Taylor Swift: Lyric Thief?

Taylor Swift

A few months ago, I spent an entire weekend listening to the same Taylor Swift song on repeat…and there was a solid educational reason!

In November, Swift was accused of plagiarizing a line in her song “All Too Well” from a song by Matt Nathanson. Swift’s song is about having difficulty moving on from a bad relationship. The line that she allegedly plagiarized is highlighted, below:

And I know it’s long gone, and there was nothing else I could do
And I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to

Cause here we are again in the middle of the night
We’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well

In the Nathanson song, the lyric appears as follows:

And I’m surrounded
You spill
All alive and brand new
And I’ll forget about you long enough
To forget why I need to 

I wasn’t really familiar with Nathanson’s music before the story about the potential plagiarism broke. His song is also about moving on, and the lyrics also express a confusion/hope over whether the person who has moved on from the relationship will reach out again, and whether that might be destructive. The cadence of the two lines is also very similar between the two songs, in my opinion.

The story highlighting the similarities appears to have originated with an October 31st post on the gossip blog Oh No They Didn’t! The blog itself attributes the story to a number of Twitter users who highlighted the connection in tweets. This appears to be how Nathanson himself was apprised of the possible connection between the two songs. On October 24th, he Tweeted (and later deleted) the following:

Matt Nathanson Tweet

In the comments of the Oh No They Didn’t! post, some additional allegations emerge. Commenter rebeccamars asks: “Hasn’t she been accused of this before?” delicious_pocky replies: “yeah. you belong with me and that saving jane song.” Below, unchoco says: “Same with “Better Than Revenge” and “Misery Business” by Paramore.”

So, in the interest of gathering info, I went looking for those songs as well. Here are both versions of a repeated chorus from Swift’s “You Belong With Me”:

But she wears short skirts
I wear t-shirts
She’s cheer captain
And I’m on the bleachers
Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find
That what you’re looking for has been here the whole time.

[ . . . ]

She wears high heels,
I wear sneakers.
She’s cheer captain,
And I’m on the bleachers.
Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find
That what you’re looking for has been here the whole time.

And the lines I’m assuming are being linked with it in the Saving Jane song, also a chorus:

She is the prom queen I’m in the marching band
She is a cheerleader I’m sitting in the stands
She gets the top bunk I’m sleeping on the floor
She’s Miss America and I’m just the girl next door

[ . . . ]

She is the prom queen I’m in the marching band
She is a cheerleader I’m sitting in the stands
I get a little bit, she gets a little more
She’s Miss America and… she’s Miss America
I’m just the girl next door…

Interestingly, an Oh No They Didn’t post from February 2010 collects a number of tweets that comprise the response of Saving Jane lead singer Marti Dotson to the allegations. Among them, there’s the tweet that states: “But I love TS and I always say I’d rather write with her than sue her. that’s where the real $ is! :)” Dotson’s tweets also mention that she tends to get more questions about the similarities between the two music videos even than between the lyrics. The Swift video makes it clear that the girl in question is also the “Girl Next Door” and both videos depict a central character in her marching band uniform, looking dejected. In the Swift video, it’s clear that the GND gets the guy in the end. In the Saving Jane video, the girl ends up with her own prom date and reaches through the split screen effect in the video to steal the Prom Queen’s crown and give it to him, finally laughing and happy. In the Swift video, Swift plays both girls — GND and Prom Queen.

As for “Better than Revenge,” I wasn’t familiar with the song at all. The alleged connection with “Misery Business” by Paramore seems to come from similarities in the music rather than the lyrics. Also, both songs share some story characteristics, in that they’re about a girl who is trying to steal or has stolen someone else’s boyfriend and is accused of being “an actress” (Swift) and “a whore [ . . . ] looking as innocent as possible to get who she wants” (Paramore.) I wasn’t terribly convinced by the similarities here, but there are more than a few videos comparing the two on YouTube, so there are fans out there who definitely feel the similarities are striking.

