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Empowerment, Agency, Grace, and Reinvention

by Richard Buck about a month ago in humanity · updated about a month ago
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The moral lesson in Taylor Swift’s songs

Some of my family Swifties singing All Too Well 10 Minute Version

A lazy narrative says that Taylor Swift writes breakup songs, or songs about boys that are written for adolescent girls. It’s lazy both because it ignores the depth and breadth of what she has accomplished, and even more so because it doesn’t consider the empowering stories and lessons she tells. This (long) essay explains why I see her work as groundbreaking, transformative, and vital to our 21st century world, a world that doesn’t experience enough peace or grace and sees far too much anger and intolerance—a world that needs and is blessed by Taylor Swift.

I’ve heard a lot of music in my life; I know what “breakup songs” are. Many of Taylor’s songs on the surface seem to be about breakups, and she herself says that she writes to process life events and understand the world, but the result is definitely not breakup songs: it is anthems, life lessons, and emotional guidance that encompass agency, strength, hurt, resilience, confidence, and respect, while also expressing her love for millions of listeners who look to and trust her even though they’ve never met her.

Obviously Taylor writes other kinds of songs (Marjorie, No Body No Crime, You Need to Calm Down, The Man, Mean, etc.), but those are not the point of this essay. I am focusing specifically on the so-called breakup songs, the “relationship ballads” that advance over time and tell a complex and evolving story.

Traditionally, breakup songs have a formula: you did this to me, I want you back so badly, and here’s my catchy hook with a repetitive chorus. They usually don’t advance the story; they just repeat one wistful complaint over and over, and they become famous if the repeated line is clever and the voice penetrates and you feel the pain. For decades the most famous breakup song was “I’d Rather Go Blind”, originally a bluesy classic by Etta James in the 60s. (I like Christine McVie’s version, but the Etta James original is also great.) It has the expected sad message of heartbreak and longing, and the catchy hook: “I would rather go blind, boy, than to see you walk away from me.”

Lady Gaga’s fantastic Million Reasons tells a similar story of a sad victim trying to walk away: “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need one good, one good, one good one to stay.” It’s clever, it’s catchy, her voice is hypnotic, you get wrapped up in her story, her eyes are open, she sees how strongly she wants to and should leave—but she still looks for a way to put up with the mistakes and abuse. She even tells us “If I had a highway I would head for the hills” and then “Head stuck in a cycle, I look off and I stare, it’s like that I’ve stopped breathing but completely aware”. She sees it, and she still wants to find a reason to stay. This is the classic breakup song formula: we can’t go on but I wish we could.

Other famous breakup songs include “Is it still over?” by Randy Travis (“Is it still over, are we still through, since my phone still ain’t ringing I assume it still ain’t you”), Carole King’s awesome “It’s Too Late” (“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late, though we really did try to make it, something inside has died and I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it”), Adele’s “Don’t You Remember” (“When will I see you again? … Don’t you remember the reason you loved me before, baby please remember me once more … When will I see you again?”), and Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U (“It’s been seven hours and 15 days since you took your love away … Nothing can take away these blues, ‘cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you … I went to the doctor, guess what he told me, Girl you better try to have fun, but he’s a fool, ‘cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you”). (Note: I know that Prince wrote that song before Sinead launched it into the stratosphere, but its legacy is clearly hers.)

Taylor’s relationship ballads are deeper, more empowering; she’s not begging the guy to stay or come back, she is instead accurately and passionately covering scene after scene of activity and hurt, and then focusing on its affects on her and her choices moving forward. It’s hard to understand how so much can happen in a short song. Part of it is because there are relatively few repetitive choruses (and many of her choruses actually change and advance as the story evolves), but most of it is because each scene, each statement, directly implies and imprints other scenes into our minds, and one line of dialogue conveys an evening or a month of challenge and hurt. We’re there in the room with her; we immediately know and feel so much more than just the one line or quote. But it’s more than that: her songs also cover so much time because they’re projecting forward: we grab the lesson of empowerment and look forward to hope, healing, and reinvention. Her ballads are neither repetitive nor boring. Even the sad ones aren’t solely sad, and she is so rarely a victim. Sure, the jerk was a jerk, but look what she’s done with that experience. Look what we all can learn from her.

