Though Taylor Swift is one of our most talked-about songwriters, discussions of how to write a song as good as hers typically focus too much on her subject-matter and not enough on the craft involved in her work. So let’s take a look at two of Swift’s songs to analyze just how quickly she is able, even in the first few words, to hook the listener through character, plot, and even a few obscure poetic devices.
Of course, mentioning character and plot implies that Swift’s work is narrative—or story-telling—and, often, it is. She began as a country artist, and country music is largely a narrative genre. What’s more, her narrative tendencies have carried over into her pop work, as well. So let’s look at the first lines of the country “Our Song” and the pop “Style” to see how quickly Swift can set up a scene, a character, and a situation, as well as an expectation that will consistently carry through to the end of a song.
“Our Song” begins, “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car.” Immediately we have an image. We have the narrator’s gender—for it is dangerous to assume that the singer is the same person as the narrator—implied by “hair undone”: female. We know something about this female: the fact that her hair is “undone” implies that, sometimes, it might be tied up in a ponytail, in a braid, or a bun. Sometimes this person’s hair is done up. So there’s something to contrast the loose hair with—simply because of one word: “undone.” And this suggests, however subconsciously, a dichotomy: formal/informal, restricted/relaxed, maybe even good/bad.
Ok, what else? Well, we have the word “shotgun.” This word carries undertones of danger and lawlessness. But still, it’s metaphoric, idiomatic—the shotgun isn’t real. Yet now there’s a mood. The undone hair, the suggestion of a shotgun that isn’t there. Even if this person doesn’t always follow the rules, there are rules that, in order to be broken, do nevertheless exist. In other words, this person does have constraints, though she might feel adventurous enough, in a non-existent-shotgun sort of way, to want to break them sometimes.
All right, is there anything else? Well, “riding shotgun” also suggests a relationship. She and the car’s driver are close, invested in each other. These two probably have each other’s backs. This is not likely their first date; she feels comfortable enough to be herself—and this also reflects the at-ease feeling we get from her shaken-loose hair.
So, then, riding shotgun implies knowing each other well enough to be able to take care of one another. Incredibly, in the first eight words, Swift has set up a scenario that involves two people whose relationship is comfortable but not boring, relaxed but not mundane, safe but not stifling—and with a tinge of anticipation of possible adventure to come.
And the song will, in fact, proceed to unfold without ever denying nor defying these initial parameters. Amazingly, everything that happens in this song is foreshadowed in these first few words.
So with all this in mind, let’s think about how Swift has created this image. She hasn’t actually described this female, yet we can imagine her. Maybe she has her feet on the dash, maybe her hair is in loose waves or curls, windblown.
But, you ask, if Swift hasn’t exactly described this scene, where did it come from? Well, it was triggered, not described. That is, Swift suggested it rather than demanded it. It was already contained in the mind of the listener and Swift merely unleashed it.
It’s a contemporary archetype, not a stereotype. That’s why the hair has no specific color yet is so vivid, has no specific style yet is real enough to touch. By triggering the image and not describing it, Swift has allowed the scene to thrive without limitation in the mind of the listener. And what’s more, there’s really no way to instruct a writer how to trigger an image, not describe it. It seems accomplished almost as though by magic.
Ok, what else is Taylor Swift up to here? Well, there are a few poetic devices at play, namely assonance, slant rhyme, and internal rhyme. Swift uses a lot of internal rhyme, which is—quite simply—words that rhyme within the line instead of at the end of it. And often, when she uses rhyme anywhere, it tends to be what’s called slant rhyme, or near rhyme, or half rhyme, or off rhyme—you get the idea. Rhyme that’s not too obvious or contrived. “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car.” Wow. And the word assonance just means that the vowel sounds are rhyming—as in undone and front. Easy to overlook, yet powerful.
But what does all this accomplish, all this internal rhyme and such? What is wrong with simple end rhyme—or rhyming just the last word in each line? Well, think about it. Any rhyme serves to pull you forward through the story, so to speak—like a thread running through the song that’s caught you and is pulling you right along with it.
But when the rhyme is unexpected and scattered throughout the lines—rather than just predictably and clunkily placed at the end—then the effect is more buoyant, as thought the song is a river and the rhyme is a current propelling you through. Thus—and here’s the real magic—the words gain musicality and are even better able to complement the actual music. It just sounds good.
Ok, now what about the pop song “Style”? Well, even though the song’s a different genre than “Our Song,” notice there’s something very similar going on, once again, in the first few words: “Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights.” Notice the alteration of what might have been just a boring, exact, predictable rhyme, but is instead: Midnight; headlights. Amazingly, simply by choosing two everyday compound words, Swift is able to utilize both kinds of rhyme at once: exact rhyme (night/lights) and slant rhyme (mid/head). Again, wow.
But do these first lines of “Style” effectively set up imagery and a scenario—with characters that will be consistently carried through to the end—as we saw in “Our Song”? Yes, certainly. What better forewarning of the clandestine relationship to follow than a car pulling up, at midnight, with the headlights turned off! It’s the equivalent of the first scene of a movie, in just nine words.
So maybe this will give you something new to think about whenever you hear those tired, outmoded discussions of who Taylor’s songs are about. Technique, above subject matter, is the real issue at hand. But—most important—will the above reflections help you to write songs as good as Taylor’s?
Much of what a songwriter does is done subconsciously. If it weren’t, the result would likely be stilted, forced. Yet, in the editing, the writer decides what will remain, and this part of the process is where the attention to craft is most conscious. Did Swift recognize how economically she was establishing her characters and their situations as she was creating them? Or was she thinking about this only in the editing process? When a songwriter’s craft so seamlessly intertwines so many elements, it’s hard to tell.
Just remember, trust in the power of your subconscious. Let these poetic devices play in your mind, unconsciously, as you write. Then, in the editing process, if they are working, let them stay.
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