Is Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” an allegory for the U.S. – China climate pact?

December 06, 2014 / by / 4 Comments

Taylor Swift is having a moment. If you’ve been anywhere near an electronic device in the last month, this is no news to you. Her album 1989 debuted to critical success she’s never seen before and commercial success no one’s seen since Britney’s heyday. But if there’s been one knock on our pop star du jour, it’s that she’s a relative lightweight.

While Beyonce samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminist poetry, TayTay sings about mean boys and fun nights and how old she is. Right? WRONG.

Turns out, T-Swift is using her noted lyrical prowess to comment on the great Issues Of The Day with biting analysis — we just haven’t been looking hard enough, and the proof is in her latest smash-hit single, “Blank Space.”

“Blank Space” has been praised as many things: a self-aware take on her “boy crazy” reputation, a strong repudiation of the stereotypes placed on women, a pure-pop cakewalk that’s easy to listen to and hard to forget. But what we’ve largely ignored is Swift’s intriguing commentary on the recent climate deal struck by American President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Right now you might be thinking, “What on EARTH is Tom talking about, that makes no sense.” Or, you might be thinking, “Wow Tom is so smart I’m glad I’m reading this.” If you’re thinking the second thing, you’re right. Let’s look at the lyrics to find out why:

Swift starts off with “Nice to meet you / where you been?” as a way of politely chastising China’s absence from previous rounds of climate discussions. It’s as if she’s saying she’s happy to see China finally at the negotiating table, but there really is no excuse for their previous refusals to consider action on climate change.

In the next stanza she moves on to “New money / suit and tie / I can read you like a magazine.” Here she acknowledges that it has only been in the last half century or so that China has fully industrialized, and in the process has become an economic powerhouse able to rival and likely surpass the other richest countries. Plus — and this is really getting a bit weird — if you look at the attire both men wore while speaking to the press during Obama’s visit… it’s actually a suit and tie! Spooky!

“Ain’t it funny / rumors fly / and I know you’ve heard about me” is an interesting take on President Obama’s known hatred for leaked information coming out of his administration. She wryly calls such leaks “funny” while pointing out that China’s vast intelligence operation has likely already heard plenty.

When she sings “So hey / let’s be friends,” I’m 99% sure she’s actually just quoting President Obama’s opening line in the most recent round of negotiations.

“I’m dying to see / how this one ends,” is one of the more macabre lines in the song and the lyric that makes clear where Swift stands on the issue of climate change. Always one to turn a phrase, she points out that we’ll all be “dying” — in flooded cities, burning hillsides and drought-ravaged plains — to see how HUMANITY ends if we fail to act.

One of her least subtle metaphors comes next: “Grab your passport / and my hand.” Yes, Taylor, we understand that this agreement was hashed out on President Obama’s overseas trip last month, and that Obama and Jinping like holding hands.

But she’s right back at it with “I can make the bad boys good for a weekend.” China has long been the proverbial “bad boy” of climate change discussions, but over just a few days of intense negotiations, President Obama was able to make them “good.”

“So it’s gonna be forever / or it’s gonna go down in flames” is a dire warning once again. Either both nations stick to this hugely important pact for the long run, or the planet literally runs the risk of being consumed by flames fanned by higher temperatures, more severe droughts and increased lightning strikes.

When Swift sings “You can tell me when it’s over / if the high was worth the pain” there are actually two reasonable interpretations. Either she’s acknowledging that reducing carbon emissions will be a painful process for an industrializing economy like China’s — and that there’s no guarantee it will be worth it — or she’s pointing out that for decades China’s carbon levels have been too high and that we are all now due for the pain that is sure to come as a result. I’m inclined to believe it’s the former, but you can form your own opinion on this one.

You can’t, however, form your own opinion on the next line: “Got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane.” That’s because there’s no doubt that Swift is using “ex-lovers” to mean allies, of which the U.S. certainly has a long list. Yet would any of us be surprised if allies like Germany, Brazil or Israel would refer to America as “insane” in light of recent NSA revelations? In fact, perhaps only Great Britain among our allies would be willing to stick up for us at this point; but in Swift-parlance, that special relationship is more likely to be considered a “soul-mate” than an “ex-lover.”

With “Cause you know I love the players / And you love the game” Swift offers perhaps her biggest critique of Obama. While he tried to lead through the sheer force of personality and likability, Jinping has successfully mastered the “game” and led China to economic strength and international acceptance that no other communist nation with such a frightening human rights record has achieved.

“Cause we’re young and we’re reckless / we’ll take this way too far” references the knee-jerk reaction from many American conservatives who said that Obama — despite a term and a half in the White House — is an inexperienced negotiator who made a poorly-thought-out deal with China.

“It’ll leave you breathless / or with a nasty scar” is actually a little bit rude. Referencing China’s devastating pollution and smog issues (which have been known to leave residents with asthma literally breathless) in a song about their new efforts to reduce emissions just seems like a low blow. The kind of blow that could leave a nasty scar, actually.

After referencing America’s “long list” of allies once more, Swift goes to the crucial line: “But I’ve got a blank space, baby / and I’ll write your name.” If there has been one nation missing from climate negotiations in the last few decades, it has undoubtedly been China. Each time an agreement is drawn up, their space remains blank and the pledge remains unsigned. Finally, after years of trying, President Obama is ready to write in China as a partner in the fight against climate change.

“Cherry lips / crystal skies” is a quick paean to the literally brighter environmental future the two nations share — though I would argue that “cherry lips” is rather offensive if it’s intended to describe Chinese traditional white-face-red-lips makeup, but hey, this wouldn’t be the first time Taylor’s been accused of cultural insensitivity.

At the end of the stanza she dives into a bit more of a realistic take: “Wait the worst / is yet to come, oh no.” And she’s right. Even with this historic climate pact and a renewed worldwide effort to reduce carbon emissions, we have already done too much damage. We can do our best to mitigate the effects, but things are bound to get worse before they get better.

“Screaming / crying / perfect storms” seems to acknowledge this reality further in startling imagery. Is this the future we want? Death? Destruction? Massive hurricanes wreaking havoc?

Yet just a few lines later Taylor’s back to describing the negotiations, with a line sure to please both Obama critics and his supporters: “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” To fans of the president, this line encapsulates the success of Obama’s trip to China. He smiled for the cameras. He wore Chinese garb. He glad-handed the elites. But behind closed doors he took it to China, getting them to agree to a deal that could limit their economic expansion in order to secure a better future for us all. The president’s detractors are sure to read the line as an indictment of Obama’s attempts to use his charismatic personality to cover up a failed presidency.

After this, she repeats the chorus a few times for emphasis (as if to say, “Do you hear what I’m saying, America? THIS IS ABOUT INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE NEGOTIATIONS!”), then Swift has one more line of interest: “Boys only want love if it’s torture / don’t say I didn’t / say I didn’t warn ya.” Here, she tees up what we can expect from her next album: a scathing critique of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by the United States during the War on Terror and the flimsy legal justification used to permit such practices.

I think we’re all looking forward to listening to that, but for now we’ll just have to make do with what we have: a catchy ear-worm of a pop-hit that doubles as a well-researched take on the U.S.-China climate agreement.