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The literary and lyrical genius of Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s lyrics are more than just catchy — they tell stories

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Singer Taylor Swift arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in this 2009 file photo.

Singer Taylor Swift arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York in this Sept. 13, 2009, file photo.

Peter Kramer, Associated Press

Taylor Swift’s new album “Midnights” debuted at midnight on Thursday and has already received rave reviews. As usual, the lyrics of her songs are already the subject of discussion. Speculation about who “Maroon” is about has already started and the lyrics of “Anti-Hero” have been resonating with fans, too.

It’s no question that Swift is wildly popular. She has a great singing voice and is a dynamic performer, but there’s something about her lyrics that make her an icon. In fact, her lyrics are often literary.

Swift draws on personal experience, but also rhetorical skill, to write her lyrics.

Take, for example, the song “Anti-Hero” from her latest album. “Anti-Hero” describes Swift’s insecurities, including dreaming that she was killed by her future daughter-in-law for money, as well as insecurities around societal expectations of her appearance.

Part of the first verse reads, “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser/Midnights become my afternoons/When my depression works the graveyard shift/All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room/I should not be left to my own devices/They come with prices and vices, I end up in crisis.”

Here, Swift draws on common sayings and uses different types of rhyme to create lyrics that sound rhetorically interesting, but also narrate something deeper than a basic story: they narrate a deep emotion. This raw and emotive song resonates with people because even though their experiences may differ from Swift’s, she captures how it feels to have deep-seated insecurities.

From a different album, “Folklore,” Swift recounts the story of Rebekah Harkness. Swift had purchased the Rhode Island mansion that Harkness lived in. This song is another example of Swift’s literary prowess.

Harkness has a Gatsby-like quality to her. She is the embodiment of lavish wealth and parties clashing with a widely held perception of old money. Harkness traversed the social ladder, like Gatsby did, without coming from the wealth that establishes propriety, the song informs us.

Swift interrupts the story in the song to indicate that she is the one who bought the mansion: “Who knows, if I never showed up what could’ve been.” The lyrics then act as a commentary on Harkness, but also on how Swift changed the dynamic from a different era when she entered into the mansion and entered into the story.

Many of Swift’s other songs embody simple practices of storytelling: “Haunted,” “Enchanted,” “All Too Well,” “Maroon” and others. Swift’s lyrical genius endures because of her ability to evoke emotion and tell stories.