So, there it is. All the allegations I was able to gather thus far. In case this is the only post you’ve read on my blog, I should probably state right now that I’m not exactly taking a position on the plagiarism issue. I’m interested in why, how, and when something gets called plagiarism. I’m particularly interested in the Swift case because there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt on the part of her representatives or of Swift herself to respond to any of these allegations, much less to refute them. I’m wondering if that’s part of why the Nathanson allegation didn’t blow up more than it did (which is to say, it’s mostly faded from view.) Is it intentional on Swift’s part? I’d be surprised if she and her team don’t know the allegations are out there. With all the work I’ve done on plagiarism — and of course its historical friend, cryptomnesia — I’m surprised that I haven’t thought much before about the way that plagiarism is constituted after the fact not only due to its reflective stance on creative output, but also due to the way that someone’s response to a plagiarism allegation (and a response is generally expected if not compelled by interested parties) often co-creates the plagiarism itself by asking the author of a contested work to speak to it as plagiarized, whether to apologize or to defend. Is Swift’s refusal to do that a form of strategy — legal or creative? Is she disinterested? Or is she refusing to participate?

In an interview with Glamour in November 2012, the interviewer, Cynthia McFadden, tried to get Swift to respond to John Mayer’s comments about her song “Dear John” being about him. The song describes a “toxic” relationship (Swift’s word) and Swift’s relationship with Mayer was highly publicized. The interviewer tries to confront Swift with Mayer’s comments about the song (that it was humiliating and “a really lousy thing for her to do,” apparently.) Swift stops her.

Glamour: He said he felt…
Taylor Swift: No! I don’t want to know, I don’t want to know.
Glamour: You don’t? [ . . . ]
Taylor Swift: I know it wasn’t good, so I don’t want to know. I put a high priority on staying happy, and I know what I can’t handle.
Glamour: It would hurt too much to hear?
Taylor Swift: It’s not that I’m this egomaniac and I don’t want to hear anything negative, because I do keep myself in check. But I’ve never developed that thick a skin. So I just kind of live a life, and I let all the gossip live somewhere else. If you go too far down the rabbit hole of what people think about you, it can change everything about who you are.

In my research, I see that plagiarism is often used to describe the work of people who have uneven or restricted access to language, power, and institutionalized forms of knowledge. The most famous cases of cryptomnesia I explore in my work are all of men observing the phenomenon in women. In proclaiming what she “doesn’t want to know,” Swift refuses to participate in the creation of a dynamic that “changes everything about who you are.” It’s arguable whether she can truly insulate herself from gossip. It may be that she has overstepped some boundary and owes other artists some form of attribution, recompense, or apology. But part of what her silence seems to have done is to make that decision something that each artist implicated in the interchange of music, lyrics, and story would have to decide for themselves or at least participate in with her. She isn’t engaging in the apologetic stance that an alleged plagiarist is meant to occupy. It’s such a small space to retreat to, and perhaps she lets it “live somewhere else.” Opinions on Swift seem to swing back and forth on whether she’s oblivious and anti-feminist or in control of a unique and empowering image. I’m not sure where I fall on the spectrum, but taking her words in this interview seriously, I do respect her sense that knowing what she wants to know about herself can be something outside of “egomania.”

Part of what spurred me to write this post gathering my thoughts on the Swift issue was the recent response of bloggers to Swift’s behavior in the audience of the Grammys. As the Huffington Post puts it, “it was [Swift’s] awkward, annoying, please just stop moments that kept us entertained and thoroughly aggravated throughout the show.” Hollywood.com collects pics of Swift under the headline “Taylor Swift Sings Along to Every Song.” The press surrounding the fact that Taylor knows “all the lyrics” reminded me of this controversy, and my dashed expectation that it would maybe really blow up and provide a lot of fodder for some academic critique. I do think there is room for critique here, but it’s taken a different direction that I expected. Swift hasn’t participated and that has highlighted for me the way that plagiarism allegations — particularly those levied against young women writers — tend to demand a kind of participation and self-reflection that is potentially controlling and alters their public image and their work. What happens to alleged plagiarism when someone is in a position not to acknowledge or participate in its identification? Is part of the righteous backlash against plagiarizers having created their own problem (presumably by stealing) in part a reaction towards the way in which plagiarism seeks to make authors complicit? I wonder if this could contribute to the often inflexible nature of plagiarism allegations. Would dismantling an accusation of plagiarism necessarily accuse or implicate those who identified it? It’s a lot to think about. And a good, academic excuse for continuing to listen to Taylor Swift songs (quietly) in my office.

Image of Taylor Swift by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer is licensed under a CC license and is free for cultural use. The image shows Swift at a 2012 concert in Sydney, Australia. Note that you can see lyrics written on Swift’s arm. Swift often writes lyrics from her favorite songs onto her arm for concerts. She has done so with Nathanson’s lyrics, and this is frequently mentioned in connection with the plagiarism. For more image of Swift’s arms with lyrics, including from the Nathanson song “Modern Love,” go here.
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