winter and the mysterious Maxime de Winter. The song is told from the perspective of Mrs de Winter and is full of longing and feelings of disillusionment. It is a very vulnerable song that shows Swift’s storytelling capabilities at its finest.
If anyone is still in doubt about her songwriting genius, take Buzzfeed’s quiz ‘Who said it – Taylor Swift or Shakespeare’ and see how you do.