Deep Themes in Taylor Swift’s Music: A Look at 5 Songs
In one day, The Eras Tour will begin, a concert series with music that spans Taylor Swift’s entire career as a recording artist—from 2006 to the present day. 10 “eras,” although the diehard fans know that there are actually 14 released albums, to date.
It’s no secret that I have been a huge Swiftie for over a decade. I connect the most with her older music, particularly the Fearless (2008) and Speak Now (2010) albums, in all their wonderstruck glory and heart-wrenching relatability. Indeed, a hopeless romantic with a lifelong affinity for fairy tales could not help but fall in love with such music. Nevertheless, after a few musical periods in 2017 and 2019 that appealed to me less on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised in 2020 to find myself drawn to some of her new work.
Now, before I continue, I think it is important to note the following:
Being a fan does not mean you necessarily endorse every work or view of the artist. It's like staying friends with someone with whom you may not agree on everything. Why?
Because you care about that person and believe in his or her abilities.
Because you choose not to dehumanize and instead love.
Music opinions may differ. Yet, as a fan who knows her music almost as well as I know myself, I have run into many misconceptions. For the purpose of this article, I would like to highlight two.
There are those who may have only heard Taylor Swift’s recent hits and associate her “brand” with a sort of bubbly pop. This is understandable, for not everyone will delve into the full body of an artist’s work. Yet, while Taylor has written some songs that she has termed “glitter gel pen,” her artistry is less defined by them. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy dancing around to catchy tunes myself. But, as a writer who loves the poetic introspection and beautifully crafted storytelling that Taylor employs, I find it to be personally frustrating when her true essence is boxed away from the public at large in favor of more mainstream song recognition.
Another all-too-common misconception is that Taylor only writes songs about break-ups. Like most singer-songwriters, Taylor has released several songs about love, including heartbreak. Yet she has, on many occasions, delved into other subjects that merit our attention. Thus, as much as her love songs are numbered among my favorites, the focus of this article will be more largely on other thought-provoking topics. For a more comprehensive look, however, my top 5 favorite Taylor Swift songs may be found at the end of this article.
The songs selected below are thematically distinctive yet connected. As you read through the list, you may find that, despite the jumping between years, they are, in a way, chronologically entwined.
1. Never Grow Up (Speak Now)
One of my favorite recurring subjects in Taylor Swift’s music is childhood nostalgia, and this song is a perfect representation of such.
“Never Grow Up” is a poignant lullaby sung by the narrator to a child fast asleep, switching perspectives at the end. It is left to the listener to determine whether the child is her younger self or a sibling, representative of a little one in a more general sense or inspired by someone she knows—perhaps even a young girl seen at her concerts. Likewise, while Taylor’s voice as the narrator seems clear, the song is layered such that it could be argued that she is imagining herself in the shoes of her mother, with whom she is especially close.
A night-light is presented at the beginning as a symbol of the blissful state of the sleeping child as she dreams, untouched by the pain and suffering that the narrator has experienced. The latter’s love is palpable as she wistfully hopes the best for the child, that she will never lose the beautiful simplicity of the now, that the soft glow of Light in her room will remain without shadow. That she will never be abandoned or heartbroken.
Through the storytelling in the song, we flash forward to the child as a teenager. Taylor offers introspective insight, urging her to not lose sight of her childlike joy and wonder—nor the loving perspective of her mother, also affected by the passage of time—in a desire to appear “cool” to others. This is powerfully yet quietly illustrated in my favorite line in the song, through the lovely image of one’s younger self dancing around in pajamas before school.
Snapshots of memory continue to come forth, each and every detail of what she holds dear, each and every detail that must not be forgotten—from mere footsteps and treasured words to a mental photograph of her childhood room and a younger brother’s favorite songs.
With the change of perspective at the end, the story comes full circle. Now, by perspective, I do not mean that the point-of-view shifts to that of another narrator, or from first person to third. Yet it is a shift all the same. No longer is this a lullaby sung to a child. We discover that the narrator herself has moved out of her family home. Like the sleeping little kid, a night-light, the symbol of childlike joy encapsulated in the love of her family, is in her possession. And this she takes out to chase away the surprising coldness of her new apartment, of a previously desired independence that only makes her long for what she had before.
It may be concluded that, even if the child to whom she sang the lullaby was not the narrator herself, their stories are metaphorically intertwined.
“Never Grow Up” is a moving tribute to childhood, growing up, and a Beauty that we must never lose sight of, no matter where we may venture in this journey of life.
2. Innocent (Speak Now)
While holding on to a childlike nature is explored through the storytelling in “Never Grow Up,” the focus narrows in “Innocent.” Once again, the narrator is singing to another individual, but, this time, one very much unlike herself—one, perhaps, who forgot the lullaby and its “night-light” in a much more tragic and catastrophic way than she herself has experienced at this stage in her life.
