I Gave You Power

Life isn’t fair. We hear this phrase from time to time whether it be from our parents or friends to justify instances of improper treatment. Unfortunately, many people live this reality every day, persecuted by prejudiced laws and generations of inequality.

In his second studio album “It Was Written”, which was released in 1996, Nas reflects on his experiences growing up in NYC’s Queensbridge housing projects during the height of the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s. Nas’s life embodies the “Life isn’t fair” phrase that low-income Black Americans were too acquainted with at the time. His unique ability to poetically share his experience saved him from a life of drugs, gangs, and violence, and gave us a taste of his life story through songs like “I Gave You Power”. Lyrics can be found here.

“I Gave you Power” is truly a one-of-a-kind song. Its central meaning reflects the paradox of gun violence in the impoverished neighborhood Nas grew up in. On one hand, Nas talks about needing to bear arms for protection in the violent streets. On the other hand, he acknowledges the destruction guns have on his neighborhood and future generations. The short-term need to carry a gun for safety perpetuates the long-term danger of gun violence in his neighborhood. Economical pressures to make money force him to live unsafely. Throughout the song, there are hints of the conflicts between Nas vs. the police and the thought process needed to survive in a constant high-pressure environment.

Damn! Look how muh-fuckers use a n****
Just use me for whatever the fuck they want
I don’t get to say shit
Just grab me, just do what the fuck they want
Sell me, throw me away
N***** just don’t give a fuck about a n**** like me right?
Like I’m a f… I’m a gun, shit

In the opening verse, Nas compares the way he gets treated from his friends to a gun. This personification of a gun continues as an extended metaphor throughout the song. This line is important because it sets up the context for the rest of the song. This metaphor is powerful because it shines a light on the dehumanization and objectification that people like Nas experienced growing up.

How you like me now? I go blaow
It’s that shit that moves crowds makin every ghetto foul
I might have took your first child
Scarred your life, crippled your style
I gave you power
I made you buck wild

This interlude shines a light on the destruction cause by gun violence around the housing projects that Nas grew up in. In these few lines, Nas talks about the pain that mothers feel to see their kids succumb to gun violence, the communal PTSD associated with death, and the repurcussions of living paralyzed. The last two lines talk about the effects of carrying guns from the carriers perspective. They note that it makes them powerful and more likely to act crazily or “buck wild.”

He squeezed harder, I didn’t budge, sick of the blood
Sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the, next man’s grudge
What the other kid did was pull out, no doubt
A newer me in better shape, before he lit out, he lead the chase
My owner fell to the floor, his wig split so fast
I didn’t know he was hit, it’s over with
Heard mad n***** screamin, n***** runnin, cops is comin
Now I’m happy, until I felt somebody else grab me

The ending lines of the song, this excerpt shines a light on the cycle of violence experienced in the Queensbridge housing projects. The story follows a gun that jams, which causes the victim to turn into a murderer. The gun, which is temporarily given feelings, laments that someone else picks up the gun and continues the cycle. Much like the gun, Nas awaits an end to the violence, and is constantly let down through the environment he lives in.

Letting someone go and what you lose

Often times someone does not realize what they have until its gone. Sometimes you don’t realize the true value of someone and all they bring until they are gone. This is what happened to singer songwriter Passenger and he wrote about it in hit Let her go in his album all the little lights. He wrote this song after a breakup and the lyrics are about him realizing how important this person was in his life and all the factors they brought to his life. He uses long metaphors and strong language to convey what he feels and tells it as a cautionary tale of beware of what you can lose. He starts out the song with the multidimensional lyrics

Well, you only need the light when it’s burning low
Only miss the sun when it starts to snow
Only know you love her when you let her go

The quote talks about how you don’t realize you need the light or the sun until its gone and one realizes all it did for you. The word burning is strong as it can show his love is still burning for the person, the candle light is low, and he feels like he is burning now that he feels empty. The multiple uses of the word conveys all the different emotions he feels as he is writing this and trying to convey them all in the song. He also uses metaphors to show what his love was like when he says

Only hate the road when you’re missing home
Only know you love her when you let her go

He comparing the feeling of being homesick when you miss your home to how he misses the person he loved. This also shows the anaphora in the song. The melody that is repeated multiple times starts with only. This repetitions shows all these different things come together to show how much he loves her and misses her.

