On the surface, The Outside is the third in a trio of songs that use place as a device for exploring themes of loneliness. Like the narrator in A Place in this World, Swift is searching for something undefinable: “I didn’t know what I would find / when I went looking for a reason.” Like the narrator in Cold as You, she is currently in a desolate location that mirrors her own loneliness: On the outside looking in / I've been a lot of lonely places / I've never been on the outside. Once again, Swift uses the spatial metaphor of being outside to explain her feelings of social isolation.
Literary Device - Quotation
The first hint that there is depth beyond the surface is a quotation from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Frost’s poem describes the plight of a person who must choose between two paths — two sets of experiences — knowing that by choosing one he is missing out on the other. The Road Not Taken is often misconstrued as a blanket endorsement for following your heart. When read closely, however, Frost’s poem offers more complex reflections about the arbitrariness of human decisions and how we judge them in the future.
In the penultimate line of her first verse, Swift closely mimics the penultimate line of Frost’s poem, writing “I tried to take the road less traveled by.” Taken alone, the verse reflects Swift’s misadventures as she tries to find a place in this world. Understanding the reference adds two additional layers: the image of a FOMO-ridden young woman standing at a crossroads as well as common (mis)interpretations of the poem.
The Outside is itself an unexpected meta-reflection on misreading Robert Frost. Taylor Swift opens by lamenting her own misunderstanding of Robert Frost’s classic poem. Swift sets the scene by explaining that she set out on a quest to find meaning:
“I didn’t know what I would find / when I went looking for a reason.”
In the second two verses, she reveals that she failed:
“I know I didn’t read, between the lines / and baby I’ve got nowhere to go.
Due to a failure in close reading, young Taylor Swift has reached an impasse. Instead of digging into the complex meaning of a text, Swift chose to only look at the surface — the outside. Swift reveals the text that she has misread:
“I tried to take the road less traveled by / But nothing seems to work the first few times
Like so many before her, Swift has misinterpreted Robert Frost, possibly multiple times. By the end of the verse, Swift is so confused and dejected that she asks the listener “am I right?”, seeking validation that others have interpreted the poem incorrectly as well. When the listener does not answer, Swift proceeds to the loneliness anthem of the chorus.
In the second verse, Swift uses an experimental technique to explore what it means to miss the deeper meaning of a poem — by crafting a poem that has no deeper meaning. This verse is full of empty referents that prompt more questions than answers (my questions have been added in italics.)
“You (who?) saw me there (where?) but never knew
That I would give it (what?) all up to be
A part of this (what?), a part of you
And now it's all too late (why is it too late? What is the urgency?)
Swift’s words here are an empty surface — an outside with no inside. Swift brilliantly demonstrates the level of meaning that we choose to engage with when we do not read carefully — when we reduce poetry to empty words. The Outside is thus a cautionary tale about the perils of careless reading, concealed below the surface of a story about a young woman on a quest.
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