I’ve been on a Bruce Springsteen kick recently (I think I could write a two-thousand word analysis on Rosalita alone), but occasionallyI need something more mindless and disposable. My recent pop album of choice has been Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, which has risen considerably in my esteem the past few weeks. It has a lot less filler than Fearless did, and her lyrics (all self-penned) are remarkably frank for teen pop.
Much has been written and discussed about the targets of a few of Taylor’s songs. She famously writes about her own love life in her hit singles. It got me wondering about the songs with less obvious targets, so I did a bit of digging. Turns out our little country daisy gets around quite a bit, particularly for someone who’s one album removed from a preachy chastity song.
Here is a breakdown of my findings. I hit some of the obvious resources — EW and MTV and People articles — but also braved SongMeanings.net, fan message boards, and — worst of all — Yahoo Answers. Fans have developed a consensus about the meaning behind most of the songs, though some are more obvious than others.
This exercise proves a little bit misguided and confusing at times. Taylor says she often writes about situations she’s imagined in her head with real-life people as characters in these hypothetical scenarios. Thus, Taylor writing specific feelings about a person or situation is not necessarily indicative of her real feelings. And even if every situation were literal, it’s all still speculation; she has adamantly refused to confirm the identities of most characters of her songs. She was kind enough to include some scrambled clues in her liner notes, and I’ve included those where appropriate.
Several outlets have reported that this single speculates what might have happened had Taylor opened herself up to a boy she had a crush on. The exact identity of said crush is a bit ambiguous, and it may be an amalgamation of multiple people, but most fan speculation is that it’s about Cory Monteith or Lucas Till. Monteith, the star of Glee, seems less likely than Till, co-star of the You Belong With Me music video.
The liner code is “TOBY,” which is the first name of then-boyfriend and co-star of Mine’s music video, Toby Hemingway. This seems to point to Till, another video co-star, especially since Toby quite resembles Till. Or, it’s possible it could be about Toby himself, written awhile ago before she followed up on her crush.
2. Sparks Fly
This was one of the trickiest songs for fans to decode, and the consensus still seems a bit dubious. The liner notes clue is “PORTLAND OREGON,” which doesn’t really point to any major figure in her life. Swift has hinted that this song, too, is hypothetical and not reflective a real romance.
But some industrious fans discovered an old blog post of Taylor’s written in Portland, OR where she confesses an obsession with country singer Jake Owen. In 2006, back before she was huge, she opened for Owen in a bar. She first performed this song in 2007, and the original lyrics mention meeting the target of the song in a bar.
It’s grasping at straws, but Owen seems to be a better candidate than anyone else. Owen as a target seems a bit strange, though, because the song discusses a deep, intellectual, emotional connection. Evidence seems to show that Owen was more on the fringe of Taylor’s life.
3. Back to December
This regretful ballad (“It turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you”) is almost definitely about Taylor Lautner, one of Swift’s highest-profile romances, and one that she purportedly ended on her terms. Most media and fans seem to agree that he’s the guy Taylor pines for here.
4. Speak Now
In my opinion, the title track is the only instant-pop-classic on this album to rival Fearless’s You Belong With Me. It narrates the thoughts of Swift as she crashes the wedding of a boy she loves (“I am not the kind of girl who should be rudely barging in on this white-veil occasion / But you are not the kind of boy who should be marrying the wrong girl”).
The story, according to one source, is that Taylor had a high school boyfriend that she promised to eventually get back together with. A couple years later, she got news that he was engaged to someone reported to be a really horrible woman. Taylor’s friends jokingly asked if she was going to “speak now,” as in “speak now or forever hold your peace.” Taylor eventually caught up with the guy and made peace with his plans, but became fixated on this idea of crashing the wedding of your true love.
5. Dear John
Well the title about gives it away, doesn’t it? John Mayer had briefly dated Taylor before the two drifted apart. This lyrics — some of her best — crucify him as distant and volatile: “All the girls you’ve run dry have tired, lifeless eyes.”
This is one of the only songs Taylor has publicly confirmed the identity of the target: her critics. In particular, it seems that this song is aimed at media who deride her natural singing ability and who criticize her for her tumultuous love life. It’s a pretty toothless, generic rant, but the tune has one of the catchier melodies on the album.
7. The Story of Us
Hints of dance-pop don’t particularly flatter Taylor’s composition, but the metaphor at the heart of the song (“the story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now”) is fleshed out pretty well. She has reportedly confirmed that both this song and “Dear John” are about the same person, so it appears that this song is also about John Mayer, written towards the end of their pseudo-relationship as they start to bicker and grow apart.
8. Never Grow Up
A ballad written about her younger niece that seems to be actually more about Taylor — it warns a young girl about losing her innocence and abandoning her comfy home life for a real world that can be vicious. Hm.
An account of a brief infatuation with someone she barely knows. The liner clue is “ADAM” pointing towards Adam Young of Owl City fame. This claim is backed by a few other pieces of evidence, including the use of the word “wonderstruck,” which Taylor said she got from the target of the song. Young is apparently known to use that word quite a lot in songs and interviews.
10. Better Than Revenge
Aside from featuring her best rhyme ever — “She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think, she’s an actress / She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress” — Better Than Revenge shines as one of Taylor’s best songs to date thanks to strong vocals and propulsive guitar and drums.
The lyrics are nearly as bitter as those on “Dear John” but this time aimed at a girl who stole a boy. (It’s worth noting that Taylor never elaborates on her vengeance, making her claim that “there is nothing I do better than revenge” ring pathetically false.) Fans have decided it’s probably aimed at actress Camilla Belle, who started dating Joe Jonas shortly after Joe and Taylor broke up.
Belle starred in the “Lovebug” music video with Joe while Taylor and Joe were still together. After that encounter, Joe famously dumped Taylor and was seen spending time with Belle not long afterwards.
Pretty obviously about Kanye West and the “imma let you finish” incident. Like Fifteen previously, Swift tries to come across as wise beyond her years and ends up sounding a bit patronizing and exploitive. I’m not a huge fan of the song, but I do appreciate the empathetic take on the situation, and a couple of the one-liners stick (“Who you are is not what you did”). Plus, the song seems to have given the media and the public permission to move on from hating Kanye and back to admiring his epochal rap.
[Tangent alert] Speaking of Kanye, he’s been pretty low key the past few months. The one news item about him that I’ve read recently is that he’s enrolling in some fashion design classes in London. Good for him. You will recall that he once rapped to his mama “I promise you I’m going back to school,” and kudos to him for following through. [/Tangent]
A reflection on the boy that got away, Haunted is about an amalgamation of several boys, says Swift. The liner hint is “STILL TO THIS DAY,” and the lyrics are vague enough that it could be about any past relationship. Joe Jonas makes sense, but she could have had any number of boys on her mind as she wrote it.
13. Last Kiss
The liner hint is “FOREVER AND ALWAYS,” which is the title of the song on Fearless about Joe Jonas, and it’s a nice counter-part to that song. Where Forever and Always responded to their breakup with a tone of condescension, Last Kiss introspectively reveals a real hurt and emptiness in the wake of their separation.
14. Long Live
A love letter to her band and fans about waging the daily wars. It’s cute, but Swift strangely warps it into a self-oriented song (“If you have children some day / When they point to the pictures / Please tell them my name /Tell them how the crowds went wild”) like she did to Innocent and Never Grow Up. The song — and the album — show Swift on the brink of maturity but also the brink of self-indulgence and vanity. It’s neither enough to make Speak Now repulsive nor morbidly compelling (a la Kanye’s latest album). But be on alert for her next album.