2020 Taylor Swift: “When you are young they assume you know nothing” - Cardigan, folklore
2006 Taylor Swift:
“Know” is the most common word on sixteen-year-old Taylor Swift’s debut album (after filtering out common words such as “the”, “is”, “and” etc.) “Think” is not far behind. While “they” may have assumed she knew nothing, young Swift was preoccupied with the theme of knowledge.
Swift placed a trilogy of songs that explicitly explore knowledge and how it is withheld, obtained, and what effects it has at the heart of the album in Tied Together With a Smile, Stay Beautiful, and Should’ve Said No. The implication of the first two songs is that knowing and being known require effort, but that the payoff is worth it: knowledge of one’s beauty and strength. The bonus track I’m Only Me When I’m With You returns to this idea to posit that a mutual, effortful exchange of knowledge undergone by two selves leads to friendship. Should’ve Said No has a different focus, implying that knowledge of the correct action would have led to the correction action.
Another three songs on the album explore the reliability of the senses and whether knowledge is gained from empirical evidence: Teardrops on my Guitar, Invisible, and A Perfectly Good Heart. The first two songs focus on the difference between looking and seeing. Although someone’s eyes may be pointed at something, she may not truly see it in a way that produces knowledge. The third song demonstrates, similarly, that in the wake of a breakup the brain may actively reject the evidence of the eyes and ears, relying instead on the knowledge produced by emotion.
Four songs on the album feature protagonists attempting to manipulate memory — striving to control how the knowledge of a relationship is (or is not) preserved through time: Tim McGraw, Picture to Burn, Mary’s Song, and Our Song. These songs demonstrate that Swift wishes to control what she remembers and how she is remembered. She wants to revisit positive memories and she wants her partner to do the same. She wants to burn the bad memories.
Even the trio of songs about place delve into our theme. Knowledge is foregrounded in the first line of two of the three “Place” songs*, implying that Swift’s journeys of self-discovery are prompted by an awareness of her lack of knowledge (“I don’t know what I want, so don’t ask me” and “I didn’t know what I would find,” in A Place in this World and The Outside respectively.)
Taylor Swift introduces herself to the world through a collection of songs that consider the nuances of what it means to know. Swift advocates repeatedly for the proactive pursuit of self-knowledge, providing instructions and examples for her young listeners to follow. Friendship is a variation where one self knows and is known by another in the same way. Finally, Swift argues that morality is the knowledge of what is good (if the man in Shoud’ve Said No had known better, he would have done better.) On the other hand, the album reveals a deep anxiety about the elements of knowledge that are outside of Swift’s control. Swift is unable to control how others remember her — how they know her — no matter how she may try to manipulate that knowledge. The danger of uncontrollable knowledge even exists within herself since Swift is unable to stop her brain from relying on emotion rather than empirical evidence during moments of crisis such as a breakup. Far from knowing nothing, Swift knew everything when she was young — particularly about the act of knowing itself.
* The third song is Cold as You. Honestly… I’ve got nothing.