What it means to be Swiftian: Taylor v Jonathan

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TS Eliot once said that “real irony is an expression of suffering, and the greatest ironist was one who suffered the most – Swift.” Let’s be playful, and assume he punned on both Jonathan and Taylor.

The first two books of Jonathan’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) famously work like a telescope. In the first, Gulliver is washed ashore to find miniature people “not six inches high”, and in the second he sails to Brobdingnag in which he is the dwarf amongst giants. It is, properly, ‘telescopic’: the dimensions of the human body are catapulted back and forth. In some perverted way, this brings insight. The insights themselves are relatively simple: the Lilliputians act out 18th Century England in miniature, and to Gulliver all the political problems look absurdly tiny.

In the second case, Gulliver’s obsession with giant bits and pieces leads to a special satire on the human body. When he is trapped in a pair of giant breasts, for example, he feels something closer to fear than disgust. The point is that satirical observations, in these two books of Gulliver’s Travels, are weirdly disoriented in perspective, and exaggeratedly comic in turn. This perverse zoom-function is also enacted in the video for Taylor Swift’s Blank Space:

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In the video, these frames are randomly placed. We are subtly thrown around the room, looking into Taylor’s eyes and then looking at her in miniature on the giant bed. Whereas Jonathan took the telescopic lens to its the furthest extremes and artfully juxtaposed them, Taylor takes it as a fluid, fluctuating mode of vision, which mirrors the half-neurotic psychological inconsistency elsewhere.

There is an emphasis, lurking underneath the perspectival play, on bodily integrity. Clothes and surfaces are repeatedly broken in this video – torn paintings, a smashed car bonnet, re-gendered garments – and so all we have left is a sense of the naked body as a reliable thing. Triumph in human proportions is emphasised by her all the time, as here:

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This is one of Germaine Greer’s harp strings in The Female Eunuch, after all, in which anatomical integrity (and so freedom) is the basis of true Feminist politics. Taylor’s Gulliver-like zooms and leaps show us, in a very (Jonathan) Swiftian way, how the body itself can survive in a world of elastic perspectives and mutable surfaces, which characterises our age of Instagram and Snapchat as much as Jonathan’s world of masquerade.

Gillray’s ‘The Monster’ (drawn near Swift’s time, but published later in 1847) is useful here too. Dresses and clothes can be pulled up, like Taylor’s torn shirts, heads and hands can be grossly exaggerated, like Gulliver, but under all this is the integrity of the body (which, I concede, is what the cannibal-thing wants to eat…)masque

Both Taylor and Jonathan also have fun with elasticating time. Gulliver occasionally feels apocalypse coming, or a great eschatological end. When he pisses out the fire at the Lilliputian palace, or when he is swimming around in those gigantic breasts, there is always a sense of judgment day. Taylor’s lyrics often parallel this feeling of near-end: “we are never ever ever getting back together.” The words “never”, “ever” and “forever” occur in Taylor Swift’s music 342 times. She is eschatological. But, accompanying this sense of ending is time as a fluid thing:

I’ve always felt music is the only way to give an instantaneous moment the feel of slow motion. To romanticise it and glorify it and give it a soundtrack and a rhythm.

This is actually a frequent reference point for her. “When you are missing someone, time seems to move slower, and when I’m falling in love with someone, time seems to be moving faster.” Swift’s strange, protracted poems also gives this sense of temporal gear-change, and his A Tale of A Tub famously praises digression as a useful, fruitful manipulation of time. How do these things go together? Well, a serious affiliation with eschatology might be a reaction to thwarted love. In the We Are Never Getting Back Together video, she shuts a door, wanders into an Eden-like afterlife and the video cynically resigns itself back to the humdrum of city-life, which is a rare, bleak setting in Taylor’s videos. Almost all of her music videos revel in an idiotic pastoral world of sexual liberation and schoolish antics. But not here. Like Jonathan, she thinks the city is full of inhibitions, tensions and dark cruelties.

Taylor’s Gulliver-like love of time-play and zooming in-and-out remains even in her late phase. Another recent video, Style, fractures the camera lens, cuts out her head, looks at her through bed-sheets, throws shadows across her face, and blends her lips with a man’s face. The lyrics also focus us on this endless perspectival play: “when we go crashing down we come back every time.” Like Gulliver springing back to normal human size, Taylor wants us to re-conceptualise our bodies in an age where media deliberately distorts, and recognise gross exaggeration for what it is. She is a scathing and lucid critic of all things cant and prejudicial, like her Irish namesake.

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