Taylor Swift asks her partner to explain his abusive behavior, and then leaves the relationship without waiting for an answer.
Literary Device: Ploce
Ploce is a literary device in which a word is repeated for emphasis, often to reveal additional meaning. Taylor Swift repeats the word “took” throughout the first verse of Tell Me Why. Swift’s first use of the word is innocent enough: Swift ”took a chance” on dating this guy. The second use is more ambiguous: Swift “took a shot,” restating the first phrase but introducing the violent imagery of shooting. The final two uses escalate the violence: “you took a swing” and “I took it hard” have unambiguous violent overtone. Swift thus uses ploce to frame this relationship as a physical power struggle by repeating the word “took” and increasing the violence of what is being taken.
Taylor Swift described the seemingly impossible-to-survive pain that comes with ending a relationship in her previous song, Breathe. Swift hints at the same theme in Tell Me Why with the line “I need you like a heartbeat” since a heartbeat is an indicator of survival. However, Swift ultimately shows that the harm from being in an unhealthy relationship is worse than the harm from the breakup.
The National Wellness Institute lists six dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, occupational, spiritual, intellectual, and social. Swift addresses all six in Tell Me Why.
Physical: In addition to the violent imagery outlined above, Swift repeatedly states that this relationship has made her “sick and tired,” says that he “push[es her] around” and reveals that she needs to “run for cover when [he’s] around.”
Emotional: Compounding the physical imagery, Swift alludes to multiple instances of verbal abuse: “Yes I remember what you said last night,” “Why do you have to make me feel small?” and “You tell me that you want me, and cut me down.”
Occupational: The verbal abuse has even distracted Swift from her work: “Why do you have to put down my dreams / So you’re the only thing on my mind?”
Spiritual: Even Swift’s faith is challenged: “I’ve got no one to believe in.”
Intellectual: The entire experience has been intellectually disorienting as well: “I get so confused and frustrated / Forget what I’m trying to say.”
Social: Swift only depicts herself in one relationship in this song and it is contentious rather than harmonious.
Swift depicted severe physical dysfunction during her breakup in Breathe, but all six elements of her wellness were in danger during the relationship. Thankfully, the song ends with Swift ending the relationship and replacing the violent imagery. Swift “take[s] a step back,” reversing the usual meaning of take (gaining possession) to depict a loss of ground. Rather than following up with another “take” to parallel the first verse, Swift peacefully lets her partner go.