Jamie Lynne Burgess
Her Own Soulmate: Midnights by Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift became known early in her career for writing a song that was a happy-ending version of Romeo and Juliet, where the final celebratory chorus cheers, “Marry me, Juliet, you never have to be alone / I love you and that’s all I really know.” In the music video, Swift wears a long, white gown, and the assumption was that because of the song’s lyrics and visual styling, Taylor Swift wanted to be married, and soon, at any cost—even though she was only 18 years old.
Her search for lasting love became the central narrative to the media commentary about Swift’s life and the question that perplexed fans and critics alike—would she find the love she wanted? And if she ever did, would she stop writing songs?
Taylor has answered these questions on previous albums—both directly and indirectly, as her prolific last few years have proven that relationship stability has only helped her grow as an artist. Still, the question remains: will Taylor get married? Would her white dress look more like “Love Story,” or more like “willow”?
Midnights, released on October 21, 2022, opens by addressing this question in the first track, “Lavender Haze,” and it becomes a thematic thread that holds together this jewel-ridden album. Through sound production, lyrical parallels, and narrative choices, Taylor Swift’s Midnights covers new ground for the artist by questioning marriage and ultimately presenting an alternative and unexpected path for the narrator: she is her own soulmate.
When the album begins, Swift sings, “Meet me at midnight,” welcoming the listener into the world of her album and of her stories. It’s the witching hour, and the “lavender haze” creates a veil in which new outcomes are possible. “Lavender Haze” begins with a scene familiar to the Taylor Swift listener: it sets up the contrast between interior and exterior, where the interior is safe and outside there is the presence of critical voices. The two people in the song are lying and looking up at the ceiling, and although “you don’t ever say too much,” there is a feeling that they are protected and sheltered here from danger outside. “I’ve been under scrutiny,” she says, implying the outside pressure, but luckily, “you handle it beautifully.”
The song’s chorus likewise describes the narrators discontent with the voices outside. “Damned if I do, give a damn what people say,” she says. This harkens back, of course, to the reputation album, which was explicitly about the ridiculousness of rumors and how the superficiality of reputations stand in contrast to the depth and complexity of interior humanity. Finally, in the bridge, Swift sings, “talk your talk and go viral / I just need this love spiral,” reinforcing themes we saw on rep songs such as “Call It What You Want” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” where the narrator’s lover never succumbed to the drama and rumors, but continued to love her for her interior self rather than the exterior narrative.
Taylor Swift fans have a complex relationship with the question of whether or not Taylor and Joe should get married. On the one hand, we are deeply offended by any criticism of their relationship as invalid because they are not married; we know their love for each other is deep and true. On the other, we are protective of Taylor—we want to know whether or not she wants a ring, because we need to know where she stands in order to decide our own opinions. If she wants it, we believe she should have it. Because we believe Taylor should have everything she wants. Always, without exception.
So the question floats around: why hasn’t he asked? But we often pounce on anyone who actually articulates the question out loud. Taylor is a feminist. She doesn’t need a man, we say. At the same time, we are left in secret wondering. We have speculated that she might announce her engagement through her songwriting, but “Lavender Haze” luckily relieves us of that wondering immediately.
“Lavender Haze” doesn’t skate around the question the way a Swiftie does. “All they keep asking me / is if I’m gonna be your bride,” she writes in the first line of the second verse. The ambiguous “they” is another device Swift often uses to describe the outside, critical voices, which could represent people on the internet, or the paparazzi, or any of Swift’s critics. This is the first song on the album, and the whole second verse addresses this specific question, setting up the question of marriage as a major theme of the album.
In the same verse, she sets up the dichotomy of a “one night or a wife,” to show that we don’t have an alternative way to see relationships: they’re either nothing or forever. This outdated view of relationships claims that any lovers that don’t last together for 60 years and until one of them dies is a failure. The chorus reinforces the outdatedness of the idea, calling it “1950s shit they want from me,” again invoking the use of “they” to describe some kind of outside, critical voice putting demands on the narrator.
What the lavender haze specifically means remains open to interpretation. Easily, it could just mean that joyful haziness of being in love—the “dazzling haze” in “Lover”—but the way it is “creeping up on me,” in this song suggests that the narrator might not enjoy it all the time. The lavender haze is “surreal” at the beginning of the song and “so real” by the end. It is also obscuring; we can imagine it is the shelter under which the narrator and lover are shielded by those exterior, critical voices.
In a more personal interpretation, I think the lavender haze is the liminal space where relationships thrive. It’s mature beyond infatuation, yet it’s still joyful, purply, and wonderfully yours. Marriages are rooted in patriarchy; they are the domain of the masculine—of ownership. Rings can bind, as we will see later in the album. The lavender haze leaves room for the feminine energy to grow, move, and thrive, without being crushed or tied.
The sixth track on the album, “Midnight Rain,” is the next to address marriage so directly on the album. That the title of the song contains the word “midnight” shows how closely tied it is to the album’s major themes, that it is one of the defining tracks on the album.
The song opens with Taylor’s voice pitched down to be unrecognizable, singing the chorus. The chorus immediately introduces the idea of marriage: “he wanted a bride / I was making my own name,” playing on the concept that marriage takes away a woman’s name. Still, because the voice is unrecognizable at this point, it’s unclear who exactly is chasing fame.
