Taylor Swift’s passive-aggressive lyrics are “the realization of every writer’s narrowest dream.”
“I’ve never thought about songwriting as a weapon,” Taylor Swift said with a straight face to an interviewer from Vanity Fair while the magazine was profiling her in 2013.
No, not Taylor Swift. Not the author of songs like “Forever and Always,” written in the wake of her relationship with former boyfriend Joe Jonas, the better-looking Jonas brother, and featuring this lyric: “Did I say something way too honest, made you run and hide like a scared little boy?” Not her, who wrote/sang about her relationship with the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, “Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword/and realizing there’s no right answer.”
Not Taylor, who leaves the impossible-to-crack clues in her liner notes for each song by capitalizing a variety of letters that spell out the subjects in a very essential way: “TAY” for a song about ex-boyfriend Taylor Lautner; “SAG” for the Gyllenhaal one (as in Swift And Gyllenhaal, or that they’re both Sagittarius. I don’t know).
For Taylor Swift to pretend that her entire music career is not a tool of passive aggression toward those who had wronged her is like me pretending I’m not carbon-based: too easy to disprove, laughable at its very suggestion.
Don’t get me wrong—I say all this with utter admiration. Taylor’s career is, in fact, the perfected realization of every writer’s narrowest dream: To get back at those who had wronged us, sharply and loudly, and then to be able to cry innocent that our intentions were anything other than poetic and pure. Most of us can only achieve this with small asides. Taylor not only publicly dates and publicly breaks up, but she then releases an achingly specific song about the relationship—and that song has an unforgettable hook—all the while swearing she won’t talk about relationships that are over. Yes, date Taylor Swift, and not only will she shit on you on her album, but the song will become a single, then a hit, and then you will hear yourself shat upon by an army of young women at Staples Center. And then she’ll deny that she was ever doing anything other than righteously manifesting her art. It’s diabolical, and for a lifelong passive-aggressive like me, it’s made her my hero.
Like a good passive-aggressive, Taylor never owns up to this behavior. In that Vanity Fair profile, she repeats her vow to never kiss and tell, but then refers the journalist to an anonymous friend who does have permission to tell. And tell she does: About Taylor’s romance with Harry Styles from One Direction, about Jonas, about Lautner. Like a next-generation digital-age retaliator, Taylor has found a way to tell her story without telling it herself. First her friend tells Vanity Fair, now Vanity Fair tells us like it’s news. Now it’s not just rumor; it’s from an actual news source. Don’t look at me, she says. I didn’t say anything. And, well, she’s kind of not lying. Kind of.
“When I knew something was going on in someone’s personal life and they didn’t address it in their music, I was always very confused by that,” Taylor told The New York Times. “I owe it to people from letting them in from Day 1.”
The songs are, after all, her art! And art isn’t about anything specific. It’s about human experience, and it’s subject to interpretation. In fact, this song isn’t about me at all, she seems to say. It’s about you.
Consider the initial remark—“I’ve never thought about songwriting as a weapon”—itself a statement of roundabout, unimpeachable genius.
In fact, you can find everything you need to know about the multifaceted genius of Swift’s passive-aggression—her gift for words, her understanding of exactly what she was put on this earth to do—in that sentence. Never thinking about something is not the same as not having done it. And weapon, a literally loaded word, is something bad. She’s not being bad, or mean. She’s just letting it out. She’s just processing.
When The New York Times asked her about her relationship with Joe Jonas, the answer was: “He’s not in my life anymore, and I have absolutely nothing to say about or to him.” Except that song she wrote about him, of course. Oh, and her song “Better Than Revenge,” which was aimed at Camilla Belle, the actress who ostensibly “stole” Jonas away (sample lyric: “She’s an actress, whoa; She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress, whoa”). For his part, Jonas wrote his own song indicting Taylor that was heard by whomever listens to his music, but, well, lyrics just ain’t his thing: “Now I’m done with superstars and all the tears on her guitar”—“Teardrops on My Guitar” was an early hit of Taylor’s. This was the equivalent of the urban myth dance-off that may or may not (probably not, but let me dream!) have taken place between Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake following their breakup. It was a fan’s dream. A real brawl. Actual tween idol drama.
