Guys, I’m about to use a pop song to talk about philosophy and literary method, but only because it’s the only way I could explain a Taylor Swift song to my kids.
Did you guys see Taylor Swift perform”Blank Space” at the American Music Awards? I know that was over a month ago now, but it (and the song) has been a topic of conversation around our house a number of times since then, mostly because I’ve been trying to explain to my kids what the song is about. At one point, I told them, “This is really important to understand, guys. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to read the Bible correctly.” (Pen this under “things I did not think I would be saying to my children.”)
Let me explain how I got there. The song “Blank Space” is written by Taylor Swift, but it doesn’t represent how she actually feels about anything, except how she’s portrayed in the media. It’s a pretty gutsy attempt to expose how ridiculous media outlets make her out to be by taking their insinuations to the next level. If gossip magazines assume that Swift is a serial dater obsessed with love, manipulative and conniving, possessive and jealous and vengeful to boot, then she’ll give them exactly what they asked for. “Booooys only want love if it’s torture,” she croons. But she doesn’t mean it, any more than she means that, darling, she’s “a nightmare dressed like a daydream,” or that she’ll “find out what you want, be that girl for a month.” The whole song is a way of exposing how entirely un-believable all this hype about her really is. Do we really think she lures boys to dinner and poisons them with shiny apples, like some terrifyingly glamorous Evil Eve?
Turns out, we realize how much we don’t think that when she shoves the insanity of it in our faces for a few minutes on live television. It seems exactly as far-fetched as it is, which is entirely the point. That was the genius of her performance: we saw sweet Taylor Swift do her best to play the mean girl, the jealous girl, the crazy girl, and it looked literally insane.
I’m not a “Swifty,” but girl gained my respect after that performance. Maybe it’s because I experienced the tiniest bit of this when I was internet-bullied a few months ago, and I sat at my computer thinking, “Nobody could actually believe that about me, right? That doesn’t even make any sense!” while my mouth kept hitting the floor as some people, apparently, did exactly that. I’m not sure there’s anything stranger than a bunch of strangers deciding to believe totally false things about you when they don’t know you at all.
Nobody knows Taylor Swift and what she’s like to date except the people who have dated her, even when she’s written songs about them (which, by the way, is absolutely her prerogative to do). So Swift took that insanity and she handed it right back to the American people on a silver platter adorned with flaming roses as if to say, “Really, people? Really?”
This is what you call perspective. Not just literally, as in, it gives us perspective about how silly all the media about her dating life is. But also literarily, meaning that Swift wrote a song from a perspective that isn’t her own at all. She wrote the song from the perspective of someone that doesn’t actually exist in real life, which is “social tabloid Taylor Swift who can’t wait to buy a house right next door to her next lover so they can live forever and ever until they break up and she hates him and writes horrible, horrible songs about him for money.”
It took some explaining for my kids to understand this. They thought it sounded kind of mean and crazy that she would say boys only want love if it’s torture. And I had to say, “Yes, it’s supposed to sound that way. It’s not her talking. She’s writing as if she’s someone else.”
And now we arrive at where the Bible came into the conversation. Because the Bible switches perspectives all the time. Each book is written from a different author, for one thing, and inside each book the person talking changes quite often, too. Sometimes, the person talking becomes God and then switches back, and I don’t have to tell you how crazy things could get if you don’t pay attention to stuff like that. (The book of Isaiah is a particularly good example of this, as are many of the prophetic books.) The first question when you’re reading the text is, “Who is talking?” followed quickly by, “To whom is this person talking?” But the next question is just as important, which is, “Who is writing the perspective of the one who’s talking?” In the Bible, it’s rarely the person speaking, or being spoken of. And that’s worth remembering.
So, to take a well-known example: When we read the Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke, we know that it is Mary talking. It is Mary’s song. But the second answer is that Luke is the one writing what Mary is saying, and Luke has a perspective, too. He has a reason for writing down what Mary said. And he has a reason that he wrote it down in the way he did, too. You cannot possibly interpret the text well if you don’t hold onto both of those things in their fullness.
To go back to Taylor Swift, you have to say that the person talking in the song is “media-portrayed Taylor Swift” who doesn’t actually exist in real life. But the person writing the song is Taylor Swift, and she has a very good reason to have written the song. And if you don’t know the reason, then Blank Space is going to leave you with exactly that. The song has context in the interplay between the songwriter and the song’s singer.
You can do this with works of fiction and literature, too. Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath but the narrator of the book, the voice of the book, changes all the time. Sometimes it’s the narrator and sometimes the narrator hops into one of the character’s heads and sometimes the narrator starts talking directly to the reader, YOU, which is super weird if you hadn’t been paying attention. And of course, poetry does this too. Not all poems- not even most poems- are written from the perspective of the poet directly.
I may be harping on something that seems really obvious and not that important, but the truth is, people get this stuff confused pretty frequently. Case in point: Ohio State University did a study to see how people understand the Colbert Report. Everyone thought he was funny, but a good number of people thought he was speaking directly and honestly, while others understood that he meant the opposite of what he was saying. GUYS. THIS IS WHY I AM BLOGGING ABOUT TAYLOR SWIFT AND THE BIBLE RIGHT NOW. I’m not sure how much more over-the-top he could have played that character, but many people missed it just the same. I’m sure there is some tween somewhere who has decided not to like Taylor Swift anymore because she’s become mean to boys, or something. OR WORSE: nobody has stopped to think about how Taylor Swift doesn’t actually believe the song she’s singing on the radio. What if nobody has even noticed?! This is the stuff that keeps me up nights.
I think this is because we are drunk on literalism. We’re just obsessed with it. It’s as if Americans cannot fathom anything being other than literal and direct and obvious all the time. We want the world to be in the eternal first-person. We expect it to be the default setting when, in reality, the world doesn’t work that way. If we are ever to get at the nuance of life, at the beauty, at the wonder of it all, we cannot do so while demanding literalism from everything around us. Especially not from God, and certainly not from the Bible God’s given us to guide, instruct, inspire and lead us into the people we’re meant to be. Knowing that Luke wrote the words that Mary said and did so with a perspective does nothing to lessen the truth of what Mary said, nor of our need to heed her words with our very lives. Perspective enlivens our understanding, broadens it, deepens it. Perspective gives us the very meaning we’re searching the Bible for to begin with. Perspective is just plain necessary for reading books, or listening to songs, or watching a play/TV show/movie/musical. If you don’t pay attention to it and you keep your default setting to “literal eternal first person,” you are going to miss the story, in a big, big way. It’s small potatoes if we’re talking about understanding that Taylor Swift is not a man-eater or that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, but when this gets into faith territory, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Perspective is important. It’s essential.
So, here’s a New Years resolution: let’s pay attention to perspective. Let’s get perspective, first of all, by taking a moment to step away from our immediate gut reaction to something as if it’s the best or only reaction and realize there is probably more going on than we first noticed. I mean, that’s true for watching blades of grass grow, so I think it’s true for everything. There is more going on than we first notice. Then, let’s take the time to notice some of the other things, not least of which is the actual perspective someone is trying to share, and in what way, and in whose voice, and for what purpose. If we really want to go for it, we can even imagine ourselves in that other perspective, even if just for a moment, to see if it creates an epiphany.
It IS Epiphany today, after all…and who can have one if we remain stuck in literalism our entire lives? Do you want to see camels and wise men or not??? Because there is nothing literal or expected or direct about that.
New Years resolution number two: I don’t know, maybe it’s a decent idea to teach philosophy using pop songs?! This could be fun… Who’s with me?