Taylor Swift’s Anti-Heroics

At least since homo sapiens first howled at the moon, music has been the best medium for baring the soul. The tight-trousered, atavistic power-chording of cock rock likely has more in common with the proto-musical impulses of our most distant forebears, but as civilization advanced (if that is the direction it goes) the modes of self-reflection become more subtle, involving instead the allusive melody echoing in the shadows, a guitar gently weeping. For many, lament is impossible without music.

Whether soothing or aggravating melancholy, these plaints were generally private affairs, though such compositions could be aired before family, friends, patrons and sometimes, though print, a wider public.

One of the most famous self-sorrowings comes from Elizabethan genius tunesmith and lutenist, John Dowland. His Lachrimae Pavane was composed first as an instrumental work in 1596, its haunting desolation perhaps darker because of its wordlessness.  Four years later, in 1600, Dowland fitted the melody with a text was saturated not just with tears, but with “me” and “my”:

Flow my teares fall from your springs,
Exilde for ever: Let mee morne
Where nights black bird hir sad infamy sings,
There let mee live forlorne.

Sorrow sold. The Lachrimae Pavane become the most popular song of the age, a European hit set—covered, as we say these days—by countless other musicians across the continent.

Musical tears continued to flow across the seventeenth century. Another talented and committed despairer was the keyboardist Johann Jacob Froberger. An inveterate traveler, he brooded whether at home or abroad, most famously in his “Meditation on my future death” (Meditation faite sur ma mort future), composed in Paris and dated May 1st , 1660.  While the rest of the city rejoiced in Spring’s pagan rites, the forty-three-year-old Froberger was in his apartment meditating at the harpsichord on the end of his life.

Another profound Lamentation followed a beating Froberger received in the Spanish Netherlands while traveling between the cities of Brussels and Leuven. According to the autobiographical note attached to one of the surviving copies preserved in Vienna, soldiers from Lorraine engaged in the ongoing French Civil War known as the Fronde—a sort of extra innings to the Thirty Years’ War, but not fought on German soil—robbed, beat and whipped Froberger even after he presented his Imperial passport. The score informs us that, “He composed this in order to comfort his humiliated spirit.”

An annotation in the manuscript makes an inscrutable gesture towards connecting life and art, Froberger telling us that the piece is “to be played with discretion and better than the soldiers treated me.” On the face of it, the comment is a nonsense:  any performance, however dismal, would presumably be preferable to being pummeled by mercenaries. In their grammatical slippage, the words can be read as a refusal to descend to force: music betters the soul; it combats violence and melancholy; it encourages tears and dries them, too. This Lamentation is not a surrender but a means to recovery, a way of buttressing the self even while probing its weakness. Self-pity becomes a form of affirmation.

Unlike Dowland, Froberger wished his manuscripts to be destroyed after his death. Luckily for us, they weren’t.

By the nineteenth century tortured artists were going public with their worries and wants. In the forum of the symphony, where Beethoven had slain his private despair at impending deafness with the heroic show of the Fifth Symphony of 1808, Hector Berlioz battled his opium-fueled demons in full, flagrant view in his Symphonie fantastiqueof 1830.

Aural autobiography has been in ever since.

Beethoven Hero meet Taylor Swift Anti-Hero. The pop diva’s hit of that name continues its reign atop the charts, now six weeks in a row at #1 on the BillBoard Hot 100.

The idea of playing both the virtuous and the villain—even making one’s villainy a kind of virtue—is not unique to Swift. Two hundred years ago Berlioz was his own worst enemy, falling in love with the wrong woman then dealing with his lusts and disappointments symphonically. The result outlived him and his personal tumult to become the stuff of legends and of symphonies.

With the aid of an explanatory text known as a program, Berlioz’s fantastical work conjured images in the imaginations of his listeners. “Left to her own devices” (as her song’s lyrics has it), Swift takes a literal rather than literary approach to anti-heroism: she gives us the images on our devices.

At the start the viral Anti-Hero video, a prim and proper Swift answers the door of low-slung mid-century suburban house to find standing there a nasty version of herself: a drinker and defiler in wide-striped leotard, sequined hotpants and high heels—an outfit that conjures a lion tamer. Across the threshold this Monster Me sings the song’s chorus straight into the “real” Swift’s face:

It’s me
I’m the problem, it’s me
(I’m the problem, it’s me)
At teatime
Everybody agrees
I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror
It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero

They’re not drinking tea. They’re downing shots of vodka.

This Good Swift—Bad Swift Act allows the artist to pillory what she perceives as her own worst traits and face up to her unshakeable psychological challenges: alcohol abuse, depersonalization, bulimia, “covert narcissism masquerading as altruism”—this last line is one of the many clever internal rhymes that cannily drive the song lyric forward.

Soon, a third Swift arrives—gigantic version of herself, an embodiment of her larger-than-life celebrity and of the unbearable weight of expectation and isolation that such fame brings with it.

Except for a central comic skit in which the childless Swift watches from her coffin as her heirs read out the will that disinherits them, the video recites the song’s revelations in—and finally on the roof of—this claustrophobic dwelling. The period décor signifies the Eisenhower Era values of conformity, safety, consumption and, oozing through the floral wallpaper and drum loops, disaffection and paranoia.

The manicured horrors flash by to the relentlessly faux-happy beat: a Swift in chaste white underwear stands on the bathroom scale scolded by Swift the evil influencer; a drinking bout brings up brightly colored vomited; she suffers outsized awkwardness in trying to relate to normal people in normal social situations, as when the giant Swift can barely cram herself into the dining room for a dinner party with people who might be or might become friends. The diners flee the hulk of her.

Berlioz devised an obsessive theme, the idée fixe, and had it continually erupt across his sprawling five-movement symphony. Whereas Berlioz was a firebrand of the musical avant-garde, Swift has a become a diva of retrospect—working over her own past with help of musical styles that predate her birth and accumulating hits and issues: nervous-nice synths and obsessive drum loops speak not from the 1950s but the 80s. Like any pop song, the music cycles relentlessly back on itself, but here becomes a metaphor for the solipsism of celebrity and self.

As Anti-Hero fizzes and self-flagellates towards its close, the chorus now on repeat, the pair of Swifts find themselves at night on that roof, passing a bottle of red wine.  The Giantess strides across the front yard, kneels down, takes the bottle her huge hand and drains the remains like so many tiny tears.

All this autobiographical exposure is not a way of saving the self, but of selling it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com