The first complex and forward-looking breakup song that blew my mind, way back in college, was Joan Baez singing Restless Farewell. (Dylan wrote it, but the Baez song is the one that works best; neither version is well known). It’s a long ballad, and SHE is the one choosing to leave: “every boy that ever I’ve hurt I did not do it knowingly … but to remain as friends, you need the time to make amends and stay behind … since my feet are now fast and point away from the past, I’ll bid farewell and be down the line… So I’ll make my stand, and remain as I am, and bid farewell and not give a damn.” This song to me shows agency, choice, generosity, and confidence, and I have loved it ever since I first heard it.

It was my favorite relationship ballad until last November (with the release of Red Taylor Version). Because of Taylor Swift, both Restless Farewell and Nothing Compares 2 U have fallen out of my Top 5, along with the other songs in my Top 5. 63 years old and my lifelong relationship to music from Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Sinead O’Connor, Joan Baez, Harry Chapin, and Meat Loaf flew out the window because of Taylor Swift.

That’s what’s missing from some of the conversations about Taylor Swift. She’s not a sad victim trying to hold on. She is the Boss. It’s like the message of her song The Man, but applied to breakup songs instead of her overall career trajectory. She is lazily mischaracterized because some people don’t see that she’s invented a new genre of relationship compassion, creating a loud and empowering voice for people who haven’t always felt heard. Calling her ballads “breakup songs” denies her rightful accomplishments, just like in The Man: “I would be complex, I would be cool”, “Every conquest I had made would make me more of a boss to you”, “They’d say I hustled, put in the work, they wouldn’t shake their heads and question how much of this I deserve”. Take those same words and apply them to her ballads. She deserves every bit of respect she gets, and none of the casual, lazy, dismissive cliches she also gets. She’s not just the best songwriter and performer of this generation, but also a mentor for graceful healing and self-aware agency. Poets, activists, novelists, and scholars have offered similar messages of compassion and confidence, but none as succinctly. People have written complex books advancing arguments that Taylor has made in one song, and she’s already done it a few dozen times. That’s the beauty of combining her words with her voice and her music: You don’t have to study and analyze to understand the point. You just have to listen. You’ll feel it. You’ll get it.

I’ll give a bunch of examples below.

All Too Well (10 minute version) is clearly one of the best breakup songs ever written (certainly my favorite), but it’s also a radical new approach: a 3 month relationship in a 10 minute song that goes from his boyhood to looking forward to years after their breakup as he remains stuck with women much younger than he is. It’s an astounding story. It’s also a great song, but first it’s a mind-blowing story, deep and complex. Yes, it’s about a hurtful breakup and boorish behavior and a shocking betrayal, but it’s levels above and beyond just the breakup. She’s looking at it clearly, poetically, and brilliantly: “maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much, maybe this thing was a masterpiece til you tore it all up”, “so casually cruel in the name of being honest”, “I’m in a new hell every time you double-cross my mind”, “You never called it what it was ‘til we were dead and gone and buried”. You’re barely into the story before we’ve already left the tropes of breakup songs far behind, and are constantly hearing clever new ways of using words to poetically and painfully present evenings, weeks, and months. You listen as if you’re in the room feeling the silences and the pain, the joys and the innocence. It stops my breath when I hear it. How can so much happen in just one song? It’s not about a breakup, it’s about almost a lifetime’s worth of feelings, and it tells the whole story. It was a surprise she made it into a short movie, but it shouldn’t have been, because that song was already a ridiculously complete movie: years of a story (though the relationship was short), with the silences and the lovely moments and the fights and the abandonment, scene after scene after scene. One of the real joys of this song is that it justifies, for anyone who has ever felt such pain, that a short relationship can still encompass overwhelming agony, joy, despair, and hurt. You’re allowed to feel that much in a relatively short period of time. Taylor told us it’s okay to do so.

You don’t hear her longing for him to come back. She exercises agency, power, and choice. She came out of it stronger, and she fully lived that painful story and has lessons to share with us. It’s not just she who remembers it all too well: “You were there, you remember it all”, “Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?”, “Sacred prayer, I was there, I was there, It was rare, you remember it all too well”. It is splendidly divine the way the song is about their relationship, and his actions and her reactions, but she also reminds him, and us, that he was wrecked by it too, even if he’s not aware enough to admit it.

