Per-SWIFT-one : Pop music, innocence, and the underworld

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As a woman in music (and someone with a myth obsession) I always pay attention to the stories that get told around women performers by themselves and by others.  There are archetypes in marketing just like there are in folktales – the wise beyond her years romantic, the sexually voracious rebel, the diva.  What’s more, there are recognizable story arcs as these women shaped as archetypes age.  Good girls go bad, bad girls get tamed by husbands and children, maybe even release a spiritual album. 

Sometimes these reflections are actively cultivated like Beyonce’s Oshun inspired grammy costume in 2017.  Most of the time, though, the references are subtler and maybe aren’t even conscious.   It’s like Joseph Campbell said: “Myths are public dreams” and art, even and maybe especially popular art, brings public dreams to the forefront.  

Persephone’s myth continues to ripple through the coming of age of young (white)* American women and is especially apparent in the entertainment industry.  A young woman’s success, be it in school or on the stage, is contingent on her ability to perform innocence.   There is a demand for “family friendly”, and to meet that demand the music industry has taken to essentially raising young women up from adolescence.   Like Persephone, the most remarkable thing about any of them is their inexperience which is ultimately traded for a position of power within society.  It’s within this paradigm that Taylor Swift has been able to accrue her fortune, and I’ve been curious to see how she would transition once her innocence stopped being believable.

In the original myth Persephone is happily picking flowers and being a helper to her mother one day and being pulled under the earth and becoming Queen of the Underworld the next.  The only thing she really does in her own myth is pick flowers and eat pomegranate seeds. We don’t know really anything about her feelings or motivations only the reactions of Demeter to the situation. 

 Persephone’s identity is all tied up in youth, the sweetness of uncorrupted Spring, but too long in the underworld, too much power, too much forced growing up and the incorruption integral to her previous identity becomes unbelievable.  Even without the pomegranate seeds that tied her to the place, Persephone would never be able to be restored to her previous purity. 

Similarly, Swift’s early career was built at least in part on an identity as a (seemingly) sincere good girl: playing by the rules, longing for a prince, crying on her guitar.   Her music posed no threat to the bubble erected around white feminine purity. Her love songs ended in happily ever after, her heart break stayed above the waist. She didn’t cross over into pop and it’s more sexually explicit content until 23, which is ANCIENT by music industry bad girl crossover standards.  Even then, while critically celebrated and well received 1989 maintained a lacquer of chasteness.  Inevitably, the persona Swift had created around herself became more unbelievable. The mythos that elevated her to success began to consume itself, becoming a narrative in which she was either emotionally needy and infantile in relationships or was two faced, fake, and crazy.

Usually the good girl gone bad album comes out of a necessity to distance the performer from their previous childish and therefore untouchable persona so that they can be sexualized (at best) or objectified (at worst) while excusing the audience from any guilt they might feel about doing so.  It often comes right at 18 or at the latest 21.  That isn’t the case with Reputation, however. The distancing has been done for Swift whether she wanted it or not.  Instead of the seductive femme fatale, her songs explore the painful revelation that following the rules doesn't mean you get to avoid life's pit falls and ugliness.  It's an album full of love songs that mix still tender self doubt with vulnerable hopefulness. It's an album that at once revels in both being "who they say she is" and wonders if that person is still loveable. 


The first part of Persephone's myth is joining with the shadow lover.  This could be a conscious pursuit to heal the repressed parts of the soul and find compassion for the internal capacity towards monstrousness, but with American society still tight in the clutches of Puritanical repression that sort of preemptive self exploration is rare.  More commonly, modern Persephones can't run from their darkness anymore.  Masks slips, the pressure to maintain an image becomes too much, or sometimes they are simply tricked.   While we love our bad boys, giving them far more chances than they deserve, we are not nearly so celebratory of "bad girls".  In fact, most bad girls as they exist in music fulfill the fantasy of a woman who can be sexually used and then discarded without feeling bad about it. 

“Knew he was a killer/first time that I saw him/ wonder how many girls he had loved and left haunted” It's the first line on the album, and sets up a familiar premise ; the dangerous but loveable bad boy.   Unlike previous hits like “I knew you were trouble” she re-casts herself as an equal in both darkness and power– “ But if he’s a ghost than/ I can be a phantom/ holding him for ransom.” Longing for love is a common theme for Swift, but it takes on an edge throughout this album. Far from the passive princess waiting to be swept away on that white horse, songs like "Don't Blame Me", "So It Goes", and " Dancing With Our Hands Tied" explore the exhilaration of love edged with the possibility of destruction.  While "Get Away Car" looks from the other side of a failed affair with a new awareness of personal responsibility.

Middle class feminine worth is so tied to the myth of being "marriage material" aka, innocent- not too sexually experienced or expectant, that being outside of those expectations implies a certain un-love-ability. While Persephone may be a catch before she is abducted, she is untouchable afterwards.  She might get to visit her mother, go through the motions of her old life, but she is representative of both new life and decay. 

There is an underlying fear that the harder Swift tries to hold on to something good, the more likely it is to be corrupted.  Even peppy hits like End Game have this anxiety woven in throughout the lyrics" I don't want to touch you/ I don't want to be/ just another ex love/ you don't want to see" sings Swift in the pre-chorus, as if to warn both herself and the subject of the song off.  The bigger reputation, the harder and more publicly picked apart the fall, after all.  Songs like "Delicate", "Dress", and "New Years Day" share the struggle of staying vulnerable enough to hope, contrasted with a new sense of wariness.  "Is it too soon to do this yet?" she wonders, but she doesn't pull away.  

Visiting the underworld and abruptly discovering that any power granted under innocence is an illusion is an ordeal, it changes Persephone's role in the world and gives her real power instead of just the semblance of it.  

 "Did Something Bad" is as much a biting criticism of the manipulation that is rampant throughout the entertainment industry as it is and admission of out playing the players. “If a man talks shit then I owe him nothing/I don't regret it one bit cause he had it coming”  Swift decrys. We all know that music industry can be kill or be killed. It doesn't have to be, but in it's current incarnation it's all about power and who has it.  In "Look What You Made Me Do" Swift reincarnates herself as a ruthlessness Boss, no longer needing to maintain the guise of sweetness.  "I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time/ honey I rose up from the dead I do it all the time"  This alternative Persephone tale is no victim wife, she has seen the position of exquisite authority she has landed in, and she seizes it.  

While it would take me forever to go through the whole album song by song and break down the different lyrics, I hope that this provides an alternative way to listen to the music.  All things said, Reputation is a pop album, and a super solid one at that. It's also limited by the need to appeal to a large audience. In fact the main challenge Swift likely runs into is how often her songs are used to try and pick apart what is going on in her life rather than seen as the mirrors into our own souls that music is meant to be.   Reputation in on Spotify now, so you can form your own opinions and let me know in the comments. 

P.S. -My interest is in  archetypes and the way music marketing parallels them. I know nothing about who Swift is as a person, what values she might hold, or even how she sees herself – everything in this blog is based on my knowledge of the Persephone myth, not Ms. Swift.  


* I specify white throughout this article because black girls do not receive the same assumptions regarding innocence as white girls do. Whatever their life experience may actually be, black girls innocence is viewed with suspicion.  For more info on the study this information is from, click here.   

Abigail AndersonComment