Originally a novel by Delia Owens, “Where the Crawdads Sing” was recently adapted into a major motion picture released in mid-July. The book follows Kya, an outsider living in the marshlands in North Carolina. She lives alone, uneducated, in a shack without electricity starting at the age of 10, although she had already become fairly self-sufficient since she was six due to the pressures of life with her flighty, alcoholic father. Over the course of the story, time skips show Kya’s past and the present — 1969 in the book and the movie. Kya learned to survive harsh circumstances, but when Chase Andrews, a romantic partner of hers, is found dead, Kya is put on trial, where she must contend with the townspeople’s biases toward her as “The Marsh Girl.”
Taylor Swift has written and released two albums full of songs about fictional situations (“Folklore” and “Evermore”), so it comes as no surprise that “Carolina” is a hauntingly beautiful track about the fictional story. Swift is no stranger to writing songs about being an outsider and being different, including “The Outside” and “A Place in This World” on her debut album and songs like “Nothing New” and “this is me trying” on her more recently released albums.
Swift’s circumstances are different from Kya’s, but as Owens says, “Kya is every little girl and one in a million. Kya is all of us.” Kya represents the resilience to survive — to live — even in the worst situations.
Swift wrote that she wanted to record the song with a sound “authentic to the moment when this story takes place.” And she did. “Carolina” succeeds where many soundtrack songs fail — it expresses the same energy as the story. The instruments used in “Carolina” help contribute to the authenticity of the song: The earliest scene in the book takes place in 1952, and Swift and her producer Aaron Dessner intentionally used instruments available before 1953.
The song haunts listeners. The beat is steady and deep, and Swift sings deep and dark. The music mirrors the story. First, Kya is haunted by her past; after her mother leaves, she clings to the hope for her return. Kya also faces the ghost of loneliness throughout the story. The tone reflects the impact of the end of the novel. Olivia Newman — who directed “Where the Crawdads Sing” — said the song was haunting because it expressed the same “very specific feeling” that readers experience when finishing the novel, which Newman wanted to capture in the ending of the film.
The lyrics also evoke the poems that Kya clung to; the song tells Kya’s story, from her perspective, without romanticizing it. Listeners can hear the darkness in Swift’s words.
Swift wrote “Carolina” from the perspective of Kya. The first words in the song are “O Carolina creeks / running through my veins,” which alludes to the wilderness that raised her. She was abandoned by her entire family and was forced to endure challenging circumstances, but the marshlands kept her alive. Her mother left first, and when the last of her family disappeared, “Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.” In Kya’s mind, the marsh is her family and is in her biology.
The chorus alludes to her mother, who retains an outsized presence in Kya’s mind throughout the story; she never loses hope that her mother will return one day, even years and years after she left. Kya saw her mother walk away, and, in her imagination, she would stop her mother and tell her not to leave. The shift in the chorus begins with “I make a fist, I make it count,” and it implies that Kya refuses to back down from the challenges she faces as an outsider and instead chooses to find meaning in her life, even without the company of a community.
The second verse refers to her mother again by referencing the sole dress of her mother’s that Kya has in her possession — which is covered with blood because of her abusive father. She uses this verse to also reconcile with her mother leaving, accepting that her mother could not live her life anymore but also recognizing that, while her mother had physical scars, Kya was left with her own permanent scars.
Swift repeats throughout the song that “you didn’t see me here” because Kya claims that she was never at the site of her former romantic partner’s death — which is assumed to be a murder — in the story. She was never there, and the town that blames her already believes that she is wild. Swift centers the song around the phrase “Carolina knows” because Kya believes only Carolina knows the secret of the death of Chase Andrews.
Swift embodies the character of Kya throughout the song, and she leaves listeners with the same wanting that the book provides. Some other soundtrack songs miss the mark, including “The Ruler and the Killer” by Kid Cudi, which appears on “The Hunger Games” soundtrack but sounds more like it belongs in “Suicide Squad.” In the 1990s, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” featured “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” in its closing credits — a modern song that does not exactly fit a movie set in the medieval era. And “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” did not belong in an old Western film like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
But where these songs fail, Swift succeeds. Swift pulls listeners into “Where the Crawdads Sing,” inviting the audience to hear Kya’s thoughts and feel her emotions in “Carolina.” The subtle meaning behind the lyrics in “Carolina” can only be explained by knowing “Where the Crawdads Sing,” encouraging its listeners to read the novel to discover the mystery story behind the impactful song.