But still, Taylor would not own up to her song subjects. Either because she just loves getting off on a technicality, or she thinks we’re idiots. I believe it’s the former. Because between the liner notes and the timelines, there’s really no way to doubt it: if you just broke up with Taylor Swift, that there song is most certainly about you.
The masterstroke of all of this passive-aggression is, of course, “Dear John,” a single on her album Speak Now. It is the accumulation of her feints with little Disney boy Joe Jonas or Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner. This time, a man about twice her age came around, stole her heart, and then broke it. This is what she’d been preparing for her whole life.
Here are some of the lyrics to “Dear John,” printed without permission, in full detail, since no excerpt can adequately portray what a writhing takedown the song is:
Well, maybe it’s me and my blind optimism to blame
Or maybe it’s you and your sick need to give love then take it away
And you’ll add my name to your long list of traitors who don’t understand
And I’ll look back and regret how I ignored when they said run as fast as you can
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
Dear John, I see it all now it was wrong
Don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by
Your dark twisted games when I loved you so
I should’ve known
You are an expert at sorry and keeping lines blurry
Never impressed by me acing your tests
All the girls that you’ve run dry have tired, lifeless eyes
’Cause you’ve burned them out
But I took your matches before fire could catch me
So don’t look now
I’m shining like fireworks over
Your sad, empty town
Taylor wrote this in the aftermath of her relationship with renowned rake John Mayer, a man who committed the sin of breaking the heart of a post-Pitt Jennifer Aniston, among others (Vanessa Carlton, Jessica Simpson, Miley Cyrus—and those are just the musical ones; by the time this is published, surely his near- engagement to Katy Perry, much spoken about on the radio now, will be a thing of the past). He is a man of little variety. His type is unsuspecting, pretty, petty, and also white.
Did John Mayer deserve this? He’s guilty of his own snide songwriting crimes: It was an open secret that he had written “Your Body Is a Wonderland” to honor the fleshy coil of that other J. Lo., Jennifer Love Hewitt, whom he dated circa 2002. And he did write a pretty scorching post-breakup song about Taylor called “Paper Doll,” which is a basically a patronizing work of little art that sounds as loungey and un-new as his other music. The song talks about a girl who changes dresses a lot, which is not a crime as far as I know, and something about cutting cords—perhaps he felt like she was too young or too tied to the music industry trappings. Not like him. Nobody tells him what to wear or who to write soft- rock songs about!
However you feel about revenge songs, we can agree that Taylor’s “Dear John” is a master class in passive-aggression. First, consider Taylor’s use of the generic “Dear John” letter for this specific John—there’s that plausible deniability again!—as if to make it sound like a goodbye letter to anyone, when really it’s a goodbye letter to someone.
Then there’s the viciousness. “Dear John” lays bare all that we suspected of Mayer’s psyche that it’s actually uncomfortable to listen to. Not since Alanis Morissette wrote the scathing “You Oughta Know,” allegedly about former Full House star Dave Coulier (an unlikely lothario, true, but hey, Canada has its own rules), has a song about an ex been so cringe-worthy.
Of “Dear John,” Taylor said: “There are things that were little nuances of the relationship, little hints. Everyone will know, so I don’t really have to send out emails on this one.”
And like she wished for, John Mayer was humiliated, and he told Rolling Stone as much. Mayer also takes issue with “Dear John” as a musician. “I will say as a songwriter that I think it’s kind of cheap songwriting,” he said. “I know she’s the biggest thing in the world, and I’m not trying to sink anybody’s ship, but I think it’s abusing your talent to rub your hands together and go, ‘Wait till he gets a load of this!’ That’s bullshit.”
