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Missed Connections and Crossed Wires: Communication Breakdowns in Stay Beautiful


The Basics

Like Tied Together with a Smile, Stay Beautiful is addressed to a young person who doesn’t know that they are beautiful. This time, the subject is a young man named Cory. In the chorus, Swift imagines assuring Cory that he is beautiful and that he’s “really gonna be someone.” She ends the chorus by hoping his “love leads you back to my door / oh, but if it don’t, stay beautiful.”


Literary Device: Simile

The first verse opens with two perplexing similes:

Cory’s eyes are like a jungle

He smiles; it’s like the radio


In order to fully understand the song, the listener must stop to ponder what it means to compare eyes to a jungle or a smile to the radio. The first simile suggests that Cory’s eyes are green and impenetrable. The second simile is challenging: Is his smile full of static? Does it favor top 40s songs and local advertisements? Whatever Swift is attempting to communicate, the simile suggests the experience of synesthesia since the visual cue of Cory’s smile is experienced as an auditory one.


With two baffling similes, Swift brilliantly opens with a meta-commentary on failed communication. The similes may provide an additional nod towards this theme by highlighting impenetrability and crossed wires.


Analysis

Stay Beautiful continues the exploration of epistemology that Swift began in Tied Together with a Smile by providing five examples of ideas that are not successfully transferred from one person to another:


1) In the first verse, Cory “whispers songs into my window / in words that nobody knows.” Swift, a philosopher of language, reminds us here that the relationship between signifier and signified is slippery and that understanding is dependent on the social convention provided by a shared language. How can Cory expect to communicate effectively when he is using a language that he does not share with his conversation partner?


2 and 3) Later in the first verse, “pretty girls on every corner” wonder “Does he know / will you ever know / You’re beautiful.” In this instance, the knowledge of Cory’s beauty is shared between the girls on every corner. The girls wonder if Cory knows, but do not proactively communicate this knowledge with him. Similarly, in a line that could be taken straight out of Teardrops on my Guitar, Swift notes in the second verse that “It’s hard to make a conversation when he’s taking my breath away / I should say, “hey, by the way / You’re beautiful.” Like the pretty girls, Swift does not share her knowledge with Cory. The transfer of knowledge from one person to another thus requires an action — an interaction — in addition to a shared set of conventions for communicating.


4) Since no one is communicating with Cory and Cory’s only communications are in a language nobody knows, Swift must ask, “You’re beautiful / Every little piece, love; don’t you know?” with every repetition of the chorus. She assures him: “You’re really gonna be someone / Ask anyone.” While knowledge is shared by those around Cory, it is never communicated to him. Swift suggests here that some knowledge must be obtained actively rather than passively: Cory must proactively seek knowledge by asking for it.*


5) In the bridge, Swift compares her relationship with Cory to a “story / That never gets told.” Swift uses the passive voice — removing the potential storyteller from the question. Although the story is never told, there is no person who receives the blame. Swift thus further emphasizes the responsibility of the seeker of knowledge by removing agency from the people in possession of knowledge.

Stay Beautiful thus continues exploring the theme of lack of self-knowledge that she introduced in her previous song. Yet, despite providing five examples of failed communication, the overall tone of Stay Beautiful is hopeful. While Tied Together with a Smile left us spiraling into an epistemological crisis, Stay Beautiful suggests that there are truths that transcend communication — such as beauty. Further, while the truth of beauty is impenetrable to Cory now, it is not permanently so. Cory will stay beautiful, and if he learns to become an active seeker of knowledge, he will become aware of this truth.




*Ideally not using words that nobody knows

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