The Confessional Poetics of Taylor Swift, or: Does Too Much Knowledge Ruin Art?

I wanted to write up some quick notes about something that I've been thinking about a lot this past week. The topic came up in conversation with my friend Margaret in conjunction with an episode she recently recorded for my favorite podcast, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. (We had our conversation before the episode went live; I then listened to the episode and later we continued the conversation on Twitter.) On the episode in question (which is great, as all of that show is great), one of the topics discussed was credulity, mostly in terms of what elements of pop culture strain credulity for a person when they show up. As Margaret defined the term in this context, credulity is invoked when "some amount of knowledge you have about the subject at hand interferes with how you're capable of consuming the show or song or sporting event or anything...any time your real-world information is interfering with your ability to consume this artificial, constructed simulation." 

The panelists discussed inaccurate portrayals of locations, professions, and elements of culture that they personally knew well and discussed the various ways that those portrayals distracted them from appreciating a work on its own merits. Then Margaret mentioned that another place she often found her credulity strained was with autobiographical art and the tension between what we know to be true from an artist or creator's life and how things are portrayed in their art. Her argument was that art that we know to be autobiographical opens itself up to a greater degree of credulous scrutiny and that when it seems to deviate from the truth or tell a biased version of that truth, it distracts from anything else it might be trying to accomplish qua art. (At least I hope I'm portraying her argument accurately.) Margaret illustrated this on PCHH with the Taylor Swift song "Bad Blood," explaining the because she knows what the song is "about," it's "totally ruined." This is because the ostensible subject of the songa feud with Katy Perry over backup dancersdoes not seem to warrant the histrionics of this lyrical narrative. Taylor Swift is just *totally* overreacting, and that makes it really hard to get into the jam of the song. (The autobiographicality of T. Swift's songs also coincidentally showed up on another of my favorite podcasts last week, earning a whole quiz segment of its own on the excellent trivia show Good Job, Brain!it was in part this serendipitous repetition in the universe that kept me thinking about this topic so long and inspired me to write this post.) (And I think a future post on podcasts as the most interesting art form of this decade will have to be queued up...)

Soooo...what this whole thing reminded me of was reader response to and critical reception of the group of mid-20th century writers known as the confessional poets, particularly the women in that cohort, most famously Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Back before I left academia, this was pretty much my main topic of study and I'm a) still really kind of obsessed with it and b) always looking for ways to connect it to the contemporary world. So let me tell you a little bit about what I was thinking.

If you know anything at all about Plath and/or Sexton, you probably know that they wrote very intense, very personal poems and that they both committed suicide relatively young. They were also friends, of a sort, and lived similar and in ways very representative lives being female, gifted, and troubled in postwar America. While Plath is generally considered the superior poet at this point, they were each accorded both praise and criticism in their day, and much of the criticism focused on the same few points: 

  • These women write poems based entirely on their personal experiences. 
  • The moments when their art presents details that are able to be factually disproven by studying their known biographical details are failures of that art.
  • The confessional mode on the whole is the sign of a minor poetic talentas one critic put it, "mawkish," "pathetic," "neurotic," and "childish"unable to transcend the petty details of the self to make art that appeals to the larger human condition.

The same critic wrote the following passage about one of Sylvia Plath's most famous poems, "Daddy"

But who but a supreme egoist would take the plight of the victims of genocide as the adequate measure of her own alienation? Perhaps if we didn’t know the relatively comfortable bourgeois background of Plath’s family, perhaps if we could say the poem was about authority "in general," perhaps the feminists’ need to make clear the far-reaching power of chauvinist "enemies" could be used to soften the barbarity of the poem’s rhetorical strategy. But the petulance of the voice here, its sheer unreasonableness masked as artistic frenzy, finds ready acceptance among a large audience. (Charles Molesworth, "'With Your Own Face On': The Origins and Consequences of Confessional Poetry" in Twentieth Century Literature 22.2 [1976]: 172) (I have PLENTY more quotes where that came from, so let me know if you wanna get real srs academe up in this shit.)

I hear echoes of this same critique, with its distinct subtext of gendered disparagement not only of the artist but also of the audience, in the contemporary discussion of much autobiographical and popular art, including in the PCHH episode, although I hardly think the panelists there were as vitriolic as Molesworth and his ilk, nor were they nearly as narrow-minded. Still, there is absolutely a parallel and it has to do with the way we feel uncomfortable with (and comfortable dismissing) art that we believe to be too clearly rooted in individual personal experience, especially emotional/romantic/sexual experience and especially especially when it comes from a female artist and/or speaks strongly to female audiences.

One of my major problems with this is that it falls victim to a very basic fallacy in the degree to which it trusts the infallibility of the author of a work of art. I am at best a very minor Swiftie, but I give her way more credit than those who believe there is a 1:1 correlation between what she says a song is "about" and what the song can and does actually mean. We all know that Taylor is a masterful manipulator of her public persona and what information she does and does not reveal (see this fantastic piece by Anne Helen Petersen, one of my internet writing heroes, for some excellent insights on this). Why is it, then, that we are so completely credulous when it comes to author's representations of the "meanings" in their own works? There is another whole layer of artistry and artifice involved in the supposedly authoritative discursive analysis of your own work. This is probably, at its center, a difference of opinionI find that learning more about what a creator *thinks* they are presenting in their work actually just encourages me to see a richer variety of possible interpretations, opening up a work even further rather than closing it down to one definitive "right" meaning (in fact, a silly or disappointing representation of a work from its author might just make me all the more pleased with my own, more nuanced readings)but then again, I'm very much a post-death of the author critic in my interactions with media. Yet despite appreciating that this may in large part be a matter of taste, I also see all kinds of red flags when these particular criticisms are raised against a female artist like Taylor Swift whose work tends to such personal and traditionally "feminine" subjects. So I write about it on the internets, and think about it more than might be entirely healthy.

I'd love to hear what you think, too: Does knowing about the biographical details associated with a work of art affect the way you experience it? For better? For worse? Are there certain kinds of creators or kinds of art where you find this more problematic than with others? What do you think about the comparison between Taylor Swift and poets like Plath and Sexton? I think I might be onto something with this "confessional poetics of T. Swift" thing--I need to do some more research into whether anyone else has been thinking about this, but look out for a ridiculous conference paper coming soon, perhaps...

Recommended Reading:
Sylvia Plath, "Lady Lazarus"
Anne Sexton, "The Double Image" and "Sylvia's Death"
Miranda Sherwin, "Confessional" Writing and the Twentieth-Century Literary Imagination

Recommended Listening:
If you can get through this essay and not want to go sing along to a bunch of Taylor Swift songs at the top of your lungs while dancing around...well you're definitely not me.