A Symptomatic Reading: You Belong With Me

As everyone knows, once a decade, I like to write about something that genuinely interests me: over-analyzing lyrics to shallow pop songs. I’ve been bouncing this one around for a bit and may have even presented early drafts of my thesis to a few of you, but I thought it would be good to actually sit down, do some research, and get everything down in order. And if you’ll indulge me here, what initially seems like the insane ramblings of an idiot will eventually persuade you that there is really no other sane way to approach this song.

The song we’re talking about of course, is Taylor Swift’s seminal You Belong With Me, the third single off her second studio album, and remains to date as her second most successful single, going platinum a motherfucking four times over.

To understand why the song and video are so popular is a simple matter. It’s got the common elements of fate and destiny commonly prevalent through classical and European mythology of two lovers that are cosmically governed to be together, the crazy and unjustifiably common trope that the removal of glasses adds instant sex appeal, and clear allusions to the amazing dual role performance of Avril Lavigne in Girlfriend. This is an artist that knows and respects the classics that came before them, the foundations upon which their own pillars of work are built on top. Does Einstein’s theory of relativity stand without Newton’s theory of gravitation? Of course not, and for Swift to be prescient of that is something to be admired. And shit, when he pulls out his piece of paper and it’s even more wrinkly and old than hers? These motherfuckin’ tears don’t stop.

But we’re not here today to talk about why the song is so good.

We’re here to talk about the fact that You Belong With Me is actually told from the perspective of a male classmate, frustrated that the target of his affections is wasting so much of his time and is unhappy with the trivialities of heterosexual relationships when he clearly belongs on the other side of gender relations, with him.

Obviously it requires some tweaking of your predisposed notions of the song already, and rethinking some of the imagery that Swift has deliberately pushed only to satiate the ultra conservative Jews that run the music industry, but stay with me as we go through some introspective readings of the song lyrics and examine the context behind them. I guarantee that you will be impressed not only by Swift’s capacity as a songwriter and storyteller, but by her zeal to buck social conventions and raise social awareness that skews her more like Bob Dylan than Carrie Underwood. So put your critical thinking hats on and follow me down this sexually mind bending hole as we embrace as many various phallic references as we can fit into our figurative gaping orifices of understanding.

WHO IS “SHE?”

Firstly, it’s important that we distinguish between the reference of the girlfriend mentioned in the song with what she represents versus how she’s perceived. The initial tendency is to consider her as a singular person, with singular and personal faults…when instead she should be correctly interpreted as a general avatar of womankind, with all their justifiable general innate limitations in fulfilling a man’s homosexual needs.

You say you’re fine, I know you better than that
Hey, what you doing with a girl like that?

While a listener might be initially tempted to interpret these lyrics with the emphasis on this particular girl’s faults (“What you doing with a girl like THAT? She is terrible.”), inspection of the context and the preceding line imply otherwise. He’s fine, nothing’s wrong…who are we to say otherwise? But the narrator, and only him alone, knows the real answer. He knows that his needs won’t be satisfied by a girl. And so the problem isn’t the girl, the problem is that it’s a girl (“What you doing with a girl like THAT? Why are you dating one?”) because girls just aren’t right for him.

And really, what’s wrong with the initial girlfriend in this situation? No real problems are shown on screen, just purposely vague allusions to “drama” and that’s as far as the subject is broached. Drama, Taylor? You mean the same screamin’ and fightin’ and cursin’ your name and actin’ insane that you profess to love and endorse as a positive in The Way I Loved You and your general fetish for early morning references in all your other songs? So if drama is not a negative, if anything a possible positive, and at minimum a normal thing that all relationships include…then what other faults does this girlfriend have?

She has her own car, doesn’t need him to pick her up. A self sufficient, independent woman. She goes to prom with her boyfriend even though he’s a scumbag and asks another girl who turns him down. There for him even when she shouldn’t be. And what to make of the fact that she and the other girl look exactly alike? Obviously Swift is implying that there is no difference between them, because they are in actuality the same person. And that implies that the girl doesn’t exist as a singular entity…because as per the transitive property of equality (they both equal Taylor Swift) she is the same person as the one that he eventual professes his love to in the end.

Therefore, the concept of the girlfriend as a singular person falls apart. We are forced to concede that the references to the “girl” in the lyrics are in a much broader, general context. Because otherwise the alternative is that we have harshly judged and decidedly rejected a beautiful girl based on nothing more than about seven total seconds of screen time and vague references to drama (which again, isn’t even a negative)…and that would be unrealistic and a pretty shitty thing for us to do.

ALLUSIONS TO MALE ATTRIBUTES IN THE NARRATOR

You’ll notice that at no point in the song do the lyrics ever even indirectly imply that the narrator is a female, except in the context of your predisposed bigoted expectations that only a female would be attracted to a male. I bet you are racist as well, hater.

In fact, the song almost seems to go out of its way to establish very guy-like attributes and behaviours in our narrator.

