Taylor Swift is one of those celebrities so famous that even if you don’t listen to her music, you probably know something about her. Usually, the assumption is, “Isn’t she the one who always writes songs about her boyfriends?”
It’s true that Swift, 27, launched her career in 2006 as a teenager with Tim McGraw, a wistful ballad about a guy she dated in high school. When she became a star, she paired off with other stars and wrote about them: Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal. While she rarely names the subject of song, she leaves hints via coded messages in the album’s liner notes, leading to a media frenzy every time she releases new music - and will likely continue the practice when she drops her sixth studio album, Reputation, on Nov. 10.
However, those who only know Swift from those headlines and her major commerical hits (Love Story, You Belong With Me, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,) miss the fact that her music goes far beyond crushes and exes. Swift, who has solo or co-written every song she’s ever recorded, also tackles other substantive subjects, which have a major impact on her extremely loyal fanbase.
We took a deep dive into Swift’s albums to track her evolution on these other themes:
As the story goes, aspiring teenage singer-songwriter Taylor Swift knocked on doors around Music Row, dropping off demo CDs. Her parents eventually saw enough promise to move from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, to Nashville, where Swift became the youngest songwriter ever signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing at age 14.
Shortly after, Swift landed a record deal with Big Machine. As she was suddenly thrown into an adult world, her songwriting was still very much from a high schooler’s perspective.
“I don’t know what I want, so don’t ask me,” she sang on A Place In This World (Swift, Robert Ellis Orrall, Angelo Petraglia). “Cause I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Her lyrics veered from extreme confidence to self-doubt: “I’ll be strong, I’ll be wrong, oh, but life goes on - I’m just a girl trying to find a place in this world.” She also assured her listeners: “I’m not the only one who feels the way I do.”
This direct connection to her fans - many young girls indeed felt similar to Swift - would catapult her to superstardom. She also captured the insecurities of her teenage fanbase with the darkly sad Tied Together With a Smile (Swift, Liz Rose), about a friend who seemed like she had the perfect life, yet struggled with bulimia.
“You don’t tell anyone that you might not be the golden one,” Swift sang. “You’re tied together with a smile, but you’re coming undone.”
Swift’s solo-written Change, an anthem about not giving up, was chosen as a 2008 Summer Olympics theme song - but Fifteen was the standout track from the Grammys’ album of the year, convincing critics that Swift was a true force. (Rolling Stone dubbed her a “songwriting savant.”)
In the song, also a solo write, Swift took on the role of the older and wiser teen: She knew what it was like walking through the school hallways, terrified to make eye contact with anyone but also hoping the cute senior noticed you. She told the cautionary tale of her best friend, Abigail, who “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind - and we both cried.”
Ultimately, Swift wanted listeners to know it was okay to feel overwhelmed by high school. “I’ve found time can heal most anything, and you just might find out who you’re supposed to be,” she sang. “I didn’t know it at 15.”
Swift wrote this entire album herself. While the quiet Innocent got many headlines - it chided Kanye West for interrupting her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards - one overlooked song was Never Grow Up, a melancholy guitar acoustic tucked between Swift’s forays into rock and pure pop. In the track, 20-year-old Swift grappled with the fear and loss that arrives during the early years of adulthood.
Swift addressed her words to a newborn baby. “Take pictures in your mind of your childhood room, memorise what it sounded like when your dad gets home,” she sang, adding, “I just realised everything I have is someday gonna be gone.”
Swift made a similar wish to keep an iron grip on memories in Love Live, a triumphant love letter to her band and Nashville team, who started as underdogs and conquered the music world. “If you have children someday, when they point to the pictures, please tell them my name,” she sang. “We will be remembered.”
Welcome to New York (Swift, Ryan Tedder) kicked off Swift’s official pop era - the album’s opening track was bursting with glee at all the excitement the Big Apple had to offer: “Welcome to New York - it’s been waiting for you!” Swift had only just recently purchased a $20 million penthouse in Tribeca, so she earned some mockery when she was then named New York City’s “global welcome ambassador.”
But the pop star didn’t care as she reveled in the freedom of the city. “Everybody here was someone else before,” Swift sang. “And you can want who you want, boys and boys and girls and girls.”
As obsessed as Swift would eventually become with her powerful “squad,” a BFF group made up of models, singers and actresses, she frequently talked about how she was bullied and ostracised in middle school. On The Outside, which she wrote by herself as a teenager, you could feel her pain: “How can I ever try to be better? Nobody ever lets me in. I can still see you, this ain’t the best view, on the outside looking in.”
The sad track was bookended by the buoyant I’m Only Me When I’m With You (Swift, Robert Ellis Orrall, Angelo Petraglia), accompanied by a music video that showed Swift goofing around with her bandmates and best friend, Abigail. While the lyrics allude to romantic soulmates (“I don’t try to hide my tears, my secrets or my deepest fears, through it all nobody gets me like you do”) Swift’s fans have adopted it as an ode to friendship.
