Taylor Swift: “Out of the Woods” (1989, 2014)
The backing track of Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” develops almost impressionistically, a landscape of glossy echoes and shadows for which there are few visible sources. Convex drums whirl in and out of the song like wind through a room. When Swift sings she is one of the few elements of the song not mercilessly fed through reverb, which makes her voice sound as if it’s hatching out of negative space. The song depicts a couple who have either broken up or live forever in the drifting saturation of a Polaroid photo. “We were built to fall apart / then fall back together,” Swift sings, constructing a loop through which the characters in her song move.
Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer describes a woman named Charlotte Douglas, who escapes her abusive first husband and her pragmatic second husband in order to find her daughter in the Central American country of Boca Grande. Her daughter is not in Boca Grande, and there’s little reason to believe she’d install herself there after hijacking a plane and incinerating it to satisfy an obscure Marxist criterion. Boca Grande is blank, literal, and administratively insecure enough to receive Charlotte’s projections, which envelop her and through which she translates the events around her. She absorbs images but fails to assimilate their meaning.
The images in “Out of the Woods” wind an oblique course through the song. The couple are so bright in the Polaroid that the rest of the world blurs and desaturates. Trees take on the aspect of monsters. The couple shifts the furniture of a room so they can dance, adjusting the shape of one context so it can contain another. These are vivid projections one imposes on the world from the center of an insecure, mercurial relationship.
Charlotte is described early in A Book of Common Prayer as “immaculate of history, innocent of politics.” She is sustained by her dimensionally narrow images of people and places, of her daughter and of Boca Grande. Not that the revolutionary politics of Boca Grande are anything but typical or environmental. Things in Boca Grande are constantly changing into themselves, half-lives caught in a loop. “Everything here changes and nothing appears to,” according to the narrator Grace Strasser-Mendana. “A banana palm is no more or less ‘alive’ than its rot.”
The choruses of “Out of the Woods” are perhaps Swift’s most repetitive—usually she compresses as many discrete syllables into a song as it can bear—but the repetition enhances the song. It embodies the feeling of being caught in a narrow, doomy loop of one’s own thoughts, of walking into the center of continuous panic. Didion often employs repetition as a rhetorical device, in order to impose narrative and order where there is none. It doesn’t take; time, memory, and human motivation resist her structures. They are meant to fracture. At the end of each chorus in “Out of the Woods” a bass drum insistently blooms, like a shadowy throb of memory. “I remember,” Swift sings.
Memory itself is a kind of woods, a wilderness. Throughout A Book of Common Prayer Charlotte endures massive dislocations of memory. Grace narrates, “She remembered certain days and nights very clearly but she did not remember their sequence.” When she tries to explain to her second husband Leonard the fact of a bomb going off at the abortion clinic where she works, she cannot convey its details without misdirection. She is unable to detach herself from the periphery of the explosion: She was removing a tampon. Leonard at one point characterizes Charlotte as someone who “remembers everything.” Later, drunk, he corrects himself: “No… She remembers she bled.” The focus around the blood drifts, becomes obscure. When Charlotte unearths a braided memory of the deaths of her parents and her infidelity with a lawyer, she tells Leonard, “I am so tired of remembering things.”
"Out of the Woods" seems sculpted from a discursive flood of memory, like a cliff face composed over time by the waves of the ocean. An image of tenderness, of one character looking after the other as they endure stitches in the hospital, conducts another memory, one of exhaustion: "Remember when we couldn’t take the heat / I walked out, I said ‘I’m setting you free’." The memories come all at once, almost out of order, and together wield a kind of symbolic power. They inform something about oneself that resists examination, that fails to come into focus, a haze around the continuous bloom of one’s pulse.
The haze is the woods. Boca Grande is not necessarily a woods but there’s a quality of wilderness to a politically unstable country situated in an equatorial climate. It is a place that resists history. A geography free of history is a geography where history repeats. In the woods this recursion is literal—clusters of trees that are so identical as to seem oblique echoes of each other. Errors in time.
Woods often hover within atmospheres of horror and menace. In horror stories people loosen from time, into a continuous order of evil. In the 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre there is a scene of the main character Sally being pursued by chainsaw-wielding Jedediah “Leatherface” Sawyer through the skeletal brush of Central Texas, after Leatherface saws Sally’s brother Franklin into wailing shadows. The woods, if they can be characterized as woods when completely annihilated by the sun, are minimally lit; Sally and Leatherface appear as mere brushstrokes of blue in the night. For a few minutes it looks as if Sally is falling through an infinite universe of desiccated branches.
At the end of the film, Sally leaps through the window of Leatherface’s house, and she spills into the incomplete light of dawn, the visible order of the world recomposing itself. Sally finds herself on the bed of a pickup truck, emitting high staccato cascades of laughter, overwhelmed by the fact of her own survival. “The monsters turned out to be just trees.” There is the shot of Leatherface, reduced to mortal frustration, weaving his chainsaw in gorgeous helixes over his head. “When the sun came up, you were looking at me.”