Taylor Swift’s new album, Evermore, is shaky from its first verse. “Willow” opens with a gently plucked guitar riff creating a seesawing sensation, and Swift compares herself to water and her lover to a boat. So far, so fine. But for the verse’s emphatic final line, Swift uses an odd simile: “Lost in your current like a priceless wine.”
So, okay, her man, not her, is now the water. But: Are priceless wines commonly lost in currents? Like, is Swift referring to the Veuve Clicquot recovered from the Titanic? Or is she envisioning someone purposefully pouring wine into the sea on an expensive dare? Maybe I’m hearing the grammar wrong—is it that she’s lost in this lover in the same way a drinker might get lost in a drink? I went to the lyrics-explanation site Genius for help. A listener had written that Swift was playing with the word currant, meaning a berry or dried grape. This theory didn’t make a ton of sense either. But as of this writing, 56 users had voted it up.
The lyrics of pop stars do not have to add up perfectly to be effective, and neither does the poetry of master songwriters. But there are many different kinds of illegibility. If listeners are unsure what Britney Spears means when she sings “Hit me baby one more time,” that’s because she doesn’t really mean anything at all. The line came from Swedish songwriters misunderstanding an English figure of speech, and it sounds good in the song. When listeners argue over what exactly Joni Mitchell implies about her man on “A Case of You,” the wine-themed classic Swift could have had in mind when writing “Willow,” it is a testament to Mitchell’s ambiguity and layered meanings. Good lyrics often work between words, conveying feelings that can’t be written down. Bad ones call attention to themselves for no good reason.