A Swift Look at Simile in Song   1 comment

Been listening to the new Taylor Swift album– enjoying it at least mildly. The titular song called “Speak Now” is pretty listenable. While I’ve found it fairly easy to click into the song and bounce with it, one lyrical device seemed to pop up too many times and after multiple listens, it shakes me out of the groove. Too many (3) different similes. A simile suggests a similarity between two otherwise dissimilar things, and employs the word “like” to distinguish them. It is a less powerful device for comparison than metaphor which simply claims one thing to be an otherwise dissimilar thing leaving it to the observer to imply why the comparison is apt because “like” is not used.

Taylor Swift likes to use “like.” Here’s some examples.

  1. “Wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”
  2. “A song that sounds like a death march”
  3. “Floats down the aisle like a pageant queen”

The thing about similes is that they don’t just point out what’s similar about two things. The word “like” suggests similarity, but triggers it’s opposite “unlike” in my contrarian mind. In general, simile is less artistic than metaphor because it keeps the entities separate instead of claiming them to be one.  So metaphor suggests a deeper level of connection while simile is more likely to make one think about what’s unlike about what’s being described.

Taylor says there’s a wedding gown that’s shaped like a pastry. I don’t like that comparison because “pastry” doesn’t trigger any invariable image in my head and the pastries I can think of don’t click into the catalog of wedding gowns I can imagine. The poor fit between pastry and gown in my mind turns the word “like” into “unlike” to where I conclude her gown must not be shaped like a pastry and Taylor’s just being mean.

Cycle through the chorus once and we come to simile 2. Taylor doesn’t link things that are far enough apart in comparing some song to a death march. A death march is a type of song, so to say they are similar isn’t exactly profound. Employing simile and inserting “like” was a bad choice and it immediately triggers “unlike” in my head, leaving a residue of negativity as well.

The last simile actually seems pretty innocent. I can see an almost-bride floating down an aisle like a pageant queen. It clicks and the “like” almost melts away from the image produced in my mind. But that doesn’t mean there’s no problem with the simile. Part of its problem is its placement, being the third simile used. Though by itself it’s innocent and if it were the only simile in the song, it wouldn’t be worthy of criticism, it acts in concert with its two predecessors to produce an inartful effect. Because the last two similes raised eyebrows, any future similes are sure to do the same, and it starts to bother me that she’s using similes at all after she already used two to little acclaim.

In Mean, Swift continues to use very negative metaphors, but only uses two and relegates them to tone-setting in the opening verse:

“You, with your words like knives, and swords and weapons that you use against me…You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard…”

Words that injure like knives and a voice as grating as nails on a chalkboard are clear images, but they are quite negative and not original. To characterize an adversary like this sets a somewhat bratty tone for the entire song. The deeply personal and even autobiographical nature of these lyrics help Swift be relatable, so it’s kinda cute in as far as it’s meant to be somewhat charmingly vengeful, endearingly immature.

Compare Taylor’s similes to the metaphors used in the song “At The Beginning” song from the animated film Anastasia.

  1. Life is a road and I want to keep going
  2. Love is a river, I wanna keep flowing

Isn’t metaphor nice? YOU get to decide in which ways life is a road and in which ways love is a river. Splendid. Not bogged down by “like” or semi-conscious hunts for what’s unlike. Regarding 2., it seems somehow deeper to say “love is a river” than to say “love is like a river.” Rhythmic phasing aside, the lyric in 1. would be less powerful if it read “life is like a road,” turning it into a tawdry proverb. Using metaphors 1. and 2. in concert does not encounter the problems of Taylor’s similes in “Speak Now.” We aren’t jostled by “like”s or encouraged to examine weak and negative comparisons.

Because “Speak Now” is clearly a song aimed at bashing the ostensible bride-to-be, the similes employed reek of negativity. Similes should usually be aspirational in song lyrics. Girls don’t aspire for their wedding dresses to look like pastries or for their wedding chorale to sound like a death march. It’s just so negative, and consequently off-putting. B.o.B. knew to make his simile aspirational when he wrote “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars.” For the singer, airplanes gain utility and lift spirits when they’re like shooting stars. When Blink 182 sings “We can live like Jack and Sally if we want,” the couple’s deep romantic connection, as opposed to the skeletal/ reanimated pair’s ghastly attributes, becomes the focus; how nice. Loosely, the characteristics of a good simile in song are as follow: 1) aspirational, 2) positive, and 3) singular.

So using simile in song isn’t intrinsically bad. I don’t have the problem with use of simile in “like a cholo” or “like a bridge over troubled water” because the comparison is aspirational, positive, and stands alone as the outstanding and/or sole simile. Swift proves capable of this concept in the opening lines of Sparks Fly, drooling, “The way you move is like a full-on rainstorm.” It’s a strong image, sets a tone, and then gets out of the way. Using too many similes, none of which are striking in a good way, dilutes all similes in the song. It makes the song seem unfocused and unable to produce apt metaphors. Using 3 similes in one song, not focusing on any of them but trying to use them as artistic descriptions, just seems distracting and indicative of unskilled writing. That doesn’t make the melody any less pleasant or the song’s meaning any less powerful, but it is a stylistic weakness worth mentioning.


Posted November 18, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

Tagged with , , , , , , , ,

One response to “A Swift Look at Simile in Song

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  1. TANK YOU!!! lol I needed some song lyrics that were metaphors… and I LUV Taylor Swift, so this really helped lololololol

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