But Taylor maintains that she’s innocent, having told The Times, “I can say things I wouldn’t say in real life. I couldn’t put the sentence together the way I could put the song together.” It’s not that she didn’t want to say this to your face, John. It’s just that she couldn’t.
But John maintained she crossed some line that he didn’t cross when he wrote “Paper Doll,” or that Joni Mitchell didn’t cross when she wrote “Free Man in Paris” about David Geffen, or Neil Diamond when he wrote “Sweet Caroline” about Caroline Kennedy (though I’m still not one hundred percent sure that’s true). Using his name was not fair in love’s war, but really, the objection must be to spilling details of such intimate abuse. And that’s where Taylor excels.
See, Taylor was, according to lore, a chubby geek in middle school. She was abandoned by her peers in sixth grade, just when her songwriting powers were coming to fruition, and so just as her gift began to sprout, so did her ability to articulate them and, just a couple of years later, publicize them. The metabolism of this follows that of the digital age into which Taylor was born: Have a thought, post it. None of this rigorous checking with legal, followed by second thoughts, followed by self-doubt, followed by yielding to decency like a puppy dog. But more on that later.
It was a dream come true for a rejected-feeling girl who was coming into her own as a tall, dazzling blonde with a microphone and a following. Is there any one of us who kept a diary without wishing deep down that someone would find it and understand us fully, down to the ugliest detail? Is there anyone among us who didn’t hope that the world would learn from that diary exactly how the world had wronged us?
She was no match for a soft-rock singer who has been getting laid his whole life on the strength of his guitar and his pillowy lips.
That’s how Taylor Swift became the hero to of all of us losers, of anyone humiliated in middle school, the publicly dumped in high school, or anyone who ever realized during the car ride home the perfect comeback that would now go unsaid. We don’t all have the wherewithal to process what has happened to us and synthesize it into a pop song that will be broadcast to a bajillion fans. And we certainly, for the most part, lack the platform. Today’s teenager can craft the perfect Tweet or Facebook update, toy with it, post it, modify it, delete it. Taylor puts it out there, and out there it stays.
In a way, she was made for this. She was born with the face of an accusation. Her eyes, which see everything and narrow naturally; upturned, judgy nose to look down past; lips that tend toward pursing. Yet she was also born lovely, with a sweet, thin voice and an engaging smile. She’s smart and tall, and she’s thin now. Who would not love her? In fact, for those of us who were chubby youths, who had no friends, the invention of Taylor Swift is no less than the invention of a super-robot sent through time and space to lure the mean girls and mean boys into loving us, and then break their hearts and tell the world what scum they are. We couldn’t have dreamed it better.
Taylor’s denials are another layer of performance art. Because has there ever been a more passive-aggressive profession than writing? Writing is first born of a need to explain oneself, and it is comorbid with the desperate loneliness of an ostracized, chubby middle-schooler, like she was and, well, like I was. The popular kids can explain themselves to each other. Only the lonely are left to their writing. It’s through the tools of observation that we learn to hone an otherness…we begin to define ourselves from the way we are different. And slowly, slowly, we spend so much time pretending that someone is listening that we often don’t know how to change modes once people are.
Taylor became an ambassador swan to all us ducklings who never got the opportunity to rise above our social circumstances or have relationships with men like actual Kennedys or One Direction band members. Her songs are her report back to us from the land of fantasy: here’s what it’s like when one of us becomes one of them. Living as Taylor Swift in her songs becomes the closest thing you—I—ever came to cool.
Because I swear I’ve moved on from all the heartache and all the rejection. I swear the memories of eating lunch alone don’t hurt as much as they used to. I’m thirty-eight! I’m married! I have children! When I think of the phone pranks played on me, when I think of the names called out to me, when I think of the parties I wasn’t invited to, the moments I realized he was cheating, or when the group of girls looked at me like I was disgusting, it doesn’t sting me the way it did at the time. But something’s still there, and I know it because I’ve concocted the thing I should have said in my head in each of those situations.