This low voice creates a contrast with her familiar voice, which comes in at the first verse. The first verse is very familiar to Taylor’s oeuvre: it sets up a narrator who lives in a small town, feels trapped both trapped and exiled, and wants to leave her small town lover for a bigger life, in pursuit of fame. We have seen this most recently on evermore with “tis the damn season” and, from the reverse perspective, “dorothea,” especially present in the lines “and he never thinks of me / except for when I’m on TV.” But this theme is ancient in Taylor Swift studies; it originates on the debut album and finds its anthem in “White Horse” from Fearless, where the narrator will leave the town in the dust, in pursuit of better and bigger things through her songwriting.
The town in “Midnight Rain” is a “wasteland,” invoking a little T.S. Eliot, and it is “full of cages.” Cages were a major symbol of the reputation era, and the lines of this verse also recall “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” from the Lover album, with the “pageant queens” invoking the previous song’s “pageant smile.” The verse also includes a line about “jumping off things in the ocean,” which can recall “Paper Rings” where Swift sings about jumping in icy water (always presumed, with strong evidence, to be about Joe). Finally, we have a reference to “pretenders,” which is an interesting echo of “bring on all the pretenders, I’m not afraid,” from Speak Now’s “Long Live.” Because this theme is so classic to Swift’s body of work, there are references to every other studio album contained within it.
In the second verse, we see the narrator viewing the lover’s perfect, shiny life from outside; it is a life from which she is barred. She peers through “a window, a deep portal” to view “the life [she] gave away,” in pursuit of her dreams.
Marriage has always been at odds with the dreams of the woman-artist, and it pervades this song: a woman-artist is an unnatural creature (think of the “monster on the hill” from “Anti-Hero”), one who is barred from the “picture perfect” life presented in “Midnight Rain.” In fact, the lover in this song is “sunshine,” but the narrator is “midnight rain,” some kind of dark, tortured soul. This is further emphasized by using the pitched-down voice for the chorus. Maybe it’s her “melancholia” resurfacing from “Lavender Haze,” or the fact that she is “haunted,” as she sings in the outro, but this artist faces the choice between fame and family. She chooses the former—and while he “stays the same,” she sings, “all of me changed like midnight.”
The pitched down voice seems to call in the yin-yang of the song. It sets up almost a duet between the singer and herself, or another version of herself. We learn, through the song, that she has shunned a “perfect” lover in pursuit of fame. She therefore develops an inner version of herself that provides balance to the chaos of the woman-writer, a deeper, more grounded voice that understands this loss as inevitable for her growth. The singer is beginning to see that she no longer needs to look outside herself for what she seeks—that grounded voice actually lives within her.
“Bejeweled” offers yet another look at an alternative to marriage. This song is a metaphorical conceit: the narrator constantly compares herself to a diamond. This is not, however, a diamond given by a lover in order to claim her as his chattel. She is her own diamond. Her sparkle and shine come from within.
The first verse opens with a discontented lover feeling that she isn’t getting her due. “By the way, I’m going out tonight,” she sings. The chorus breaks open triumphantly as the narrator sings, “I’m still bejeweled, when I walk in the room / I can still make the whole place shimmer.” She uses the phrases “diamonds in my eyes” and “I polish up real nice,” to further emphasize the conceit. She has “sapphire tears,” and a man tells her that her “aura’s moonstone,” but it is false because “he was high.” She is more than moonstone; she is diamond. “What’s a girl gonna do? / A diamond’s gotta shine,” she sings.
The narrator is not exactly a “good girl.” She has been pretending at it, being “a little too kind,” and “too good of a girl,” but now she wants to let loose and sparkle. Because she doesn’t wear a ring, she can pretend not to remember if she has a man or not: “When I meet the band, they ask, ‘Do you have a man?’ / I can still say, ‘I don’t remember.’” She is not given away by wearing an actual diamond ring, the universal symbol that she is “taken.” She can “reclaim the land” of herself by going out on her own.
Does her desire to be on her own make her categorically bad or wrong? Certainly not, but there is ambiguity. She is not fitting the mold; she won’t be taken. The song is thematically similar to “Shiny,” from the Moana soundtrack, which was a David Bowie tribute (we can also think of Bowie with the song “Labyrinth), sung by one of the film’s villains. So perhaps the narrator of “Bejeweled” is a kind of villain or bad girl, who polishes up real “nice,” but we can hear the hints of sarcasm in the emphasis on the word “nice.” Her goodness remains debatable; her goodness is beside the point. Lest we ever forget it, Mary Oliver wrote, “You do not have to be good.”
Finally, in the chorus, the narrator sings, “Don’t put me in the basement,” almost like a literal plea. We understand that even though this woman is strong (perhaps because she is strong) she is still subject to being locked away somewhere, as the “madwoman in the attic,” referenced several times on the folklore album. This narrator, however, is not a wife, so she would be exiled to the basement—an even baser fate. Still, the next line, “when I want the penthouse of your heart,” we realize that she is actually using the basement as a metaphor—and reversing the expectation of “attic” with the glamor of a “penthouse.” This is a reversal that both acknowledges the woman’s lack of power and emphasizes her desire to love him, without a ring. “Bejeweled” is about a woman who becomes her own diamond; she does not need to be given a ring in order to be whole.
On evermore, we saw the rejection of marriage in “champagne problems” that led to heartbreak. “champagne problems” also referenced the narrator’s mental illness—as if that is the only acceptable reason for turning down a proposal. From evermore, we evolve into Midnights, where the narrators know marriage is not what makes a person complete. Rather, they create their own completeness. They become their own better halves, and they shine like their very own diamond rings.