A side note: the 10 minute version on Red (Taylor’s Version) hits all the notes I described above. But if you listen to the Sad Girl Autumn Version, it goes to another level of catharsis; it’s very hard to hear that version without feeling it throughout your body, as if your whole body has just been x-rayed for everyone to see. It’s not just poetic, cerebral, and dramatic; the Sad Girl Autumn Version takes your body apart and makes it hard to settle those emotions back down. I think it is the most perfect combination of lyrics, music, and singing ever recorded. The lyrics accomplish everything I wrote above. The voice adds all the emotion, and more, that you could ever want to feel. And the piano playing can carry all those same feelings by itself. If you listened to just the piano, you’d still feel hammered; if you turned off the music and listened to her singing, you’d feel it to your core; if you just read the lyrics, you’d realize it’s all there on paper. Each part stands triumphantly on its own, but together they’re as bold and mystical and shattering as the entire universe.

Perhaps you should pause reading and listen to the Sad Girl Autumn version of All Too Well. You won’t regret it.

They’re still singing that 10-minute version of All Too Well!

Now let’s talk about Happiness. When I first heard Happiness, I thought it was the most inventive set of words I’d ever heard. Who can come up with ideas like happiness after you and because of you, and happiness after me and because of me? People don’t usually talk or even think like that. (I thought these words were unmatchable, and then later I heard Dear John, and Cornelia Street, and My Tears Ricochet, and It’s Time to Go, and I realized this creativity and self-awareness is almost the norm for Taylor.) There’s the wonderful arc of reinvention in Happiness: “I can’t face reinvention, I haven’t met the new me yet.” She’s got all these great not-quite repeated lines about happiness before and after and because of, and then “I can’t make you a villain,” “I can’t see facts through all of my fury, you haven’t met the new me yet”, and “All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness, you haven’t met the new me yet, I think she’ll give you that.” She is so much the Boss here, still wounded, reinventing herself, but not all the way there yet; being generous, but not all the way yet; reminding them both of the “seven years of heaven”, of what she saw, what she did, what he did, but throughout there is this story of gratitude and reinvention and future hope, without denying the reality (“When did your winning smile begin to look like a smirk?”). An amazingly whole and thoughtful and smart and generous and aware and emotive person wrote this song. It should be legendary. Countless people should play and cherish this song when they need to remember something that was wonderful, but that also hurt, so they know that they can move forward, that there was happiness before and there will be happiness again. I hope those people find this song when they need it. And I hope they do so specifically because it is NOT a sad breakup song; yes, it’s about a breakup, but it’s more about reinvention and owning what happened and being a good person before and after. Breakups don’t need blame and don’t have to leave people broken. The meaning of this song is right there in the title! It is about making life work on a path to happiness. Calling this a breakup song is like calling a forest “trees”. Forests have 3-4 complete ecosystems, millions of living creatures, diverse flora and fauna, and centuries of evolution and active decomposition in any handful. Happiness has a breakup in it, but it is a forest, not just a song.

The song Happiness should be taught in high school and college. Taylor even tells us that: “No one teaches you what to do when a good man hurts you, and you know you hurt him too.” Except now someone has told us what to do, and that someone is Taylor Swift, and everything we need to know is right here in this song.

One more thing: catharsis and sadness are two different things. This song, like All Too Well, is not sad. They feel sad, as if we’re swimming in deep sadness, but they’re actually cathartic, an extraordinary release that springs us forward into the next steps of life. It is easy to cry when listening to Happiness, but those are tears are gratitude, not hurt: we are so very fortunate that Taylor wrote this song for all of us, promises us that reinvention is within our control, and consoles us that reinvention doesn’t have to happen immediately, that we can know we will get better even if we’re not there yet.

For another artist, this song would be the peak of a career, and the most important message she could give to her fans. For Taylor, it’s one of many.

This message of hope and strength is also offered in It’s Time To Go. She writes, “You know when it’s time to go, sometimes giving up is the strong thing, sometimes to run is the brave thing, sometimes walking out is the one thing that will find you the right thing”. This should be a worldwide anthem for women, really for any gender, another example of strength that should be taught in schools. If you’re going to have a chorus in a song, make it be like this one: you’re doing the right thing, the brave thing. Anyone who sees this as a breakup song is missing the point: she’s fine recounting what he did wrong (“he’s insisting that friends look at each other like that”), but the point is not him, it’s the message she’s preaching: “and you know in your soul when it’s time to go”. He could be a stick figure or not even really exist and her message would still be vitally important. This message applies equally to intimate relationships, business connections, friendships; she explicitly offers up examples from all three of these aspects of life (“when the words of a sister come back in whispers”, “the son of the boss gets the spot that was yours”, “trying to stay for the kids when keeping it how it is will only break their hearts worse”, “I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all”, “he’s got my past frozen behind glass but I’ve got me”). It’s the same message, and it’s incredibly important: when your gut tells you it’s time to go, listen. Act. Go. If you find yourself thinking about a relationship, friendship, or job that is going bad, but you’re afraid to act, just play this song, and you’ll know what to do. Then thank Taylor Swift for showing the way.

