Analyzing Taylor Swift Part One: The Process

 

This series has been a long time coming, put off by NaNoWriMo, freelance editing, and life, which tends to get in the way of the kind of research this series needed. So, without further ado, and several months late, I present to you the first in my series of posts analyzing Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift

So T. Swizzle has a thing about wanting people to buy physical copies of her albums. My foray into minimalism is against this, but I did it anyway. The deluxe version. Why? Mostly because she’s a brilliant marketer and included something for everyone in her Target-exclusive edition. Polaroids with handwritten lyrics on them. Three bonus tracks. And, the selling point for me, three more bonus tracks that were just voice memos from her phone showing how the songwriting process works for her.

Like I’ve talked about before, songwriting was the first kind of writing I fell in love with, and my songs (while probably not as good and definitely not as profitable) were Taylor-esque in style. I went through an obsession with fairy tale references in my songs about the same time she did. Like hers, my songs got edgier as I grew up. While I never used a person’s name in my song (No “Dear John” or “Hey Stephen” for me), like her, almost every song I wrote was based on real life, and then exaggerated. (Yes, I’m certain most of her songs are exaggerated in one way or another. She seeks to capture feelings rather than details.)

So I bought her album the week it came out. I refused to listen to the CD in order. Instead, I listened to the first voice memo, then the song it became. Then the second memo and its song, then the third. That right there was worth the list price and more to me, and now it’s time to dig in.

Let’s talk about one of the most brilliant songs she’s ever written.

That’s right: Blank Space.

Blank Space

The voice memo for this song is just Taylor and her guitar, pitching the song to the producers. She said they record everything on their phones when they’re putting a song together “just in case one of us blurts out a cool melody and then forgets about it.”

Here are the lyrics as she plays it:

Nice to meet you, where you been?
I could show you incredible things.
Diamonds, seasides, [unintelligible]

[gibberish]
Oh my God, [gibberish]
[gibberish] I do, too

[gibberish]
[something that sounds like ‘All you think I’ve got is time’]
[gibberish]

Oh my God [gibberish]
What you heard about me
Don’t believe what you hear about me
Hear about me

Cause it’s gonna be forever
Or we’re gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
[interruption]
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I got a blank space baby–I’ll write your name.

So if you don’t know the song already, well… go watch the music video. I’ll wait. Obviously, the first and second verses changed a lot. She also changed the chorus, and made it longer. Plus, who can forget the “boys only want love if it’s torture” bridge?

Only if it's torture

The first draft of this song is a lot like the final, and yet not at all. She went from her original idea of showing the boy concrete incredible things to things much more suitable to her theme of “crazy serial dater strikes again”–not diamonds or seasides but “Magic, madness, heaven, sin.” The melody in the first draft doesn’t really change, but there is a lot added to it from just the “girl with her guitar” that the voice memo is.

Blank Space is credited as written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin, and Shellback. People who don’t understand how songwriting works have gotten upset that Taylor Swift “no longer writes her own songs.”

Because I Write Songs

Because I Write Songs

It’s important to remember how much shorter songs are than novels. At only 3-ish minutes, and usually 100-something words, every word and every second counts. Contribute a recognizable drum beat or riff? You’re credited as co-writer. Change one word of one line? Co-writer. There are no “acknowledgements” sections for individual songs. And so few people see the credits for each song anyway, now that most music is streamed or bought digitally.

If the same rules about crediting applied to novel editing, I’d be on the front cover of every book I’ve ever worked on, and some I’ve barely touched. I’ve contributed phrases and sentences, helped with ideas for sub-plots or motifs, even once helped rework an entire main plot. Novel writing is different. A single turn of phrase is not going to make or break the success of a novel the same way it might in songwriting. Even if an author uses my idea for reworking a plot, it still isn’t my story, because the way it’s told belongs uniquely to them.

By the time a book is complete, it’s likely that more than a dozen people have had some say in how it’s shaped. From the spouse or best friend who is there for brainstorming, to two or three critique partners, to a beta reader or two, an agent, a main editor, a copy editor, a proofreader… Not to mention the cover designer. And, credited or not, cover designs have a lot to do with how well a book sells.

While crediting co-creators is vastly different between the two, songs and novels are written in a similar way. Just on a very different scale. For Taylor,

  • First she sits alone at her piano or her guitar and messes around with an idea. A melody, a turn of phrase, a concept–she’s said several times that different things spark her songs and that’s what keeps her loving songwriting.
  • Then she plays it in a raw form (note the voice memo for I Know Places, which I’ve discussed elsewhere) for some trusted friends who happen to be producers and they help her move forward with completing it.
  • Finally, it’s recorded: polished, with more instruments and background tracks and layers.
  • When it’s ready, she can’t wait to share it with her closest friends who just happen to be in her industry (I’m looking at you Ed, Lorde, Jack…)
  • Then, months later, it’s released into the wild.

Is that really so different than a novelist’s

  • first draft
  • beta reads and critique partners,
  • the publisher’s editing process,
  • and our ARCs, blog fests, and retweets
  • leading up to publication?

Not so different

Taylor Swift Series:

Part 1 — The Process
Part 2 — The Successes
Part 3 — The Mistakes
Part 4 — Where the Analogy Falls Apart

Series NavigationAnalyzing Taylor Swift Part Two: The Successes >>

Comments

  1. I can’t tell you how happy i am you’re doing this series! I’ve always related SO MUCH to her process. Every nuance, every single note and lyric she pens is so thought out, much like how every word we write is agonized over. *applauds* this series is off to an amazing start 🙂 I also love how she shot the Blank Space video at Oheka Castle on Long Island (about fifteen minutes from me!)

    • Thank you! Today’s post was written with you in mind–you’ll see why. 🙂 I seriously love her writing. It’s so incredible and also effortless, which just shows her talent. So cool that she shot the video like 15 minutes from you!!

  2. The ‘boys only want love if it’s torture’ is absolutely brilliant. It’s my fav part of that song. Taylor is certainly an amazing songwriter and artist. Now I want to go listen to Blank Spaces. Again. For the seventy-millionth time! =)

    • I think that song is my favorite part of that song. It’s so brilliant. My sister and I listened to it on repeat the whole way out to dinner the night I got it. Go listen to it! Hearing more genius certainly won’t hurt anything. 😉

  3. I’m over the freakin moon with this post! Taylor Swift is amazing, and it’s awesome to read about her process compared to what we do. Brilliant! I can’t wait for the rest of the series!

    • Thank you! Part 2 will be up in a few hours! I’ve been a Taylor fan from the very beginning and she’s close to my age, so it’s been a lot of fun to see her evolve.

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