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Divine Symmetry Series | 1 | “Blank Space”

After seeing The Eras Tour Film at the drive-in last week, I ended up writing two blog posts related to Taylor Swift. Of course I was aware of Taylor Swift before seeing the movie, but I was not (and still am not) especially familiar with her music. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast her to Bowie in the process of familiarize myself with her songs. And in doing that I noticed that some of her songs contain similar phrases as some Bowie songs. This is not the first time I’ve had this reaction, so with this post I’m going to launch a new series that I’m going to call, “Diving Symmetry,” after a phrase used in Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

For this inaugural series post, I’m going to look at Swift’s “Blank Space,” but before I do I want to be clear that I don’t think the similarities are deliberate. Of course, it’s entirely possibly that Bowie songs were rolling around in Taylor Swift’s mind as she was writing her own songs, but I strongly suspect that’s the outer limit of an actual connection. It’s possible that there are only so many ways of expressing similar thoughts. More to the point, I kind of think of what I’m observing as similar to “found art,” which is to say something assigned artistic meaning after the fact. There are plenty of songs that deliberately sample or reference other songs. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. But even if there’s nothing objectively connecting “Blank Space” with Bowie’s lyrics, there is certainly something going on in my head, and after all I’m the one writing this blog, so…

I already mentioned in my post two days ago the parallel between Swift’s line, “you look like my next mistake,” and Bowie’s, written from deep inside middle age, “You’re the great mistake I never made” from the song, “Survive.” From the other side of two-plus decades of aging, Bowie was lamenting not making the mistake Swift was looking forward to. I also noted that Swift sings, “You’re the King, baby, I’m your Queen,” which is an almost counterpart to Bowie’s line from, “Heroes,” “I will be king, and you will be my queen.” Both are singing about temporary arrangements. Swift’s song seems to be about a prospective weekend (or month-long) fling, while Bowie is fantasizing about, well, maybe the same thing, but Bowie’s scenario seems to be limited by walls, guns shooting overhead and ominous portends of doom. Swift seems to simply realize that whatever she’s about to entice her partner into is doomed for more pedestrian reasons, but will probably be fun while it lasts.

The song contains more parallels to Bowie songs, some more obvious than others.

Swift repeatedly uses the phrase, “cause we’re young,” which makes me think of the Bowie song, “Because you’re young.” But the parallels run deeper in a fairly sinister way. Swift sings:

‘Cause we’re young, and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far (ooh)
It’ll leave you breathless, mm
Or with a nasty scar (leave a nasty scar)

Bowie’s refrain begins with the similar term and also ends with a reference to scars:

Because you’re young
You’ll meet a stranger some night
Because you’re young
What could be nicer for you?
And it makes me sad
So I’ll dance my life away
A million dreams, a million scars

They almost could be describing the same thing, but Bowie raises the question of who in the equation will end up scarred.

Swift promises to show her newfound potential lover, “magic, madness, heaven, sin.” While Bowie doesn’t have a similar formula, it seems like a summation of much of what he sang about for the duration of his career. The inclusion of “magic” is a bit odd because it doesn’t come up again in the song. Bowie tended to avoid the word, “magic” (“Magic Dance” being an exception), but he frequently described magical or otherwise supernatural phenomena. I again think of the song, “Quicksand,” which begins with the mysterious lines, “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn; Immersed in Crowley’s uniform; Of imagery.”

The Golden Dawn was (is?) a magical secret society associated with occultist and purported “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. Bowie was not the only rocker to drop a Crowley reference. The wizard’s image appears in the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, while Ozzy Ozbourne performed an entire song about him, “Mr. Crowley.” There are many other examples no doubt because Crowley was not simply mystical but he was a libertine. His wickedness was based in no small part by his insatiable sexual appetite. Taylor Swift is perhaps not suggesting quite that, but clearly she is painting a picture of her own kind of sexual wickedness. The magic and insanity are not literal, but more like a portent of having a crazy (if reckless) good time.

“Madness” and insanity are other concepts that appear throughout Bowie’s catalogue. Most obviously is, “Aladdin Sane,” which is a play on words— a lad, insane. The refrain of the song is alternately, “who’ll love Aladdin Sane” and “We’ll love Aladdin Sane.” Swift too links “sane” with “love” as she sings, “Got a long list of ex-lovers; They’ll tell you I’m insane.” Both songs suggest a kind of hedonistic celebration in the face of impending disaster. For Bowie, the disaster is war— “battle cries and Champaign, just in time for sunrise”. That line comes right before and after, “Who’ll loved Aladdin Sane.” If you don’t know the song, trust me that the setup is something like a party the night before a battle. There’s drinking involved and the question of who will love the insane lad takes on a doomed immediacy because of what’s coming. In this sense, the punchline of Swift’s song— fits like a glove. The central concept as foretold by the title, articulated after her lines about her ex lovers saying she’s the one who is insane, is, “But I’ve got a blank space, baby; And I’ll write your name.” Who will love a lad, insane? Who will be the lover of the singer whose ex lovers call her insane? Sounds like there’s a match made in Heaven somewhere around here…

I can actually go on (and on). Again, I think the “divine symmetry” is coincidental. I don’t think Taylor Swift was writing the other side of a Bowie song. But I do think there’s a gravitational pull bringing together two artists visions of a short-term, doomed quest for a good time. The “blank space” has a particular shape, so perhaps it should no surprise that Bowie and Swift fill it with something similar.

——

Lyrics of “Blank Space”

Nice to meet you, where you been?
I could show you incredible things
Magic, madness, heaven, sin
Saw you there and I thought
“Oh, my God, look at that face
You look like my next mistake
Love’s a game, wanna play?” Ay
New money, suit and tie
I can read you like a magazine
Ain’t it funny? Rumors fly
And I know you heard about me
So hey, let’s be friends
I’m dying to see how this one ends
Grab your passport and my hand
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over, mm
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
‘Cause we’re young, and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless, mm
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name
Cherry lips, crystal skies
I could show you incredible things
Stolen kisses, pretty lies
You’re the King, baby, I’m your Queen
Find out what you want
Be that girl for a month
Wait, the worst is yet to come, oh, no
Screaming, crying, perfect storms
I can make all the tables turn
Rose garden filled with thorns
Keep you second guessing like
“Oh, my God, who is she?”
I get drunk on jealousy
But you’ll come back each time you leave
‘Cause, darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over, mm
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
‘Cause we’re young, and we’re reckless (oh)
We’ll take this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless, mm (oh)
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane (insane)
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name
Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya
Boys only want love if it’s torture
Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya
So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over (over)
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane (I’m insane)
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
‘Cause we’re young, and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far (ooh)
It’ll leave you breathless, mm
Or with a nasty scar (leave a nasty scar)
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
But I’ve got a blank space, baby
And I’ll write your name

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