It should be noted that the Speak Now era in which this song was introduced was that of a lyrically wonderstruck curly top called “winsome,” resplendent in sparkly ballgowns and known for standing apart from her peers with her wholesome image. It is only many years later that we might consider the song as it would be heard by the woman rerecording her albums recently, remembering what once was and yet what may still remain . . . and how she might now find hope in the song, too. Indeed, I believe that Taylor Swift alludes to such in three 2022 songs, in which she emotionally declares that she misses her old self, finds the wonder of the “little things,” and regains some of her childlike joy.
“Innocent” brings forth harsh reality, yet remains the most gentle hug of a song, lovingly delivered with an innocence and sweetness to a jaded figure who has become lost in the darkness of the world. It is even more compelling when considering the subject, believed to be a public figure who humiliated Taylor in front of the entire world. In fact, this would all seem to be confirmed as such, given the introduction to her 2010 VMAs performance. And so, the song may be more than one of thematic depth, as important as that can be. It may also be an act of forgiveness.
I remember hearing the story of a priest, who told a man in Confession, “This is not who you are.” By saying these simple words, it was both a call to do better, to become the truest form of himself, and to not become discouraged. In “Innocent,” Taylor uses strikingly similar wording to encourage the subject of the song, to remind him that his very identity, the depths of who he is, is not defined by the mistakes that he made. Perhaps this is a fitting parallel in more ways than one, for Taylor was photographed wearing a saint bracelet two years earlier during her previous musical era.
While I may be biased since she is one of my favorite saints, the sweet wonder of the writing style is somewhat reminiscent of St. Thérèse of Lisieux in The Story of a Soul. It is wonderful to find such moments even in secular music. Taylor calls to mind images of childhood innocence, such as catching fireflies during lunchbox school years, and invites the subject—and, indeed, the listener in general—to find the beauty in such scenes again.
At the beginning of the song, the metaphor of losing one’s balance on a tightrope is introduced. There is a fascinating parallel between this image and one delivered many years later, which will be addressed in the next song of discussion. But, for now, it is important to note that the line is returned to again at the end of “Innocent”—only, this time, with much more hope.
For, at the end, the narrator tells the listener that it is never too late to regain childlike innocence, to, in effect, be bathed anew and return to the truth of what once was.
What a beautiful and important sentiment!
3. Mirrorball (Folklore)
The song begins with the fascinating psychological premise of a narrator who, as a mirrorball, is able to see every layer or “version” of those who gaze into its multi-faceted surface. The original song gives the impression of a disco ball that hovers playfully and unobtrusively over dancers who would not expect its dissection or analysis. The acoustic version is more personal in approach; it brings to mind the sci-fi version of a magical looking pond while still remaining very vulnerably in the present.
As the story continues, there is a shift in which the narrator's power of observation and analysis causes her to become lost in the mirrorball herself. She no longer just observes the reflections—true, false, or mixed—of others, but, in a drastic change in vocal tone, harshly declares that she can completely transform herself to fit in with the crowd. (Indeed, you may notice vocal changes at other similar moments!) But, toward the end of the song, through the use of the imagery of a circus, there is vulnerability as the narrator admits that her role on a “trapeze” in front of others has never been easy or natural for her, to the extent that she continues to try to find ways to hold her audience’s attention. This is despite the fact that those who look on in the scene care more for spectacle and discordant gossip than the trueness of the scene or the humanity of the one on display. A tragic, if honest, lens within a song that is ultimately a very intelligent and thought-provoking metaphorical work.
Yet a hopeful note is echoed throughout the chorus, as she ‘dances’ when no one is watching . . . except an unnamed figure who is defined as unlike the others, who wants to see her true self rather than jeer at the shattered pieces of her heart. While this likely refers to the romantic love that she found, it could also just as easily apply to any member of society who has chosen to view her (or you) as a human being—and to any moment in which she is quietly yet gloriously childlike, able to embrace who she really is. There, in that small corner tiptoed through in the chorus, the narrator is her true self.
This song was released in 2020 and also reflects some of the atmosphere of that time.
It was not until listening to the acoustic version (The Long Pond Studio Sessions) that I found myself delving deeper into this song. This was largely due to the musical style appealing more to me than the original. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the tonal shift referenced in the analysis above is much more prominent in this performance. The reader is thereby recommended to check it out first.
4. The Lucky One (Red)
While “Mirrorball” may be tied metaphorically to a true self found away from the limelight, the perils of fame are more overtly explored in “The Lucky One.”
The main subject of the song is not the narrator, but a celebrity from an earlier period. She is a woman eager to pursue her dreams and finds the allure of flashing lights too hard to resist, believing that it will bring her true happiness. Yet, as the song draws on, she realizes that it is a trap.
The glamorous curtain is drawn back, and the subject of the song slowly discovers that she has been thrust into what we might call a philosophical factory, humanity turned into cold machinery that is simply to be used, with replacements easily found. She does not find the happiness that she sought, and the irony of the song title comes clearly into view. For, she is not as lucky as she once dreamed she would be. Artificial lights take over the scene instead of the small but true glow of the night-light explored two years earlier in “Never Grow Up.”
