Analyzing Taylor Swift Part Two: The Successes

A long time ago, like right after I graduated from high school, a 16-year-old had her first country hit. Even way back then, she was breaking the rules: she broke into the business with a song whose title was the name of another country star. And Tim McGraw was a hit. Here’s the second verse and chorus.

September saw a month of tears
And thankin’ God that you weren’t here
To see me like that
But in a box beneath my bed
Is a letter that you never read
From three summers back
It’s hard not to find it all a little bitter sweet
And lookin’ back on all of that, it’s nice to believe

When you think Tim McGraw
I hope you think my favorite song
The one we danced to all night long
The moon like a spotlight on the lake
When you think happiness
I hope you think that little black dress
Think of my head on your chest
And my old faded blue jeans
When you think Tim McGraw
I hope you think of me

Taylor Swift over the years

Her image evolved over the years, but she still writes songs about the same thing. Take a look at these lyrics from her song Wildest Dreams, off of 1989:

Nothing lasts forever, but this is gonna take me down
He’s so tall and handsome as hell
He’s so bad but he does it so well
I can see the end as it begins
My one condition is

Say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset
Babe
Red lips and rosy cheeks, say you’ll see me again even if it’s just in your wildest dreams oh wildest dreams

She’s still writing songs, asking boys/men to remember her in a certain way. Some of it hasn’t even changed—wearing a nice dress, surrounded by nature. Some of it has—faded blue jeans are now red lips and rosy cheeks. There are minor changes that you’d expect when going from 16 to 24 (the second is much more adult in content, without being explicit by any means), but the biggest change is her sound.

She’s switched from country music, with longer verses and more explicit stories, to a minimalist approach to pop songs. You can see the change above, from complete sentences to fragmented thoughts. She says the same thing, essentially, in fewer words. In eight years, she’s certainly learned how to revise.

No matter the genre, the same things make her songs amazing: apt metaphors, and the perfect blend of universality with concrete details to create songs that are real for her and true for everyone. Let’s take a look at some of her standout lyrics from over the years, and what makes them work.

From 2006’s “Tied Together With a Smile”

I guess it’s true that love was all you wanted
Cause you’re giving it away like it’s extra change
Hoping it will end up in his pocket
But he leaves you out like a penny in the rain
Oh, cause it’s not his price to pay

Talk about a beautiful metaphor, seriously. The way she develops the metaphor throughout the verse is perfect. She uses cliche after cliche, but because of the way she’s building on a singular metaphor, they absolutely work. Beyond the brilliant metaphor, the verse is also both specific and universal. The metaphor itself is full of specific actions (“you give it away,” “he leaves you out”) that are about the protagonist, and yet the protagonist is going through something completely universal—being so desperate for love that you devalue both it and yourself in the process.

From 2008’s “White Horse”

This ain’t Hollywood, this is a small town,
I was a dreamer before you went and let me down,
Now it’s too late for you and your white horse to come around

In the last post, we mentioned her obsession with fairy tells. The fairy tale metaphor is obvious here, and it helps build a context that is bigger than the words she uses. The metaphor of “you and your white horse” immediately conjures an image of a princely figure, condescending to rescue Taylor. At the same time, we have the concrete details of the small town, Taylor as a dreamer, and how the princely figure let her down. Not everyone is in her small town, but her contrasting it with Hollywood helps make it universal. And the middle line? What obsolete child doesn’t relate to that?

From 2010’s “Sparks Fly”

The way you move is like a full on rainstorm
And I’m a house of cards
You’re the kind of reckless
That should send me runnin’
But I kinda know that I won’t get far
And you stood there in front of me
Just close enough to touch
Close enough to hope you couldn’t see
What I was thinking of

I had such a hard time choosing from Speak Now. I think it’s her best-written album. But this first verse for Sparks Fly captures everything. It starts out with an amazing metaphor. The image of a rainstorm wrecking a house of cards is vivid. It plays to at least three senses (sight, hearing, touch), and it is apt to the kind of crazy relationship the rest of the song details. She moves into specifics of the situation again—standing in front close enough to touch—and ends with a universal emotion. Who isn’t scared that the person they’re falling in love with could read their thoughts?

From 2012’s “All Too Well”

Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze.
We’re singing in the car, getting lost Upstate.
Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place,
And I can picture it after all these days.

Taylor never lets up. Technically this metaphor is a simile, but it’s a beautiful one. In this lyric piece, she starts with the concrete details, moves into a simile, and ends by bringing us back to relating to her. I’ve never been Upstate (I’ve never been to New York at all), but I remember several dates in this kind of detail: from the way we looked at each other, to the weather and the seasons, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for six years. I can picture it after all these days.

From 2014’s “Out of the Woods”

Your necklace hanging from my neck
The night we couldn’t quite forget
When we decided
To move the furniture so we could dance,
Baby, like we stood a chance
Two paper airplanes flying.

This is by far my favorite lyric from 1989. In her extremely specific second verse, she details something I have never experienced: wearing a lover’s necklace, moving furniture, and dancing together in December (mentioned earlier in the verse). But it doesn’t matter. Because she is basically saying, “Remember that one night when we acted like a normal couple who didn’t have all the problems we have?” And “two paper airplanes flying” gives me chills with how perfectly it describes that feeling.

Yes, Taylor, you are.

Yes, Taylor, you are.

Taylor Swift Series:

Part 1 — The Process
Part 2 — The Successes
Part 3 — The Mistakes
Part 4 — Where the Analogy Falls Apart

Series Navigation<< Analyzing Taylor Swift Part One: The Process

Comments

  1. this was so good, I read it twice. You break this down so flawlessly…and Sparks Fly is so amazing. She opened the Speak Now tour with it and it couldn’t have set the tone for the night better…
    and that line from All to Well…okay it’s so hard to say this about Taylor’s lyrics/ songs but I think it is my all time favorite of hers. “Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place” Is one of those “WHY DIDN’T I WRITE THAT FIRST” moments for me lol. She’s such an inspiration.

    • Thanks, Beth! I’ve never gotten to see her live, so I’m a bit jealous right now…

      You’ve mentioned that line about All too Well before. That’s why I made it the example from that album. 🙂 She’s pretty incredible.

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