In Should've Said No, Taylor Swift addresses a man who cheated on her. In the first verse, Swift learns about his cheating. In the second verse, she explains why they can’t continue to be together (it’s because of the cheating.) In the chorus, Swift repeatedly admonishes the man, telling him that he should have known better, and therefore done better (not cheated.)
Literary Device: Anaphora
Anaphora is a literary device where the same word or words are repeated at the beginning of clauses. Taylor Swift uses anaphora to great effect in the chorus:
You should've said no
You should've gone home
You should've thought twice before you let it all go
You should've known that word ‘bout what you did with her
Would get back to me (get back to me)
And I should've been there
In the back of your mind
I shouldn't be asking myself why
You shouldn't be beggin' for forgiveness at my feet
You should've said no
Baby, and you might still have me
Swift effectively uses anaphora to emphasize the word “should,” making it the central structural and rhythmical element of the song. Every line is built around ‘should’ and the long-short-long pattern of the syllables “you should’ve” provide the distinctive rhythm of the chorus.
Should’ve Said No concludes Swift’s trio of songs about knowledge. Whereas Tied Together with a Smile and Stay Beautiful focus on epistemology — how we know stuff — Should’ve Said No shifts the focus to how knowledge drives our actions — why we do stuff. Swift provides herself* and the cheater as examples of people acting based on their knowledge or lack thereof.
The chorus highlights the partner’s knowledge and actions. Three of the “shoulds” refer to the actions that he should or shouldn’t have taken. Three refer to the knowledge that he should have had or sought out:
You should’ve said no
You should’ve gone home
You shouldn’t be begging for forgiveness at my feet
You should’ve thought twice before you let it all go
You should’ve known that what you did with her / would get back to me
And I should’ve been there in the back of your mind
The anaphoric structure of the chorus creates a strong link between these thoughts and actions. Swift implies that if this man had possessed better knowledge, he would have acted better. If she had been there in the back of his mind, he would have said no. If he had realized that he would get caught, he would have gone home, etc. “You should’ve thought twice” further implies that the man bears responsibility for seeking knowledge (see also Stay Beautiful.) If he had taken the time to think, he could have obtained the knowledge necessary in order to choose a better course of action.
Swift, a Platonic philosopher, has thus transformed the story of her partner’s infidelity into a brilliant illustration of the Socratic argument that Virtue = Knowledge. Throughout Plato’s dialogues, Socrates argues that people are rational. If they understand what is good and therefore what is good for them, they will pursue that course of action. People do not commit bad actions unless there is a gap in their understanding. If Taylor Swift’s partner had paused to obtain knowledge, he would not have cheated on her. In the face of heartbreak, Swift chooses to adopt a hopeful philosophy that is dependent on man’s rationality and goodness. Swift, while expressing her anger, encourages us to stay hopeful and pursue knowledge.
*The argument about the cheater is more interesting and therefore the focus of this post. Here’s the argument about Swift, for the truly dedicated:
In the first verse, Swift announces: “Yesterday I found out about you [cheating.]” Swift explores how this new knowledge shapes her perceptions of the cheater in the past, present, and future.
“Strange to think the songs we used to sing / the smiles, the flowers, everything / is gone.” Swift’s perception of the positive events in their relationship has fundamentally shifted — to the extent that Swift declares her memories are “gone” (see also Picture to Burn)
Since she found out about the infidelity, “Even now just looking at you / feels wrong.” Swift’s ability to perceive him now is tainted by this knowledge of him as a cheater.
Taylor Swift asks the cheater, “But do you, honestly / Expect me to believe / We could ever be the same?” With her new knowledge, she can no longer perceive him in her vision of the future.
Swift’s change in knowledge leads to a change in her perceptions. This change in perception leads to Swift’s actions of breaking up with this dude and writing a bumpin’ revenge song.