Taylor Swift's “Shake it Off” - A Post-Term Look at Fed Chair Ben Bernanke Through Lyrical Narrative

By: Andy Lee

The song explodes forward, courageously starting with self reflection and an acknowledgement of the criticisms leveled at the narrator (Ben Bernanke). His confession: “I stay out too late/Got nothing in my brain/That’s what people say, mhm” tells of a man who knows how he is perceived and recognizes his flaws. The first criticism, “I stay out too late” is a clear admission of accusations that the Fed’s balance sheets have expanded for too long as a result of drawn out quantitative easing policies. Indeed, many believe that the Fed should have long ago began discussions regarding the reduction of the balance sheet rather than waiting until 2017, almost a decade after the financial crisis when it may very well have been too late. The next line is distinctly less harsh, nothing more than a childish claim that he is empty minded, that a man in his position should have seen the similarities between the US housing market and the Japanese housing market of the early 90s and should have taken steps to prevent such a calamitous pop. Indeed, “that’s what people say, mhm”.
The next stanza begins more cryptically, “I go on too many dates”. This could be in reference to many of Bernanke’s controversial policies, from bailouts to quantitative easing. The bailouts are by far one of the most harshly criticized Federal Reserve policies of the financial crisis. Indeed, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) spent a nominal $700 billion spread across everything from financial institutions to auto manufacturers though the true costs, according to Bloomberg, may total up to $12.8 trillion. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were only kept afloat by a $187 billion bailout, the largest in US history. And thus, with so many “dates”, many question why Bernanke and the US as a whole was unable to “make them stay”, as suggested by the next line. This line may be interpreted as a broader criticism of neoliberal policy and a fear of globalism, a fear which has been and continues to be exploited in the political arena. Indeed, many companies have offshored production and manufacturing, taking many domestic jobs with them. The next two lines though, coyly mention that “at least that’s what people say”. Bernanke here offers a defense of sorts; as an avowed neoliberal he recognizes the benefits of international trade. Indeed, it is often observed that more advanced economies tend to shift to service industry jobs, choosing to offshore manufacturing to less developed nations and recognizes that this is a natural, inevitable shift in the economic structure. Bernanke may be further referencing several studies in labor economics which generally find that offshoring typically has no effect on aggregate domestic employment.
The chorus reflects a generally upbeat attitude. “But I keep cruising/can’t stop, won’t stop moving” is a clear statement on Bernanke’s confidence that the US will continue to experience growth in the coming years. The final line “‘It’s gonna be alright’” merely cements this. Indeed, the next several stanzas reflect this confidence. Bernanke knows that “Players gonna play” and “Haters gonna hate” but that the US economy will ultimately “shake it off”.

Swift, however, is not so confident and in fact uses the narrative to mock Bernanke. He claims that “I never miss a beat/I’m lightning on my feet”. Swift here is barely covering her harsh criticism of Bernanke’s bravado and swagger, almost openly mocking him. Her scathing remarks, like “I make the moves up as I go” are a bitter criticism in what is, for the most part, a well balanced analysis of Bernanke’s term (though it may be a more general reflection on how, no matter how high a person’s position of power, we are all just making it up as we go). It is almost out of place, out of touch with the rest of the song.
Towards the end of the song, Bernanke brings back his message of hope, telling doomsayers that “while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world/You could’ve been getting down to this sick beat.” Bernanke recognizes that there will always be fraud, there will always be market failures and government failures, there will always be booms and busts. And yet, the economy is stabilizing. Through experience and more sophisticated tools, the future seems less uncertain and there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
But then Swift returns to serve a dash of bitter with the sweet. Here Bernanke is again humanized. He says that “My ex-man brought his new girlfriend/She’s like ‘Oh, my god’”. This clearly shows some resentment towards Janet Yellen’s recent appointment and the end of Bernanke’s term (Yellen began her term a mere eight months before the release of “Shake it Off”). He tries to appear untroubled though, again presenting his veneer of confidence, going now to “the fella over there with the hellla good hair”, a reference to his fellowship at the Brookings Institute. Now flirting outside the realm of direct government work, he says that “We can shake, shake, shake/Yeah oooh”, suggesting that the real change occurs in the private sector.

The song concludes with a reiteration of Bernanke’s hopeful message. That the US economy will weather whatever storms it comes to. That the US economy will be able to shake off any serious troubles it must. It is a message of hope, professed by an imperfect but ultimately sympathetic man. Swift’s work here is truly compelling and an excellent example of the use of narrative through song.

Last Edited: 2018-03-25
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