Taylor Swift drives away thinking about a relationship that just ended. She can’t imagine breathing without this person, but knows that she must.
Literary Device: Synonymia
Synonymia is a literary device that uses synonyms in order to amplify. In the pre-chorus of Breathe, Swift sings “And we know it’s never simple, never easy, never a clean break.” Combined with the repetition of the word never, Swift’s rapid fire pile-up of synonyms intensifies the point that this break up is difficult for her.
In Teardrops on my Guitar, Taylor Swift is so obsessed with Drew that she struggles with basic biological functions: she can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t walk, and her heart hurts. Swift returns to this idea of psychosomatic dysfunction in her seminal work of biological psychology, Breathe.
Breathe highlights the body’s response to a break-up. Most obviously, Swift repeatedly moans “I can’t breathe without you” in the chorus, but as early as the first verse she has indicated “it’s killing [her] to see you go.” Swift cannot imagine living without this person. Anyone who’s been dumped knows that it feels physically bad, but in the second verse, Swift takes it to the next level, declaring “nothing we say is gonna save us from the fall out.” The term fall out brings to mind nuclear fallout, subtly implying that the end of this relationship is similar to radioactive dust flying everywhere, potentially endangering the body at a cellular level and rewriting Swift’s DNA. Swift has thus described pain and the cessation of biological function at every level – from her whole body to her organs to her very cells.
Despite these symptoms, Swift is not a passive patient. The song begins “I see your face in my mind as I drive away.” Swift is in the driver’s seat actively choosing to drive away from the relationship despite the pain. Swift depicts herself in the literal driver’s seat again in the second verse: “Every little bump in the road I tried to swerve.” Swift is no longer in the passenger seat in her relationships, an image she relied upon heavily in previous songs*. The Swift of Breathe is in control and she is the dumper, not the dumpee, further indicated by “I hope you know this ain’t easy, easy for me” and saying “sorry” six times in succession at the end.
Swift is acutely aware of the psychosomatic pain she will cause herself in breaking up with someone she loves, but she chooses to do it anyway. For the first time, Swift is not the passive recipient of her heartbreak, but the cause of it. Even though she chooses it, it still hurts to the point of devastating her body. Swift’s chorus brilliantly contains both the phrases “I can’t breathe without you” and “I have to breathe without you,” describing the paradox in which she finds herself. Swift cannot live without this person, but chooses to anyway.
*Tim McGraw, Picture to Burn, Our Song, Fearless, and Fifteen, to name a few