A similar phenomenon occurred on Breathe, co-written with singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat. Listeners could easily assume it’s about a boyfriend (“You’re the only thing I know like the back of my hand, and I can’t breathe without you, but I have to”) but Swift confirmed it’s actually about the end of a close friendship.
Swift continued to reflect on the hurt of her middle school days in The Best Day, a tribute to her close relationship with her mother. Writing solo, she reflected: “I’m 13 now and don’t know how my friends could be so mean - I come home crying and you hold me tight and grab the keys,” she sang. “And we drive and drive until we find a town far enough away, and we talk and window shop til I’ve forgotten all their names.”
Swift’s most famous - and happiest - friendship song arrived in the form of 22 (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback), an upbeat track that basked in a carefree existence, dancing and making fun of your exes and eating breakfast at midnight after a night out: “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time, it’s miserable and magical, oh yeah!”
The song’s hidden clue on the album liner notes was “ASHLEY DIANNA CLAIRE SELENA,” also known as her close pals Ashley Avignone, Dianna Agron, Claire Kislinger and Selena Gomez. Swift explained she wanted to write with the attitude of “we are in our 20s and we don’t know anything and it’s awesome.”
Though New Romantics (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback) is hidden as a bonus track on 1989, it’s a fan favourite and Rolling Stone recently ranked it as the second-best Swift song of all time. It has 22 vibes with an 80s sonic spin, celebrating the heartache and joy of being young: “Heartbreak is the national anthem, we sing it proudly, we are too busy dancing to get knocked off our feet.”
Album: Red (2012)
By her fourth album, Swift was officially an international celebrity. She also started to collaborate with Swedish maestros Max Martin and Shellback, who helped shape her new pop sound.
But The Lucky One, which she wrote by herself, was a bit of a return to form. Like a country song, it told a story - a starlet accomplishes her dream, and then realises that the perks (“big black cars and Riviera views”) might not outweigh the dark side of fame (“your secrets end up splashed on the news front page.”)
“They tell you that you’re lucky, but you’re so confused, cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used,” Swift sang. Many guessed that Joni Mitchell was her inspiration. Swift wouldn’t spill, and only admitted in an interview that the song “expresses my greatest fear of having this not end up being fun anymore.”
Swift’s stardom skyrocketed again as her pop songs took on mass appeal. Blank Space (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback) is a parody of the tabloid media’s characterisation of Swift: A needy serial dater with a long list of ex-lovers who can tell you she’s insane. And someone who, when she gets dumped, “goes to her evil lair and writes songs about it for revenge,” as Swift once put it. Swift started writing the lyrics as a joke, and then realised the character was actually fascinating - as the song goes, “a nightmare dressed as a daydream.”
Martin and Shellback also co-wrote Shake It Off, one of Swift’s top-selling singles, an earworm that hit back at her critics who were “gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” In a YouTube interview, Swift said she wanted to write a “joyful” song about the criticism she gets on a daily basis - otherwise she would just burn with resentment forever.
I Know Places (Swift, Ryan Tedder) took a more despondent view of a lifestyle where privacy simply isn’t an option. Swift has repeatedly talked about the difficulties of starting a new relationship while the world watches and mocks you, and this track was a wistful tune about hiding out: “They are the hunters, we are the foxes, and we run - baby, I know places we won’t be found.”
Swift first displayed her thirst for vengeance against exes on songs like Picture to Burn (Swift, Liz Rose) on her first album, and Better Than Revenge, about a romantic rival, which she wrote for Speak Now. But on that third album, her motivation also went beyond boyfriends with Mean, a single that she wrote by herself and earned her two Grammy awards, including one for best country song. The song’s rumored genesis was a critical blog post by music writer Bob Lefsetz, who roasted Swift’s cringeworthy duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys.
In return, Swift painted her critic as an eventual bitter, washed-up loser, “drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing.” Swift concluded, “All you are is mean - and a liar and pathetic and alone in life.”
Swift’s most infamous revenge track is Bad Blood (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback). Once she revealed that the tune was about a fellow female pop star that tried to “sabotage” an arena tour, the internet quickly figured out that it was Katy Perry, who hired several back-up dancers away from Swift’s Red Tour.
Although it might seem like a benign slight, Swift’s lyrics were rough: “Did you have to hit me where I’m weak, baby, I couldn’t breathe, and rub it in so deep? Salt in the wound like you’re laughing right at me.” Things only escalated when Swift recruited her famous friends for the song’s fiery music video that showed her vanquishing an enemy. In summer 2017, Perry fired back with a track of her own, “Swish Swish,” though it received more mockery than anything.
After her longest break without releasing new music, Swift dropped Look What You Made Me Do in August. She and collaborator Jack Antonoff shared writing credits with Fred Fairbrass, Richard Fairbrass and Rob Manzoli, the trio behind I’m Too Sexy, because Swift and Antonoff interpolated the 1990s hit.
The dance-pop track declared that the “old Taylor” is “dead.” Still, she leaned heavily on her tried-and-true revenge theme, clearly aimed at her nemeses Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, with whom she has been feuding for years. “The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama,” Swift chanted. “But not for me, not for me - all I think about is karma.”