Sep 2, 2010
Taylor Swift and Jacques Lacan
“Can’t you see that I’m the one who understands you?”
When my oldest son was 3 or maybe 4, he picked up a copy of Jacques Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, opened it and, looking intently at the pages (he could not read at the time), started shouting, “I knew it! I knew it!” This perfectly illustrates my own relationship to the work of this seductively abstruse thinker.
One thesis of the aforementioned well-worn paperback is that the gaze is an object of desire. We want to be seen. This yearning is rooted in us at an existential level and finds expression throughout our culture. Why else, I ask you, would spiritual union, intimacy, and intense personal commitment be expressed simply as, “I see you,” in the film Avatar?
Of course, the idea that people seek out “the gaze of the other” doesn’t really sound that profound considering that everywhere we look advertisements abound promising methods to improve our appearance in order to make ourselves more attractive. For his part, Lacan makes his idea stranger than obvious by insisting that the gaze is an actual object (captured, for example, in Holbein’s anamorphotic skull), and not just the fact that someone casts a longing glance our way.
In her finely crafted hit, “You Belong With Me,” Taylor Swift emphasizes that the “gaze” as object of desire is actually a placeholder for something even more potent and abstract: knowledge. That is, rather than merely being seen, we want to be known. To put it another way, what we want the other to see in us is our understanding of them.
The protagonist of the song, well-aware of the visual allure of her high-heeled, short-skirted sexual rival, goes out of her way to convince the object of her desire (“you in your worn out jeans”) that what she has to offer is something to be more highly prized. Certainly, she says, the toned legs and prominent ass buttocks of a cheerleader are undeniably appealing, but what is more elusive and valuable, in fact, what you yourself lack, is the satisfaction that comes from clear-sighted self-knowledge, which I alone, as the one who gets your humor and knows your story, can provide.
The irony, and tragedy, I suppose, is that visual immediacy can so easily trump this intimate knowing, however desirable the latter may in the end be. I believe that this is amply illustrated by the video for “You Belong with Me.” The fact that Taylor Swift is herself physically attractive not only makes the narrative unbelievable, at least as told from her perspective, but also highlights the challenge of becoming an object of desire through primarily subjective (“I know you”) means.
At least that’s what I got out of it.