Eventually, what happens is this: things you write get published and/or sung. And that’s when the people you’ve been writing about begin to hear what you’ve been thinking of them this whole time. If you’re a magazine writer like I am, you hedge your bets. You count on most people not being great readers, and then you hedge further by maybe not posting this particular essay on your Facebook page. You also build in some sort of plausible deniability: If it sounds like a particular person, make sure there’s an added detail—never untrue, remember I’m a journalist—that makes it so that this small story could actually apply to several people. I am always prepared with an “Oh! That’s not you! I can’t tell you who it is, but of course it’s not you.” Writing has taught me that you can retain friendships while still harboring a bunch of anger toward someone. Anger is not the same as not liking someone, and it’s certainly not incompatible with wanting to be liked.
Alas, I’ve actually never had to use it. Because after about two years of writing essays, I learned about something I will hereby in these pages name the Passive-Aggressive Writer’s Conundrum: People, particularly non-writers, are an optimistic, delusional bunch. If you mention people in an unflattering way without naming them, they will never recognize themselves in your story— even if you name actual details of circumstances surrounding the stories. However, if you mention them in a flattering way without naming them—say, talk about the time they gave you water in the desert—they will immediately assume you’re talking about them, even though they’ve never been to the desert or traveled with you. (Taylor inherently knows about the Conundrum, and uses it to create her plausible deniability: Yeah? Prove it!)
The thing is, no matter how often I build the perfect retort into the memory of the thing that happened—and they would be “Dear John”–style retorts, designed for maximum, long-lasting psychic carnage—it never changes the fact that I never articulated things. I was walked upon and insulted, teased, and, worst, ignored. And so I chose a different kind of life, a smaller one where I could think before I spoke and then my words would be loud enough to last on a printed page. See, I do have a platform. I’m a writer. And there is so much revenge I’d like to get, so many scores to settle, but I’m older now and see so clearly the consequences of putting something in print.
There is a part of me that doesn’t want to show how petty I am by naming the names of those who wronged me—years ago, I wrote an essay about how the mean girls from grade school were now my Facebook friends, and I lacked the nerve to post the essay to Facebook. Part of me doesn’t want them to know that I still think about it. I should, by now, not even remember it, right? We are generally people who like to pretend that our childhoods happened to another version of us, that we don’t carry the scars that we do. So I play it safe. I don’t refer to people who have wronged me; I don’t ever put in writing the thing I should have said, the thing I’m still kicking myself for not saying. I don’t know if that makes me dumber or smarter than Taylor, and I certainly don’t know if my refusal to use my work as a tool of passive-aggression makes me braver or more afraid.
I have become someone who is only perfectly vengeful in my head. The closest I’ve gotten is writing an essay about a man who broke my heart and changing his name from Garry to Gary. (But there’s hope, isn’t there? Here I just admitted what I did! Suck it, Garry!)
Taylor exists as our id. She alone posses the chutzpah to play innocent as she boldly winks at what she’s done in a forum more public than even the most viral article. But it’s also through her that we can continue to fantasize about a revenge most perfect, an aggression so passive that no one sees it coming, that no one can confirm it once they’ve been hit. That day might be around the corner, and it’s Taylor who allows us to dream of it: dream of a time when the stings of the past are made better through the public hanging of dirty laundry, a time when we say the perfect thing in the moment when it most counts, a moment when we finally get the last word. It’s on that day that we, too, will have our most perfect aggression realized. It’s on that day you will find us shining like fireworks over their sad empty towns.
This essay appears in Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives, edited by Jeff Gordinier and Marc Weingarten, out this summer from Barnacle Books. Reprinted with permission.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a contributing writer at GQ and The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and two sons in New Jersey, where she bought Taylor Swift’s new album at Starbucks as God and country intended.