In this absolutely unhinged but delightful song, Taylor Swift crashes a wedding. Hiding behind the curtains, she daydreams about bursting into and telling the groom “Don’t say yes, run away now / I’ll meet you when you’re out of the church at the back door.” No wonder she was “uninvited by [the] lovely bride to be.” When Taylor Swift hears the preacher say “Speak now or forever hold your peace” she acts out her daydream. The song ends with the groom saying “Baby, I didn’t say my vows / So glad you were around / When they said ‘Speak now.’”
Literary Device: Plot Cliché
In fictional weddings, it is a common trope for a wedding attendee to disrupt and break up a wedding after the officiant says “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” This request for objections is no longer common practice in real life, but it is a frequent source of drama in canonical texts such as Jane Eyre or Shrek. Characters race to stop the wedding before it is too late or provide shocking information at the last moment in canonical texts such as Jane Eyre or Shrek. Although Taylor Swift hides in the curtains instead of sprinting to the church, she uses the cliché in order to set up a designated moment, familiar to the listener, where she can choose to speak up and disrupt the wedding or not.
The title of Speak Now indicates that it is a song about communication. Taylor Swift depicts several different ways of speaking throughout the song. The bride yells at her bridesmaids, family and friends exchange fond gestures (nonverbal speech), the preacher presumably preaches, and most importantly, the bride and groom must assent to the wedding by saying “yes” as well as making vows to one another.* The final two examples – vows and saying “I do” – are famous examples of what is known in linguistics as “speech acts.” In How To Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin theorizes that in addition to being used for description and communication, sometimes language actually performs an action. For example – making a promise, saying thank you, or saying “I do” are actions that are accomplished through speech.* In Speak Now, Taylor Swift warns the groom not to perform the speech acts that will permanently change his life – “don’t say yes” and “don’t… say a single vow.”
Taylor Swift uses Speak Now to specifically consider the consequences of not speaking – situations where silence is an action. If the groom were to remain silent when he is asked to say “I do” or when he is supposed to say his vows, that silence would change the course of the wedding and therefore his life. Similarly, the preacher gives the wedding attendees a moment to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” By remaining silent at that particular moment, wedding guests would tacitly consent to the wedding. In each of these examples, it is the particular context of the silence that makes it performative. As Taylor Swift writes, “There’s the silence, there’s my last chance.” If the moment arises to say something, but the speaker chooses not to, it changes the course of events. Both options – saying something or not saying something – actively alter people’s lives.
Taylor Swift encourages the groom to remain silent when speech is expected, but she herself chooses to speak when silence is expected. Swift thus subverts expectations in each case. The title of the song is a command to speak, but Swift uses the examples in the songs to encourage listeners to make active decisions when performing speech acts – whether with words or with silence – rather than passively making the expected response.
*For more information on speech acts:
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