There’s a similar, though more specific, message in White Horse: “I was a dreamer before you went and let me down, Now it’s too late for you and your white horse to come around…There you are on your knees begging for forgiveness, begging for me just like I always wanted…I’m gonna find someone someday who might actually treat me well”. She is the one who woke up. Promises and “sorries” don’t work anymore. She tells us: it’s too late.

Put Forever and Always in the same category. “I stare at the phone, he still hasn’t called”, she remembers him saying “forever and always”, then she wonders “Was I out of line? Did I say something way too honest, made you run and hide like a scared little boy?” as she realizes that he can’t be counted on, that he isn’t what she deserves. And her vision becomes more clear as she says “It rains when you’re here and it rains when you’re gone.” She’s not apologizing; she’s hurt, he lied, she stares at the phone, but it’s not any better when he’s there. She’s done. And then finally, “I was there when you said forever and always. You didn’t mean it baby.” Pow. Is that the sound of a fist bump? Or just a resigned, but confident, acknowledgement of the right decision being made.

Somebody could make a powerful movie about this woman moving on in these songs. (People probably have, many times, but they spent hours staging the story, showing the characters change, and embodying the feelings that Taylor covers in a couple of songs.) Abuses (or at least mistakes) are chronicled in these songs, but she is not a sad victim wanting him back. It happened. It hurt. And it’s on him. We learn AND FEEL everything we need in these songs, with no need to stretch them out. Make them a short movie, like the All Too Well video; you won’t miss anything by keeping it short.

Better Man is similar, and could perhaps be in the same movie, with powerful and penetrating lines like “I know why we had to say goodbye like the back of my hand”, “I know I’m probably better off all alone”, “waited on every careless word hoping they might turn sweet again”, “I can hear it now, you talking down to me like me I’ll always be around”, “you never thought I’d run”, and “I gave to you my best, and we both know you can’t say that”. I see similarities to Gaga’s Million Reasons here, but with a big difference: Taylor sees all the reasons to go, she wishes he were better, but she knows he is NOT a better man, and she DOES run. Gaga’s heroine still wants to find a reason (“just one good, one good, one good reason to stay”). When Taylor sings “you never thought I’d run”, I hope everyone applauds. She didn’t just run; she first recognized that he didn’t think she could or would run, that he took her for granted. (This will come up again in Champagne Problems.) Better Man is so much not about him, whoever he is; it’s about the majesty and power of Taylor choosing to run. How do you not worship someone who teaches lessons like that?

There is nothing adolescent or simple about the song Clean. Comparing a relationship and its end to addiction and sobriety takes a wildly inventive mind and a deeply empathetic understanding of addiction. “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore” leads into “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” and then “I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing” and finally “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”. If you’re going to repeat lines, “that’s when I could finally breathe” and “gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean” are lines worth repeating. This song doesn’t get cute; it doesn’t take the idea of sobriety and use it as a clever metaphor. Instead, it fully inhabits the concept, brings those feelings to life, when they’re all over you, when they have hold of you, when you recognize how it feels to finally be clean but still hear the call beckoning you back, and you make the ongoing choice to not risk going back. This song is a gift.

Champagne Problems again has so many clever lines: “one for the money, two for the show, I never was ready so I watch you go”. (Sometimes it feels like Taylor studies cliches and thinks, watch me turn this one inside out and plant it deep inside your brain.) Nothing about his role, what he did (except for being clueless): she chose to go, so she watched HIM go; she didn’t run away, she’s not wrecked by it, she’s standing tall. There isn’t a moment in this song when you feel like it wrecked her, or she was the victim; yes, their friends used to be evergreen, they used to think they all had a future together, but he never talked to her about what he was thinking, he forgot that she gets to make choices too. “Sometimes you just don’t know the answer ‘til someone’s on their knees and asks you, she would’ve made such a lovely bride, what a shame she’s fuckeded in the head, they said”. That’s what everyone else thinks, that’s what he wants to think, but who was he to ask her without talking about it first? And who are those thoughtless friends or relatives that are so stunned that she made a choice? They decide she’s fuckeded in the head because SHE didn’t do what THEY wanted her to do? Expecting her to be so grateful she’d fall at his feet? He was showing off (to his friends and family) rather than thinking about her, thinking about his conquest and his wishes, clearly not about her feelings. I’m still furious at those unnamed fictitious people in the background who can’t believe that the protagonist made up her own freaking mind. I loved seeing Taylor step up in this song, saying nah, silly boy, you don’t get to decide for me, and neither do your friends or family. It’s a message of empowerment that’s worth sharing. (Full disclosure: I proposed to my ex-wife without discussing it in advance and she was mad about it for a long time; she felt backed into a corner, though I didn’t learn that until years later. It was a thoughtless move on my part; I didn’t realize how thoughtless it was until Champagne Problems showed me with a hard musical slap to the head. Now I know.)

