Taylor Swift's songwriting: how the star's music has changed, for better or worse
From 'Tim McGraw' to 'You Need to Calm Down,' we revisit the ups and downs of Swift's discography
Taylor Swift's popularity has led her to chart-topping albums, sold-out stadium tours and one of the most loyal fanbases out there. Regardless of whether or not you're a fan of the country-turned-pop star's work, it's indisputable that she has become one of music's biggest stars in the past decade.
The more complicated question, though: how did Swift's songwriting change to help accelerate her rise to stardom?
Taylor Swift has been called one of the greatest songwriters of all time. She has also been called a lazy songwriter. Swift's trajectory as a songwriter has had its ups and downs, just like any artist, but her evolution is an interesting case study in genre-hopping, fame and the complexities that celebrity brings to the art at the centre of her work.
Ahead of the release of the singer's seventh full-length, Lover (out Aug. 23), we want to take a look at Swift's songwriting and how it has changed, for better and worse, over the years. To do this, we've selected a sample size of her songs — one track from each of her albums, including her forthcoming effort — to analyze the strengths and weaknesses that have come together to make one of pop's most successful, and oftentimes divisive, figures.
Song: "Tim McGraw"
Album: Taylor Swift
"Tim McGraw" was Swift's debut single, co-written by songwriter Liz Rose, who went on to collaborate with Swift on a number of songs up until 2012's Red. The initial idea for the song, according to Swift, came to her while she was in her high-school math class and was inspired by a guy she was dating at the time who was moving away. As an introduction to Swift's songwriting, "Tim McGraw" provided a lyrical blueprint that she continued to use on future songs and albums.
Her writing style here was plainspoken and straightforward but succeeded in illustrating detailed scenes that evoked universal emotions. There's a Chevy truck, a distinct memory of "that little black dress" she wore and the Tim McGraw song at the heart of it all ("Can't Tell Me Nothin'," in case you were wondering). All of this filled in the finer details of a story that's simply about longing for an old flame. Some of Swift's best love songs are her most candid, with her heart on her sleeve for everyone to see.
Swift often writes from a first-person perspective, which provides an intimacy that, as the singer became more famous, fostered a level of intense investigation by fans and tabloids alike. With "Fifteen," though, Swift shifted the lens to share the narrative with her high-school best friend, Abigail Anderson.
Swift wrote "Fifteen" when she was 18, and spoke directly to her and Anderson's 15-year-old selves in a way that treated them with compassion and empathy (sounding a bit like a cheesy yearbook message, but sweet nonetheless) because, as she sang, "I didn't know who I was supposed to be at 15." Swift advised those who have yet to walk through those high-school doors for the first time to "take a deep breath, girl." Elsewhere, she warned: "But in your life you'll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team."
"I love writing songs because I love preserving memories, like putting a picture frame around a feeling you once had," Swift told Elle U.K. earlier this year. "I like to use nostalgia as an inspiration when I'm writing songs for the same reason I like to take photographs. I like to be able to remember the extremely good and extremely bad times."
Swift may be best known for writing songs about romantic love, but "Fifteen" argues that she is equally great at penning earnest odes to friendship and self-love. Of course, Swift can dish out more venomous songs — as she did later on 1989's "Bad Blood," which was aimed at former foe Katy Perry — but her strength often lies in her most vulnerable and caring work, whether it's reflecting on the past and tying a bow around her memories, or describing the act of falling in love in real time.
Song: "Dear John"
Album: Speak Now
This is the version of Swift that many in the press have latched onto and spun a negative image out of: the songwriter who "writes songs to get emotional revenge on guys," as she told NME in 2015. In what might've been her most forthright song to an ex, "Dear John" has long been suspected to be a song about Swift's ex-boyfriend John Mayer. Even Mayer himself addressed the song, telling Rolling Stone in 2012 that he was "really humiliated" by the track and accused Swift of "cheap songwriting." In response, Swift called Mayer "presumptuous" for thinking it was about him and has asserted that she will never reveal who her songs are about.
Whether "Dear John" is about Mayer or not, this seven-minute epic shows off a side of Swift that is just as reflective as a song like "Fifteen." It also injects some of that aforementioned venom, though, in the form of pettiness, though no doubt some of that was heightened thanks to the public back-and-forth between the ex-couple.
In "Dear John," Swift accuses an ex who is notably older than her of playing "dark, twisted games." ("Don't you think I was too young to be messed with;" Mayer is 12 years her senior.) While not a wholly original analogy, Swift does like to frame love as a game, as she has on other songs like "State of Grace" and "Blank Space."
As the subjects of her love songs became tabloid fodder around this time, and the growing interest in her celebrity swelled beyond her singer-songwriter roots, Swift's songwriting moved into more complex territory. Fame and living in the public eye added a new layer to her songs and, on future albums, would inspire bold shifts in her lyrics to increasingly more mixed reviews.
Song: "I Knew You Were Trouble"
Red was where Swift's songwriting took a sharp turn toward pop, and songs like lead single "We are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "I Knew You Were Trouble" were clear examples of such. Detailed imagery, something that Swift's best work excels in, was traded in for more simplistic and overt hooks. That's not to say that this was a bad thing because Swift still utilizes both modes of writing — and she proved to be an excellent writer of pop anthems.
