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Swift Vengeance Waits: Picture to Burn


Picture to Burn is Taylor Swift’s second song and first revenge anthem — the first foray into a genre that will become a Swiftian signature. In Picture to Burn, a narrator brainstorms how she will get revenge on a man from a past relationship, including spreading rumors to prevent him from dating her friends, dating all of his friends, and having her father “show [him] how sorry [he’ll] be.” The man’s misdeeds are largely unspecified, with the bulk of the verses focusing on revenge fantasies. In the chorus, the narrator proclaims:

“So watch me strike a match on all my wasted time

Far as I’m concerned, you’re just another picture to burn”

The chorus gains in intensity with each recurrence through the use of additional words for emphasis such as “really, really,” repetition, and finally the postscript “burn, burn, burn baby burn.” In Picture to Burn, Taylor Swift uses revenge fantasy to continue the exploration of time that she began with Tim McGraw, demonstrating a similar and yet entirely novel mechanism for manipulating the past.


Like the narrator of Tim McGraw, the narrator of Picture to Burn displays a preoccupation with time, although here she focuses on the future rather than the past. From the start, the narrator is depicted as having an active and vivid imagination that is fixed on the future. The first line indicates that with the failure of this relationship, she “didn’t get [her] perfect fantasy.” Rather than mourning the loss of her actual relationship in the present, the narrator is upset by her inability to obtain the fantasy she had for her future. Although the relationship is over, the narrator continues to dwell on a fantasy future with her lover, replacing visions of an ideal boyfriend with visions of revenge. Indeed, she explicitly states that she is “sitting here planning [her] revenge.” Her schemes include “going out with all of your best friends” and the homophobic (and changed on newer versions of the song) “I’ll tell [my friends] you’re gay.” In addition to imaging vengeance, she also (twice) imagines hypothetical future scenarios where the man attempts to reconcile: “Coming back around here would be bad for your health” and

“And if you come around saying sorry to me

My daddy's gonna show you how sorry you'll be”

The verses and the bridge thus depict a narrator who is processing a failed relationship by focusing on an imagined future.

Dwelling on the future, the narrator attempts to eradicate the past. In the chorus, she directly and repeatedly refers to the time spent in this relationship as waste that she wishes to destroy: “so watch me strike a match on all my wasted time.” The narrator continues her assault on past time by attempting to reduce the relationship to a single moment. By saying “you’re just another picture to burn,” the narrator insists on representing a relationship — a duration — as the single moment in time that is captured in a picture. Both Tim McGraw and Picture to Burn feature narrators who give time a physical form in order to manipulate it. In Tim McGraw, the narrator reconstructs a relationship as a letter in order to cherish it. In Picture to Burn, the narrator reduces a relationship to an image in order to destroy it.

The narrator denies time again in the second verse by declaring “there’s no time for tears” before quickly moving along to “planning her revenge.” The narrator actively discourages her lover from returning to the past as well. She warns him that “coming back round here would be bad for your health.” By deterring him from “coming back,” she may be attempting to stop the reverse motion of time. In addition to denying the past and actively stopping it from returning, the song itself avoids the past tense as much as possible. The only glimpses of the past occur in quick asides before the narrator reasserts her existence in the present moment. For example, “he never let me drive” (past) is immediately followed by “he’s a redneck” (present.)

Picture to Burn thus continues Swift’s musings on time — particularly the time spent in a failed relationship. While Tim McGraw depicted a narrator who wanted to replay the duration of her relationship over and over again, Picture to Burn features a narrator who interacts with time by choosing to focus on the future, reproducing the past as a single image. And then burning it.

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1 Comment

HappyRon Music And Inspirational Quotes
HappyRon Music And Inspirational Quotes
Dec 08, 2023

Gone through your entire site and I've really enjoying your insights. I really believe learning more about these Devices as I've been doing for the last year will improve my songwriting. Thank you. HappyRon


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