How To Use Allusion Like Taylor Swift
Last week, I read an article about Taylor Swift, whom I knew nothing about except that she apparently wears Converse, sits on the bleachers, and doesn’t wear short skirts.
The article mentioned that Taylor will often write songs about her celebrity ex-boyfriends, like that guy who always takes his shirt off in the Twilight movies, and one of those kids in that Disney channel band—Jonah-something-or-other—and the tool-of-all-tools, John Mayer (he can play a mean guitar, though).
Apparently, Taylor Swift puts secret codes into her songs to give hints to her fans about the identity of the celeb she’s singing about, like capitalizing letters in her liner notes that spell out their first name.
Like the line of her song “Better Than Revenge” which says, “She’s an actress. She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” That one was about Camilla Belle who allegedly stole the little Jonas Brothers kid from her.
Her fans (who call themselves Swifties. Great right? My fans will be called Bunties) go nuts for this kind of stuff. They scour through her liner notes with magnifying glasses, trying to crack the code. Who is this one about? Which teen celebrity is she talking about here?
Taylor Swift Meets Cormac McCarthy
That’s the power of allusion. In literature, an allusion is a brief reference to another piece of work. It’s powerful because it makes the people who crack the code feel like they’re in the club, like they’ve been introduced into a secret world in the artist’s mind.
Here’s an example from the first page of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.
Did you get the allusion? Try reading it again.
Still didn’t get it?
Ok, let’s do a bit of detective work. Go to BibleGateway.com and search for “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in the King James Version (don’t read further until you’ve done it—that would be cheating!).
In Joshua 9, we see that the Hivites deceived the Israelites into making a pact with them even though God told the Israelites to destroy them. When they found out they were deceived, the Israelites made the Hivites their slaves, people to chop wood and carry water.
What does that mean in Cormac McCarthy’s novel? It means two things, the main character is deceptive and white trash.
But you might ask, Who would possibly get that? It’s so obscure!
I would answer, Exactly!
The few people who figure the allusion out feel elite and sophisticated. Possessing knowledge that someone else is missing is one of the most powerful feelings in the world. All those Swifties are enraptured with a teenage country singer who doesn’t have that great of a voice (I just listened to “Mean“—which is, according to commenter Chels, about a music critic, by the way—and felt bad I said that. Sorry Taylor. I think you’re awesome. Hugs.), and a big part of it is because they know things about a celebrity that no one else knows.
One of the reasons McCarthy is my favorite novelist is because I know that reference above and you didn’t. Exclusivity is an irrational and powerful thing.
The most alluded to book in history is the Bible. Flip through your King James Version (or use BibleGateway.com) and pick a detail from a random verse. Then, practice alluding to it by writing a story about a teenage country singer on the road.
Write for fifteen minutes or so, and post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.
See ya Partner