“1989” Is Proof That Taylor Swift Isn’t Actually Mean to Her Exes
This is how the old story about Taylor Swift goes: she dates so many men, who then inevitably become her exes, and then she brutalizes them in song form. John Mayer quakes in fear over her pen. Joe Jonas got hit with songs on both “Fearless” and “Speak Now” – and then again when the “Taylor’s Version” albums came out a decade later. And if Travis Kelce isn’t the love of her life (please imagine me rolling my eyes), people have already scripted lines about romance being a losing game for her.
But as we celebrate the release of “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” – the rerecorded version of her original 2014 album – the album proves that Swift is not actually as brutal to her exes as the stories about her say. “1989” is full of songs about love that ended – but none are marked by the bitter and vindictive heartbreak that simple narratives associate Swift with.
“1989” is full of songs about love that ended – but none are marked by the bitter and vindictive heartbreak that simple narratives associate Swift with.
Most of the songs on “1989” are believed to be about her time dating Harry Styles, circa 2012. Most notable is “Style,” though “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” “I Know Places,” and others are also believed to be about their connection. And even if the object of some of the songs is unknown or subject to debate, Swift doesn’t really say anything about any of these lost loves that could be described as mean.
“Wildest Dreams,” one of Swift’s most romantic and sexiest songs, is all about how she wants an ex-lover to remember her: “Say you’ll see me again / Even if it’s just in your wildest dreams,” she practically begs. “Out of the Woods” is about how the anxiety of fame ruined a relationship from the start, how Swift saw herself as too much of a burden, so she set the other person free. “I Wish You Would” is about how she blames herself for how a relationship ended. She wishes her love would come back, so she could apologize – but she’s too afraid to reach out to them herself. Perhaps the most “mean” of the original “1989” tracks is “All You Had to Do Was Stay,” but it’s mostly about how she moved on after her partner fumbled the bag. On “1989,” heartbreak is mostly filled with a kind of rosy, pop nostalgia. Everything is seen through the rearview mirror, even when it’s still happening. And from a distance, it’s harder to blame someone.
Swift, of course, also mocked this very man-eating reputation in the “1989” track “Blank Space.” In it, she sings as this imagined devious version of herself, desperate to have any man fill the “blank space” next to her, so they can have a quick romance full of “magic, madness, heaven, sin” before she leaves them and writes the very next song. The existence of “Blank Space,” to me, should have destroyed this narrative once and for all. And yet.
The re-recorded album also contains the vault songs. In the days since the album was released on Oct. 27, I have seen a surprising number of TikToks about how Styles’s fans don’t want to listen to his music now because of what Swift says about him in songs like “Is It Over Now?” and “Now That We Don’t Talk.” I remain baffled by this, because neither of these songs could be described as “mean.” “Is It Over Now?” hints at how both Swift and her unnamed partner (but probably Styles) quickly moved on to other people and could have handled it better. She dings him for dating girls who are her “clone.” But her repeated question of “Was it over then? And is it over now?” actually reads to me less like a slam and more like a desperate question that you’re hoping will get the right response: “No, it’s not over.” It reminds me of Ryan Gosling in “The Notebook”: “It wasn’t over, it still isn’t over.” And “Now That We Don’t Talk” feels full of grief that they can’t be friends anymore. When she says all the things she doesn’t have to do anymore, she’s trying to find the bright side of things, but genuine regret still underlies the track.
But it’s not just “1989.” I don’t think any of Swift’s breakup songs are as bad as their reputation. “Last Kiss” from “Speak Now” is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t have acid-tongued blame. “Back to December,” also a “Speak Now” track, places the fault at her own feet. Tom Hiddleston inspired some of Swift’s most fun songs on “Reputation,” and Connor Kennedy inspired one of Swift’s best lyrics: “Nothing safe is worth the drive.” Even the “Fearless” vault song “Mr. Perfectly Fine” isn’t nearly as mean as people pretend. It’s not called “Mr. Wrong” or “Mr. Evil” – “Mr. Perfectly Fine” is just some guy. And so much of Swift’s discography, especially in the “Fearless” and “Speak Now” eras, is about learning not to settle for some guy.
Of course, there are the songs that fans feel are most pointed. There’s the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” released with 2021’s “Red (Taylor’s Version)” and widely believed to be about Swift’s relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal. Undoubtedly, “ATW” contains some anger.
And yet, it still doesn’t fit this idea of songwriting vengeance she’s associated with. “All Too Well” is Swift telling her own story and bearing witness to the things that happened to her, and the “10-Minute” version also lets her talk about it in a way she couldn’t at the time when things were so fresh. Swift can sing, “I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight” because she’d finally opened up about her eating disorder. And – similarly to “Is It Over Now?” – at the end, she’s looking for an answer more than anything: “Just between us, did the love affair maim you all too well? / Just between us, do you remember it all too well?”
Ultimately, I can’t and won’t criticize a woman for writing about the things that have happened to her. When she released “You’re Losing Me” in May – a deluxe track from 2022’s “Midnights” that still isn’t officially streaming – she talked about the end of her relationship (seemingly with Joe Alwyn) in heartbreaking lyrics full of pain. I saw many people, even fans, say, “Well why would anyone agree to get into a relationship with her now if she’s going to talk about it like this?” But too often, this critique is reserved solely for women; I’ve never seen someone listen to one of Styles’s breakup songs and wonder who would date him next.
In the Eras Tour, Swift sings love songs about relationships that ended – one of them very recently. I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to post about a good thing for fear that I will regret it one day, so this is almost unfathomable to me. But she’s doing us all a service by so publicly singing about where things went wrong and how she’s mending her broken heart over and over. Swift puts her love into songs that are listened to by millions of people, and she keeps singing them long after that love is gone, but the lost love is transformed into something new. She puts her sadness and pain into songs, and after fans listen to the songs and learn the lyrics and scream them in cars and movie theaters and football stadiums, some of their pain is finally gone, too. What’s left is something bigger than the facts themselves, the tit for tat of a relationship. It’s community, it’s healing, and it’s art.