The Delectable Neo-Noir of Taylor Swift
“I can hear them whisper as we pass by
It’s a bad sign, bad sign
Something happens when everybody finds out
See the vultures circling in a dark cloud”
— “I Know Places”
Revenge. Betrayal. Bad blood and knives in the back. Getaway cars, heists gone wrong. Big reputations and big enemies. Secret love affairs, double-crosses and shivering hands clutched in darkened rooms. The pulsing panic you feel after you’ve done something very, very bad.
These aren’t potential plot threads for a treacherous crime novel. They’re references to songs by Taylor Swift, a beloved pop princess who’s built a name with her catchy, teen-friendly and seemingly All-American odes to lost love and shaking it off. But there’s more to America’s sweetheart; once you get past the winning smile and bubbly exterior, you’ll find a complex, layered, conflicted character who could easily saunter in front of a film noir’s monochrome and stark, stylish camera.
Noir tales live in the spaces between: cynical, fatalistic and loaded with moral ambiguity. At first blush, it may seem like a stretch to conflate Swift with dark, lustful, bloody cinematic works like Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, or deliciously dangerous novels like Megan Abbott’s Queenpin. But the truth is, there’s more to reputation-era Swift than black eyeliner and leather. She’s modern noir; both femme fatale and hard-luck hero, she’s something else entirely — a noir anti-hero befitting the Killing Eve era.
In a getaway car
There were sirens in the beat of your heart
Should’ve known I’d be the first to leave
Think about the place where you first met me”
— “Getaway Car”
The driving force that propels all noir stories can be summed up with one word: desire. Whether it’s lust, greed or hunger, the best noir stories are about wanting something — and then getting it. The question quickly becomes, what are you willing to do to get what you want — and what happens if things go crooked? One of the most common — and effective — tools of the noir narrative is the femme fatale, the temptress who uses her beauty and cunning to get what she wants. Think Barbara Stanwyck’s knowing smile in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer’s distant purity in Out of the Past, or the shadowy-eyed and platinum-haired Lizabeth Scott, arguably the most Swiftian of the OG film noir femme fatales, in Dark City.
The best works of noir also feature ostensibly good people forced or tempted to do bad things — then dealt some harsh consequences they can’t recover from. The endings aren’t happy. The tempting prizes are just wobbly mirages and the journeys are fraught with muddy morals, regrettable encounters and complicated characters wafting through the gray areas of life. Sound familiar?
Swift plays every note in the femme fatale scale, whether she’s hot-tempered and vengeance-seeking in “Bad Blood,” or cool and calmly evil in “I Did Something Bad,” with its gunshot backbeat and Swift’s titular admission that her diabolical deed felt so damn good. The mixture of pleasure (sexual or otherwise) and pain is a classic slice of noir, and is rarely executed so smoothly. Press shuffle on reputation and tell me I’m wrong.
“Me, I was a robber first time that he saw me
Stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry
But if I’m a thief, then he can join the heist
And we’ll move to an island-and
And he can be my jailer, Burton to this Taylor”
— “…Ready For It?”
One could easily drop Taylor Swift’s music into two buckets: her early, pop-infused country material and her last three records, Red, 1989 and reputation. And while Swift’s earliest albums boasted an innocent, aw-shucks sentimental quality with a shined-to-perfection candy coating, there was always a bit of bite lurking underneath.
One of Swift’s earliest diss tracks — 2006’s “Picture to Burn” — is hidden between two longing ballads, “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar.” The spiteful tune doesn’t mince words as Swift lets her ex know how much she hates his “stupid old pickup truck,” calling him a “redneck heartbreak/who’s really bad at lying.” This is the first inkling that there was more to Swift than we were led to believe. The “nice girl” could get mad, and you probably didn’t want to cross her.
But her evolution from sheepish teen-pop idol to empowered, fearless Queen T was a gradual one, and dovetailed nicely with her knowing embrace of the dark side — a ride that’s all too common for noir fans. The chaste and virginal girl pining for a boy eventually flowered into a powerful, confident woman who plays it as anything but subtle when she sang, “Carve your name into my bedpost…Only bought this dress so you could take it off” (2017’s “Dress”). The tune feels galaxies away from Swift’s debut, and moves her closer to the territory carved out by Linda Fiorentino’s devilish, manipulative turn as Bridget Gregory in the unforgettable neo-noir film, The Last Seduction.
