Taylor Swift: Passive-Aggressive Stalker?

Taylor Swift: Passive-Aggressive Stalker?

Taylor Swift is actually kind of creepy in “You Belong With Me”.

[Today, a consideration of Taylor Swift by frequent contributor Trevor Seigler. —Ed.]


By about the third or fourth time (well, maybe the three hundredth or four hundredth time) I’d heard Taylor Swift’s hit single “You Belong With Me,” I began to think she might be mentally unstable. You can’t miss the song, it’s on the radio constantly and so catchy in its own right that you’ll be unwillingly humming it to yourself for days. But the lyrics leave Ms. Swift open to the possibility that she might be some sort of passive-aggressive stalker.

Swift is one of the least disposable of the current crop of pop-teen princesses, by virtue of the fact that she writes her own songs (always a good skill to have, once the professional songwriters you once enlisted to pen your hits go away) and because she straddles pop and country audiences with equal aplomb. When she falls out of favor with one, she’ll already have a ready-made audience in the other to avoid the “crossover curse” that seems to have damned Jessica Simpson to rodeos and barbecue cook-off contests.

Her latest single, set in the insular world of teenage heartbreak, isn’t on the surface something that warrants serious consideration from rock critics, but there’s more to the tune than the bouncy girl-power-fueled beat would suggest. Swift, singing in the first person, narrates a typical tale of a boy caught between two women, the slutty head cheerleader (the other woman) and the geeky but good-hearted girl next door (Swift, literally next door in the video, but more about that later). Swift makes her case that the boy really should be with her (indeed, that he “belongs” with her), but her latent possessiveness is offset by her crippling lack of self-esteem (after all, she wears t-shirts while the cheerleader girlfriend wears short skirts. What teenage boy would go for the dweeb in the shirt, right?). The song ends upbeat but still unclear as to whether she (the dweeb) gets her man, and Swift famously penned a more melancholy version of this tale with her first single, “Tears on My Guitar,” so we can only assume that she’s still there pining for a boy who prefers the flashy thrill of the high-school cheerleader to the quiet, steady love she seems to be offering.

That’s what we’re supposed to think about the song, anyway. But multiple listens (a fact of life in the Top 40 age, where even great songs are ruined by overexposure) hints that all is not what it seems. Because I am (against my will) so familiar with the song, I don’t even need the lyrics in front of me to make this argument. That argument is this: Swift, at least within the song, is kind of a stalker.

First off, the song begins with Swift apparently overhearing the guy’s end of a telephone conversation with his girlfriend, one that isn’t going well by the fact that she can infer that the other woman is “upset” over something he said (because, in typical obsessive-speak, she doesn’t “get your humor like I do”).

Red flags should go up right away: how the hell would she know that he’s on the phone with his sweetie? Swift naturally doesn’t offer any indication of how she came to possess this knowledge, whether it was as innocent as being in the room at the time (platonic study buddy for our beleaguered “man in the middle,” perhaps) or as sinister as being right outside his window, peering in through the bushes and snooping around his trash can for relics and souvenirs she can collect, much like a stalker would.

All questions about the possible creepiness of Swift’s (as the dweeb narrator) actions seem to be answered in the next set of verses, during which she shares a lazy stroll around town with the guy. Whew, at least we now know that he’s not just some distant object of affection unaware of her existence, but an actual acquaintance and even possible friend. The fact that she remarks on how she hasn’t seen his smile in such a long while (the one that, naturally, used to light up this whole town) indicates a relationship dating back long before her creepy overhearing of the phone conversation, and we as the listener are reassured that, whatever her feelings for this boy, her intentions are not as bad as, say, tying him up in leather chains in her basement and engaging in some bondage-and-domination role play.

