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Ode on a VHS Tape: Ekphrasis in The Best Day


The Basics

Young Taylor Swift sings a very sappy song about pleasant memories with her parents.


Literary Device: Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a literary device in which a poem describes another work of art – such as a painting or a sculpture – and translates that work into poetry. While examples of ekphrasis go all the way back to Homer’s descriptions of the shield of Achilles, the most famous example is probably Keats. Keats devotes an entire poem to describing and reflecting upon a Grecian Urn.


Taylor Swift puts a Swiftian spin on ekphrasis in the final verse of The Best Day by describing and analyzing a home video: “There is a video I found / From back when I was three / You set up a paint set in the kitchen / And you’re talking to me.” In the same way that Homer and Keats analyze art from the past in order to reflect upon human history, Swift analyzes a home video in order to reflect upon a different era from her own life. Like both poets, Swift mythologizes the past: “It’s the age of princesses and pirates ships / And the seven dwarfs.” Even the way that she describes her parents has fairy tale overtones: “And Daddy’s smart / And you’re the prettiest lady in the whole wide world.” Swift’s use of ekphrasis to describe a home video elevates this domestic scene to the realm of high art.


Analysis

Swift’s ekphrasis also revisits a theme from her earlier works, the preservation of memory – reapplying it from romantic love to familial love. In Picture to Burn and Our Song, for example, Swift reflects upon how moments in life can be captured on physical media and re-viewed. These memories of romantic love are fraught for Swift – either because the memory has become unpleasant after the relationship ended or the anxiety that that will happen. Swift’s memory of her parents, however, is pure and uncomplicated. Her memories from the rest of the song are comparable to what is captured in the video: “I have an excellent father” … “I grew up in a pretty house” and of course the oft-repeated “I had the best day with you today.”


In addition to memory, Swift revisits two other themes from her earlier work: fairy tales and knowledge. Throughout the song, Swift is constantly listing things that she does and does not know.


She does not know:

  • “why all the trees change in the fall”

  • “if Snow White’s house is near or far away”

  • “how / my friends could be so mean”

  • “who I’m going to talk to now at school”

  • “how long it’s gonna take to feel okay”

She does know:

  • “you’re not scared of anything at all”

  • “I had the best day with you today” (x2)

  • “I’m laughing on the car ride home with you”

  • “you were on my side / even when I was wrong”

Again, whereas Swift’s knowledge or lack thereof is a source of anxiety in her poems about romantic love, The Best Day reframes this theme when describing parental love. While there is a lot about love and life that is mysterious to young Swift, she is 100% certain of – and comforted by – her parents’ love. Finally, Swift refers to princesses and Snow White multiple times throughout the song, in keeping with the theme of fairy tales from other songs on Fearless (White Horse, Love Story). In The Best Day, Swift references this fantastical theme before explicitly setting it aside in order to focus on the reality of life with her parents. “Don’t know if Snow White’s house is near or far away / But I had the best day with you today” is Swift saying that she does not need to rely on fantasies or escapism to frame her familial love – she can experience it for its beautiful reality.


Although The Best Day seems simple at first glance, Swift elevates familial love to the realm of art and demonstrates how her usual themes of memory, knowledge, and fairy tales are transformed from sources of anxiety into pure beauty and comfort when applied to familial love rather than romantic love.

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