Another Swiftie daughter at a Taylor-themed engagement party

The Moment I Knew sounds like a traditional sad breakup song, but “there was one thing missing, and that was the moment I knew”, “You called me later and said ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t make it’ and I said ‘I’m sorry too’”. That’s a Boss move. This and All Too Well run over his vanity like a steam roller, and she’s the one driving. It hurts, she’s hurt, but he’s so blindingly unaware of his actions and unconcerned how he hurts others. It’s so far removed from a classic breakup song, you almost miss the breakup while listening to her eviscerate him, and wake up, and stand up. And then we cheer for her.

Death By a Thousand Cuts sounds like a breakup song, “my heart, my hips, my body, my love, trying to find a part of me that you didn’t touch”, “I can’t pretend it’s ok when it’s not, it’s death by a thousand cuts”, “Gave you too much but it wasn’t enough, But I’ll be all right, it’s just a thousand cuts”. What an incredible punch that carries: it’s only A THOUSAND cuts. You feel those cuts when she sings that, and you feel her hope, that she’ll eventually be okay, but it sure hurts now. She knows it can never be again: “What once was ours is no one’s now”. She gave everything, “but it wasn’t enough”. She’s just talking about what happened, how much she gave, how much she hurts, but they both boarded up the windows and they both are left with nothing. His part is irrelevant. I don’t see her ever asking him to come back. It’s painful but glorious.

Begin Again is obviously not a breakup song, but it has a sweet message, that message of confidence, rebirth, reinvention, that we’ve seen before: “I walked in expecting you’d be late but you got here early and you stand and wave … you don’t know how nice that is but I do”, “thinking all love ever does is break and burn and end but on a Wednesday in a cafe I watched it begin again”. Don’t mistake this in any way for a sad breakup song. It’s a triumphant fist pump to reinvention and possibility.

Betty has the kid saying “If I just showed up at your party, would you have me, would you want me”, and tells the whole story, his part, his bad mistake, how it happened. He tries to blame both Betty and Inez for the circumstances that led to him leaving while also trying to admit it was “the worst thing I ever did”. He covers the whole summer from an hour before the cheating happened, but then suddenly the time frame shifts to “I’m here on your doorstep, right now is the last time I can dream about what happens when you see my face again” and then “So I showed up at your party, will you have me, will you love me?” There’s no resolution; we’re left hanging. This is actually great, because why do we need to know what happened after he showed up? The story is about his agonizing, his apology, his anxious courage in coming back, his deep awareness that everything rides on that next moment, the extraordinary time-collapse that brings everything up to this moment, when he’s stepping up with no idea what happens next. This is greatness in a song, when it doesn’t get hung up on the details of what happened next: it’s about what happens inside his head. From the first ridiculously clever line “I won’t make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom” (then he makes the assumption), to his unexpectedly showing up at her door, not just terrified, but realizing this will forever change his fantasy life no matter what happens, to the shocking cliffhanger, this song is so f’ing creative and honest. She’s got to be deep inside his (fictional) mind to come up with this stuff. This is not just a breakup song with a catchy hook; the hook changes and the story flies, carrying us along through months or years. The breakup is almost irrelevant, because it’s about what’s going on inside his head now. (Plus as a little bonus treat from Taylor, he thinks of her in the same sweater she wears in Cardigan.)

For its part, Cardigan includes lines like “when you are young they assume you know nothing”, “a friend to all is a friend to none, chasing two girls, lose the one”, “you drew stars around my scars”, “Tried to change the ending Peter losing Wendy”, the repeated “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan… you put me on and said I was your favorite” and finally “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired, and you’d be standing in my front porch light, and I knew you’d come back to me”. We don’t know where the story goes, since it’s not concluded in Betty either, but the creativity and insight is extraordinary, and it feels wise and celebratory rather than sad. Who compares a relationship to a cardigan under a bed and makes it work? And she was right, he did come back to her (in Betty). But what happens next? Through the three songs in this trio (including August), we see the same story of what happened, but we never have an ending. And that’s okay, because we see deep inside these three people. It’s about them, not about what happens next.

