By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’ is one of Taylor Swift’s most talked-about recent songs. Released as a bonus track on her 2022 solo album Midnights, the song has attracted speculation concerning its ‘true’ meaning.
Is it a song about losing a loved one? A relationship that broke down? A death of someone close to the singer? Or is ‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’ a song about miscarriage? Let’s explore the song’s meaning and take a close look at its lyrics.
‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’: song meaning
Roland Barthes, in his influential 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, argued that we must let go of the notion that the author of a text (novel, play, poem … pop song?) has any special ownership over that text’s meaning. Instead, the meaning of a text lies ‘not in its origin but in its destination’.
In other words, it’s up to the reader. Or the listener, if we’re talking about popular music and song lyrics.
And few songs of the last few years have borne out Barthes’ thesis quite so plainly as ‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’ by Taylor Swift. Numerous listeners have linked the song’s lyrics to their own experience of suffering a miscarriage, and the song’s lyrics certainly invite such an interpretation.
Of course, whether this makes ‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’ a song about a miscarriage depends on whether you subscribe to Barthes’ view concerning the construction of a text’s ‘meaning’. If we grant that the song’s lyrics remain open and general enough to accommodate that interpretation, it’s possible to view the song in that way.
But nothing in the song, or anything that Swift herself – the sole writer of the song – has said provides clinching evidence that this is the intended meaning of the song.
However, as I say – this doesn’t matter if you’re a Barthesian.
‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’: analysis
Let’s look more closely at the song’s lyrics. The song begins with Swift telling us that, in the ‘aftermath’ of something, she cannot find the words to express how she feels. She is in tears, and her own crying is the only sound she can hear. She has the opposite of a Midas touch: everything she touches now seems to turn sick with the intense sadness she feels.
The salt water image first brought into the song in the second line, concerning the singer’s tears, is now broadened out to become a whole ocean, suggesting a dead body being put ‘out to sea’.
In the chorus to the song, Swift bids goodbye to the subject of the song – a subject who, because they are being addressed directly, is never described or identified. But we do know that, to the singer, they were ‘bigger than the whole sky’: they meant more to her than the whole world, or not just the world, but all the heavens, too.
What are we to make of the reference to this addressee as ‘more than just a short time’? Is it a lover who meant more to her than the short fling they shared would imply?
Possibly. The lines which follow provide the most persuasive textual evidence for the ‘miscarriage’ reading of the song which so many listeners have detected within its lyrics. Swift claims she will never get to meet the person who ‘should’ve’ and ‘could’ve’ been ‘you’.
Logically, these lines make sense if we accept the ‘miscarriage’ interpretation of the song. They perhaps make most sense if we espouse this particular reading of the ‘text’ of the song. It remains possible, of course, that she is bidding farewell to a lover whose star is in the ascendant – someone who has left her to pursue a burgeoning career, perhaps, or someone whose potential is now developing – but the idea that the song is about a potential life that never came into being is certainly a tenable one.
Of course, even if we grant this interpretation, we should bear in mind Roland Barthes here, and state that none of this implies that Swift endorses this reading of the song, or that she was drawing on things she has personally experienced.
Swift also refers, in the song’s lyrics, to the so-called butterfly effect, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings (usually in South America) causes a ripple effect which alters the course of events thousands of miles away. Swift avoids this exact image – which has become something of a cliché in songwriting and elsewhere – in favour of a bird flapping its wings in Asia, but it’s clear what she’s alluding to.
The notion is that fate had other ideas, and she and the addressee of the song were destined not to be together. Perhaps a divine power that was angry that the singer didn’t pray to him (her, it)?
In the last analysis, ‘Bigger Than the Whole Sky’ is an elegy whose subject is never identified. Whether it is a traditional elegy mourning the death of someone, or the death of someone who never had a chance to know life, we can only speculate.
It was Geoffrey Hill who pointed out in one of his poems that elegies are often about the elegist as much as the elegised, and by extension, they are often as much about our own grief – the personal grief the reader of the elegy is suffering – as they are about the poet’s private loss. No wonder, then, that so many people have identified the poem with a profound loss they themselves have experienced.
You can listen to the official lyrics video for the song here.