But she wears short skirts
I wear t-shirts
She’s cheer captain
And I’m on the bleachers

She is a skirt wearing cheerleader. The lyrics are sparing no words to express, very explicitly that “she” is a female, and a very feminine one at that. “I” am in the bleachers, wearing a t-shirt and a possible argyle sweater vest, she and I are opposites.

She wears high heels
I wear sneakers
She’s cheer captain
And I’m on the bleachers

Again, sparing no words to establish her femininity. High heels? Short of dropping references to the fact that she has a vagina and can carry offspring in her womb, I’m not sure how much more explicitly feminine you can paint her. There are two main drives of the lyrics present. One is that she is indeed a girl. The other is that her and the narrator are complete opposites. Together, the overt implication is that the narrator is the opposite of a girl…ergo, a dude. Interpretation of the narrator as female takes away from the tone and direction of the lyrics. You’re not carrying the motif far enough, you’re refusing to let the storytelling take you to where Swift wants you to go. We haven’t gone out of our way to conjecture new things or twist any of these ideas to suit us, this is all taken at completely face value.

Also, how can we explain the overt efforts of the lyrics in attempting to establish very male attributes, yet careful to avoid any female connotations at all for the narrator? Why contrast short skirts with t-shirts instead of another analogous article of clothing like a long conservative dress, jean leggings, evening gowns, or any other type of female leg coverings that are not short skirts? Why high heels versus sneakers and not flats, sandals, Uggs, deerskin moccasins, flip flops, or boots? Why the constant emphasis on male articles of clothing as the counterpoint?

The reference to the subject of affection’s attire is a curious one as well.

Walking the streets with you in your worn out jeans
I can’t help thinking this is how it ought to be
Laughing on a park bench thinking to myself,
“Hey, isn’t this easy?”

What a strange thing for a supposed girl to admire a guy’s worn out jeans. But look at this wholly typical jeans commercial with Brett Favre pushing Wrangler. What are the selling points? They are comfortable and tough and worn, a pick up football game can break out anywhere, like in a park, and you don’t need to stay on the bench, you can easily jump right in. Worn out jeans. Park. Bench. Isn’t this easy? What’s the demographic that ad is targeting? Men. You might be surprised that those are all male oriented buzzwords.

But not if you’ve been paying attention thus far.

THE CHERRY ON TOP

And finally, just in case the other references weren’t overt enough, Swift throws us this one that really just kind of puts it over the top, or power bottom, if you’d prefer.

Standing by and waiting at your backdoor.
All this time how could you not know, baby
You belong with me
You belong with me?

I mean that’s almost offensively obvious. Taylor Swift is a seven time Grammy Award winner that’s been critically praised specifically for her songwriting, she is not an idiot. Lyricists of this precision don’t make accidental allusions like this.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

It may seem shocking to you now, in considering that such a prominent song can be based in such an overt homosexual context. But it’s not exactly a brand new idea, even among the highest, brightest bastions of pop culture.

Bisexual love triangles have periodically been prevalent in popular culture, in an established history that goes back pretty far. In the most prevalent and recent example, as part of its courageous, Emmy Award winning, deconstruction and introspection of social and sexuality issues within the genre blending high school musical dramedy structure, numerous epsiodes of Glee have revolved around the love triangle between the lesbian Santana Lopez, bisexual Brittany Pierce, and the various crippled wheelchair bound guys that Brittany dates. The fact that they haven’t ever used You Belong With Me in one of Santana’s attempts to reform the pop culture power couple that the internet has collectively named “Britanna” means they are just not trying hard enough.

Gay people have been trying to break up straight people to have gay sex with them for a long time now.

There are some that might argue that this song is a continuation of a history of prominent female artists pushing for more social awareness that includes Melissa Etheridge’s Grammy Award winning song Come To My Window (1993), the first song she released after publicly coming out as a lesbian.

I don’t care what they think
I don’t care what they say
What do they know about this love, anyway?

Or some might consider it more along the lines of an effort to question and challenge conventional gender lines, like David Bowie’s (entire career, but specifically the song) John, I’m Only Dancing (1972) which describes the narrator’s efforts to assure his homosexual lover that nothing’s happening between him and a girl he’s with.

John, I’m only dancing
She turns me on, but I’m only dancing
She turns me on, but don’t get me wrong
I’m only dancing

Though it could also just as easily be seen as Swift’s desire to highlight the more carnal, physical manifistations of romance and how those can often drift beyond the limits of gender based relationships, like Tricky Daddy’s verse off Jacki-O’s Champion (2004).

Hoes these day
Go threeway
Prefer to have sex with a bisexual
Trisexual habitual sex offenda
Love that dick up in ya
Bitch I bet you love to fuck three niggas

It’s difficult to discern exactly what her motivation is from a songwriting perspective, even if the meaning if clear.