The sounds of voice and music on Cardigan, from “when you are young they assume you know nothing” to “I knew you’d come back to me” are extraordinary. If the word haunting didn’t exist, it would be invented to describe Taylor when she sings like this. But this essay is about her words, not her music, so let’s go back to her words.

Right Where You Left Me seems close to a traditional breakup song: she’s broken, he caused it, there’s a catchy hook, a repeated chorus, but she’s gone beyond that and created this whole fantasy world, so much more than just hurt and broken. Everyone sees her, she’s frozen, stuck, right “where you left me”, time goes on and on, where “you left me no choice”, but that’s not really true because Taylor is up above all this, looking at it, writing about it, there’s detail after detail, and then that shocking “if you ever think you got it wrong, I’m right where you left me”. It has the breakup song trope, but with a rich level of fantasy and creativity. If she hadn’t written all her other songs of self-affirmation, you could look at this one and say, that’s a very good but pretty sad breakup song.

We Are Never Getting Back Together is a blast. She’s in charge. It’s exhausting, you talk to whomever you want, it doesn’t matter, I’m telling you, never ever. Just like I Forgot That You Existed, “And I thought it would kill me but it didn’t, and it was so nice, so peaceful and quiet”, “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference”, then she lists things he laughed at her for or where he abandoned her, and she laughs. (This is perhaps the most fun breakup song ever written.) These aren’t traditional breakup songs, even though they’re about relationships that didn’t work. They’re about someone rising above all that boorish behavior.

Stay Stay Stay introduces a fantastic twist. “You come in wearing a football helmet”, “You think it’s funny when I’m mad mad mad”, “I think it’s best if we both stay”, “All those times that you didn’t leave”, “No one else is gonna love me when I get mad, mad, mad”, “It’s been occurring to me I’d like to hang out with you for my whole life”. I have heard love described as “A sense of feeling valued, understood, and heard. Listened to. Feeling safe with another.” I have also wondered if such a thing is possible. Taylor describes it perfectly in this song. She is self-aware and strong, she makes fun of herself when she loses control, and she celebrates with laughter and appreciation that he can see and accept her. It’s like a basic but rarely accomplished rule of life: if someone can’t accept and support you as you are, move on, but if someone can, and you like them too, then grab on.

I Bet You Think About Me by itself would be legendary and iconic, even if she never wrote another song. I hope it makes it to the all-time top lists soon. I couldn’t figure out why it’s not more prominent, then I realized it wasn’t released years ago when Red first came out. Somebody decided to keep this one in the Vault. Wow. Why? It covers everything, time, both of them, his behavior, and her hilarious confidence. Hopefully this is its award year. (Blake Lively’s video of it is a hoot, too, perfectly done.) I don’t know if it’s been performed live, but what an anthem arena song this would be. The crowd’s exuberant screaming would drown out everything.

Consider another part of I Bet You Think About Me: “Chasing make-believe status, last time you felt free was when none of that shit mattered ‘cause you were with me.” We were so above all that, she says, until you retreated back into your scared shallow little boy behavior. She’s not saying I am great, or I was great, or you tore me down, or you should have worshipped me; she says that we were both above all that and it’s a shame you’re not anymore and maybe never were. It’s like she left the story and the breakup to remind us all that there is a life richer than glamour, healthier than status, a way of thinking that is deep and sincere and spiritual—and that it was within their grasp, but proved too scary for him.

A side note: it is impossible to listen to I Forgot That You Existed, We Are Never Getting Back Together, I Bet You Think About Me, or Stay Stay Stay without having fun that is nearly hysterical. Above and beyond the message and the story, they’re just a blast to listen to.

