By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Of all of the tracks on Taylor Swift’s 2020 album Evermore, ‘Marjorie’ is perhaps the most tenderly personal. The lyrics honour someone very dear to the singer: someone who was a singer herself. But the ‘Marjorie’ of the song’s title also has another important link with Swift.
‘Marjorie’: song meaning
In short, Swift’s song ‘Marjorie’ honours her late grandmother, who died in 2003, when Swift was still in her early teens. In the song, we gain a snapshot of Swift’s childhood memories of her maternal grandmother and the time they spent swimming together: experiences which Swift can only appreciate fully now her grandmother is no longer around.
Marjorie Finlay (1928-2003) was an American opera singer, who had a varied and interesting career which included touring South America and acting as MC on a Puerto Rican TV show (despite her grasp of Spanish being reportedly bad; this actually endeared her to audiences). She sang in concerts but also performed in supper clubs. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Finlay died in West Reading, Pennsylvania – the same town where Swift herself had been born fourteen years earlier, in 1989.
It’s been suggested that Swift’s maternal grandmother was the inspiration behind her own decision to pursue a career in music. In the notes made to accompany the release of Evermore in 2020, Swift commented that Marjorie still visited her in dreams from time to time.
The song is a tender celebration of Marjorie’s own life and career in music, as well as the inspiring role model she provided for Swift herself. Fittingly, ‘Marjorie’ includes samples of Finlay’s own singing, so the grandmother provides backing vocals for her granddaughter’s song.
However, the song is also about regret, or remorse, at not having taken the time or trouble to get to know someone fully when the singer had the chance. This becomes apparent as ‘Marjorie’ develops as a song, providing a bittersweet close to one of Swift’s most mature pieces of songwriting to date (she co-wrote the song with Aaron Dessner).
Beginning with the advice that one should never be so kind that one forgets to be clever, and never be so clever that one forgets to be kind, ‘Marjorie’ asserts that sometimes dead people don’t really ‘die’ because they live on through their legacy and influence.
In the case of Taylor Swift’s grandmother, Marjorie remains alive because Swift keeps her grandmother’s memory alive in her own mind.
The song goes on to advise that one should never be so polite that one becomes overly deferential to others and forgets one’s own inner power. By the same token – and engaging in the kind of antithesis seen at the beginning of the song with the clever/kind aphorisms – we should never forget to be polite to those over whom we have some kind of power.
Chilly autumn weather brings memories of her grandmother back to Swift: how Marjorie loved the amber colour of the sky, and swimming outside in the cold water with her granddaughter. Swift recalls complaining during the journey, but now realises she should have been more curious about the life her grandmother had lived. She could’ve asked her all sorts of questions about her career and the things she’d achieved, or asked that her grandmother write down some of it for her.
Towards the end of ‘Marjorie’, however, the desperation in the singer becomes more pronounced. Now her grandmother has gone, every little ‘scrap’ of her life has become precious: even a receipt from a grocery store would carry meaning and significance.
Swift also states that her grandmother’s ‘backlogged dreams’ have been inherited by her granddaughter. This suggests that, whilst Marjorie lived a full and interesting life, she perhaps never fulfilled her dreams in the way a singer is meant to. Swift, who is selling out stadiums and releasing platinum-selling albums, can help to realise the dreams both women harboured.
‘Marjorie’ does not indulge in any overly sentimental recourse to the supernatural: Swift’s repeated ‘if I didn’t know better’ closes off the possibility that Marjorie Finlay literally lives on in some spiritual capacity, instead implying that those whom we have lost but continue to hold dear remain alive through our memories of them.
This is admirable: it would be easy to follow the clichéd route taken by many songwriters, to talk of how someone who has passed ‘looks down’ on us and ‘watches over’ us (a suggestion that this writer, at least, has always found vaguely creepy – and if it’s meant simply as consoling platitude, it carries no real meaning whatsoever).
In summary, then, ‘Marjorie’ is partly an elegy for Taylor Swift’s grandmother, but also a celebration of her life and her career in music. It’s a deeply personal lyric which sees the singer acknowledge her regret at not getting to know her grandmother more while she was around.
‘Marjorie’ isn’t the only Taylor Swift song about Swift’s maternal grandmother. There’s also ‘Timeless’, another paean to Marjorie Finlay.