By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The lead single from her 2022 album Midnights, ‘Anti-Hero’ contains some of Taylor Swift’s darkest lyrics. They are also among her most thought-provoking. However, they are also some of her most allusive, referring to numerous other pop-culture phenomena which need deciphering in order for them to make full sense.
The song, which is one of Swift’s most personal, sees the singer acknowledging her own failure to examine her own life and approach it with the necessary detached, objective self-awareness.
However, as the song develops, the picture becomes more ambiguous. Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics to ‘Anti-Hero’.
‘Anti-Hero’: song meaning
In terms of narrative analysis, an ‘anti-hero’ is different from a ‘villain’ in several important ways. Although an anti-hero in a novel or film may do things which are widely regarded as immoral, they are usually not as out-and-out evil as a conventional villain.
However, as the ‘anti-’ prefix helpfully hints, an anti-hero is a long way from being traditionally heroic too. If they do perform ‘good’ deeds, they may do so for questionable reasons and may have dubious or selfish motives. As T. S. Eliot put it in his play Murder in the Cathedral, they may ‘do the right thing for the wrong reason’.
All of which preamble brings us to Taylor Swift’s song. The song begins with the singer’s acknowledgment that, as she gets older, she fails to get wiser: her increased experience has not brought wisdom with it.
What’s more, she is plagued by depression: in her afternoons, the dark despair of midnight descends, and everyone the singer has ‘ghosted’ or forgotten about come to stand around her, recalling something from a Shakespeare play (such as the moment towards the end of Richard III when the play’s villainous protagonist – if not anti-hero – is visited by the ghosts of those he has killed).
Her dreams wake her up in the night, screaming. She knows she is driving away the one she loves (or maybe ones she loves: her fans?) with all of her plots and ‘scheming’. Indeed, Swift has been criticised in the past for her ‘petty’ behaviour, not least by the media; and is there a nod to two British tabloid newspapers in her reference to the ‘sun’ and the ‘mirror’?
Possibly (and here we may recall a similar lyric from a Lily Allen song); but the principal meaning is surely that it’s easier to risk blindness by staring at the sun than it is to confront herself – and who she has become – by looking at herself in the mirror.
The chorus to the song sees this ‘anti-hero’ acknowledging that she is the problem: nobody else. She is the author of her own destruction. She acknowledges that the one who supports her must find it exhausting to be ‘rooting’ for an ‘anti-hero’ like her, wanting her to overcome her demons and triumph.
The opening line of the song’s second verse has attracted confusion: is ‘sexy baby’ an allusion to a childlike expression adopted by an attention-seeking female character in the sitcom 30 Rock? Possibly.
The line implies that the singer sees others as adopting a faux-innocence which is hypocritical and immoral; the singer herself, meanwhile, feels like the ‘monster’ on the hill (a horrid pariah, an ugly creature from fairy tales?).
One possible way of interpreting this is that other (female) singers are praised for adopting a false air of childlike innocence (which the media encourages other women to imitate), while Swift – who, to mix our metaphors, wears her heart on her sleeve, warts and all – is vilified as unattractive by comparison because she refuses to play that game.
She is like a vampire which – folklore has it – can only be killed by a stake through the heart. The singer, by contrast, has been pierced through the heart – implying heartbreak – but still cannot die.
This second verse ends with Swift alluding to a common feature of antiheroes: that they are narcissists, self-serving, who repackage their selfish actions as decent and selfless ‘altruism’ (literally, serving others rather than oneself). She likens this ‘antiheroic’ behaviour to that of dishonest politicians.
The bridge to ‘Anti-Hero’ contains the most baffling moment in the song’s lyrics, the meaning of which can only be understood if we clock a (likely) allusion to a 2019 film.
The dream the singer describes, in which her daughter-in-law kills her for money which this phantom daughter-in-law believed the singer had left her in her will, is – as has been pointed out – probably an allusion to a scene in the 2019 film Knives Out.
The idea of the singer dying and laughing at her murderer from hell is a dark one, and is further evidence of the singer’s self-proclaimed status as ‘anti-hero’. Perhaps the last little meta-joke worth noting is that it is a common trait among narcissists – and, indeed, antiheroes – to position themselves as the protagonist or main character of a story or film, casting those around them as supporting characters.
In casting herself as ‘anti-hero’, the singer is acknowledging this character ‘flaw’ while also, at the same time, perpetuating it.
Taylor Swift herself has stated that this song is a particularly ‘honest’ one, describing it as ‘a real guided tour throughout all the things I tend to hate about myself.’ So we may assume that the song is personal and, at least to an extent, autobiographical.
The Shakespeare scholar Sir Jonathan Bate recently made headlines by calling Taylor Swift a ‘real poet’, and although many detractors may scoff at the idea of treating song lyrics as ‘poetry’, many lyrics do invite the same kind of close scrutiny we usually direct towards classic works of verse.
After all, anyone familiar with the Norton Anthology of Poetry will find ‘song lyrics’ amply represented: not just, in recent editions, via the samplings from Cole Porter or Bob Dylan but through the songs of Robert Burns or the anonymous early modern ballads such as ‘Bonny Barbara Allan’ and ‘Sir Patrick Spens’.
These are lyric poems in the truest sense: composed in order to be sung, accompanied by music (whether from the lyre which gives us the word lyric, or some other instrument).
But this is to digress. Taylor Swift’s lyrics are the latest in a long line of compositions from songwriters whose work has invited comparisons with poetry. And lyrically, ‘Anti-Hero’ is a work of particular richness and depth, not least because of the rather specific allusions to other areas of pop culture which Swift makes. You can watch the official video for the song here.