More of my family having fun (there are a lot of us)

This is Me Trying, Come Back Be Here, We Were Happy, and Last Kiss are pretty traditional breakup songs, with the longing, the hurt, the chorus, and the catchy hook. But even in these songs, there are astounding moments of insight. We Were Happy includes “I hate those voices telling me I’m not in love anymore, but they don’t give me choices”, so it still feels like she’s in charge; it’s not someone else doing things to her, she knows it’s time. This is Me Trying is even more inventive, deep, and powerful, with “Maybe I don’t know quite what to say but I’m here in your doorway, I just wanted you to know that this is me trying”, “My words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I have a lot of regrets about that” and “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere”, and really, any line in that song. These songs aren’t boring; they’re breakup songs, but they’re complex poems as well. And Last Kiss, while in its form is a traditional breakup song, is also the most beautifully sung, orchestrated, and ethereally haunting breakup song I know. I mostly avoid talking about Taylor’s voice and music in this essay, because that’s not my theme, but if you ever wonder if she deserves the accolades for her voice and music as well as her words, just play Last Kiss. That voice, in this song, is unmatched in music (except by Taylor herself in songs like All Too Well and Happiness). And to be a bit redundant, while Last Kiss is a breakup song, please listen to it with a fresh eye. If you hadn’t heard any of her other songs and you heard this one, you’d think this is perhaps the most emotional, well-sung, and well-played breakup song ever.

Okay, almost done. If you made it this far, thanks for your patience.

There’s an exciting surprise in Treacherous: “This slope is treacherous, this path is reckless, this slope is treacherous and I, I, I like it”, then she changes the chorus, “This hope is treacherous, this daydream is dangerous, this hope is treacherous … I, I, I like it”. Wow. Fully aware of the danger, the risk, the choice, and then jumping right in anyway: “I like it”. The first time I heard this song I thought it was a warning, that something scary was about to happen, before it sunk in that no, she’s embracing the slope, the hope, the risk; she’s claiming it all, her eyes wide open.

Nobody would think of Cornelia Street as a breakup song because they don’t break up. And yet it almost feels like that’s what we’re hearing, because she is looking ahead, and she is in charge, and she directly connects Cornelia Street to the relationship, and she talks about never walking Cornelia Street again. But in fact, she’s taken the whole possibility of a breakup and put it under her control. From the beginning, “I rent a place on Cornelia Street, I say casually in the car”, it’s clear that she is living in her own power: no one is picking her up, she is walking her own path. And then she doesn’t wait for him to end it: “I thought you were leading me on, I packed my bags, left Cornelia Street before you even knew I was gone”, and then she comes right back when “you showed your hand”. You expect the song to be sad and her to say “I’ll never walk Cornelia Street again”, but it does the opposite: “I hope I never lose you, hope it never ends, I’d never walk Cornelia Street again”. She’s the Queen, not the victim. And she ends by repeating “I rent a place on Cornelia Street, I say casually in the car”, reminding us all that she created this thing, she wanted it, she’s still choosing it. That’s not an accident. That’s a goddess writing.

Then there’s Red. I don’t care what it’s really about: she turns the whole thing into colors, autumn colors so bright just before they lose it all, blue like I’d never known, dark gray all alone, burning red, still see it in my head in burning red. Any line from that song is something no one’s ever come up with before. And then she decides to raise the volume a lot, and put these words in a speedster, with power drums and heavy guitars and a voice that somehow screams without losing tune. Grace Slick used to do that with her voice. Grace Potter can also do it: take a song that’s already on fire, then explode it, with nowhere to go but up, but still under control. In fact, make it sound “like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street”. It is yet another anthem, so much more than a breakup song. Who can care about the relationship when all you can hear are those amazing lyrics delivered with that force? There may be no better example of cosmic-sized lyrics powered by explosive music and voice. (Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell is the closest I can think of; it has the same power in voice and music but not the lyrical inventiveness.)

I’ve covered the heartbreak and inspiration of All Too Well, Happiness, It’s Time To Go, White Horse, and Better Man, moved through the clever confidence of Clean, Champagne Problems, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Begin, and Betty, romped into the rollicking fun of We Are Never Getting Back Together, Stay Stay Stay, and I Bet You Think About Me, then built up intensity with Treacherous, Cornelia Street, and Red, and I’m finally ending with an explosive crescendo.

Photo by Susie Buck

An explosion of fireworks.

The nuclear explosion that is Dear John.

You probably know the history of Dear John letters. The trope is a couple hundred years old: a woman writing to tell a man that they’re done (historically it has been gendered). The guy’s name is almost never John, and it’s become so common that people (of any gender now) will say “I got a Dear John letter” or less often “I need to send a Dear John letter” or “I’m probably going to get a Dear John letter”. It’s a letter because the writer can’t face the recipient directly, and often it includes cliches like “it will be better for both of us”, “it’s me, not you”, or “I wish you the best”. It always means “I’m breaking up with you, sorry”.