"I Knew You Were Trouble" found Swift feeling remorseful after a disastrous relationship with a guy who was, as the title stated, trouble. Sonically, the track was the biggest departure from her country roots yet. Here, Swift was the star of her own dubstep-meets-Paramore single and she sold it hard when she sang, "Now I'm lying on the cold hard ground/ oh, oh-oh," on the beat-drop chorus.
Repetition was key as Swift wove an earworm out of repeat phrases on her verses as well as her choruses. In the end, "I Knew You Were Trouble" may not have painted as precise a picture of those memories that she said she loved to preserve. Instead, Swift and the track achieved an overall feeling and conveyed it with conviction, flair and drama. With big pop hooks came big emotions, and Swift was serving it all up on a silver platter.
Song: "Blank Space"
Sincerity and vulnerability anchored some of Swift's best songwriting up until this point, but with that came a level of scrutiny that morphed into public skepticism. Her unabashed candour was transformed into a meme — just think of how many people made fun of her award show reactions — and her most extreme qualities were stripped and restructured into a character of their own. This developed into a pretty big part of Swift's more recent output as self-awareness came into play, resulting in fruitful and failed songs alike. "Blank Space" belongs in the former category.
Literally taking the public's image of her and fashioning it into the protagonist of the song, "Blank Space" played into everything the media imagined her to be: a boy-crazy drama queen. "At first it was hurtful and then I kind of found a little comedy in it," she told NME. This is, of course, also a sexist claim against mostly female songwriters, something Swift has noted in interviews.
That comedy shone through on this song, though. "You look like my next mistake/ love's a game, wanna play?" she sang on the song's opening verse. The sparkling pop production played into this duality of being a "nightmare dressed like a daydream," as it lured listeners in with a fairytale-like polish while couching its absurdity underneath. Swift was reclaiming her own image here with a wink and playful middle finger to her critics.
Song: "Look What You Made Me Do"
On the flip side of Swift's self-awareness infiltrating her music is an example like "Look What You Made Me Do," the lead single off her 2017 album, Reputation. While the idea of exploring a darker side of herself sounded promising, the drama of this track fell flat in a few ways.
Lyrically, Swift had made a name for herself by being a master of embedding clues for fans to interpret and correlate to specific subjects. (The aforementioned "Dear John" exemplified this, as do songs like "Back to December," "The Last Time" and "Out of the Woods.") But the hints throughout "Look What You Made Me Do" stuck out like sore thumbs, begging for our wildest theories even if they all pointed back to the most likely culprits — Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and probably Katy Perry, all celebrities that Swift had publicly feuded with.
"I don't like your little games/ don't like your titled stage," Swift sings in the opening verse, visually bringing to mind West's Saint Pablo tour production that involved a floating stage. "I've got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined/ I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!" she continues. When the track first premiered, critics were divided. Some praised Swift's edgy transformation, which showed off a sense of camp and humour. Others found it disingenuous, with Pitchfork describing it as "a half-rapped, half-assed airing of grievances."
Reputation, while it was commercially still a blockbuster hit in terms of sales, was a mix of old and new Taylor (even if she proclaimed the old Taylor was "dead" on "Look What You Made Me Do"). This led to some uneven songwriting. Swift's heel-turn included an embrace of pop's swerve into hip-hop elements, which at times produced some awkward moments for Reputation, sonically ("I Did Something Bad," "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things"). But the album also gave us "Delicate," a softer moment that combines her open-hearted tenderness with a pop sensibility — the ideal latter-day Swift formula. Evolution was necessary for Swift, but the growing pains were clear across the album's 15 tracks.
Song: "You Need to Calm Down"
"You Need to Calm Down" is perhaps one of the most extreme cases of Swift's pop songwriting gone wrong. Along with the lead single, "Me!," from her upcoming seventh studio album, Lover, Swift seems to have dropped the nuanced lyrics for strings of catchphrases stitched together like a glittery banner.
The metaphors here feel clunky and amount to a vague message of positivity over hatred, as well as a show of her support for the LGBTQ+ community. It's well intentioned, but a line like "Why are you mad when you could be GLAAD?" just comes off as cartoonishly odd. Swift showing her allyship to queer communities is welcome, but is it helpful when it's in the form of bumper-sticker statements and a co-opted rainbow aesthetic?
In addition to a much more polished pop sound — which continues to borrow elements from hip hop, begging the question: can Swift's signature brand of pop survive in today's mainstream landscape? — Swift's new songs lack the vulnerability that once made her songwriting not just catchy, but also endearing.
While Lover's third and fourth singles, "The Archer" and "Lover," correct some of those jarring left turns in her songwriting, it's unclear what Swift's newest album will bring.
It's evident that her songwriting has changed as her A-list profile and the judgment it brought along has forced her into more complex waters, but Swift's ability to pen great lyrics hasn't been dimmed as much as it has just been complicated. Her expansion into pop widened the playground for her songwriting and Swift is still experimenting with sounds and themes — and where she fits — as the charts make space for artists of the same realm (Carly Rae Jepsen, reunited pal Katy Perry) as well as those pushing the boundaries of pop to new places (Billie Eilish, former tour mate Charli XCX). Lover, a crucial next step for Swift following Reputation, may have come off as a Technicolor barrage of butterflies and smiles but, just like Swift's previous releases, could be packed with surprises.
We wouldn't count Swift out of the pop ranks just yet, as she warned us on "Look What You Made Me Do": "Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time."