Like for many listeners, there was one line that jumped out at me as seeming odd when I first heard the song Blank Space by Taylor Swift – and when I heard it again, and again, and again on the radio. The line occurs in the chorus:
Got a lonely Starbucks lover…
I assumed it was meant as a pop culture reference, or could even be part of a product placement deal with said coffee chain. It seemed odd and jarring in the song, but I processed it and continued about my business.
Imagine my intense surprise when, thanks to reading about the song online (e.g. here), I was informed that this wasn’t a coffee-based refrain at all, but that the actual line that Taylor sings is:
Got a long list of ex-lovers…
I decided to investigate the lyric further, because now I could hear both versions, where before it had only been the Starbucks one. It seemed to me that the sound spine could be causing the confusion. The sound spine is the sequence of stressed vowel sounds in a sentence. We rely on it when listening to English to be able to process what is said without catching every syllable and sound in a sentence. For example, in this sentence:
I went for a walk in the park.
The stressed syllables are:
I went for a walk in the park
and the stressed vowel sounds in these words are:
e or ar
which is the sound spine. (You can find out more about the sound spine and connected speech in my free book Talk a Lot Foundation Course.)
Without e, or, ar in this sentence, we might have problems understanding it. If you pronounced it with different stressed vowel sounds, e.g. o, er, ee, it would sound like this:
I want for a work in the peek.
which of course is nonsense!
So what about this line from the massive number one-selling hit single “Blank Space”? Here is what the sound spine should be (with British English pronunciation):
Got a long list of ex–lovers.
o o i e u
and here is the sound spine that we actually hear:
Got a long list of ex-lovers.
ar ar ii ar u
Part of this is to do with Taylor’s Southern accent. “Got” becomes “Gart” and “long” becomes “larn”. However, the main problem is that the lyrics do not scan properly. The rhythm demands a stressed beat on “of”, which is a function word, and not usually stressed. With Taylor’s accent pronouncing o as ar, combined with moving forward the st of “list” (using the connected speech technique of FCL – forward consonant linking), we somehow get the word “star” as a stressed content word. Taylor also changes the “ng” sound in “long” to n, which gives us: “larn lii” instead of “long li” (with those crisp British English vowel sounds) – which is very close to “lonely”. Because our brain does not get the correct vowel sounds to be able to process the actual lyrics, it gives us the nearest matches: “lonely” and “Starbucks”. It is as if our brain hears “Star” as the stressed syllable of a two-syllable word and speedily searches for a relevant match. Faced with this difficult task (starfish… starving… star-crossed…?), the brain lands on the familiar word “Starbucks”. We accept it because surely this is a topic that Taylor Swift could be singing about – a romantic liaison in a US-owned coffee shop. It doesn’t fit with the next line, but never mind. We are too busy thinking about the lonely Starbucks lover to hear the next line. We also hear the ks of “ex” and this matches the end of “Starbucks” perfectly.
So, the entire line as Taylor sings it can be written in Clear Alphabet (a new phonemic alphabet – more here) like this:
Gar d Larn Lii Star ve Kslu vz
We hear the final word “lovers” correctly because the stressed vowel sound u is sounded out clearly.
How could the line be easier to catch? If Taylor had squashed the “of” instead of stressing it, maybe by pausing on the word “list”, before jumping over “of” to the double stress of “ex-lo”. The two double stresses “long list” and “”ex-lo”, separated by the unstressed beat “of” (with a schwa sound instead of ar) might have sounded OK:
Got a long list, of ex–lovers…
But it might have been better to rewrite the line to fit the rhythm. Hmm. I don’t know – what about:
Got a lonely Starbucks lover…
It could even have been part of a tie-in promo with the coffee empire!
Does it matter? Only if clear communication matters.
Is it important in the grand scheme of things. Not really, but when I hear this song on the radio maybe 10 times per day, and I have to stop to think about the lyrics each time I hear the chorus (my ears are telling me “Starbucks” while my mind is telling me “No, no… it should be ‘long list of ex-‘…” which doesn’t fit) – it becomes a little annoying. However, I still love the album 1989.
The lesson for English students is: the clearer your sound spine, the more effective your communication.