Until Taylor Swift came along. One thing we know about Taylor, she is well-read; she knows music and culture and literature and history. She knows what a Dear John letter is. She’s not just writing to a guy named John, she’s capturing and reinventing the power and message of a Dear John letter. No one has ever delivered a Dear John letter live on stage with a blowtorch before. His actual name is irrelevant; the name makes it more clever, in the way that she’s always clever, but it goes so much beyond the specifics of that relationship, like everything she writes. This is a triumphant call to hopefully generations of people: stand up, be heard, torch the other person if they deserve it, stand up way above them while they cringe, take care of yourself first. Don’t apologize for hurting one who deserves it.

“Praying the floor won’t fall through, again … Wondering which version of you I might get on the phone tonight … Well I stopped picking up and this song is to let you know why.” There’s no apology there, no regret. She is telling him clearly, this is on you, and I’m calling you out.

“Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? … Don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by your dark twisted games? … All the girls that you’ve run dry have tired lifeless eyes.” That’s what he’s done, that’s why she’s leaving. But then we get into what SHE did: “I took your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town”. You could play that line over and over, applauding and shouting and screaming with triumph, feeling that you’re there with her, you’re there with everyone who got out in time, before the fire caught them, who can look back and down on the perpetrator stuck without his weapons, without his ability to hurt. We hope that everyone of them can get out and say, “The girl in the dress wrote you a song”. But we’re also there crying with the ones who did not get out in time, wishing they’d heard Taylor first.

Photo by Susie Buck

I hope enough people eventually hear this song to change the meaning of Dear John letters forever: Dear John letters need no longer be polite. (Polite breakups are fine, but don’t use a Dear John letter. Taylor showed us what a Dear John letter should be.) She took away the matches, she stopped picking up the phone, she’s shining. End your next Dear John letter, if necessary, with that triumphant escape, shining way up in the sky. I will never read a literary reference to a Dear John letter again without remembering the gift Taylor Swift has offered to our world. I am blown away by her choice to repurpose a traditional Dear John letter into a nuclear explosion, and then by how well she delivered it.

It’s hard to write this long essay without raving about My Tears Ricochet, Mad Woman, and Peace, or the amazing songs Nothing New, You Need to Calm Down, The Man, and Mean, which deserve an essay and a pantheon of their own. They cover similar ground: don’t back down, stand your ground, call it as it is, be seen and be heard. They’re all inspirational sermons, examples of how to live, but they’re not relationship ballads so they don’t fit here.

And I didn’t even talk about the way she uses her instruments like something much more than an instrument, not as accompaniment, not fitting in like an orchestra or band, almost lethal like a weapon but more targeted and powerful than any instrument should be. Many of her songs have broader use of instruments so you might not always feel that precision, but when she’s solo, she’s not just an artist, she’s something more precise, penetrating, and effective: she could stop singing and the music would make the same point anyway.

Finally, my concluding soapbox: Some people warn that Taylor is dangerous, a risky person to get involved with, perhaps the wrong model for young people. They could not be more wrong. Those people should look hard at themselves. If they aren’t comfortable with Taylor’s lessons, and can’t understand and embrace her path, then they should stick with subservient doormats or abusive partners or live in hiding. The path Taylor shows is not a scary one; it is what every partner of any gender should be willing to commit to, expect, and defend. She describes what should be the relationship norm, even though it’s challenging to a lot of people. I titled this essay Empowerment, Agency, Grace, and Reinvention, because that’s the message I see in Taylor’s work.

I wish I was younger so I could live through a life where Taylor’s description of the world is the standard people expect and live up to. Some of my daughters and nieces introduced me to Taylor last year; Ali, Grace, Susie, and Kyra in particular are Swifties who have seen Taylor live, and all received Taylor merch and Red (TV) on vinyl for Christmas. I am incredibly grateful that these young women, now in their twenties, learned from Taylor that all people have a right to be respected and accepted; can honor and feel their pain and eventually face forward despite that pain; can find reinvention without blame; know it’s okay to forgive themselves and move forward with power and grace, agency and forgiveness, hurt and healing. I’m glad they know that when they feel vulnerable, Taylor Swift has their back and has shown them the path.

I will end with words taken straight from the goddess herself, words that express exactly what Taylor Swift means to me:

Sacred Prayer.

Sacred Prayer.

Sacred Prayer.

(An earlier form of this essay was published by me on the Taylor subreddit.)


About the author

Richard Buck

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