I've mentioned my fascination with Taylor Swift's songs before on this blog, and I'm going to ramble about her a little more tonight, because I think she's the greatest YA poet in pop culture these days: a lyrical writer who is able to go straight to some key teen-girl conflict or emotion and render it into evocative narrative form. (The "You Belong to Me" video is a practically perfect YA novel in three minutes and forty-eight seconds.) She also tends to affirm extremely traditional gender roles and standards of beauty -- cf. the focus on Daddy's approval in "Love Story," her losing the glasses in the last scene of the aforementioned video, and the general passivity of her protagonists/narrators -- but the pleasure of her storytelling makes up for the failure of her feminist politics for me at present. . . . Not all blonde female country stars can be the Dixie Chicks.
Anyway, the song of hers that's been rolling around my head lately is "Mine," as it's the one getting the most airplay these days on my Top 40 station (video linked there, full lyrics here). It has the typical Taylor Swift virtue of telling a complete three-act story in three verses and a bridge, including a big reversal in the final chorus, but there's more depth of characterization to it than in her previous songs; instead of being the perfect china doll waiting for the boy to claim her, the narrator's a "flight risk" whose family history makes her fight falling in love. Indeed, the line that keeps blowing me away in the song is this in the chorus, addressed to the man who changed her mind:
You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter
The thing that so impresses me about this line is that it implies four layers of relationship in those ten words:
- The daughter/narrator's relationship with her father -- her distrust of him because of the hurt he presumably caused her with his carelessness
- The daughter/narrator with her self -- her distrust of her father led her to become careful in reaction to his carelessness
- The daughter/narrator with the lover being addressed -- this guy loved her so much, and vice versa, that she changed her meticulous nature for him and became a rebel
- The daughter/narrator with the world -- and then she was better able to face the difficulties of the world because she had his love and that new rebellious spirit
This also made me think about elements of great fictional romances. This is something I've thought about a LOT, actually, going back to my passion for Jane Austen and Dorothy Sayers and Shakespeare's romantic comedies in high school and college, and my love for Jennifer Crusie and Georgette Heyer today. . . . One of the parts of the editorial job I like the best is that it lets me be a machinist for stories: I get to take them apart and see how they work. And when I do that with romances, I come up with this list of common elements.
(I also acknowledge the highly general, even stereotypical, gender roles discussed below; and I'll add that I think the most satisfying romances are those where these elements are used in the story of two highly distinct individuals who are on an equal footing in their relationship. Serious power imbalances in romances always make me really uneasy.)
- Moral education -- the other person makes you a better person . . . "completes you," to use the Jerry Maguire phrase (though I always preferred the thought that "Your true love isn't the person who completes you; it's the person who helps you complete yourself"). This is Emma, Pride & Prejudice, "As You Like It," Gaudy Night . . . all of the Rationalist romances I discuss at this link usually focus on moral education in some way.
- A change in someone's essential nature -- this is not only #3 in "Mine" above, it's what makes the Pemberley twist in P&P so great, when Elizabeth shows up at his house and Darcy seems like a completely different person: He loved her enough to reform his behavior and become a better man for her. I don't know if there IS a bigger female fantasy.
- Being wanted -- except, of course, just plain being desired. This is what happens at the climax of "Mine," where it turns out he's been thinking the exact same things she's been thinking about him all this time, and "You are the best thing that's ever been mine."
- Being the only one -- and the amplification of #3, being not just the wanted one, but the ONLY one EVER in the HISTORY of TIME who could inspire this love in the lover. This is one reason Twilight works, I think, because Bella is SO special to Edward and then Jacob in a way many people long for. . . . All the "soulmates" stuff plays on this too. It's interesting that many fantasies with male protagonists also feature this "only one" trope, but there it is foretold in a prophecy that the protagonist must save the world entire in some way. In other words, in female fantasies, women get to be special to one person; in male fantasies, the hero gets the adulation of the world.
- Being seen -- what "being wanted" often starts with: the look that recognizes you and your essential, deep-down worth, no matter how hidden. Cinderella stories are all based upon the premise of being seen; "You Belong with Me" is all about not being seen and then suddenly being revealed.
- Being in control -- For teenage girls especially, it's hugely empowering to be the one in control, the one saying "Yes" or "No" to the young man who's at your feet -- and he has to obey you. Especially potent in combination with sexuality, putting that decision-making power in a girl's hands.
- Breaking free -- On the other hand, if you've been controlled all your life, maybe being in love sets you free to be uncontrolled, as in "Mine" above. And rebellion is always sexy, at least in theory. (I think this is the way Wuthering Heights is supposed to work -- Heathcliff and Cathy breaking through the bonds of society and possibly sanity and death to be together -- but I respect that book more than I find it romantic.)
- Forbiddenness -- obviously. "Love Story" and also Twilight play off this.
- Separation -- I'm thinking of the delicious ache at the end of The Amber Spyglass and "Before Sunrise" here, how romantic it is that they can't be together.
- Death -- the ultimate separation. The 1970s Love Story book and film and Romeo and Juliet are both good examples.
- Being known -- Having someone who sees all of you, knows your history, and loves you anyway. (Or to quote "Mine": "You know my secrets and you figure out why I'm guarded / You say we'll never make my parents' mistakes.")
- Being thought about -- Having someone who loves you enough to think through why you act the way you do, as in the lyrics quoted above, or who figures out something that will make you happy without being told what it is. Gifts that demonstrate knowledge/thought of the other person are always incredibly romantic.
- Sacrifice -- This goes back to #2, where Darcy changes his nature for Elizabeth, though it's perhaps better exemplified by the end of "Titanic," where Jack dies so Rose can live (again invoking #9): He loves her enough to give up _________ for her, whether his snobbery or his life. The O. Henry story "The Gift of the Magi" is a story where #11 makes it romantic, and #12 bittersweet.
(Actually, I can: The Queen of Attolia. But he still loves her first.)