As part of the publicity for her upcoming album “Red”, pop artist Taylor Swift has released a series of singles, the most recent of which is “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The song combines pop sensibilities with a techno beat, and so far its success is notable. The lyrics present a problem, though.
I’ll be the first to say that I’m actually quite the Swift fan, myself. Her lyrics are fun, her music is catchy, and I appreciate her professionalism and positivity as a role model for younger fans. Overall, though some of her songs have bothered me, I think she’s as good a pop artist as I’ve seen. This song, too, is catchy and fun. But while I find the music appealing, the lyrics bother me greatly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with Taylor Swift lyrics. “I’m Only Me When I’m With You,” from her first album, outlines what seems initially to be an innocent relationship between two young people. Upon closer listen, the relationship sounds codependent, and it reinforces messages that young women, no matter how successful, should never strive to out-succeed their male partners.
“I Knew You Were Trouble” is, in my eyes, even more harmful in message than “I’m Only Me When I’m With You.” What “I Knew You Were Trouble” does, from a critical standpoint, is reinforce the excuses that are all too often called to play in a society that excuses rape, sexual assault, and violence against women. It’s called re-victimizing the victim, or victim-shaming, and it’s very common in discourse about rape and relationships in this country. In cases of victim-shaming, cases of sexual assault or dating violence are blamed on the victim, rather than the perpetrator. This is where the “she was asking for it!” defense comes from. It’s the reason why, in a court case against a group of men who forcibly gang-raped an 11 year-old girl in Texas, proceedings spent substantial time detailing what kind of clothing the victim was wearing. It’s why words like “slut” and “whore” are so harmful in our society.
Rape and sexual violence are NEVER the fault of the victim. It’s true that individuals can take steps to ensure safety, but regardless of the situation, rape is not a victim’s fault. Rape is not caused by women going out alone, wearing short skirts, or hanging out with the wrong crowds. Rapists cause rape. This ought to be a widely accepted truth.
Unfortunately, ours is a culture that regularly excuses perpetrators of sexual violence while laying blame on the victims. This is where Swift’s lyrics come into play. The chorus of “I Knew You Were Trouble” goes like this:
“I knew you were trouble when you walked in
So shame on me now
Flew me to places I’ve never been
Now I’m lying on the cold, hard ground…”
Do you see the problem? The song, as far as I can tell, is about heartbreak, rather than a case of sexual violence. Even so, the lyrics are reminiscent of sexual assault, even placing the singer “lying on the cold, hard ground.” The image, violent and explicit, sounds all too familiar to a sexual assault advocate. The song may not intentionally be about rape, but it definitely calls to mind images of sexual violence.
And, of course, there’s the tagline. Since the singer knew the perpetrator was “trouble,” it’s all her fault. Whatever it was that happened to the woman in this song, whether a break up, or rape, or abuse, she is to blame. She should, in fact, be ashamed.
I can say, as one with personal experience, that the song does indeed call to mind images of sexual violence. And the singer shaming herself brings up memories of what it’s like to be a victim. “Shame on me,” she says, for letting this happen. There’s no shaming for the perpetrator, this man who has committed, if not violence, then at least some salient wrong against her. Rather, she is wholly, unquestionably to blame for the events that knocked her to the floor.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the term “rape culture” means.