Fig 1: Taylor Swift, "Blank Space," dir. Joseph Kahn (2014)

Fig 1: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space,” dir. Joseph Kahn (2014)

 

Fig 2.1: Taylor Swift , “Clean,” 1989 (2014)

The drought was the very worst,
When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst.
It was months and months of back and forth.
You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore.
Hung my head as I lost the war, and the sky turned black like a perfect storm.

Rain came pouring down, when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe.
And by morning, gone was any trace of you,
I think I am finally clean.

There was nothing left to do
When the butterflies turned to dust that covered my whole room.
So I punched a hole in the roof,
Let the flood carry away all my pictures of you.
The water filled my lungs, I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing….

Taylor Swift’s closing track on 1989, co-written and produced with Imogen Heap, ends the album with the soft ballad, entitled “Clean,” where Swift conveys the story of getting over a boyfriend and coming to be cleaned of the memories and affects of her past relationship. The song, however, opens up with a characterization of her faltering relationship as a drought, which desiccated the fruits of their relationship. This drought is foiled by the rushing waters of a tumultuous rain, which wash away the traces of her ex. These traces are categorized as dirtiness: a wine stain on a dress that consequently can no longer be worn, or the jittery butterflies of young love that now have turned to dust, coating her room in filth. Swift characterizes these lingering affects as dirtiness, striving for the cleanliness that the down pour provides.

Fig 2.2: Taylor Swift , “Clean,” 1989  (2014)

(continued from Fig 2.1)

Rain came pouring down, when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe.
And by morning, gone was any trace of you,
I think I am finally clean.
I think I am finally clean.
Said, I think I am finally clean.

10 months sober, I must admit
Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it.
10 months older, I won’t give in.
Now that I’m clean I’m never gonna risk it….

The language of this cleanliness, however, is not that of renewal and rebirth. Instead, like a recovering addict, Swift describes herself as “10 months sober,” clarifying: “Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it.” Thus, the Christian language of water as rebirth is subverted here: Swift’s waters are not the streams of the Jordan, but rather the streams of a pressure washer, attempting and wanting to erase the traces of dirt, yet never quite doing the job – it is not the Baptismal font, but the car wash.

As such, the landscape of drought in the failing relationship – that arid landscape in which the flowers died – is not reborn in the flood. The flowers, emblems of the relationship’s heyday, cannot bloom again despite the rain, lest this establish a paradigm whereby the heroine returns to her knight in shining armor as the happy ending. Hence, the dusty, parched landscape of the drought is revealed not as an absence of life-giving water, but rather merely as the state of being unclean – of wine-stains and butterfly-dust, traces of the failed affects of Swift’s relationship. This is an affective landscape of uncleanliness as drought, which has not hope of renewal by rain. Rain can only erase the effects of the drought, but it cannot heal it – like a mudslide after the needed rain.

Fig 2.3: Taylor Swift , “Clean,” 1989  (2014)

(continued from Fig 2.2)

The drought was the very worst,
When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst.
Rain came pouring down, when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe.
And by morning, gone was any trace of you.
I think I am finally clean.
 
Rain came pouring down, when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe.
And by morning, gone was any trace of you,
I think I am finally clean.
Finally clean.
Think I’m finally clean.
Think I’m finally clean. 

How might this narrative fit in with the slut-shamed Swift? Often ridiculed in the media for her serial monogamy with prominent celebrities, such as Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Connor Kennedy, Harry Styles, etc. And, along these lines, how might the need and desire for cleanliness emerge precisely from Swift’s slut-shaming, leading her to resort to normative models of affective detachment in the wake of her subsequent breakups? Her very recourse to a Christian-saturated language of water and its Baptismal force, suggests that this water allows for renewal and deliverance from sin. Yet, Swift’s landscape subverts the powers of this language, where cleanliness is not a state of deliverance, but merely a state of tailored sobriety, striving for amnesia.

Swift still desires and misses her lover, and this state is not one of newfound peace and stability in the wake of a destructive relationship. Instead, her reasoning for not returning to the arid landscape of drought is simply: “Now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it.” For instance, she rhymes “10 months sober, I must admit” with “10 months older, I won’t give in,” thus leaving one with the sense that her sobriety merely panders to the chrononormative progression of age and adulthood to which she is subjected, geared as it is toward a reproductive futurity[i] – where other flowers may be generatively cultivated and procreated. Thus, her abstinence comes to manifest itself as merely an adherence to normative sexualities with their own (reproductive) time and rhythms. As such, Swift’s sobriety speaks of no salvation, or deliverance from evil, just mere abstinence.

Thus, it begs the question: To what extent is Taylor Swift’s cleanliness a relation to cruel optimism?[ii] Swift’s procurement of a celestial flood is meant to purge her of her slut-shamed sins, rather than meant to liberate her from an abusive or destructive relationship. It would seem then that the greatest impediment to Swift’s happiness is not a lover, but rather the proscriptive cleanliness that one must allegedly experience following a breakup or parting with a sexual/romantic partner. After all, these waters do not enable the flourishing of new flowers in this narrative, they merely wash away the traces of those blossoms so as to sufficiently withdraw from its fleeting pleasures.

This narrative is analogous to that of other songs in 1989, such as “Shake it Off,” but in such an instance the song constantly projects new affective realities into which Swift self-interpellates, not resorting to abstinence and withholding in some watered-down Christian moral play. As such, it would seem that Swift’s “Clean” is an unnecessary ode to cruel optimism. The song offers no redemption in its narrative, just withholding; hence, it rather urges us to do away with cleanliness, given the pitiful resolution that cleanliness comes to offer there. Instead, the song leaves us with the feeling that perhaps we should wholly, unforgivingly, and unabashedly embrace the promiscuous, iterative power of dirtiness as an affective state of being.

Such dirtiness comes into play in the fleeting, momentary thrill of “Blank Space,” where any lover may fill in that blank space’s gap – even if “just for a weekend.” Certainly, this is a dirty song. The breakups in particular are dirty, as the music video stresses; they do not strive for the sterile cleanliness of “Clean.” They are instead full of insane, clinging, clawing affect, where a sarcastically deranged Swift seeks out vengeance against her ex-lover – while fully realizing that a blank space is already there and ready for the next one. In that song, Swift does not fear the scars of the relationships or stage them as something that must be purged, and she categorizes herself precisely as young and reckless as an emancipatory tactic – effectively doing away with her closing song’s tending toward chronormativity and cruel optimism. Instead, she fully embraces such psychosomatic traces as part and parcel of the dirtiness of sexual/romantic encounter. In “Blank Space,” Swift keeps it dirty, in “Clean” she shows us – even if unintentionally – all that we have to lose if we don’t.

[i] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 1-19.

[ii] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1-22.


 

ESSAY COPYRIGHT 2014

ROLAND BETANCOURT