Taylor Swift is currently on her Eras tour. I didn’t get a ticket because crowds make me cry, but I’ve been feverishly keeping track of it through fanvideos and still images.
Swift famously writes her own songs and the Eras tour is a journey through her entire musical career in ten acts – one for each album (three hours; 44 songs). Swift has been given a really hard time about some of the content of her songs. Especially because a lot of her songs are about romance and relationships. She’s been critiqued for making her career about her exes – especially since, as she’s become more famous, it is relatively easy to guess which songs were written about which famous man she dated, whereas before the men she sang about were more anonymous.
Swift has pointed out that the way that people talk about her is very gender-specific:
“You’re going to have people who are going to say, “Oh, you know, like, she just writes songs about her ex-boyfriends.” And I think frankly that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life, and no one raises the red flag there.“
I agree with her. Romance and relationships are a core theme of contemporary music, and to tell an artist that they can’t approach that topic because they’ve done it too much, or because it will make them undateable, is not on.
Also, Swift has also been very careful to avoid naming the men that she writes songs about – fans speculate, and she may coyly answer those speculations, but on the whole she maintains a code of silence when it comes to which songs are about which exes.
So at the very least her exes can claim innocent until proven guilty, even when their current wives share the songs with comments like “Its not NOT a bop”.
I was re-listening to her latest album, Midnights, when I got the idea for this blog post. I was thinking about that album, written over the sleepless nights in her life, and how it so aptly creates snapshots of what she was feeling. The album was, in fact, written as a reflective space – a diary of sorts that exposes what Swift felt during key moments in her journey.
Because she writes all of her songs, dedicated fans can actually track the progression of Swift’s life through her studio albums; each of her albums represents what it felt like to be that age, the people she dated, and her reflections on her career.
Fans were quick to jump on Midnights and immediately started trying to connect the what with the when – for example, the song ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’ is generally considered to be a song about her relationship with John Mayer, especially because she references being nineteen (her age at the time) in a relationship with a ‘promising grown-man’.
Midnights also includes a recounting of her starting out in the music industry (‘You’re On Your Own, Kid’), an allusion to how her reputation has survived attacks from other celebrities (‘Karma’), and references to the people who have wronged her getting divorced or financially ruined (‘Vigilante Shit’).
Remarkably, despite how extremely personal the songs are, they resonate with millions.
Swift models emotions as authentically as she can, and thus listeners are able to quickly empathise with her and find pleasure and catharsis in her lyrics. She writes in metaphor as well, so even when she’s being specific as heck the songs can still be applied to multiple situations*.
I would argue, as well, that the deeply personal side of her lyrics serve to create another layer of affect for fans who pay attention to Swift’s personal life and career. The lyrics of her songs reward fans for participating in a parasocial relationship with her.
The more they know about the narrative of Swift’s life – what relationships she’s in, what movies she’s watching, and what is going on in her personal life – the more they recognise the themes that she’s writing about and the more invested they become. Because her life is mostly public, the songs give an indication – however carefully choreographed and produced – of her own perspective. The affect of these songs is to make the fans feel included in these events, creating a stronger, more intense emotional response**.
I think that an entire PhD thesis could be written about the metanarrative of Swift’s lyrics. I bet someone’s already working on it. I wish them all the best.
I don’t have time to write a thesis right now, but I’ve found a couple of themes in her lyrics that I’d like to explore. Here we go:
1) Her reputation:
Swift has been in a lot of controversy; so much that she went on a brief hiatus away from the spotlight in 2016. Her music reflected the blemishes in Swift’s reputation with an album literally called Reputation led by the song ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ – a comment about how other celebrities and gossip magazines had forced her to turn into a person she didn’t recognise in order to survive the onslaught (“I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now/ Why? Oh, ’cause she’s dead!”)
Before that, however, her album 1989 included two important songs: ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Shake It Off’, which both explored her reputation as a man-eater. ‘Blank Space’ is about a woman who targets new money playboys, makes them fall in love with her, then drives them away by being crazy at them. ‘Shake It Off’ encourages listeners to shake off the lies that people tell about them.
At the time (2014) Swift’s romantic relationships were really the only thing that people could talk about when they wanted to take her down a peg. So those songs reflected how she felt about her reputation in that context.