Finally he uses imagery to convey his emotions to fully help the listener understand what it is like.

Staring at the ceiling in the dark
Same old empty feeling in your heart

The imagery of someone heartbroken in the dark after the light before mentioned went out feeling empty is well conveyed here. He is able to convey his strong emotions into the words and that is why this song is a form or poetry. Many different ways Passengers is able to convey the feeling he has and what he has realized after the person he loved is gone.

Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve

In 2009, 32 year old singer John Mayer was rumored to be romantically involved with then, 19 year old Taylor Swift after the two collaborated on Mayer’s, “Half of My Heart” together. A few months later, it became clear a split had taken place, especially after Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now included a biting break-up track, titled “Dear, John.” Seemingly confirming both the relationship and the break up, Swift vividly depicted the volatility of their short-lived romance and the regret she had looking back on all of the warnings she ignored about Mayer and their relationship in her spin on a “Dear, John letter.” In the decade-plus following the release of the album, Mayer made it incredibly clear there was no love lost between him and Swift, even remarking that the track was “cheap songwriting” in a Rolling Stone interview.

With Swift now 32 herself, it was unsurprising to many fans when she revisited this previous relationship, ripe with power imbalances, in her newest album Midnights. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is a scathing sequel to “Dear John” made even more poignant with the powerful insight Swift now has on just how inappropriate their relationship truly was. It is a relationship that keeps her up at night, to this day, 12 years later; desperately longing for the girl she used to be, before she was corrupted by Mayer.

Swift writes in the first stanza:

If I was some paint, did it splatter

On a promising grown man?

And if I was a child did it matter

If you got to wash your hands?

This lyric is the perfect opening to the song, establishing the reality of just how many eyes were on their relationship at the time. Swift had notoriously been a target for the media’s slut-shaming, and her relationship with Mayer was no exception. Despite the fact that she was the younger, less successful, less powerful and less wealthy of the two, she was still criticized for her role in their relationship. She was seen as the one tainting his “promising” reputation, or splattering paint on him as it were, when in reality he was the one crossing lines as the true adult in the relationship. She establishes the imbalance further, stating outright that she was nothing more than a “child” during their romance, while he was a “grown man.” Furthermore, she references the saying “washing your hands of someone” to show just how much Mayer wanted to forget about their relationship after it ended. He wanted to wash the paint she splattered on him away, and he can. He erases her from his life just as easily as he could get paint of his skin. For Taylor, it’s not that easy, though. What was just a few months for him, is something she can never escape. What he did to her haunts her everyday:

I regret you all the time

I can’t let this go

I fight with you in my sleep

The wound won’t close

I keep on waiting for a sign

I regret you all the time

There is a clear sense of desperation to these lyrics. The lingering emotions and damage from their relationship spill out into every aspect of Swift’s life. Even in her unconscious mind she is thinking about him, longing for closure. Like a wound that keeps getting opened up again and again. She can’t escape the effects of the cut, no matter how long ago it happened, it is too deep and permanently changes and disfigures her. She regrets him in her conscious moments as well, so deeply, in fact, that shes looking to a higher power with her pleas for closure.The sign she’s looking for is a reference to a sort of bargaining with god to restore her to the innocent child she once was before she was touched by Mayer. The song is filled with religious illusions depicted in the lines above and below in order to portray the innocence that Swift was robbed of as a result of their relationship:

I would’ve stayed on my knees

And I damn sure never would’ve danced with the devil

At nineteen

This relationship was Swift’s fall from grace. She depicts her self, devoted in prayer, or staying on her knees, as a way to represent the purity of her life before Mayer. She states that “all I used to do was pray” and without the influence of Mayer, or the devil as she not so subtly portrays him, she would’ve “gone along with the righteous.” She was on the path of virtue and innocence, before she was lured in to the hands of the devil. He was the one who took her away from “god” and “innocence” and changed her. She wishes she could go back to them simplicity of before she was taken advantage of.

