[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”?