Feeling So Gatsby
AUGUST 5 2018
Contrary to rumors, reports, memes, trolls, and Kardashian-West emoji rants, Taylor Swift is not a snake.
The closest she came to anything remotely serpentine was in 2014 when she molted from a fiddle-dee-dee country star into a slick pop risk-taker with the release of 1989.
The watershed album marked a career defining shift for Swift, positioning her as a musician far more astute than past efforts suggested. If anything, 1989proved her more chameleonic.
Sonically, the album is polished 80’s pop saturated in synths and gated reverb. Lyrically, it’s more poetically complex. There are still those melodious refrains essential to all popular music, but a deeper look at the writing reveals something far less transparent.
Buried within the lyrics is a hidden short story about a girl “known by everyone and no one” who fell “recklessly” in love with a boy that “couldn’t stay.” Then, “one day he came back” and their love flourished like a dream. But “friends and enemies” drove their serendipitous affair into madness and they ultimately “paid the price.”
It reads like a vague outline of The Great Gatsby, with Swift cast as Jay Gatsby and her anonymous lover standing in for Daisy Buchanan. And just like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterwork, Swift’s Great American Novel begins in New York.
“Welcome to New York, it’s been waiting for you,” she buoyantly declares on the album’s opening track, capturing all the wide-eyed wonderment that accompanies every unexpected avenue.
Released as a buzz single, Swift’s ode to the Big Apple was criticized by groaning musicologists as an overwhelmingly naïve anthem promoting gentrification. But that was precisely the point. In context to the rest of the album, “Welcome to New York” is just a snapshot of our narrator’s initial enchantment; less about the physical city and more about the exhilarating emotions that can manifest within the eyes of a newcomer.
“The inspiration that I found in [New York City] is kind of hard to describe and hard to compare to any other force of inspiration I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Swift told E! News. “I approached moving there with such wide-eyed optimism and sort of saw it as a place of endless potential and possibilities. You can kind of hear that reflected in this music and this first song especially.”
Gatsby’s newly transplanted narrator, Nick Carraway, is equally enchanted.
“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world,” he muses. Shortly thereafter he theorizes, “‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge… anything at all.’”
From here, Swift and Fitzgerald’s respective works diverge slightly in point of view. Whereas Fitzgerald’s text relies exclusively on the speculations of Mr. Carraway, Swift’s lyrics seamlessly blend the minds of Gatsby and Daisy. 1989 effectively drops the third wheel and, in return, provides a deeper psychological understanding of the romantic leads.
In Chapter 1, well before the romantic debauchery reaches its wild crescendo, readers are made aware of Daisy’s recklessness when she bemoans to Nick about having “‘been everywhere and seen everything.’” The comment is dripping with sarcasm, and Carraway immediately deciphers its underlying truth. Daisy feels stifled by her philandering husband, Tom, and from the noble protocols preventing her from fully engaging in the Jazz Age. As readers soon learn, Daisy’s boredom begets curiosity. Her curiosity begets impulsiveness which, in turn, begets danger.
On 1989’s “Blank Space,” Swift is more direct in her characterization of Daisy: “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” It’s a brilliant quip that effectively shows Daisy’s uncanny ability to charm those around her.
We’re then introduced to Swift’s version of Gatsby on the reflective “This Love.” In it, she sings about the fleeting nature of a relationship as it relates to the tides of a crystalline sea. She also whispers to the song’s muse that a lantern “flickered in my mind only for you.”
The metaphors and arrangement chosen are no mere accident. They not only allude to the green light which Fitzgerald uses to bookend the novel’s central romance, but the sweeping arrangement transforms the song into a lush ballad befit for the closing credits of a cinematic love saga.
Then there’s “I Wish You Would,” a song Swift told Rolling Stone was inspired by an ex, so desperate for reconciliation, that he once bought a home just two blocks from hers. In Gatsby’s case, he erects a glittering mansion across the bay from the Buchanan estate. The garish monument and the chaotic parties it hosts are all done in the interest of Daisy, and Fitzgerald wastes no time revealing why.
Five years prior to the start of the central plot, Gatsby was a lieutenant stationed near Daisy’s Louisville home. The two fell passionately in love, but the Great War beckons him to Europe.
“Wild rumors were circulating about her — how her mother had found her packing her bag one winter night to go to New York and say goodbye to a soldier who was going overseas,” Fitzgerald writes in Chapter 4. Being a debutante, Daisy is “effectually prevented” from going, effectively ending the courtship.
Sometime later, on the day before Daisy is to marry Tom Buchanan, she receives a letter from Gatsby. Fitzgerald never divulges the context of the note, but it sends Daisy into a drunken hysteria. Nevertheless, the wedding proceeds as planned.
Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” feels like a study in Daisy’s tortured mindset during the aforementioned moment. “Say you’ll remember me, standing in a nice dress,” Swift pleads, “Even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.”
The circumstances unquestionably haunt Gatsby too (re: the green light, the mansion, the parties) leading him to orchestrate a phony meet-cute with Daisy.
“The day agreed upon was pouring rain,” Carraway recollects, and begins with a bizarre sight — the usually suave Gatsby “pale as death… standing in a puddle of water” in utter befuddlement. The scene is mimicked almost precisely on 1989’s “How You Get the Girl.”
“Stand there like a ghost shaking from the rain,” Swift sings, “Too afraid to tell her what you want.”
The encounter eventually blossoms into the novel’s second act whereupon Daisy and Gatsby rekindle their interrupted love.
“This love is good, this love is bad, this love is alive back from the dead,” Swift breathlessly coos on “This Love,” a track worth revisiting in this particular moment. But Carraway, sensing Gatsby’s overly euphoric agenda, warns his neighbor, “'You can’t repeat the past.’” To which Gatsby replies, “‘Why of course you can!’”
“Looking at it now… we were built to fall apart, then fall back together,” Swift sings on “Out of the Woods,” a song she told Rolling Stone speaks to “the fragility and breakable nature of some relationships.”
The song’s repetitive chorus — “Are we out of the woods yet?” — suggests a heightened sense of insecurity, something Daisy ironically catches like a cold on the warmest day of the summer.
“‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the next thirty years? It’s so hot, and everything’s so confused,’” Daisy nervously utters in rapid succession.
She’s finally sipped from the fountain of flapperdom, but its unpredictable aftertaste leaves her dizzy with apprehension.
It doesn’t take long for Tom Buchanan to catch on to the charade at play between his wife and her enigmatic new friend. His primal jealousy and Gatsby’s grand illusion eventually coalesce in a heated exchange at the Plaza Hotel a few hours later.
Swift manages to wrap up all the broiling tension with one brisk lyric on “Woods” shouting, “Remember when we couldn’t the heat?”
Being the arrogant brute that he is, Tom belittles Gatsby by questioning his educational background and source of wealth. When Gatsby attempts to use Daisy’s “love” as leverage in the interrogation, it backfires.
“‘I can’t say I never loved Tom,’” she says. “‘I can’t help what’s past.’”
As Tom continues his onslaught, and Gatsby’s debonaire exterior melts in the scorching sun, a confused Daisy begins “drawing further and further into herself.”
On 1989’s “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” Swift provides an internal monologue for Daisy at this very moment singing, “The more I think about it now the less I know.”
Tom, confident in his triumphant victory over Gatsby, suggests the disgraced man drive his wife home. From here the story descends into utter chaos. Daisy, driving Gatsby’s Rolls Royce, accidentally hits and kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle. Tom, unaware of the reality, pins the crime on Gatsby who is shot dead while swimming by Myrtle’s vengeful husband, who then turns the gun on himself.
Early in the novel, an acquaintance of Nick Carraway says, “‘It takes two to make an accident,’” but in Fitzgerald’s work it’s more like a troupe.
The death of Gatsby is often categorized as the death of the American Dream and all the splendor it promises. But his demise is also a rumination of rebirth. Gatsby’s soul, consumed for years by careless admirers, is finally able to reach the loftiest expanses of the universe. His ambitions, too colossal for Earth, are finally able to expand in all the spectacular grandeur he embodied.
On 1989’s final track, “Clean,” Swift meditates on the latter concept singing, “Rain came pouring down when I was drowning, that’s when I was finally clean.”
Separated by almost 90 years, it’s astounding to see how the ambitious creativity of Fitzgerald and Swift merge so seamlessly together.
It’s entirely possible that Swift sat down with every intention of creating a concept album in the vein of Pink Floyd’s Wizard of Oz opus Dark Side of the Moon. If that’s the case, her approach to creating a synchronous companion piece to The Great Gatsby feels more elusive, much like the novel’s namesake.
“I think people want art to have layers. I think that they want to know that there’s a meaning and a story and a cast of characters behind a song,” Swift told Wonderland about the creative process behind 1989. “They want to know that there are secrets that they have the option of figuring out.”
At no point does 1989 feel chronologically beholden to Gatsby and yet, somehow, its frantic 49-minute run-time manages to capture all the mystique and dazzling passion present in Fitzgerald’s text. It’s an album drunk with nostalgia, awash in “sick beats,” that reaches “ceaselessly into the past.”