Midnight. A new day begins, and we are supposed to be asleep, yet we often find ourselves engaging in everything but sleep. Whether it is because of last-minute studying, reluctant reminiscing, or plain sleep deficiency—there is just something so perfect about midnight, right? In a literary sense, it can arguably be called poetic. It is the perfect time for characters to reflect and discover something fantastical; the perfect comparison when a writer needs a dramatic simile or metaphor.
Turns out it is also the perfect theme for a Taylor Swift album.
Taylor Swift recently released her tenth studio album titled “Midnights”. The record consisted of songs about midnights in her past, but it also showcased her ever growing talent for songwriting. If there is anything that makes Swift stand out from the crowd, it has to be the kind of prose she weaves into her lyrics, particularly in recent years. Now, The Owl Pamphlet has certainly discussed her storytelling time and time again, but have we ever discussed how she makes her storytelling brilliant?
Just by listening to a few of her songs, her abundant use of figures of speech becomes crystal clear. Besides creating rhymes, her lyrics often paint a picture as if they were words in a fairytale or anecdote. It is this very technique that makes her songs fresh and creative as it emphasizes feelings and experiences without feeling bland. The best part about it is how this strategy goes beyond writing songs. Maybe by looking through some examples from different “Midnights” tracks, you can learn a trick or two to use in your English class.
'Cause karma is the thunder, rattling your ground
Karma's on your scent like a bounty hunter
Karma's gonna track you down
(Track 11: Karma)
When the same words or phrases are used in the beginning of successive clauses or sentences, an anaphora is formed. This figure of speech is used to develop rhythm not only meant to help audiences remember the phrasing, but also meant to evoke a particular emotion. Through the repetition of the word ‘karma’, Swift uses anaphoras to express confidence and certainty; once you hear the track, you cannot help but get the impression that she feels triumphant, that she believes that she has bested her opposition. Anaphoras also give importance to interconnected ideas. When trying to make a point, repeating the point in different ways helps audiences gain a deeper understanding of what is meant to be said. In this case, Swift makes it clear that karma is not a merciful force.
Fun fact! The opposite of an anaphora is an epistrophe. An epistrophe is the repetition of words and phrases at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Swift uses this in the tenth track, “Labyrinth”, when she repeats the phrase “falling in love” at the end of three consecutive stanza lines in the chorus.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail
(Track 13: Mastermind)
Mastering the antimetabole is all about mastering how to reverse your phrases while making it still make sense. This is a figure of speech where a statement is repeated with the order of words reversed. Swift uses it to present a cause and effect: by being unprepared, you set yourself up for defeat. This is a clever way of connecting two ideas by having a play on the same words.
An antimetabole does not necessarily have to use the exact same words though. While Swift’s lyric is an example of a perfectly reverse repetition, you often have to convert words into different forms so that the repetition would be grammatically correct. Shakespeare for instance writes, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” in his play “Twelfth Night”. As you can observe, “witty” is converted into its noun form while “fool” is converted into its adjective form. This is why the antimetabole can be tricky in its own right, and it can definitely turn out pretentious if the idea of your repetition fails to come across as well-thought out and relevant.
He was sunshine
I was midnight rain
He wanted it comfortable
I wanted that pain
(Track 6: Midnight Rain)
An antithesis is applied when two contrasting ideas are used in at least two clauses in a row. This figure of speech is often associated with stating opposites as it has roots in the Greek word, “antithenai” which means “to oppose”. Most of the time, this is used hand in hand with parallelism to further emphasize the distinction between concepts.
Swift's song “Midnight Rain” talks about a relationship that failed because she and her past partner had contradicting expectations and desires. She wanted to grow in her career while the one she was with wanted to keep it simple and focus on the development of the relationship. Using “antithesis”, Swift expressed these differences and effectively showed why it was inevitable for her to part ways with this person.
It's me, hi
I'm the problem, it's me
(Track 3: Anti-Hero)
You might have heard the term ‘irony’ before and associated it with sarcasm. Well, according to Raymond Malewitz, an associate professor from Oregon State University, “irony occurs whenever a person says something or does something that departs from what [others] expect them to say or do.” This is used to make a point without saying it in a straightforward fashion. There are two kinds of irony that are used as plot devices, but when referring to irony as a figure of speech, this is known as verbal irony.
The song “Anti-Hero” sounds fun and lighthearted, but when paying close attention to the lyrics, it becomes apparent that the song is actually about self-loathing. Nobody really expects anyone to openly admit their flaws, what more their self-hatred? Despite this, Swift casually says that she is “the problem”. The way she sings about this makes listeners believe that she does not care, but in reality, she is saying that she cares so much that she is using humor as a coping mechanism.
I feel the lavender haze creeping up on me…
I just wanna stay in that lavender haze
(Track 1: Lavender Haze)
Metonymy is one of the simpler figures of speech on this list. It is the substitution of a word for another term that refers to the same or a similar idea. Think of how people say “Hollywood” instead of “film industry” when talking about actors and movies. Swift uses this to talk about the feeling of being in love without literally saying that she was in love. After watching a show called “Mad Men”, she discovered the term “lavender haze” and how it was a phrase used in the 1950’s to talk about romantic love. Metonymy makes writing more creative and interesting because it encourages thinking out of the box when describing anything and everything.
So scarlet, it was maroon
(Track 2: Maroon)
A tautology is the repetition of the same idea using synonymous words. This may seem redundant, but it is actually effective in promoting clarity (and ambiguity if necessary) as long as it is not overused. In describing a past relationship, Swift uses this to paint the color red in the minds of her listeners. Although scarlet and maroon are technically shades of red, the same point is made: to her, the relationship she had was a burning love that turned into a burning wound when it ended.
Only six figures of speech were discussed, but there are so many more that are not only evident in Taylor Swift music but also in every creative output that exists. They create unlimited possibilities that can change your writing for the better, so continue learning. Research techniques on your own! You will be surprised by how much you can make your work poetic like midnight just by using figures of speech.
Cover photo: Glamour
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