But the nagging sense of something being a little off is reinforced by the insistent chorus, in which Swift practically pleads with the boy that he “belongs with” her. When I first heard the song, I thought if maybe I’d heard it wrong, that Swift was actually saying “you belong TO me,” not “WITH me.” To say that someone belongs “to” you is a standard pop-song cliché, coupling with the usual romantic intentions an inherent sense of potential danger, a possessiveness that stretches back across the eons of popular recorded music. It is, in some ways, the calling card of a stalker or potential stalker, someone whose contradictory needs to control someone while also degrading their own existence leads to some truly bad news in terms of their intended “other.” The narrator in Swift’s song seems to feel unworthy of Mr. Smile Lighting Up the Whole Town, while she also plots to undermine his relationship with the cheerleader by penning a laundry list of comparisons that inevitably paint her as the more suitable choice (she’s not as free and easy with her budding sexuality as the cheerleader, naturally). There’s a hint of anger and possible revenge, in fact, if he decides he does not belong with her (or to her, as the case may be).

That element of the song shares an uneasy association with past popular songs, mostly written by men, which seem to address the same issues of control and neediness tinged with the threat of retribution if the intended object of affection doesn’t choose accordingly. ? and the Mysterios’ hit single “96 Tears,” the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” are the ones that come to mind for me, songs that each present a scenario in which a lover potentially scorned or just ignored by the narrator has the tables turned or is threatened implicitly with something akin to dominance and/or surveillance. The level of obsession in “You Belong with Me” is matched perhaps only by “Every Breath You Take,” and the comparison is apt: both couch their messages of love denied (and therefore insisted on) in a rhythmic beat that softens the lyrical threat by making it so darn catchy. Honestly, how many people, when they first heard Sting talking about how he’ll “be watching you,” thought “man, that’s creepy, I don’t want to hear that song anymore”?

14 Comments on “Taylor Swift: Passive-Aggressive Stalker?”

  1. Timm #

    I’m not sure you can compare it to “Every Breath You Take,” since that song is MEANT to be sinister and creepy. People misinterpreted what Sting was singing, whereas Swift’s song seems more unintentionally creepy.

    Which is probably why it’s creepier in some ways.


  2. Darin #

    I wouldn’t mind being tied up in her basement…

    Why does the movie and video industry think we can’t see passed the glasses and baggy sweatshirts. Sure, on first glance, we might consider someone less attractive, but truly attractive people can only dull what they have. Stop treating us like we’re idiots.


  3. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Having never seen that video before, I have to say, it made Ms. Swift look more interesting to me than she ever has before–and not in a stalker-ish way. The fact that Ms. Swift plays both the cheerleader and the nerdy girl is an overthinking goldmine, so I’m really glad you brought it to my attention, Trevor.

    I think we have to start by comparing the Taylor Swift vs. Taylor Swift music video to the Miley Cyrus vs. Hannah Montana phenomenon. As far as I know, having watched maybe half an episode of Hannah Montana and having read at least one review of the Hannah Montana movie, the doubling there is meant as a commentary on Miley’s split psyche. On one side, you have the bleach-blonde pop star whom everyone adores, and, on the other side, you have the “real American” teenage girl who likes bland, Aryan cowboys and singing at barbecues with fireworks in the background. Miley/Hannah has to learn to reconcile her two differing sides and learn to “be herself” while also being an icon.

    The Taylor Swift (Nerd Version) vs. Taylor Swift (Hawt Version) phenomenon going on in this video, on the other hand, seems very different to me. Swift, unlike Miley, doesn’t need or want to combine her two halves. No, the two Swift halves battle it out, and one side wins. The whole song is about the dichotomy of Taylor Swift, herself: she wears short skirts (i.e., is a sexy whore) at industry events, but she also wears T-shirts (i.e., is still a normal girl who doesn’t care that much about looks); she’s the cheer captain (i.e., is the center of attention with a hot bod) and is on the bleachers (i.e., is a true musician—maybe not in the marching band, but you get the idea).

    But, as you say, Trevor, they’re both Taylor Swift. And they hate each other. Here’s how my argument differs from yours: You say this means she’s a passive-aggressive, needy stalker who doesn’t know how to deal with rejection. I say this means she’s a budding feminist who is aware of (and, justifiably) upset by both the virgin-whore dichotomy that is set up in Western culture in general as well as the real person-sexy icon dichotomy that is set up in modern celebrity culture.