LYRICAL PARALLELS WITH THE DEVIL MEPHISTOPHELES

For my money, the literary work that You Belong With Me most closely resembles is The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the Elizabethan play by 16th century English poet and rumoured gaylord Christopher Marlowe. Often referred to as simply Doctor Faustus, the play describes the eponymous protagonist’s decision to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for power. The classic play deals with numerous themes and motifs throughout, including the corruptive nature of power, the duality of man, the concept of sin and of redemption and damnation, and even the differences between the 15th century Medieval values centered around God versus the increasingly secular focus on individuality as per 16th century Renaissance values.

But most importantly is the interplay between the two major characters of the play – Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles, the devil summoned by Faustus who acts as his guide and who is ultimately responsible for brokering and executing his deal with Lucifer.

Mephistopheles himself is a conflicted character, who as a representative of Lucifer and bound to serve Faustus for the duration of their deal, is ultimately an agent of hell and of Faustus’s damnation and will happily claim his soul when the time arises. However he also speaks openly regarding the horrors of hell and initially even advises Faustus against dealing his soul away, unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Faustus not to repeat the mistakes he has made as a fallen angel of heaven. By the end (spoiler alert for an Elizabethan era play) as Faustus’ deal expires, both are doomed to hell and in a way, become kindred spirits.

There’s also an additional layer to their interactions, which has led some scholars to believe that Mephistopheles is constantly positioning himself as a possible homosexual lover to Faustus. Most notably, in Scene 5, shortly after agreeing to the deal and signing away his soul for 24 years of power and knowledge (souls were worth considerably less back in the 1500’s, pre-inflation) and having “HOMO, FUGE!” magically etched onto his arm (HA!) Faustus requests Mephistopheles to deliver him a wife, essentially so that he can get his dick wet. However Mephistopheles instead delivers him a male devil in drag, and convinces Faustus that a wife isn’t necessary to satisfy his needs…why bother with just one woman for the rest of your life when you have access to a whole buffet of mortal delights? You rollin’ with the devil now, son!

It leads to analysis similar to Graham L Hammill’s, associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, who notesthe wife that [Mephistopheles] brings demonstrates that marriage is not a signifier that can stabilize the gender. The play…instead replaces this wife with a series of courtesans in an economy of homosocial exchange.” Mephistopheles brings Faustus a dude as a wife to broach the subject of homosexuality in him, and leverages the experience to convince him that his needs do not require womankind to satisfy. And so, 400 years before Taylor Swift posed the question in prose, Mephistopheles (who’s up in the bleachers in t-shirts and sneakers) asks of Faustus, “What you doing with a girl like that?”

And so that brings us back to the song, which includes a narrator that asks the subject of his affection if his unhappiness is due to his antiquated notion that heterosexuality and monogamy are what he wants. Instead, the narrator aligns closely with Mephistopheles in sympathizing and aspiring for more for the target of his affection. The only difference, trivial as it is, is that they meet up at a high school semi-formal instead of being damned to hell together forever. Though I could certainly see the romantic appeal in the finality of the latter.

Originally I had just noticed these parallels as an interesting coincidence, although never did I doubt Taylor Swift’s background and knowledge in 16th century English literature. But the deeper I went, the more I was convinced that coincidences of this nature are just too hard to accept, and now I’m forced to conclude that Swift has actually purposely inserted allusions to Doctor Faustus in You Belong To Me. And indeed, my second round through the lyrics revealed the obvious ties.

Oh, I remember you were driving to my house
In the middle of the night
I’m the one who makes you laugh
When you know you’re ’bout to cry
I know your favorite songs,
And you tell me about your dreams
Think I know where you belong,
Think I know it’s with me

Anyone familiar with the play would surely note the similarities here, as shortly after Faustus experiments with new magics given to him and revels in his dreams of power and omnipotence, he has a vision of hell and the cruel horrors it contains. Upon being overwhelmed by the depths of hell and the demons within and on the verge of tears, Mephistophilis’ spirit takes him in his arms and carries him back, explaining the nature of hell, and how it is merely a state of existence apart from God and heaven, although still terrible. And there is a realization – now that Faustus has signed away his soul to Lucifer and God has no claim on his soul, he will never taste the bliss of heaven.

Mephistophilis, a similarly doomed fallen angel of heaven and cursed never to return, and a prince of hell himself, knows where Faustus will ultimately end up.

He knows where he belongs.

He belongs with him.

If a player would draw a card except the first one he or she draws in his or her draw step each turn, that player discards a card instead. If the player discards a card this way, he or she draws a card. If the player doesn’t discard a card this way, he or she puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Reply

About

Destined to fight the world's evil, The WAMBAG endures massive battles involving impossible stunts, races on horse-pulled carriages, and the desecration of enchanting medieval castles (all done with dizzying computer graphics). Not only does the eye candy keep on coming, the tongue-in-cheek writing and deep Transylvanian accents perfect the film with a dose of dark humor.

Search

Subscribe

Atom, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 - no idea what the difference is.

Tagboard (!?!)

Apparently PHP7 doesn't support the same function calls I wrote in 2008? I should fix this at some point.

Recent Posts

Archives