Among pop music’s brightest stars, Taylor Swift is widely recognized for her sterling public image. But the lyrics to “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” — her smash duet with erstwhile One Directioner Zayn Malik — suggest that Swift may actually be living with a little-known but serious neurological condition.
Trading verses with Malik over a backing track likely borrowed from something Prince accidentally recorded with his cell-phone while using the restroom, Swift is clearly beset by an unseen affliction. She explains:
“I’ve been looking sad in all the nicest places
Baby, baby, I feel crazy
I see you around in all these empty faces”
To the untrained ear, this could be taken as little more than mediocre lyricism punctuated by hollow imagery. But a closer inspection reveals that Swift may be suffering from an intractable variation on a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia. This is a condition in which the mind responds to a stimulus, either visual or auditory, by perceiving something that isn’t there.
For instance, one might look at a textured wall from a distance and make out the form of a face that isn’t there. Or one might hear human voices emanating from the white noise of an air conditioner. Or, just as a final example, one might listen to this song, culled from the soundtrack for the cinematic masterstroke, 50 Shades Darker, and hear a coherent melody, even if one is not actually present.
Typically, the pareidolia only produces a temporary obfuscation of the senses. However, Swift’s condition has presented with a particularly severe and persistent set of symptoms. In addition to seeing Zayn Malik in “empty faces” — a fate we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy — Swift expresses concern over her eroding grasp on reality. On the song’s refrain, Swift makes it clear that she is experiencing a worsening cognitive dissonance over her pareidolia.
The result is a state of elevated anxiety, emotional distress and even feelings of nihilism. Swift explains:
I don’t wanna live forever, ‘cause I know I’ll be living in vain
And I don’t wanna fit wherever
I just wanna keep calling your name until you come back home.
In her state of delusion, Swift implores her duet partner to return home. But as Zayn explains in the song’s opening verse:
Been sitting eyes wide open behind these four walls, hoping you’d call
It’s just a cruel existence like there’s no point hoping at all.
Clearly, Malik’s location, improbably fortified directly behind four walls, has rendered him without cell phone service. As the song fades out, both singers pledge to “keep calling your name until you come back home,” the lyrical equivalent of walking around and asking “can you hear me now?”
This would neither be considered an effective method for restoring cell service nor for relieving Swift of her intractable pareidolia. In spite of its enormous success — more than 300 million views on YouTube; 500 million spins on Spotify — “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” is a tortured plea for help.
Check out our Teensplainer series for more elucidating explanations of seemingly simple pop songs.