After 2016, and the Katy Perry-Kanye West-Kim Kardashian nonsense made people comment snake emojis on all of Swift’s social media posts, she stepped away from the spotlight to try and protect herself.
Then, she dropped Reputation which was all about the way that people tore her to pieces at first sign that she wasn’t the ‘good girl’ they’d all thought she was. It’s a furious, vengeful little romp.
One song in particular that I found really interesting was ‘Endgame’. Not only is the refrain to the song literally “Big reputation/ Big reputation”, but she sings explicitly about the effect of her reputation on new relationships: “I hit you like bang, we tried to forget it, but we just couldn’t/ And I bury hatchets, but I keep maps of where I put ’em/ Reputation precedes me, they told you I’m crazy/ I swear I don’t love the drama, it loves me”.
‘Endgame’ also features two male singers: Ed Sheeran and Future. Both men sang/rapped about fame and its effect on their relationships, really cementing her comments that men can sing about relationships as much as they like and not get shit for it.
On Midnights, her first single from the album is all about how the hits to her personal reputation affected her mental health. ‘Anti-Hero’ opens with a comment about depression working the graveyard shift and how she gets older but never wiser. The chorus repeats that she’s the problem. It sounds like a refrain written by the worst intrusive thoughts that always wake up right when you’re trying to sleep. The track is steeped in self-loathing and self-criticism.
Despite the fact that her reputation is not of her own making – as the Stoics will tell you, the reputation is beyond the control of the individual – Swift is human and ‘Anti-Hero’ reflects how humans tend to internalise the external criticisms thrown at us. The teatime line in the chorus refers to the way that people talk about her behind her back, and how she knows that they all agree that she deserves all of the bad that she gets.
Since the controversies, relationships, and spats were all public, the fans know exactly what she’s referring to in these songs. Even if listeners don’t know the details, they can still relate. Everyone – every age, every gender – knows how it feels to have people make up lies about them. And the pain it causes when people who should be on their side believe those lies.
2) Ownership and Autonomy
In 2019, Swift had to fight her former record label over the ownership of the master recordings of her first six albums. Specifically, she took issue with the fact that they were sold to Scooter Braun instead of her – even though she’d been trying to buy them and Scooter had a previous working relationship with Kanye West, who had made revenge porn of her in one of his music videos.
Swift’s post-2019 albums are dripping with references to her masters being sold out from under her. In particular, Folklore’s ‘my tears ricochet’ and ‘mad woman’ explicitly talk about women being pushed too far by people trying to take what theirs.
‘my tears ricochet’ is about an “embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession.” She carefully framed the whole album as coming from perspectives of “people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t” so that there’s a protective element of fantasy and fiction to the songs. But the lyrics are fairly explicit for fans who were hyper-sensitive to any comment that even hints at the drama. Lines like: “And when you can’t sleep at night (You hear my stolen lullabies)”, “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace” and “You wear the same jewels that I gave you/ As you bury me”. The track explores what it means to be despised by someone who needed you for their own ends, and how it feels when you know they’ve destroyed themselves even as they tried to destroy you.
Meanwhile, ‘mad woman’ is about a woman being lambasted for standing her ground when people treat her like shit: “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?/ They strike to kill, and you know I will”. This song is densely-packed with allusions to someone taking something important from a woman, and then being surprised that she’s upset about it. It would take a lot more time than you’re likely willing to give for me to go through it all. But the bridge is about as explicit as it gets: “I’m taking my time, taking my time/ ‘Cause you took everything from me/ Watching you climb, watching you climb/ Over people like me”
Gotta love those Taylor Swift bridges.
3) Heavy shit
Never forget: Taylor Swift was a country singer first.
Heavy shit as a theme is strong in Swift’s work, but here we’re just going to look at three examples: ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’, ‘Bigger Than The Whole Sky’, and ‘Clean’.
‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ is a song about a loved one being sick. It was written for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer, and how difficult it was to go through treatment at her side. After she wrote it, Swift said that she would find it difficult to play live. You can actually hear her voice breaking in the bridge and final chorus on the track. She has performed it live once that I know of: to help Global Citizen raise money for COVID-19 relief in April 2020.
