Taylor Swift “Starlight” Lyrics Breakdown: Is It Really Ethel Kennedy Fan Fiction?

Taylor Swift Ethel Kennedy Feature

Posted by on 10/26/2012 at 7:11 PM Lyrics, News

The Popdust Files: Ethel Kennedy, lyrics, red, Starlight, taylor swift

Though her romantic union with the Kennedy clan may have been severed, Taylor Swift is reportedly still on great terms with America’s most famous family. That’s probably good news for Taylor’s social life: She’s been obsessed with the Kennedy women for years now, particularly ex Conor Kennedy’s grandmother (and widow of RFK) Ethel Kennedy, and apparently the feelings are mutual. Now Swift has consummated the relationship in her own inimitable way, writing a song that’s dedicated to her intergenerational girl-crush. (Literally—the album’s liner notes contain a hidden code that spells out “FOR ETHEL.”) “Starlight,” the penultimate track on Red, is half love song, half Ethel Kennedy fan fiction, with Swift playing the part of the legendary matriarch during her courtship with the middle Kennedy brother.

How does Swift’s version of Ethel’s life match up with the historical record? We decided to break down the “Starlight” lyrics to and see!

I said oh my, what a marvellous tune
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved

From the very beginning, it’s clear Swift is going to be taking some literary liberties: Like Barack Obama, she’s the type of writer who can effortless conjure up long-ago conversations that feel so lived-in it doesn’t matter that they may have never actually taken place. Even a detail as small as using “marvelous,” a word you don’t hear much in everyday speech nowadays, does the trick of putting us in the scene. As for historical veracity, it’s a safe bet that Ethel and Bobby did go out dancing at one point in their relationship, so we’ll give this to Swift.

The whole place was dressed to the nines, and we were dancing, dancing
Like we’re made of starlight

“Like we’re made of starlight” is so obviously a Swift creation, but we are sure that bothbluebloods like the Kennedys and new-money folk like the Skakels indeed did dress to the nines when they went dancing, so we’ll award this part half a point.

I met Bobby on the boardwalk, summer of ’45
Picks me up, play one night at the window

Our first falsehood! Ethel actually met Bobby on a ski trip to Quebec, while he was dating her sister Patricia and she was roommates with his sister Jean. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Taylor’s conflated their relationship with her own Kennedy romance, which did begin as a summer fling.

He was 17 and crazy, running wild, wild
Can’t remember what song it was playing when we walked in

Another slight massaging of the truth here. Ethel and Bobby did meet in 1945, but Bobby was 20 at the time. This being a Taylor Swift song, though, it makes sense that she aged him down. As for line about Bobby being crazy and running wild, we’re unsure: Kennedy at the time was enlisted in the Navy, and had been described as “timid” in his youth. But Ethel would be the expert, and if she told Taylor RFK was a wild child, who are we to dispute it?

The night we snuck into a yacht club party
Pretending to be a duchess and a prince

This, too, smells like another invention—did a Kennedy ever need to sneak into a yacht club?—but it fits with our image of the Kennedys: romantic, impulsive, willing to bend the rules. The detail about Robert and Ethel’s alter egos is appropriate too, considering the young couple would soon become part of the closest thing America had to a royal family.

He said, look at you worrying so much about things you can’t change
You’ll spend your whole life singing the blues if you keep thinking that way
He was trying to skip rocks on the ocean saying to me
Don’t you see the starlight, starlight?
Don’t you dream impossible things?

This verse seems to be a sideways illustration of the famous Robert Kennedy quotation: “There are those that look at things the way they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” Fiction or not, we love the scene—especially the detail about skipping rocks, which fits with RFK’s famous love of early morning polar-bear plunges. WASPs looove their beachside hobbies.

Ooh ooh he’s talking crazy
Ooh ooh dancing with me
Ooh ooh we could get married
Have ten kids and teach them how to dream

Ethel and Bobby did eventually get married, five years after the events Taylor’s very loosely depicting here. But the line about ten kids is a bald falsehood: The couple in reality actually had 11 children together. Why’d Taylor change it? It could be a reference to the fact that RFK only met ten of his children (youngest daughter Rory was born six months after his assassination), or it could just be because the word “ten” scans better than “eleven.” We’ll leave judging the line about teaching them “how to dream” up to the experts: Ethel’s brood grew up to include a Congressman, a documentarian, an environmental advocate and two victims of the “Kennedy Curse.” It might be a little too romantic, but as the past 50 years of American life have taught us, it’s hard to resist romanticizing the Kennedys—even if you’ve stopped romancing one of them.

Here are the full lyrics. You can play the song at the bottom of the post!

I said oh my, what a marvellous tune
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved
The whole place was dressed to the nines, and we were dancing, dancing
Like we’re made of starlight
Like we’re made of starlight

I met Bobby on the boardwalk, summer of ’45
Picks me up, play one night at the window
He was 17 and crazy, running wild, wild
Can’t remember what song it was playing when we walked in
The night we snook into a yacht club party
Pretending to be a duchess and a prince

I said oh my, what a marvellous tune
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved
The whole place was dressed to the nines, and we were dancing dancing
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight

He said, look at you worrying so much about things you can’t change
You’ll spend your whole life singing the blues if you keep thinking that way
He was trying to skip rocks on the ocean saying to me
Don’t you see the starlight, starlight?
Don’t you dream impossible things?

Oh my, what a marvellous tune
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved
The whole place was dressed to the nines, and we were dancing, dancing
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight

Ooh ooh he’s talking crazy
Ooh ooh dancing with me
Ooh ooh we could get married
Have ten kids and teach them how to dream

Oh my, what a marvellous tune
It was the best night, never would forget how we moved
The whole place was dressed to the nines, and we were dancing, dancing
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight
Like we’re made of starlight, starlight
Like we dream impossible dreams
Like starlight, starlight
Like we dream impossible dreams
Don’t you see the starlight starlight
Don’t you dream impossible things

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