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Saint Stephen I just wrote you a paean: Signifier and signified in Hey Stephen


The Basics

Taylor Swift sings about how wonderful Stephen is. Stephen has a lot of suitors, but Swift hopes that he will choose her instead because she wrote him a song.


Literary Device: Internal Slant Rhyme

Five times throughout the song, Swift “rhymes” the name “Stephen” with a similar-sounding word in the same line:

  • “Hey Stephen, I know looks can be deceiving”

  • “Hey Stephen, boy you might have me believing”

  • “Hey Stephen, I’ve been holding back this feeling”

  • “Hey Stephen, why are people always leaving?”

  • “Hey Stephen, I could give you fifty reasons”


These slant rhymes that are outside of the usual rhyme scheme put extra emphasis on “Stephen” and draw attention to his name. Swift has clearly meditated on the name Stephen, found it to be meaningful, and built it into the very structure of her poem.


Analysis

Swift, a philosopher of language, explores the relationship between a word and what it signifies by fully exploring and deploying the sounds and meaning of the name “Stephen.” Slant rhyme is not the only way Swift uses the name of her crush to imbue her poem with meaning. The name Stephen refers back to Saint Stephen, the first martyr in Christianity. Swift excavates this reference, alluding to the story of Saint Stephen multiple times. First, Swift begins her chorus with “I can’t help it if you look like an angel” which echoes Act 6:15 description of the Saint: “all… saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” Second, Swift describes “all the girls tossing rocks at your window,” reflecting Saint Stephen’s death by stoning. Finally, Swift describes the effect that Stephen has on her as divine. She views Stephen as a light in the world: in the first verse, she “know[s] I saw a light in you” and describes him as “shining” four times throughout the song. In the chorus, she asks him to “come feel this magic I’ve been feeling since I met you.” She also proclaims “hey Stephen, boy, you might have me believing.” Stephen, as Swift describes him, shares significant characteristics with his saintly namesake, such as a divine quality, an angelic countenance, and a propensity for being the target of rocks.


In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates and co. debate whether or not the relationship between a name and the thing that is named is just a convention, or whether the name has inherent meaning. In the millennia since, eminent linguists, poets and philosophers of language have picked up the debate, including Aristotle, Shakespeare, Wittgenstein. Swift enters the debate with her meditation on the name of Stephen. She begins by acknowledging the argument that there is not an inherent relationship between signified and signifier, stating: “Hey Stephen, I know looks can be deceiving.” That is, the appearance or conventional form of something does not necessarily bear a relationship to the inner or true meaning. Swift immediately rejects that notion, stating “but I know I saw a light in you.” Swift is positive that there IS a relationship between external form and internal truth. Swift briefly meditates on her own name as well “The… way you say my name / It’s beautiful, wonderful, don’t you ever change.” Juliet may argue that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and that Romeo would still be her beloved “were he not Romeo call’d” (Romeo and Juliet II.iii) but Taylor Swift disagrees. Stephen’s name itself is deeply meaningful to her, as is her own name when said by him. Hey Stephen is thus not just an ode to Stephen and his name, but an entry into a debate on the meaning of names. Swift asserts that names do have meaning, at least when heard through the ears of love.

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