There’s a lot of repetition in this song. It has a begging kind of tone to it: “You’ll get better soon /’Cause you have to” and “And I hate to make this all about me/ But who am I supposed to talk to?/ What am I supposed to do/ If there’s no you?” She’s asking a lot of questions that can’t possibly be answered. Her mum’s in remission now, but you never really get over being that scared for a loved one.
‘Bigger Than The Whole Sky’ is also about losing a loved one before their time, though some of the lyrics hint at a miscarriage. This is especially the case with the chorus, which focuses on never getting to meet the person that has been lost: “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye/ You were bigger than the whole sky/ You were more than just a short time/ And I’ve got a lot to pine about/ I’ve got a lot to live without/ I’m never gonna meet/ What could’ve been, would’ve been, what should’ve been you”
That line “You were bigger than the whole sky” is particularly resonant. Most miscarriages happen in the first trimester, when the fetus is tiny. Somewhere between a poppy seed and a fig. I’ve seen a lot of pregnant friends keep track of their child by what fruits it has outgrown (“He’s bigger than a grapefruit now!”). But if you’ve lost a child you were hoping for, or even a child you hadn’t known to hope for but only learned about their existence when it ceased, then it doesn’t matter how big they were: what matters is how big they could have been.
Swift doesn’t mention a miscarriage and nothing about it happening in her personal life has been made public. It’s open to interpretation.
‘Clean’ shows the incredible versatility of writing in metaphor. The song was originally about getting over a lover but, after Swift’s court case against a DJ who groped her and then sued her for defamation, the song took on a new meaning: surviving abuse and trauma. She spoke about it during her Reputation tour and prefaced the song with a story about the case:
“I guess I just think about all the people that weren’t believed, the people who haven’t been believed, the people who were afraid to speak up because they think they won’t be believed, and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry to anyone who wasn’t believed, because I don’t know what turn my life would have taken if people didn’t believe me when I said that something had happened to me.”
The song is, essentially, about someone leaving a mark on you – one that is tough to remove (“You’re still all over me/ Like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore”). Swift writes about how time heals the wound and washes it away when she thinks she’s at her worst: “Rain came pouring down/ When I was drowning, that’s when I could finally breathe/ And by morning/ Gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean”
The song has also resonated with people battling addiction, especially the bridge: “Ten months sober, I must admit/ Just because you’re clean don’t mean you don’t miss it/ Ten months older, I won’t give in/ Now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it”
As with many of her songs, the lyrics are open enough speak to the listener’s needs.
4) Romance – specifically, the development of her relationship to relationships
Like I said, romance is an important theme in contemporary music. Swift’s discography is an ode to romance in all its stages, from puppy-love to deep, long-term commitment.
This is, I think, where Swift really rewards the fans who listen to her full discography. You can see the progression of how she feels about love and relationships the longer she is dating, the longer her relationships are publicly consumable, and the more that she is hated for being a woman who dates.
For example, look at a song like ‘Red’ from 2012. The song is about how exciting being in love and the sadness you feel in its ending: “Loving him is like trying to change your mind once you’re already flying through the free fall/ Like the colors in autumn, so bright just before they lose it all”. It’s about a relationship that burns and then blows out like a candle. The lyrics are not her most complex but very vibrant. A constant refrain of how red looks and feels, and how other colours mix with it throughout the relationship, but that the relationship itself is bright, clean red.
‘Maroon’ from 2022, meanwhile, is a richer, more mature ‘Red’. It is still about a relationship that was positive but ultimately ended. The song is more complex, the lyrics tighter, and the message more about how messy a relationship can be when you’re in the thick of it, even when it starts out promisingly. There’s good and bad mixed in: “The mark they saw on my collarbone/ The rust that grew between telephones/ The lips I used to call home/ So scarlet, it was maroon”. There aren’t other colours mixed in, it’s all red – but the red has a deeper richness because it is more aware of itself.
Similarly, you can look songs like ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘Labryinth’. ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ is also from the Red album, and it’s about falling in love with someone you know will break your heart. It ostensibly blames the singer for not realising that the relationship was doomed to fail, but the lyrics hint that the man should never have been trusted in the first place (“And he’s long gone when he’s next to me/ And I realize the blame is on me”). Now, in 2022, we have ‘Labryinth’, which is also about falling in love when you shouldn’t. This time, it’s not because it’s the wrong guy; it’s because falling in love hurts. It makes you vulnerable. It makes you do things you shouldn’t. The chorus sums it up: “Uh-oh, I’m fallin’ in love/ Oh no, I’m fallin’ in love again Oh, I’m fallin’ in love/ I thought the plane was goin’ down/ How’d you turn it right around?” During a pre-chorus, Swift even acknowledges that it’s too soon for her to be falling in love again: “You know how much I hate/ That everybody just expects me to bounce back/ Just like that”. Despite her warning herself not to, she’s falling in love.
