Who Are These Taylor Swift Songs Really About?

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer
Love her, hate her, or feel crazy jealous of her Rhode Island manor, everyone has an opinion on Taylor Swift. As these song lyrics show, she has an opinion on just about everyone, too.
Swift doesn't shy away from weaving her life story into country-pop tracks, and that's the great joy of listening to her autobiographical lyrics. Instead of turning to paparazzi photos and shady quotes from anonymous "sources," we can piece together Taylor Swift's life through subtle clues embedded into her songs. Sure, the tabloids told us she dated Harry Styles. But her songs told us how she felt about Harry Styles.
As pop culture archaeologists, it’s our job to put Taylor Swift’s broken heart back together, using the fragments and shards she’d embedded into her songs. Can we really piece together a complete picture of a love life from hazy references scattered in pop songs? The answer, likely, is no. But, of course, we’re going to try anyway.
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The Song: "Call It What You Want" (Reputation)

The Person: Joe Alwyn

The Proof: “I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck / Chain round my neck"

The Deets: Swift is absolutely not hiding the fact that this song is written for Joe Alywn, her new boyfriend. For one, she's been wearing Alwyn's initials on a chain around her neck. The line, "My baby's fly like a jet stream" might also refer to the polar jet stream that connects Swift's home in New York with Alwyn's in London. Swift even embeds British slang into her song: "My baby's fit like a daydream." Only a Brit, or someone dating a Brit, would use "fit" to mean attractive as opposed to in-shape.
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The Song: "Look What You Made Me Do" (Reputation)

The Person: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

The Proof: "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now / Why? Oh, 'cause she's dead!"

The Deets: This song is about Swift's debacle with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian over the song "Famous," and the drama between the two celebrity entities in general. When she sings, "The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now," she's referring to the phone call she had with West, which Kardashian-West recorded and put on her Snap Story. The lyrics' references to losing "kingdom keys" shows that Swift feels like something had been taken from her. Now, a year later, she's back and rising like a phoenix. The video has plentiful snake imagery, another clear sign this song is about Kardashian-West.
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The Song: Out of the Woods” (1989)

The Person: Harry Styles

The Proof: "We were built to fall apart, then fall back together / 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, flying, flying."

The Deets: In "Out of the Woods," Taylor drops a clear reference to Harry Styles: his signature paper plane necklace. She also focuses on the emotional state of being in this particular relationship.

Regarding the union, Swift said, “This was a relationship living day by day, wondering where it was going, if it was going to go anywhere, if it was going to end the next day, where you never feel like you’re standing on solid ground."

We kind of get why she needed a cathartic song-writing experience after that.
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The Song: Style” (1989)

The Person: Harry Styles

The Proof: 'Cause you got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I got that red lip classic thing that you like / And when we go crashing down, we come back every time / 'Cause we never go out of style / We never go out of style."

The Deets: To state the obvious, the song is called "Style." But the references to Harry are in more than just the unsubtle track title.

Remember the paper airplane necklace reference in "Out of the Woods"? It's back in full form in the "Style" music video. Within the first minute of the video, the camera zooms in on a paper airplane pendant. Also, in the video, a stand-in for Taylor’s ex-boyfriend wanders around a beach-scape that looks like something straight out of 1D's “What Makes You Beautiful” video.
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The Song: “Better Than Revenge” (Speak Now)

The Person: Camilla Belle

The Proof: “But sophistication isn't what you wear or who you know / Or pushing people down to get you where you wanna go / They wouldn't teach you that in prep school so it's up to me/ But no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity.”

The Deets: If her horde of girlfriends is any proof, Taylor's a girl’s girl now. But, as "Better Than Revenge" shows, that may not have always been the case. Soon after Swift and Joe Jonas broke up, Jonas began dating alleged vintage dress-wearing actress Camilla Belle. An angsty Taylor threw jabs like, "She's better known for the things that she does in the mattress."

Later, when Taylor was older and wiser and knew better than to slut-shame, she addressed the song. In an interview with The Guardian, Swift said, "I was 18 when I wrote that. That’s the age you are when you think someone can actually take your boyfriend. Then you grow up and realize no one can take someone from you if they don’t want to leave."
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The Song: “All Too Well” (Red)

The Person: Jake Gyllenhaal

The Proof: “Left my scarf there at your sister’s house / And you still got it in your drawer even now.”

