We interrogate a soggy similarity between recent music videos from Harry Styles and Taylor Swift.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 25, 2020 at 05:17 PM EDT
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Taylor Swift/YouTube; Harry Styles/YouTube

The hottest trend of 2020 (besides wearing a mask and staying home) may be artfully composed music videos featuring pop stars drowning alongside their pianos, continuing to play in spite of the rising water line.

Harry Styles kicked it all off in February with the music video for Fine Line track “Falling,” featuring him in a baroque room and flowing garb as his piano slowly overflows until he can no longer keep his head above water. Now, Taylor Swift has taken up the watery mantle, clinging fiercely to a piano in a stormy body of water in her surprise new video for “Cardigan.”

Besides the practical conundrums (how many pianos were harmed in the making of these videos?!), they leave a lot of water to tread through.

There’s the inevitable fan speculation. Styles and Swift dated briefly from late 2012 to early 2013, and despite the fact they are more than likely never ever getting back together (like ever), the internet can’t let it go. Swift conceived of and directed the “Cardigan” video herself, which has led fans to theorize that the song is about Styles and the parallels are deliberate. (It’s long been suggested 1989’s “Out of the Woods” and “Style” are also about the former boy bander.)

If we put on our pop music tinfoil hats, is Taylor trying to tell us something about Harry and a relationship that only lasted a few months and happened years ago? I mean, sure, it’s possible. I’ve loved Harry Styles from afar for seven years. I can understand finding him an endlessly compelling subject for songwriting. And there’s ample lyrical fodder to make the case here. But the more likely answer is that a piano spilling over with water and then set adrift is a provocative visual image that has a lot more to say about Taylor and Harry as individual songwriters than their relationship to each other.

Swift is using her soggy piano to say something very different from Harry. Bad break-ups, grand romances, music industry feuds: anything and everything is fodder for her songwriting. But through eight albums and a lot of high-profile relationships, one thing has remained constant: she’ll work it out through her music. For years, we’ve understood her songwriting as a form of therapy for her.

In "Cardigan," her piano, like Harry’s, overflows with the passion and emotion of her songwriting. But when she plunges in and finds herself cast adrift in the sea, her piano is what she clings to like a piece of driftwood. She’s not writing about Harry; she’s literally telling us her songwriting is her port in a storm.

Folklore is already being praised as her most reflective and introspective album, and “Cardigan” helps make that case. Because what if the subject of the song isn’t an ex-lover in the literal sense at all? What if it’s the music industry and fame itself, fickle with its favoritism, coming back to her? And through it all, there’s her piano to hang on to; the purity of her love for her songwriting, a refuge from the headlines, assumptions, and reinventions she has weathered.

In contrast, Styles’ wet piano is an extended metaphor that lasts the length of the video. As he sings about self-loathing over a former relationship he knows he messed up, the water levels rise. “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?/I’m fallin’ again I’m fallin’ again/I’m fallin’” he sings until he can barely keep his head above water. He’s forced to go under as he admits, “I get the feeling you’ll never need me again.”

He is quite literally drowning in his feelings, completely overwhelmed by his regret and self-recrimination until he has no choice but to float in it. The song is an expression of how all-consuming his feelings are (and many believe he wrote it about ex-girlfriend Camilla Rowe). The song, the music, the water, the emotions — they’re all too much for him. In the end, he can’t do anything but give in and go under.

Harry and Tay aren’t speaking to each other, they’re talking to us: about the risk of ruining a good thing, what has the power to consume you, and what can keep you afloat. Setting our concerns for the structural integrity of these piano's strings aside, they’re drawing on evocative, eye-catching imagery to do what they do best: tell a story.

Water is a potent metaphor. It’s cleansing, dangerous, a powerful force of nature, and a source of life. Who wouldn’t welcome their piano overflowing with it?

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