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Comedy Plus Time: The Genre of Romantic Relationships in The Story of Us


The Basics: 

Taylor Swift remembers a happy, earlier time in her relationship when “sparks flew instantly.” Now, she and her partner are awkwardly avoiding each other at an event. Swift contemplates their impending breakup. 


Literary Device: Paradox 

Swift is surrounded by seemingly impossible situations. She describes herself “standing alone in a crowded room.” Although it should be impossible to be alone while surrounded by other people, Swift feels isolated. Similarly, Swift sings, “I’ve never heard silence quite this loud.” Whereas silence literally means the absence of sound, in this instance, that absence conveys a great deal of meaning. These oxymorons (brief paradoxes) speak to the synoeciosis (extended paradox) that is the heart of an ending relationship. It feels impossible to Swift that she and her beloved will be together no longer. 


Analysis 

The Story of Us continues Swift’s exploration of literary themes in her romantic relationships – beginning with Love Story and White Horse and going all the way up to the upcoming The Tortured Poets Department. In this case, Swift explores the genre of an ending relationship. In the first verse, she remembers an earlier point in time when she imagined herself in a romantic comedy: “I used to think one day we’d tell the story of us / How we met and the sparks flew instantly / And people would say, ‘They’re the lucky ones.’” This version of the story includes a meetcute with sparks flying and a jealous audience. Additionally, it ends with Swift knowing where she fits in a nicely-ordered world that makes sense: “I used to know my place was a spot next to you.” 


By the second verse, Swift imagines herself telling a different story: “I’m starting to think one day I’ll tell the story of us / How I was losing my mind when I saw you here / But you held your pride like you should have held me.” Whereas she had previously described herself as “the lucky ones” she now writes “I’m scared to see the ending” and in the chorus she declares “The story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now.” In both verses, Swift imagines the narrative her future self will construct around this relationship. Over time, this narrative has shifted from a comedy to a tragedy. 


In the earliest existing work of literary theory, the Poetics, Aristotle famously outlines tragedy. He explains that any good tragedy includes a discovery: “a change from ignorance to knowledge.” Previously, Swift had ignorantly believed that this relationship would have a happy ending, but now she knows that it will not. Aristotle explains that this shift in fortune occurs not because of “depravity, but by some error of judgment.” In Swift’s case, the “twist of fate” is miscommunication. “Oh, a simple complication / Miscommunication leads to fall out / So many things that I wish you knew / So many walls up I can’t break through.” Swift and her partner err in that they are simply unable to communicate with one another. After the discovery, the next part of the plot outlined by Aristotle is “suffering, which we may define as an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders on the stage, tortures, woundings, and the like.” While Swift depicts metaphorical rather than physical pain, she describes herself as “dying”, wonders “if it’s killing you like it’s killing me” and describes each partner as armed for battle (in addition to less dramatic suffering such as standing awkwardly at a party because she doesn’t have a chair.) 


By applying the lens of a tragedy to a contemporary romantic relationship, Swift allows us to see that the defining shift from good to bad fortune depends not only on an error in judgment, but also the passage of time that reveals that error. From the perspective of an earlier moment in their relationship, Swift sings about flying sparks. But time marched on, converted ignorance into knowledge, and revealed the tragic flaw that would cause Swift to declare “the end.”

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