    If she were a passive-aggressive stalker, she’d have someone else play the cheerleader slut. But she doesn’t. She’s aware that the cheerleader is part of her persona, whether she likes it or not. Taylor Swift is beautiful, exceptionally thin, and exceptionally tall. The idea that everyone could see her as a nerd is obviously false; the girl could be Miss America if she had slightly bigger boobs and were slightly less coherent. And she’s not the girl who sits at home studying. She blings herself out to go to award shows and red carpets all the time. The real Taylor Swift could afford that hot red convertible her evil cheerleader alter-ego drives in the music video.

    What the video seems to be saying, then, is not, “Damn you, boy I am stalking! Damn you for being attracted to those sluts! I’m the one who should be with you! Me! Me, the nerd!” No. What the video seems to be saying is, “I know you like me, Taylor Swift, but I want you to like the T-shirt wearing side of me, not the glammed-up pop star side of me. I know you look at me and see a gorgeous, attention-getting drama queen—-after all, I probably remind you of other teen icons like Lindsay Lohan and the sisters Simpson. And I understand that society has conditioned you to want the cheerleader you see on the outside, but you really belong with the nice girl on the inside. And when you realize that and like me for me, we’ll make a great couple.”

    Or am I being too optimistic here?


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Longest comment ever?


  5. Tim #

    I would like this music video a lot more if it weren’t for the ridiculous glasses. The “Coke bottle glasses = unattractive” became cliché in the 80s, and people are still doing it. Most people would agree that Tina Fey looks hot in her glasses, and could find at least a few other examples. Elvis Costello glasses would be far more believable than the ones she has. Also, the way she holds her book on the park bench makes me think “only nerds in movies hold their books like that,” but it could just be that she is trying to hold a guarded position while reading.

    I see some visual symbolism going on with The Rival driving a convertible. The expectation in our culture is that the guy is going to have the car, which he will use to drive around his lady, and it’s even better if the car he has is a sexy one. But in this case, he’s the one getting a ride from his girlfriend. This could mean that he’s not too attached to traditional gender roles; or that he’s a guy who is okay with taking a subservient role from time to time, and letting someone else be in control. (And, of course, it could be both.) One presumes that these are qualities that Taylor Swift looks for in a mate.

    And of course, the “wedding dress as prom dress” symbolism is probably not lost on any Overthinker.

    For the song and video as a whole, one alternate interpretation I see here is that Taylor Swift wants people to like her for the bookish nerd that she is on the inside. Though she has a “hot cheerleader” side she shows off in public–probably because that is the only way for her to sell millions of records, rather than mere thousands–if you are drawn to her because of that cheerleader side, she is going to hurt and abandon you. If you are appealing to her hot cheerleader side, she will never understand you in a way that appeals to her bookish nerd side, and even if you belong with her, neither of you will ever know it. Your attraction to her is only a superficial one, and thus the relationship cannot be anything but superficial.

    That may be the most charitable interpretation of this one could muster. I can’t say whether one could actually read it as her authorial intent, because this is the first song I’ve heard by her, and it’s the first time I’ve heard it. Maybe I’ll go listen to the rest of her œuvre so that I might overthink it.


  6. Trevor #

    @mlawski: I hadn’t even considered the feminist underpinnings that might have been at the root of the video. I took it at face value that the message was less “anti-whore/virgin dichotomy” than a simple restating of that, along the lines of a pop song for preteens and teenagers to swoon to.

    Also, a caveat: Swift does say in the song that she’s in the room when the girlfriend calls to bitch at the boy. Still, it’s a little creepy that she gets absorbed in the lover’s tiff without thinking of leaving the room so he can have some privacy (though an alternate theory is that she’s in the room, but hiding in the closet with her iPod set on shuffle to “music she doesn’t like”).


  7. Jon Eric #

    Dude, Taylor Swift’s “dweeby” alter-ego is far more attractive in my eyes than any other incarnation of her I’ve yet seen.

