By Chandler Ryd
He drives a two-seater into the motor court of a sprawling Victorian estate. He steps out of the car and enters the house, looking darkly into the distance. She descends a curving staircase to welcome her guest. This is the first thirty seconds of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” music video, but a similar scene plays out every day in bars, coffee shops, college campuses, and on a host of social media platforms. It’s the beginning of a hookup.
The rest of the video plays out like most hookups do—quick to burn and quick to burn out. For whatever reason (all we see is her lover-for-a-month staring at his phone, perhaps he’s checking another girl out on Tinder) she explodes in a terrifying whirlwind of revenge: shouting in his face, burning his clothes, pummeling his two-seater with a golf club. Aren’t these quasi-romantic encounters supposed to be casual? Her passion proves her heart is moving behind the scenes. She expresses a polarized mix of romantic optimism and pessimism in the line, “It’s gonna be forever or it’s gonna go down in flames.” But her “long list of ex-lovers” suggests the fiery end is more likely than the eternal love. The paintings hanging throughout the house are a visual metaphor of this tumultuous history. They are all pictures of tall, dark, and handsome men, but hatchets, knives, and red paint mutilate each image with the scars of broken relationships. The pictures are an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s Victorian-era novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. In the novel, Dorian hopes he might remain beautiful while the picture covers the evil in his heart. In “Blank Space,” the woman hopes the relationship might remain beautiful while the picture covers the doubt in hers. Elements of the entire video, in fact, evoke the Victorians: the pictures, the manor, the decor, the extravagance, and, most importantly, the hopeful and pessimistic attitude. The Victorian narrative is one of emerging pessimism undercutting residual hope. We see the same thing in the music video.On screen, a blank space causes her to fling into flings. A vacuum in her heart sucks up men and spits them out with charred shirts and smashed sports cars. The video’s Victorian-era inspired visuals exaggerate the hook-up scenario and reveal our culture’s simultaneously idealized and pessimistic view of love.
Everyone knows Taylor Swift isn’t as crazy as the woman in the video. This woman is a “Blank Space” persona who takes to extremes the love songs and breakup songs that launched Swift into superstardom. We’ve been hearing her break-up songs on the radio for years, but who could forget Swift’s time as country music’s love-song darling? Right from the start, her discography was brimming with break-up melodrama in “Picture to Burn,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “Cold as You,” “The Outside,” and “Should Have Said No”—it’s nearly half her first album. But the other half is saturated with young-love guitar strummin’ in “Tim McGraw,” “Stay Beautiful,” “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” and the massively popular “Our Song.” Even as a sixteen-year-old, her music exhibited a cycle of lyrical love and hate. The “Blank Space” persona has been her source of inspiration since before she entered a recording studio.
In the past ten years, the persona has become more polarized and passionate. Her sophomore album, released two years after her first, includes the single “Love Story,” which idealizes Romeo and Juliet as relationship role-models. She seems to forget how the play ends. Two songs later, “White Horse” reverses the romance of “Love Story” to instead bemoan her naiveté and condemn her Romeo ex-lover. It happens in her third album, too, in “Sparks Fly” and then in “Better than Revenge,” in which she taunts, “There’s nothing I do better than revenge.” Her fourth album has a few songs vaguely about love, but nobody remembers them because they’re no longer her focus. Red saw the release of “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—that’s the next evolution of Swift’s persona. Her break-up singles are her selling point, and Taylor Swift has built her career off of them. But the romantic hope isn’t quite gone. Even in her latest album, 1989, Swift still expects a brighter future and a longer love. Her man will come back into style, or come out of the woods, or shimmer somewhere in her wildest dreams. Swift’s dichotomy of hope and pessimism comes to fruition in “Blank Space.”
The music video’s allusion to A Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates the “Blank Space” persona’s fall from idealism to pessimism. Throughout the video, the persona interacts with the painting of a man. She first paints his portrait while saying in her trademark talk-sing voice, “I can make the bad guys good for a weekend.” She’s right. With just a stroke of wishful thinking, she can paint over the actual relationship to grasp the hope that he won’t turn out like her previous lover, or the one before, or the one before him. She traps her lovers in idealism and hangs their pictures in the hall like Browning’s girl from “My Last Duchess.” For a while it seems perfect. They drink, eat, walk, dance, and ride together. The cinematography includes gold hues and sunset lens flares reminiscent of her earlier music videos, back when she was sixteen and full of girl-next-door sweetness. But then it all goes awry. A hidden violence in the persona erupts when the relationship snaps in two and she vivisects her memory of him by stabbing his picture. Chaos ensues. The relationship dies. The sharp fall from idealism to pessimism makes the persona seem all the more desperate, much like Dorian’s desperation at the end of Wilde’s novel. Dorian begins as an idealistic aristocrat, but he falls from his supposed grace because of the corrupting effects of the picture. Isn’t there a similar corruption of the heart in Swift’s persona? The blank space—that’s where the corruption lies.
It’s fitting the video uses Dorian Gray as a visual spring-board since the Victorian era holds the residue of Romantic hope and the precursory sentiments of Modernist pessimism and disillusion. The Romantics thought of life in unrealistically ideal terms, and the Victorians saw the discrepancy between the previous generation’s art and the current generation’s reality. A fall was inevitable. The Victorians—Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Eliot, Wilde, (and Dickinson in America)—all intuited the cultural shift out of the high-flown stuff of Romanticism into the colder grip of Modernism. The Victorians existed in the transition. They held onto the hope of something—it varied from writer to writer—but the underpinning beliefs of the day trembled and buckled. Agnosticism, individualism, urbanization, and a host of other rapidly changing cultural factors eroded traditionally held beliefs of God, the soul, nature, and love. Underneath the Victorians’ hope was a blank space.
But the blank space has always been there, right since the fall of man. It’s the human condition to lack an essential piece of our heart. Like any other era before or after them, the Victorians sensed the space and filled it with something. The “Blank Space” persona, and our culture at large, fills it with cheap love. It’s easy to stick up our noses at pop music, but it reflects the heart of the culture better than almost anything else. Here it elucidates our own cycle of hopeful young love and pessimistic breakups. We idealize romantic love, talk about it, hear about it, watch it happen in front of us—yet we expect it to die, treat its death almost like a necessity, perhaps intentionally kill it ourselves, and date again. At the end of the music video, after her vengeful chaos, Swift’s persona pulls herself back together as a new man drives a new two-seater up to her front door. The cycle begins again.
There’s an earnest spirituality in Swift’s lyrics. Underneath the sheen of chart-topping break-up songs is the hope of filling the blank space in her heart with a soul mate. She falls painfully in and out of love, then sings about it and makes billions because it resonates with us. Our culture’s view on love is a smash up of Romantic idealism and Modernist pessimism. The Victorians in Oscar Wilde’s novel had “art for art’s sake,” now, in our hookup culture, we have “sex for sex’s sake.” But there must be something heavier at play than just sex. Through the wounding cycle of passion and burnout, everyone learns it’s never “just sex.” We know there’s hope somewhere beyond pleasure, but we’ve forgotten where it is. We put our hope for a greater future in the love of another human being, but the love fails and we expected it to fail. Then we try again. The cycle of the “Blank Space” persona is the cycle of human nature: to dream, to fall, to dream again. Our generation has a beautiful picture slowly aging, sagging, and dying, hidden away behind the lyrics of pop songs, while we remain eternally sexy and naïve. We’re all nightmares dressed like daydreams, darling.
Chander Ryd is a sophomore studying English.