What Writers Can Learn from Taylor Swift's Superb Writing Abilities
I've been listening to Taylor Swift a lot lately--everything from her old school country tunes to her synthesized pop masterpieces--and I realized there's a lot to be gleaned from how she writes her songs. When I think about today's pop music, none of it compares to what Taylor can do when she sits down at the keyboard with a pen and paper. To prove it, here are four things about writing we can learn from Taylor Swift.
She tells stories
I'll start with the easiest one. Her music tells stories, whether they're about herself, someone else, or purely from her imagination, lots of her songs have a definitive arc. Take "Love Story," for instance. It follows a Three Act Structure. I'm sure you're familiar with the lyrics, so I'll just hit the major points:
Hook (draws listeners into the story): "We were both young when I first saw you..."
Inciting Incident (start of the plot): "see you make your way through the crowd and say, 'Hello.'"
First Plot Point (point of no return; character fully in conflict): "Little did I know that you were Romeo, you were throwin' pebbles..."
First Pinch Point (presence of antagonistic force): "and my daddy said, 'Stay away from Juliet,' and I was cryin' on the staircase beggin' you please don't go."
Midpoint (protagonist moves closer or further from goal; closer in this case): "So I sneak out to the garden to see you, we keep quiet 'cause we're dead if they knew..."
Second Pinch Point (see first pinch point): "and my daddy said, 'Stay away from Juliet,' and I was cryin' on the staircase beggin' you please don't go."
Third Plot Point (protagonist must face conflict head-on): "I got tired of waitin', wonderin' if you were ever comin' around. My faith in you was fading 'til I met you on the outskirts of town..."
Climax (protagonists defeat antagonist forces): "He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said, 'Marry me, Juliet..."
Not all of her songs necessarily follow the Three Act Structure, but some are fictitious. In fact, three songs from her latest album folklore are what Taylor refers to as the "Teenage Love Triangle." These songs are "cardigan," "august," and "betty," and each is from the point of view of a different character: the girlfriend, the other woman, and the boyfriend respectively. She drops hints in each song that make it obvious she's referring to another character in the triad.
Another song that tells a story is "the last great American dynasty." It's the story of the couple who owned the house she lives in before her. She draws comparisons between herself and Rebekah West Harkness, the heiress of the estate after her husband died. Just like Rebekah, Taylor likes to throw loud and lavish parties with her friends from the city.
Other songs that read like stories and have a loose story structure and character arc are "Mine," "Fifteen," "Out of the Woods" and so, so many more.
This may be my favorite aspect of Taylor's music. When I'm listening to a Taylor song, I can picture myself there. Here are a few examples of visual imagery:
"'Cause there we are again in the middle of the night
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light." - "All Too Well"
"Remember when you hit the brakes too soon
Twenty stitches in a hospital room
When you started crying baby, I did too
But when the sun came up I was looking at you" - "Out of the Woods"
"She wears short skirts
I wear sneakers
She's cheer captain
and I'm on the bleachers." - "You Belong with Me"
"You traded your baseball cap for a crown
When they gave us our trophies
And we held them up for our town
And the cynics were outraged
Screaming, "this is absurd"
'Cause for a moment a band of thieves in ripped-up jeans got to rule the world" - "Long Live"
"Elevator buttons and morning air,
Strangers' silence makes me want to take the stairs,
If you were here we'd laugh about their vacant stares,
But right now,
My time is theirs." - "Ours"
"Walkin' through a crowd, the village is aglow
Kaleidoscope of loud
heartbeats under coats" - "Welcome to New York"
Metaphors and Similes
Taylor's music is so rich with metaphors, some universally familiar, and some all her own.
"You gave me roses, and I left them there to die." - "Back to December"
"You took a Polaroid of us
The rest of the world was black and white
But we were in screaming color" - "Out of the Woods"
"August sipped away
Like a bottle of wine
'Cause you were never mine" - "august"
"I'm a mirrorball
I'll show you every version of yourself tonight
I'll get you out on the floor
And when I break it's in a million pieces" - "mirrorball"
"And isn't it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Tying you to me?" - "invisible string"
"Loving him is like
Driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street
Faster than the wind
Passionate as sin
Ending so suddenly
Loving him is like
Trying to change your mind once you're already flying through the free fall
Like the colors in autumn, so bright
Just before they lose it all" - "Red"
Vulnerability and Specificity
I'm listing these two together because they're two sides of the same coin. Taylor's music is vulnerable because so many of her songs are personal stories; they chronicle real things that happen to her. Why do you think she gets so much press for her love life? Because many of her songs are about actual relationships! There's no denying that Taylor drops clues in her songs so we know who they're about.
These clues are often pretty specific. To show you what I mean, let's do some compare and contrast with a few songs at the top of the charts right now that relate to heartbreak or broken romantic relationships:
I think, therefore, I am" - "Therefore I Am" by Billie Eilish
"I could never get attached
When I start to feel unattached
Somehow always end up feeling bad
Baby, I am not your dad (no)
It's not all you want from me
I just want your company." - "Mood" by 24kGoldn
Now, let's look at a couple of Taylor's songs:
"There was nothing left to do
When the butterflies turned to dust, they covered my whole room
So I punched a hole in the roof, ah ah
Let the flood carry away all my pictures of you
The water filled my lungs, I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing" - "Clean"
But you're quicksand" - "Treacherous"
"'Cause there we are again on that little town street
You almost ran the red 'cause you were looking over me
Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well" - "All Too Well"
What I'm trying to say is that Taylor's voice shines through in her writing (notice the visual imagery and the metaphors I highlighted before). Her lyrics are clever and carefully crafted. She subverts and surprises. The other songs I listed above sound generic and like anyone could have written them. The lack of specificity makes them not necessarily bad songs, but inherently less vulnerable.
Given all the things I've listed here (along with a number of other components I didn't list), it isn't hard to see what makes Taylor Swift's music so good. Her music has true staying power that we don't see from many artists in the music industry.
To close off this post, here's a picture of me in my over-priced folklore merch that I impulse-bought in July and waited two months for. What can I say? I like the album and have been a Taylor Swift fan for over a decade. Taylor got me through high school.
[the font and colors make it hard to see, but it says "folklore album'" across the front.]