It’s been a busy few days of discoveries. Water has been found on Mars. A large power station might’ve been discovered deep in space. Arsenal seem to have worked out what those two pointy sticks at the end of the pitch are for.
But here at Oxford University, we think we’ve just made a discovery to top them all.
Passing time in one of our recent tea-breaks, a few of us decided to start playing with the University’s Supermassive Pop Music Computer. And, after a few aimless hours trying to find a tune within the entire works of Adele, we decided it’d be a laugh to have closer look at Taylor Swift’s latest opus, 1989.
And, inputting the lyrics, we were, quite frankly, astonished at what we found.
You see, 1989, it turns out, is a concept album. In fact, it’s one so clever, that it ranks with the greats like ‘Sgt Pepper’, ‘Pet Sounds’, and ‘Pinkerton’.
It’s a concept album, get this, about the reign of Henry VIII.
Bear with me….
Welcome to New York.
A simple ditty about the excitement of moving to a new place? Think again. The ‘new York’ she sings of is Thomas Wolsey; the song celebrates the optimism of his promotion to the archbishopric of York. It’s a new reign, everything is awesome, and we’re gonna party like it’s 1514.
Black Space. At first glance, this is an uplifting tune about carefree young love. Look closely, though, and it reveals a dark heart. For this song is about torture. It’s narrative voice is that of Thomas More, and he’s taunting some defenceless heretic. On a rack.
‘Screaming, crying, perfect storms, I could make all the tables turn.’
‘It’ll leave you breathless [dead], or with a nasty scar [ouch]’.
‘I could show you incredible things, Magic, madness, heaven, sin.’
And then ‘Darling I’m a nightmare, dressed like a daydream.’ Yes, Thomas More, yes you are.
And what about that chorus: ‘I got a blank space baby, and I’ll write your name.’ That’s not about Taylor’s innocent heart. No, that’s Thomas More describing a proforma death warrant. Dark.
Style. A catchy, forceful stomper, which – if you listen carefully – can only be about the perils of dating Henry VIII himself.
‘Midnight, you come and pick me up. No headlights [not invented yet], long drive [up to Hampton Court], could end in burning [more likely beheading, but why not be ambitious, right?].’
‘I heard you been out and about with some other girl, he says what you heard is true [but I’m the king, so probs best to shut up about it]’.
Then you have Out of the Woods. Now, according to scientists, this is about Harry Styles. Not so. The line ‘I walked out, I said, I’m setting you free, but the monsters turned out to be just trees’ gives the game away. This is about the Reformation – the woods we are trying to get out of are the woods of Papal superstition, and the monsters are the demons and ghosts of purgatory. In fact, the whole song could be interpreted as a treatise on medieval theology, which seems much more plausible than its being about some juvenile sex-pest from Cheshire.
All you had to do was stay. ‘People like you, always want back the love they gave away, people like me wanna believe you when you say you’ve changed.’ This must be one of the most danceable pop songs ever written about late-Henrician foreign policy. Henry, anxious at the hostility of the French, is trying to get himself back in the good books of the Habsburg Empire. The song’s wounded narrator is the emperor Charles V:
‘All you had to do was stay. Man, why’d you have to go and lock me out when I let you in’. ‘Let me remind you, this was what you wanted’, ‘I’ve been picking up the pieces of the mess you made’ [e.g. European Christendom]
‘It’s just too late’. Yeah, Henry.
Shake it Off. This one’s so obvious it’s amazing we’re the first to notice. Yes, this punchy riposte to the gossips [‘the liars and dirty dirty cheats of the world‘] is, of course, the voice of Anne Boleyn, who is revealed as giving nihil fukkes.
‘I stay up too late, got nothing in my brain, that’s what people say’. ‘Go on too many dates, but I can’t make them stay’. In fact, the refrain ‘Haters Gonna Hate’, is an almost exact translation of one of Anne’s mottoes, in renaissance French: ‘Groinge qui Groigne’.
Then there’s the rap, which is just so clearly about court politics, circa 1536: ‘My ex man brought his new girlfriend, she’s like “oh my god”. But I’m just gonna shake, and to the fella over there with the hella good hair [undoubtedly a reference to Mark Smeaton], won’t you come on over baby we could shake, shake’. [seriously, Anne, careful now]
I wish you would. This is the first, and most optimistic, of the album’s two songs about Pope Clement VII. Here, Clembo expresses hope that Henry will return to the Papal fold. ‘You’re thinking that I hate you now’ he says, but ‘I wish you know that I miss you too much to be mad anymore’.
Unfortunately for Henry, such forgiveness wouldn’t last long (q.v. ‘Bad Blood’, below).
Wildest Dreams. ‘I thought heaven can’t help me now, Nothing lasts forever, But this is gonna take me down
He’s so tall, and handsome as hell, He’s so bad but he does it so well’.
Ouch. Anne got slightly beheaded. No wonder Henry seems tall.
Bad Blood. Not, as widely believed, a missive about Tay’s feud with Katy Perry and their ruined friendship; no, this is the second Popesong. It’s an angry rant by Clement about a king who’d once been so pally with Rome they’d given him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, but had thrown it all back in their faces.
‘Baby, now we’ve got bad blood
You know it used to be mad love
I was thinking that you could be trusted
Did you have to ruin what was shiny?
And time can heal, but this won’t
So if you’re coming my way [e.g. The Vatican]
How You Get the Girl. Like any great concept album, though, 1989 flits betwixt darkness and light, and thankfully after the Papal Anger of ‘Badde Bludde’, we get a cheerier interlude. We’re in the mind of the poet and courtier Thomas Wyatt, and he’s explaining the techniques of courtly romance.
‘With pictures in frames [Holbein, preferably], of kisses on cheeks, cheeks [steady now]
Tell her how you must’ve lost your mind
When you left her all alone
And never told her why
And that’s how it works‘
But then things get dark again with This Love. A sensitive ballad about heartache? Not so. This is another foreign-policy tune, the subject this time is the Rough Wooing by Henry VIII of Scotland. Will they, won’t they? asks Taylor. Who knows, but the references to naval warfare are an especially exquisite touch.
‘Been losing grip,
Oh, sinking ships
This love is good, this love is bad
This love is alive back from the dead‘
Ah, the vagaries of Tudor diplomacy!
I know places. But then things get properly dark. It’s 1545, Henry’s religious policy has taken a more conservative swing, and the radical protestants are fearing for their lives.
‘I can hear them whisper as we pass by
It’s a bad sign, bad sign
Something happens when everybody finds out
See the vultures circling in dark cloud
Cause they got their cages, they got their boxes, they are the hunters, we are the foxes.’
In fact, that last line is doubly clever, for it was in 1545 that John Foxe came out as a Prot, and had to resign his post at Oxford. What ‘foxes’ are we, then? ‘Foxe’s Martyrs’, perhaps?
Clean. But, phew, then Henry dies. The album’s closer is a clever conceptual exploration of the year 1547. It was a year of bad harvests, hence the reference to droughts and floods, but it also saw the death of the tyrant Henry. England could breathe a sigh of relief.
‘And that morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean‘.
So that’s it. Final, incontrovertible proof that 1989 is one of the sneakiest, and greatest, concept albums of all time. Hats off!
(Final aside. It will be noted that Taylor has already dabbled in Tudor history before. The song, ‘Dear John’ is clearly a response from Queen Elizabeth I to the publication of John Knox’s ‘First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’, while ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ is about Mary Queen of Scots and her head.)