    Trevor, you posit that the “other girl” in this song is actually a character that the narrator makes up. It’s an interesting theory, but I’ve got another one: Supposing the other girl isn’t made up, but the narrator herself is?

    Not, of course, in the Usual Suspects sense, but in that she defines herself (at least, to him) solely in terms of what his girlfriend isn’t. Why is it important to Taylor (or to the boy) that she listens to “the kind of music she doesn’t like?” Like some political opposition, every phrase that Taylor’s character uses to describe herself places her in direct opposition to the incumbent (in many cases, the contrast is implied but definite – for instance the chorus’s “Been here all along” implies that the other woman hasn’t). The contrasts are so stark, and so convenient for Taylor, that I can’t help wondering whether she’s exaggerating her case, tweaking her image where it makes her look even less like the woman he’s already with.

    But that was not the point I intended to make when I started typing…

    Yes, the comparisons to this song’s musical ancestry (“Under My Thumb,” “Every Breath You Take,” &c) are apt, but I’m actually a lot more interested in a compare-and-contrast of this with a song in a similar genre that came out a scant three years ago: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.”

    “She’s like, so whatever,” Avril sneers. “You could do so much better.”

    It seems to me that Avril and Taylor are telling two variations on the same tale. In Swift’s version, the guy is already dating “Avril,” and she wonders what he’s doing with someone above what she perceives as his social class, bemoaning “Avril’s” architypical cheerleader character. In Avril’s version she plays the cheerleader (note how the chorus of “Girlfriend” borrows from Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”), the guy is already dating “Taylor,” and she asks (less eloquently, for obvious reasons) what he’s doing with someone for far below what Avril perceives as his social standing.

    In this manner, the punk princess and the country girl engage in a debate ages older than either of them, and one that they may be only vaguely aware of themselves. Now let’s see ’em collaborate on a cover of “The Boy is Mine.”


  8. Matt #

    WAIT A SECOND. So if Taylor Swift married boyfriend Taylor Lautner, they would both be Taylor Lautner? THIS MUST HAPPEN. I know she’d keep her last name like every other celebrity, but it’d provide me with much entertainment.

    Oh, and good article. I’ve always thought the song was a little creepy.


  9. lee OTI Staff #

    @Tim: “…this is the first song I’ve heard by her, and it’s the first time I’ve heard it. Maybe I’ll go listen to the rest of her œuvre so that I might overthink it.”

    Prepare to have this song, and many others by her, stuck in your head.

    For the rest of your life.

    Seriously, this may be one of the catchiest songs ever written.

    Not that it’s on my iPod or anything…

    Oh, and, nice use of the “œ.”


  10. Kenny #

    Yes! I too want a comparison with Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” not just to examine the inverted subject matter, but also for the video, which uses the same gimmick in which Lavigne plays both girls.


    For my money, Lavigne’s sneering at the boring girl comes off way meaner, which is slightly leavened by her dual role in the video, but mostly the song revels in its snotty meanness. Interestingly, though, she presents a different female dichotomy, based perhaps in gender stereotypes than clique/subcultural identification: “Girlfriend” (particularly the video) pits the rebellious punk/goth/bad girl against the preppy, who, fascinatingly, embodies both nerdiness and snobbiness. Somehow she stands at both ends of the traditional teen hierarchy, while the rebel girl narrator stands outside it completely.

    She is boastful rather than insecure (“Hell yeah I’m the motherfuckin’ princess”) and has no qualms about stealing a guy from another girl. Even the preppy girl’s snooty look at the beginning of the video hardly justifies the campaign of coordinated bullying that rebel girl and her friends proceed to wage on her.

    For its audience, “Girlfriend” may be more escapist wish-fulfillment: Even though we know it would make us jerks, don’t we sometimes wish we had the brash confidence to steal someone’s guy, to take whatever we want? One hopes that it’s not just helping awful people rationalize their selfishness.


  11. stokes OTI Staff #

    The little eye roll she gives at 1:54 in the video is just perfect.

    I also really like the song’s seamless mixture of country and pop-punk. (I find it kind of interesting/instructive to listen to this one and Blink 182’s All the Small Things back to back.) Oh and hey Trevor, screw you for getting it stuck in my head. Seriously, though good post.


