By Amanda Wicks
This month marks the tenth anniversary of Taylor Swift’s self -titled debut album, which was released on October 24, 2006. Throughout the month, we’ll take a look at all five of her studio albums, including her fourth release: ‘Red,’ which was released on October 22, 2012.
Taylor Swift is a confessional songwriter in the classic sense. Her lyrics are her diary writ large, whether that means revealing her awkward self at 15 years old in one song, or sharing the time she battled a mean girl in another. But beyond those more self-reflective moments, Swift by and large sings about her relationships, which tend to include her oft-broken heart, her moments of unrequited love, and those rare times when gasp! He likes her back!
As her stardom has increased and her exes have gone from being sweet high school boys to super-famous celebrities, she’s never shied away from speaking openly, albeit obscurely, about her trials and tribulations with love. Indeed, figuring out who she’s singing about has become something of an obsession among her fans. When Swift ended things with then-boyfriend Calvin Harris over the summer, the collective response seemed to be: Watch out, Harris, you’re next. And Swift’s fans, no doubt, love her for that. Instead of naming names, she includes enough detail in her songwriting so that anyone who’s paying attention (and she knows that many are) will get her references and draw their own conclusions. It becomes a guessing game of sorts, one her fans enjoy playing.
Fans and followers track her moves through gossip rags and her own social media posts, keeping up with who she’s seeing and, perhaps more importantly, who she’s not seeing anymore. And Swift is more than aware of this. In her song “All Too Well” off Red, she uses the paparazzi photos circulated during her courtship with Jake Gyllenhaal to her advantage, mentioning a scarf she often wore when spotted out with him. “I walked through the door with you/ The air was cold/ But something like it felt like home somehow/ I left my scarf there, at your sister’s house/ And you’ve still got it, in your drawer even now,” she sings in the opening verse. Swift places the scarf in a line, knowing that those who have seen the photos will pick up on the significance and draw the necessary conclusions without her having to specify anything more.
Swift’s songs have tread a similar groove since she first burst on the scene with her self-titled debut studio album in 2006. Before she released her most recent album 1989, which was allegedly all about her brief, tormented relationship with One Direction’s Harry Styles, Swift released the aforementioned Red in 2012. And in it there are all sorts of ex-lovers. The Styles relationship is foreshadowed in “I Knew You Were Trouble,” (and he would be), and listeners have speculated that “Holy Ground” may have been about her time with Joe Jonas, while “Begin Again” may have been written after her brief fling with Conor Kennedy. And then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal, who supposedly informed a whopping three songs: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “All Too Well,” and “The Last Time.” It’s an album jam packed with men.
By writing about relationships, Swift’s songs follow the formula that pop (and really all music) has established over the years. There are the ecstatic moments in the club, there are the cries for DJs to keep a great night going, there are the self-empowering anthems, but the majority of pop songs tend to focus on love, loss and all the moments that fall on that spectrum. Swift has not only hit upon a subject matter that fuels her album sales and sold out world tours, but she’s approached it in a way that plays off the paparazzi’s intrusiveness, shifting their exploitation to her benefit. Gossip rags want to know all about her latest paramour, and that’s fine with Swift, since it will inevitably end up in a song.
It will be interesting to see at what point she expands her horizon to focus on things other than her exes, other than men, other than her fraught relationship with love. To put it another way, if she ends up in a solid relationship, what will she write about? There will likely be lots of love songs, but it might also open up the doors to new material, since an entire album about happy love songs might not fly with Swift’s fans used to more fraught fare.
Until then, Red is a great snapshot of a very talented young lady turning heartbreak into country/pop gold.