Mayer was incredibly alluring, and in many interviews Swift remarks how excited she was to be working with Mayer because she was such a big fan of his. She writes:

If you never saved me from boredom

I could’ve gone on as I was

But, lord, you made me feel important

And then you tried to erase us

Oh, you’re a crisis of my faith

Mayer was able to slip into her life offering excitement, praying on her naivete at just 19 years old. Her “crisis” was her youth and her belief in Mayer and his words: making her feel loved and important in ways she had never felt because of her youth. He groomed her, much like the saying “idle hands make the devil’s work,” Mayer took her into his world and corrupted her, irrevocably changing her. Then a few months later he decides he doesn’t want anything to do with her anymore so he erases her from his life, easily, like he washed the paint of his hands earlier.

The most heartbreaking line of the song is when Swift finally ends the bridge the song had been building to:

Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts

Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first

This is just the nail in the coffin for Mayer. It is a true highlight of just how young Swift was when she experienced this trauma. The lines are incredibly childish, the first one reading like an eye for an eye almost: he hurt her so she wants to hurt him back. Now, she finally sees just how wrong what happened was, and in a childlike way she wants to get back at him even though in her current perspective as an adult she knows she can’t. The following line clinches the absolute heartbreak of the song. The “it was mine first” plays a dual role in again highlighting the childlike nature of her 19 year old self, perfectly encapsulating the gap of maturity in the relationship but also revealing just how much Mayer stole from her. Their relationship ripped her out of her childhood and she can’t forget it that so easily like Mayer can.

Taylor Swift’s “Dear John”

On October 25th, 2010 Taylor Swift released her third studio album, Speak Now. The 5th track on the album was entitled “Dear John” as an ode to Swift’s short-lived and controversial relationship with singer-songwriter John Mayer. Swift has called the song a “last email” that you send to an ex, unloading everything that was left unsaid. Some also interpret the song to be representative of a Dear John Letter, an old expression used that refers to a wife or girlfriend writing to inform a man their relationship is over. The lyrics emulate the hurt and frustration Swift felt over how she was treated by Mayer, and how she ignored the warnings she received.

And I lived in your chess game, – But you changed the rules every day

Lines 7-8

This lyric uses the comparison of their relationship to a game, with Swift claiming Mayer changed the rules to suit whatever his needs were at the time. When she didn’t please him or follow his “rules” he would lash out at her creating an extremely toxic relationship. This use of comparison is powerful because it shows the manipulation and gaslighting occurring throughout the course of an entire relationship in just two lines. These lines invest listeners right away in their relationship, and give them a clear idea of the exact conflicts taking place.

All the girls that you’ve run dry – Have tired, lifeless eyes – ‘Cause you burned them out – But I took your matches before fire could catch me, – So don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town

Lines 29-32

The use of fire and light imagery is used to show Swift’s feelings after breaking free from Mayer. Throughout the whole song she is recalling what she escaped and how she denied him the satisfaction of ruining her like he did in his previous relationships. Fire is often associated with knowledge and the entire song is about her knowing better now, repeatedly saying “I should’ve known” at the end of each chorus. Swift, unlike the other women, was able to escape Mayer before she completely lost herself. The last line is a sort of emphasis on the overall theme of the song, that she’s better off than he is, now knowing the extent of his corruption.

Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? – The girl in the dress wrote you a song – You should’ve known, you should’ve known – Don’t you think I was too young? You should’ve known

Lines 37-40

The repetition of the line “you should’ve known” in this final stanza solidifies Swift’s overall message of reflection and regret, while also leaving the intended listener, Mayer, with a message: that he should have known better. This line diverges slightly from the previous iterations of the chorus which end with “I should’ve known” instead. She was 19 years old at the time of their relationship and he, twelve years her senior, certainly knew better. It is only at the very end, after Swift recalls everything Mayer did to her and the lessons she learned, that she flips the message on him. The repetition reinforces the idea that Mayer is in the wrong and now that Swift understands what she went through, she places responsibility on him, not just on herself. Over and over again she emphasizes the realization, she should have listened to the warnings and seen the signs, but ultimately the blame lies with him. It is at the end of the song that Swift emphasizes the growth she achieved after their relationship, no matter how painful it was to get to that point.