By Nina Kegelman || Copy Editor
Lindsay Wanner || Contributing Writer
Emily Grossbauer || Contributing Writer
I vividly remember the release of Taylor Swift’s third studio album Speak Now on October 25, 2010. Ten years later, the memory of sitting dejectedly on the floor at a friend-of-friend’s house listening to the CD play before going trick-or-treating stays with me.
An eleven-year-old girl who had just moved to a new school, I assumed I’d be trick-or-treating with my best friend Ashley, as was our usual tradition. But as Halloween grew nearer and I still hadn’t heard anything from Ashley about costumes nor sleepovers, I grew frantic. After an embarrassing parent-to-parent phone call, I received the pity-invite to Ashley and her new friends’ Halloween outing. They were going as a box of crayons. I had to be the drawing.
No worries, though. Ashley and I are still best friends, and listening to Speak Now on Halloween night was simply emblematic of the many ups-and-downs of long best-friendships. But it was also emblematic of Taylor Swift’s talent for perfectly encasing the emotions of a young girl through her songs as if in a time capsule.
Surrounded by girls I had little in common with but for a friendship with Ashley when the conversation inevitably turned to the release of Taylor Swift’s new album Speak Now, I lit up. Finally! A chance to say something!
With hits like “Enchanted,” “Mine,” and “Back to December,” Speak Now is Taylor Swift’s Rubber Soul—an artist’s musical coming-of-age. Between catchy 2-minute tracks about highschool romances gone awry from her early albums and the flashy pop numbers of 2012’s Red, for a girl figuring out who she is and what’s to come, Speak Now became a lifeline.
I shyly smiled when we got around to the sixth track, “Mean,” still bitter about the woes of middle school friend-drama I’d experienced that night.
“You, have knocked me off my feet again,
Got me feeling like a nothing”
Albeit a bit dramatic a response considering my circumstances, “Mean” and the other tracks on Speak Now became the soundtrack of my seventh-grade life as I wore out my CD player (and my dad’s ears) keeping the disc running on repeat. A decade later, though the notes are a bit harder to hit having out-grown my prepubescent soprano voice, the songs of Speak Now still hold up. Sweet harmonies. Meaningful lyrics. A sophisticated blend of country and pop musicality. Speak Now has it all.
But if we’re going to pay a tribute to the tenth anniversary of Taylor Swift’s first big-girl album, we can’t go without analyzing its deepest cut. And by deepest cut, we mean it straight to the heart.
“Dear John” is one of Taylor Swift’s actual masterpieces.
Penned after a breakup between Swift and her 13-year senior and fellow singer-songwriter John Mayer, the song is a nearly seven-minute ballad both mourning Swift’s innocence and attacking Mayer for his heartlessness.
Though it’s a song with many instances exemplifying Swift’s meaning and passion, we’re going to walk you through a few of our favorite examples of Swift’s genius throughout the song.
Firstly, we must address the most obvious musical dog whistle to Mayer, which comes early in the intro and strikes repeatedly throughout the song: a mimicry of Mayer’s characteristic bluesy electric guitar riffs. Immediately, we are situated in Mayer’s world, just like a young Swift was as she became involved with her much older suitor. Echoing Mayer’s sound itself in “Dear John,” Swift makes a potent reflection on the relationship on her own terms. Even the croons of her male backing vocalist bear an eerie resemblance to Mayer’s raspy baritone. By the time of the guitar solo right around the four-minute mark preceding the emotional outpour of the bridge, we know who the song is about without even knowing its title. As an up-and-comer in the industry, Swift asserts herself as a force to be reckoned with, satirizing Mayer’s style and calling him out on a global stage. As the song comes to an end, we are led out with the sounds reminiscent of Mayer’s guitar and left thinking, “Gosh. What did he do??!”
Nextly, Swift is known for her many break-up songs and diss tracks of her former beaus—from Joe Jonas to Harry Styles. However, “Dear John,” with its clever play on the cliche nickname for a break-up letter, is the only to name its recipient so explicitly. Given the clear target of the song, we can then respond to Swift’s many critiques (to put them lightly) of Mayer’s behavior within the relationship.
“…You paint me a blue sky
And go back and turn it to rain
And I lived in your chess game,
But you changed the rules every day”
Swift writes in the first chorus, charging Mayer with many manipulative tendencies. One of Swift’s strengths as a songwriter is her cinematic expression of a scene or a feeling through her lyricism. Whether you picture a chess game itself, or perhaps a painful memory of a similar experience you’ve had, Swift speaks to the confusion and betrayal a young woman feels in the snares of a toxic relationship with a predatory partner. She then implicates Mayer within his history of failed relationships, reflecting at the beginning of the second verse,
“…I look back and regret how I ignored when
they said ‘run as fast as you can”
Who is “they”? Are these friends and family of Swift? Mayer’s exes? All of the above? We may never know, but that doesn’t matter. This section emphasizes how blinding love can be, especially as a young person. Most all of us now, ten years after the song’s release, have either ignored our friend’s relationship advice ourselves or been the advice-giver. However, Swift makes it clear that despite her stubborn commitment to see the relationship through, at the end of the day, it was Mayer who was in the wrong.
What ultimately drives the message of “Dear John” home is Swift’s careful rhetorical shifts between the beginning and the end of the song. By the second chorus, we hear:
“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”
At this point, Swift addresses the actual age-gap and her naiveté, which contributed to the toxicity of her relationship with Mayer. She ends this chorus on a self-deprecating tone, implicating herself in Mayer’s manipulation of her. The song progresses as if Taylor remains shameful for not having heeded the advice of those who’d tried to warn her.
However, this is not the end of the story. By the end of the bridge, Swift declares she’s
“Shining like fireworks
Over your sad, empty town”
Finally triumphant as she emerges from the wreckage of the relationship, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes, Taylor Swift places the blame where it truly belongs. She writes at the end of the last chorus the words on which the song rests:
“You should’ve known”
Speak Now takes us on a journey that truly encapsulates young adulthood. “Never Grow Up” confronts the pain of transitioning to adulthood. “Enchanted,” the racing thoughts and butterflies of developing a crush. “Sparks Fly,” the energy of a thriving relationship. “Back to December,” the heartbreak of ending a meaningful, healthy one. And “Mine” the story of a couple embarking on a mature life together.
We would go as far as to say Taylor Swift is the Joni Mitchell of our generation. Perhaps even more influential for her sheer adaptability and evolution across time, audiences, and genres. Speak Now, once a CD played on repeat in the rooms of eleven-year-olds like us everywhere, now stands as a symbol of Swift’s great renown as an artist who didn’t just produce music, but bore love and loss bravely before the world, encouraging us, too, to “speak now.”
Senior Nina Kegelman is a Copy Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Senior Lindsay Wanner is a Contributing Writer. Her email is email@example.com. Senior Emily Grossbauer is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.