By Abi Akerman
What are champagne problems? The trivial problems of the wealthy perhaps, like which restaurant to eat at that evening, or debating which beach destination to jet off to on holiday, worlds away from most people’s dilemmas.
Within the song from Swift’s Evermore album, however, she explores mental health issues, and how they impact women. Many songs tell stories and communicate complex truths within the lives of their protagonists; ‘Champagne Problems’ portrays the heartache of a rejected proposal and how mental health issues have affected a relationship. When reflecting on the song, one of the most poignant ideas that struck me is how mental health issues for women have been trivialised and dismissed, shown through the voices of gossiping characters in the lyrics. This attitude is also evident within the portrayal of females who have struggled with these issues in popular culture, from the pages of novels like Jane Eyre, the real experiences of Zelda Fitzgerald, to the tragedy of Sylvia Plath.
This portrayal stems from a long-time association between women and madness; the word hysteria itself stems from the Greek word for uterus. In the 1800s hysteria was a diagnosable illness and was based on the idea that women are predisposed to mental conditions. This is evident within 19th century literature. Many will be familiar with the twist of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, where it is revealed that Rochester has his mad wife hidden away in the attic. The classification of her as mad silences her voice as a character, and the reader is exposed only to Jane and Rochester as victims in the situation. This dismissal of the mad woman persists today and silences many female voices. This trope that Bronte’s novel helped to create was dismantled in Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea. This post-colonial feminist story gives Bertha a narrative, and at last sets her character free from the attic. Though this take on the story subverted the traditional depiction of female madness, it remains true that women’s ideas are often regarded as insane or irrational, and alongside this, genuine mental health issues are trivialised as a woman’s scornful voice.
When mulling over how to approach this article, and listening again and again to Champagne Problems, several similarities struck me between Taylor Swift’s lyrics and the poem Ennui, by Sylvia Plath. This poem explores the feelings of listlessness and dissatisfaction, and in particular the ‘naïve knight’ attempting to fix things for the ‘blasé princess’ draws parallels with Swift’s song lyrics. Other songs within Taylor Swift’s have been compared to Plath’s poetry, notably in a 2018 article in The Independent newspaper. This discussed how the recurring theme of reinvention in Swift’s music echoes similar themes of Plath’s poetry, particularly within the song Blank Space from her 1989 album, and Plath’s poems ‘Lady Lazurus’ and ‘Daddy’. These poems can be read as a reflection of Plath’s own troubled mind. This reading, however, reflects the notion that it was madness that sparked the creation of Plath’s genius, and subscribes to the mad woman trope from a slightly different angle, disregarding her intellectual prowess and education. This interpretation is regarded as The Sylvia Plath effect, which is the notion that poets are more susceptible to mental illnesses than other artists. Perhaps as a result of this, Plath has often been interpreted solely through the lens of her mental illness, and the tragic circumstance of her death. Though her mental illness has not been trivialised in the way many women’s experiences are, the tragedy and suffering has been romanticised through interpretation of her writing, and not necessarily recognised as the painful experience that it was.
In this light, the phrase ‘champagne problems’ encompasses how women’s mental health can be trivialised, romanticised, or glamorized, and is associated with countless characters both fictional and in real life. It is the experiences of real women that are impacted by these harmful stereotypes and tropes. Recent events, however, such as the Tokyo Olympics this year, and the conversation started by Simone Biles about the high pressure and mental toll of national sports, demonstrate how attitudes towards women’s struggles are changing for the better.
Illustration by Verity Laycock