I think Swift has always had a very sophisticated understanding of love, but her understanding was always contextual. When she was a teenager, she could articulate first love, first heartbreak, crushes, etc, with incredible precision. Now that she’s an adult and has been in so many different kinds of relationships with so many different kinds of partners, she’s able to articulate her experiences with even more depth and wisdom.
The more relationships she’s been in, the more experience she can call on in her music, the more universally applicable her music becomes.
Swift is one of the most important songwriters of my generation because she is so well-known. Her songs reach so many more people than the average musician’s, and that is – I think – largely down to the fact that people are able to connect with them so well.
The songs are metaphorical and they resonate; even when they’re not entirely metaphoric and more specific to Swift’s experience, people are still affected by them because they know her story so well. Swift’s lyrics reward parasocial awareness of her.
Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time, while the other party is unaware of their existence.
All celebrities make their living on parasocial relationships. They need the attention but are unable to maintain relationships with every single one of their supporters, and so they generally treat fans as a collective rather than as a series of individuals. It could be that a celebrity is basically aware of a specific fan’s existence – replying to their tweets, for example, re-sharing their fanworks, or recognising their handle on social media – but will not extend significant emotional energy or time to that specific fan. That is still one-sided and parasocial.
To be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with parasocial relationships. They’re common and perfectly normal. They can provide a safe space for people, offer them a confidence boost or a way to relate to others, and aid in the development of identity. If an individual approaches the parasocial relationship aware that their energy and time-investment is one-sided, then there should be no danger of the relationship becoming unhealthy***.
I imagine that Swift’s rich internal life is not completely and accurately reflected in her songs. Her privacy has been so completely violated by the nature of celebrity that I think she should be allowed to keep some things to herself. But the nature of celebrity does mean that she’s open to the interpretation of others, and her songs provide her with a very important voice – a way to express what may be ignored or re-framed in interviews, a way to give herself agency and autonomy over the version of herself that people see.
Swift is aware of the parasocial relationship she has with her fans. She is aware of their speculation and theories about her personal life because they publish them online. She even called out fans during an Eras performance because they claimed she didn’t use enough songs from her Evermore album during the tour: “[Evermore] is an album I absolutely love, despite what some of you say on TikTok. Oh, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen all of it.”
She’s seen all of it. She knows what fans are speculating and is therefore able to use that awareness when she’s writing her songs to give hints to those who are looking for them. This creates a deeper, richer experience for fans who are aware of the narrative of her life.
— Also, if anyone is going to write their thesis about Swift’s discography, please think of me when you’re looking for readers and examiners! I would love to see it! —
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?
*On a personal note, Swift’s album Folklore came while out I was trapped in Japan for the pandemic. I heard the lines in ‘my tears ricochet’ (“And I can go anywhere I want/ Anywhere I want, just not home”) and fully burst into tears in the middle of a public park.
** Sometimes speculation goes too far – for instance, there is a conspiracy theory that Swift is secretly queer, and that when she uses the colour yellow in her music videos, it is meant to symbolise that the song is about a woman and not a man. I’m not sure how true that is, but it’s a bit too ‘why are the curtains blue’ for my tastes. Swift does use colour symbolism in her videos. Usually as a shorthand for emotions and change, and the colour will mostly make sense in the overall context of the moment (for example, using red for the Red album – because obviously). I just think ‘yellow means closeted’ is a bit of a stretch.
*** It is possible for a parasocial relationship to become unhealthy if a) the relationship starts to take priority over the health and wellbeing of the fan, b) it makes the fan feel lonely or isolated, or c) the fan begins to lose their sense of self because everything about them is tethered to their idol. It can also be dangerous and unhealthy for the person on the receiving end of a parasocial relationship – either by making them uncomfortable because strangers feel like they know them, or by putting them in danger when behaviours turn from parasocial to stalker-ish.