  12. Gab #

    @Trevor: I’m a little confused by the “with” v. “to” aspect of your piece. Are saying she would have been less creepy if she had used the latter?

    When I first heard the song, I had a pretty surface-area-interpretation of it (Taylornerd and the boy had been friends forever but he never “saw” her the way she “saw” him, so she’s pleading for him to do so). I listened to it more and then started to wonder if maybe the guy was using her or something, dropping hints to make her think she may have a chance so he could keep her around as a backup of sorts for whenever he and his actual girlfriend were having problems. The video reaffirmed this for me when I saw it the first time a while back. So the question on my mind has been:

    Is the guy really worth it? If you take the lyrics and video together, I see a few interpretations of him.

    1) Still from before, he’s using her. That little notebook message system they have going on seems cute and all, but the way HE is passive aggressive with it, “wishing” she were going, asking IF she’s going but not actually asking her TO GO could be him covering his bases so that he still has options by guilting Taylornerd her into it- yet giving him deniability later. And how are we to know his relationship with Taylorcheerleader really as bad as Taylornerd makes it out to be up until the football game we see? She could be totally blowing it out of proportion in the lyrics to convince him, but he could also be doing so in order to keep her interested. Obviously Taylornerd and Taylorcheerleader don’t get along, so we have no way of knowing if Taylornerd is hearing anything but negative things about the relationship between the boy and Taylorcheerleader. What if he’s stringing her along for a sort of booty call? Not sex, but someone else to get that kind of emotional treatment when he and Taylorcheerleader are fighting. “Hey, we just had a fight, can you come over?” Emotional booty call. The way he brushes her hair away on the bench is totally inappropriate for a platonic friendship, but exacerbated by her having romantic feelings for him. Yet little things like that are exactly what a girl would hang onto for a glimmer of hope. Unless he’s a total moron, he’d know this, so why do it?

    2) He’s a wimp. He lets “norms” decide what’s best for him and Taylornerd rather than his own conscience. And the car thing Tim brought up is important: given the little world being set up in the video, it seems like he doesn’t have a car because he chooses not to. He’d prefer to be literally along for the ride rather than make decisions for himself. The notebook message can also fit in here, too: instead of taking the initiative to ask her to Homecoming (that’s what it looks like, anyway), he just shrugs it off, “I wish you were going,” making no other effort to make the wish come true.

    3) He’s superficial and vain. It takes a very public breakup (or at least reason for one- it isn’t like nobody else saw what Taylornerd saw) AND Taylornerd getting all dolled up for him to be out in the open about any romantic feelings he has for her in order to protect his persona. He’s a jock, and dating cheerleaders is What Jocks Do. He can’t let anyone else think he’s different from that, otherwise his status and entire image will be shattered. And I think this is different from the second option in that here it’s more of a conscious choice to look a certain way to others, while the other is more about a lack of decisiveness and inherent inability to be original. Here, he *wants* to look cool, and this trumps any other aspirations or desires he may have. He carries the piece of paper around with him, but he doesn’t show it to her until he knows it’s safe and would be accepted by everybody else.


  13. Darin #

    Gab v. mlawski – “Fight to the end of the page”

    Who will have the longer post?

    While Gab has thicker paragraphs, mlwaski has more. Pound for pound, word for word, they overthink pop culture to a level it probably doesn’t deserve. In the end, mlawski breaks his personal record, but Gab overcomes with 695 words to mlawski’s 625 words. You can see the follow up on ESPN Ocho! Leave comments about who you think should take the crown next on “Dueling opinions”. And now a word from our sponsors.

    Round 1 of longest post ever


  14. Shey #

    I agree with mlawski, in a way. I think Taylor would be pretty naive if she thought she was still PERCEIVED as the girl on the bleachers, but that’s how she still FEELS. (And therein lies her appeal…she has an innocence and girl-next-door thing going on that somehow makes songs like You Belong With Me and Teardrops believable, even when coming from a gorgeous tall blonde.)


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