Upon realizing the perilous circumstances in which she has found herself, this undisclosed celebrity turns her story into what Taylor might later have called “folklore,” as she mysteriously disappears. She leaves the world of fame, yet of note is the assertion that she maintains her dignity as a result. We are invited into a sort of Robert Frost landscape of “The Road Not Taken,” in which she finds the other path in the woods to be the right course. In this instance, the narrator tells us of how she left Madison Square behind for a rose garden. Through such imagery, we come to understand that she chose the beauty of a simpler life instead of the flashier celebrity culture. Interestingly enough, this rose imagery is revisited with deep significance eight years later in Taylor’s song “The Lakes.”
Toward the end of “The Lucky One,” the perspective shifts to a first-person point-of-view and a narrative voice that appears to be represented by Taylor Swift. Taylor, or the narrator, has now herself entered the world of fame. Much like the previous subject of the song, she has a bright-eyed perspective at the beginning of her voyage into this world. Yet, as time passes, she recalls the story told in the song and now understands so keenly why this individual left. In another twist on the meaning of the title, Taylor directly addresses that celebrity of the past, the celebrity who left, and tells her that she is, in fact, the lucky one now.
Note: This 2012 song was rereleased in 2021.
5. The Lakes (Folklore)
Of any Taylor Swift song from the past few years, this has earned its place as my top favorite.
“The Lakes” is an exquisitely poetic, deeply poignant, and stirringly emotive ballad reminiscent of the Romantic era. As such, it serves as a lovely tribute to that literary period, as well as a kindred spirit of any L.M. Montgomery fan who has traversed the lyrical essence of her beloved isle in imaginative pathways. It is also the epitome of cottagecore, the popularization of which Taylor has largely been credited. To set the scene, it is important to note that Taylor was inspired in part by her visit to the Lake District in England, known for the old-time writers who had lived there, such as William Wordsworth. The title of the song is stylized in lowercase, like the other tracks on Folklore, likely in tribute to another poet, E.E. Cummings.
At the beginning of “The Lakes,” the beautiful yet almost haunting sound of strings is heard, instrumentals that remind one of old-time films, Brontean moors, deep woods of poets and nymphs, and crashing waves all at once. Instantly, the scene is set for the storytelling and related themes that are to follow.
The narrator speaks of disillusionment, a growing fatigue, with a fast-paced, perpetually broadcasting, forever-watching society that has lost a deeper meaning alluded to in times past. She yearns to find a sanctuary apart from the noise of the modern world, imagining a world away from the world where quiet introspection may be found in solitude—with lakes that filter her emotions, complete with auroras, wisteria, and meaningful prose. A rose grows in the most stunning of circumstances, yet is not tweeted for others to see beyond the natural surroundings in which she finds herself. It is understood that it is instead delighted in, viewed with a soft, hushed wonder deeper than the norms of the day, and held more fully in one’s heart and soul. While such solitude is welcomed, the narrator has not, at the same time, completely embraced life as a wandering hermit, for she wishes to never to be parted from the one that she calls her muse. As illustrated in “Mirrorball,” he, too, feels disconnected from the modernism of the day.
In a conversation in The Long Pond Studio Sessions, Taylor tells of how she sat by William Wordsworth’s grave, a reflective moment in which she contemplated how he had gone away from society and done what part of her longed to do: leave the public eye for a quieter life. In her case, she imagined herself living in a secluded cottage—perhaps like the ones that she had found herself painting, another art form that she enjoys. In 2020, Taylor said the following:
“I was reading books that dealt with times past, a world that doesn’t exist anymore. And I’ve been painting a lot . . .
I always kind of return to painting a lonely little cottage on a hill.”
There are many more Taylor Swift songs with fascinating and thought-provoking themes beyond this list. For example, I recommend checking out “Christmas Must Be Something More” (2007), which highlights the importance of remembering the true meaning of Christmas. Now, for a little fun, I will move on to my personal top 5 list . . .
My Top 5 Favorite Taylor Swift Songs
- White Horse* (Fearless)
- Begin Again (Red)
- Enchanted (Speak Now)
- Love Story (Fearless)
- Haunted – regular & acoustic (Speak Now)
*Further explanation of “White Horse” and a related misconception.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In the article linked to “glitter gel pen” in the introduction, there is a mistake in the final line. The year cited should be 2016.
POST-PUBLICATION CLARIFICATION: In her performance of “Mirrorball” on the opening night of the Eras Tour (3/17/23), Taylor said that she wanted to express her love of her fans with the song. This, therefore, would seem to confirm the connection in the chorus to those who do not dehumanize her. She also mentioned her longing during the 2020 lockdown for a way to connect with her fans, which may put the “trapeze” section in a more positive light.