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A Penny for your Thoughts: Epistemology of the Self in Tied Together with a Smile

The Basics

Taylor Swift addresses Tied Together with a Smile to a young woman who doesn’t know (oh-oh) that she’s beautiful. In the chorus, Swift implores her to “Hold on,” and goes on to indicate that while this woman appears happy to the observer, she is struggling: “you’re tied together with a smile / but you’re coming undone.”

Literary Device - Homeric Simile

The second verse draws a comparison between the woman’s love and money in a Homeric simile, a simile that extends over several lines.

I guess it’s true that love was all you wanted

‘Cause you’re givin’ it away like it’s extra change

Hoping it will end up in his pocket

But he leaves you out like a penny in the rain

Swift compares the woman’s love to extra change. Although change is valuable, the woman acts as if it is not, giving it away for free. After she gives it away, she is left as a penny, so inconsequential that she is not worth the effort to stoop and pick up.

While Homer uses extended similes like this to draw comparisons between warriors and nature, Ms. Swift relies upon the socially-constructed concept of money to explore the value of this woman’s love. Pennies are only worth one cent because humans agree that they are - not because of anything in nature. The implication that a woman is worth less after she has been loved is deeply problematic, but Swift subtly undercuts her own implication by tying her simile to a social construct rather than a concept found in objective reality.


Objective reality and how humans gain knowledge about one another is the central exploration of Tied Together with a Smile. The first word, “seems”, sets up a contrast between reality and the observations of our senses. The title of the song continues this theme, referring to a woman who appears happy to the eye, but is not. The chorus implores the woman at the center of the song to maintain her tenuous grasp on reality: “hold on, baby you’re losing it.”

The woman’s sense of truth is miscalibrated particularly when it comes to knowledge about the self. The first verse begins: “Seems the only one who doesn’t see your beauty / Is the face in the mirror looking back at you / You walk around here thinking you’re not pretty / But that’s not true…” Like the young woman in One Direction’s epistemological masterpiece, the subject of this song is unaware of her own beauty. In the second verse, explored above, the woman similarly is unaware of the value of her love.

Without positing a solution to the woman’s lack of self-knowledge, Swift savagely demonstrates its devastating consequences. Tied Together with a Smile posits that one woman’s lack of self-knowledge can spiral into an epistemological crisis extending beyond herself. First, the woman does not know herself. Intentionally and unintentionally, she then obscures her truth from others. In the chorus, the woman deliberately conceals the truth about herself from others: “No one knows / that you cry; but you don’t tell anyone”. The complex simile of the second verse presents multiple layers of not knowing. The woman does not know the value of her love. The man, then, does not know the value of the woman. Taylor Swift, heretofore an omniscient narrator, does not know the woman’s motivations but must guess at them: “I guess it’s true that love was all you wanted”. By the end of the song, no one has access to the truth -- not the woman herself, the people around her, nor the narrator. Tied Together with a Smile thus demonstrates how a lack of self-knowledge can have a cascading effect, setting into motion an epistemological crisis in which no one else can know that self either.


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