The Deets: Though Red features lots of songs about Gyllenhaal, "All Too Well" is the big kahuna of relationship-reckoning. In “All Too Well,” Taylor resignedly sings about how her short-lived relationship fell apart in spectacular fashion.

Proof of their relationship is embedded in the lyrics. In the song, Swift references a trip to New York in autumn, which aligns with an instance when photographers spotted them together. We especially appreciate the Maggie Gyllenhaal shout-out.
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The Song: “State of Grace” (Red)

The Person: Jake Gyllenhaal

The Proof: “Twin fire signs / four blue eyes.”

The Deets: Like Harry Styles, Jake Gyllenhaal is one of those lucky gents who has more than one song penned about him. And, since we're experts in celebrity astrology, we can confirm this is definitely about Gyllenhaal. Swift and Gyllenhaal are both Sagittarians, the fire Zodiac sign represented by an archer. Do you need more proof that she’s talking about her blue-eyed Sagittarius ex?
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The Song: “Back to December” (Speak Now)

The Person: Taylor Lautner

The Proof: "I miss your tan skin, your sweet smile, so good to me, so right / And how you held me in your arms that September night"

The Deets: Clearly, Swift had some feelings of regret following her breakup with Taylor Lautner, whom she met on the set of Valentine’s Day. She's definitely not seeking revenge in this melancholy song. Rather, Swift is apologizing.

Regarding "Back to December," Swift told MTV News, “Sometimes you learn a lesson too late and at that point you need to apologize because you were careless.”
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The Song: “Dear John” (Speak Now)

The Person: John Mayer

The Proof: “"Dear John, I see it all now that you're gone / Don't you think I was too young to be messed with? / The girl in the dress, cried the whole way home, I should've known"

The Deets: In “Dear John,” Swift doesn’t scrimp on detailing the trauma her May-December romance with John Mayer caused her. When Swift was 19 years old, she dated fellow singer John Mayer, who was 12 years her senior. In the song, Swift makes Mayer out to be a manipulative liar and trash boyfriend.

Mayer recognized that “Dear John” was directed at him, and he wasn’t thrilled. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012, Mayer said, “It made me feel terrible...because I didn't deserve it. I'm pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do." Later, Mayer retaliated with his own song about Swift, called “Paper Dolls.”
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The Song: “Innocent” (Speak Now)

The Person: Kanye West

The Proof: “You're still an innocent / It's okay, life is a tough crowd / 32, and still growing up now / Who you are is not what you did / You're still an innocent.”

The Deets: Everyone remembers the moment when, at the 2009 VMAs, Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for her album Fearless.

"Innocent," the song Taylor wrote in 2010 in response to the incident, is just one stop in their storied feud. Regarding the song, Swift told MTV News, “I think a lot of people expected me to write a song about [West]... But, for me, it was important to write a song to him." In case you needed more proof that "Innocent" was about West, he was 32 at the time of the 2009 VMAs — hence the lyric "32 is still growing up."
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The Song: "Starlight" (Red)

The Person: Ethel Kennedy

The Proof: “I met Bobby on the boardwalk, summer of '45 / Picked me up late one night at the window, / We were 17 and crazy, running wild, wild / Can't remember what song he was playing when we walked in / The night we snuck into a yacht club party / Pretending to be a duchess and a prince.”

The Deets: Look, the real love of Taylor’s life has to be Ethel Kennedy, Kennedy clan Matriarch. When Taylor was 22, she had a fast and furious love affair with 18-year-old Conor Kennedy, even buying a house near the family compound in Hyannisport, MA. Inevitably, given such proximity, Swift got to know the Kennedys pretty intimately.

In the nostalgia-fueled “Starlight,” she envisions Ethel Kennedy’s love affair with Robert (Bobby) Kennedy from Ethel's perspective. “Starlight” shows just how much she admired the Kennedy matriarch, and this video of Ethel gushing at a gold tournament proves the feeling was totally mutual.
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