The loss of innocence is also elemental to noir fiction, whether through a shocking betrayal or by design. Take the unnamed female protagonist of bestselling author Megan Abbott’s seminal, subversive Queenpin. She finds herself swept into the hardboiled, neon-soaked world of 1960s Las Vegas, forced to lie, cheat and double-cross to survive.
Like Abbott’s character, Swift slyly moves past the role of prefab teen idol, and cannily emerges as a dark, truth-telling messenger — fearless and independent. Swift is now a woman — comfortable in her own skin, and not afraid to ask a momentary lover “do the girls back home touch you like I do?”
“But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!”
— “Look What You Made Me Do”
Noir, whether it’s the prose of hardboiled legend Raymond Chandler or stark and stylish film noir on the screen, also shares another touchstone with Swift’s music: a knack for witty banter. Chandler, not one for plotting, was a master of wordplay and prose; his descriptions painted a picture of a fading Los Angeles, a post-WWII metropolis struggling to remain paradise.
Chandler lines like “dead men are heavier than broken hearts” or “it seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in” feel right at home next to some of Swift’s sharper lyrics, like “I bury hatchets but I keep maps of where I put ’em” from the pulse-pounding and star-laden “Endgame.” Or “You should take it as a compliment that I’m talking to everyone here but you,” from her bitingly funny, self-deprecating and sultry “Gorgeous.” Both tunes spring from Swift’s last record, the intentionally murky, confrontational and libidinous reputation.
Swift’s success and celebrity means she lives her life in the public eye. Her every move — and especially her romantic choices — is fodder for tabloids, gossip columns and Internet pundits. This hyper-scrutiny of her personal life often clouds a stark truth: that Swift is a damn good songwriter and musician, able to write a hook that stays ingrained in your skull for weeks. She has the goods and she knows it. Pop in 1989 if you don’t believe me. You’ll have trouble turning it off.
Her work can be embraced passionately and unironically, without the need for the misogynistic, creepy crutch of, say, a Ryan Adams track-by-track cover version. She doesn’t need a dude to validate her music.
As such, Swift isn’t just a devilish dame dropped in the narrative to confound the hero. She is the hero of her story. And, like most lasting noir protagonists, Swift is not without flaws. She plays the part of the damaged hero to the hilt, reminding a potential new lover that her “reputation’s never been worse” in the seething, passionate “Delicate,” before admitting to a secret, forbidden obsession.
Many a grizzled private eye, whether it’s Chandler’s glib, tainted knight Philip Marlowe, Ross Macdonald’s stoic Lew Archer or Walter Mosley’s world-weary Easy Rawlins, share similar battle scars with the noncompliant, unheeding Swift. With the same casual, dismissive air those street-savvy heroes perfected, Swift wearily sings in “Call It What You Want”: “My castle crumbled overnight/I brought a knife to a gunfight/They took the crown, but it’s alright.” Like any good noir hero, Swift presses on, despite the stacked odds.
“Screaming, crying, perfect storm
I can make all the tables turn
Rose gardens filled with thorns
Keep you second guessing like
“Oh my God, who is she?”
I get drunk on jealousy
But you’ll come back each time you leave
‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”
— “Blank Space”
Arguably, the most important piece of any noir tale is the mystery — and the path to enlightenment is fraught with perils, dead ends and shadowy figures. Understandably, transparency is not common in these dark stories, and it’s not a staple of Swift’s songwriting or her public persona. Aloof, obscure, alluring and seductive, Swift remains a step ahead of us, dodging and weaving — trying to find cover from her enemies, her ex-lovers, and even her fans.
As she sings on “I Know Places”: “They got the cages, they got the boxes/they are the hunters, we are the foxes.” The thrill of escape, even in the face of guaranteed tragedy or despair, is worth the sprint. And so, “we run.”
What’s more noir than that?
Alex Segura is the author of the acclaimed Pete Fernandez Mystery series, which has been nominated for two Anthony Awards. The latest, Miami Midnight, hits this month from Polis Books. Alex has also written a number of comic books, including The Archies and contributions to the Eisner Award-nominated Where We Live anthology. He is the co-creator and co-writer of Lethal Lit, from iHeart Radio, which was named one of the Five Best Podcasts of 2018 by The New York Times.
(Illustration: Shawn McGuan)
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