By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘You Belong with Me’ is a Taylor Swift song, which featured on her second studio album, Fearless (2008). Swift wrote the song with Liz Rose and produced it with Nathan Chapman.
Although ‘You Belong with Me’ has a ‘story’ at its heart which is hardly new, the lyrics to the song are worthy of closer analysis because of the way Swift and Rose build a detailed picture of the love triangle at the story’s centre.
‘You Belong with Me’: song meaning
The meaning, and emotional core, of the song can be summarised as ‘girl in love with her male best friend, but he’s in a relationship with someone else – the wrong girl for him’. The song’s background or setting is high school: this is a story of teenage love, or would-be love.
The song was inspired by an overheard phone call. Swift heard a male friend talking to his girlfriend on the phone, and from this she conceived the idea of a song about an insecure person’s unrequited love for someone.
The first verse bears witness to the event which inspired the song. Swift addresses the friend she’d heard talking to his girlfriend over the phone. She was upset and angry with him. Swift (or perhaps we should call her the ‘speaker’, since the persona Swift adopts in the song may or may not actually be ‘Taylor Swift’ herself) reassures him that she shares his sense of humour, even if his girlfriend doesn’t.
What’s more, she knows the guy’s background and who he is. This girlfriend is a typical ‘girly girl’: short skirts and cheerleading. Swift’s speaker, by contrast, isn’t one of the ‘beautiful kids’, as it were: she’s sitting watching the game rather than performing as a pretty cheerleader.
She’s the quintessential ‘girl next door’, in other words: innocent, nice, kind, loyal, dependable, the sort of girl you can take home to meet your mother.
What emerges, then, is a ‘story’ wherein the singer of the song loves the guy on the phone, who is with the wrong girl. He views the song’s speaker as a friend, but she views him as something more. All she can do is hope that one day he wakes up and realises that she’s a much better fit for him than his cheerleader girlfriend.
It’s clear this girlfriend makes the guy unhappy: the speaker of the song loves his smile, because it brings happiness to those who see it, but he hasn’t had much to smile about lately, because his girlfriend makes him unhappy. But the speaker can read him, and sees that he isn’t all right, even though he may pretend to be.
The speaker is clearly frustrated that the guy she loves cannot see what’s right in front of him. She’s the one who makes him laugh when he’s on the verge of tears, and she’s the one he shares his wildest dreams, hopes, and ambitions with. He belongs with her.
‘You Belong with Me’: analysis
In summary, then, ‘You Belong with Me’ is a song about unrequited love in high school; a song in which a kind-hearted girl next door laments the fact that her best friend is dating the wrong girl for him.
And yet, of course, we only get half the story. The speaker of the song is trying to persuade her friend to see her as more than just a friend, after all. Can we take her word for it that she is perfect for him, and this other girl isn’t? The possibility remains that she is trying to manipulate him into seeing her in a favourable light – and, conversely, his girlfriend in an unfavourable one – so that she can get what she wants.
If this sounds like a cynical interpretation of ‘You Belong with Me’, it shouldn’t – because what lifts the song above your run-of-the-mill dirge for a hopeless love is this very tension, this question-mark hanging over the speaker’s profession of love.
After all, we have no idea what that initial phone conversation was about, beyond the fact that the girlfriend appeared to be angry and upset with her boyfriend. But she may well have good grounds for being so upset. Just because the speaker sees him in an idealised light, doesn’t mean that he is the model boyfriend.
At the same time, Swift is careful to avoid hinting that the speaker of the song is borderline obsessive. ‘You Belong with Me’ is somewhat less possessive and grabby than ‘You Belong to Me’ would have been as a title, and reinforces the mutuality and equality of the longed-for relationship between herself and her best friend.
In the last analysis, then, ‘You Belong with Me’ is a song for all those friends who’ve waited in the wings, harbouring strong feelings for their close friend, and having to endure watching that friend make a mess of things by being with the wrong person. But then of course, the unspoken ‘moral’ of all this is that we always think the person we love is with the wrong person – if they’re not with us, that is.
You can watch the official video for the song here.