Everybody knows by now that the riveting "Dear John," on Taylor Swift's new album, Speak Now, is about John Mayer. But did you know there's also one other song on the album we can now say with certainty is also about Mayer?
The second Mayer number of which we speak, "The Story of Us," is the song everybody thought was about Joe Jonas. Which is not to be confused with the one that really is about Joe Jonas, "Last Kiss." Or the numbers about Taylor Lautner or Owl City's Adam Young.
Photos: Dramatic looks for Taylor Swift
A lot of these little confusions and mysteries are cleared up by the lyric booklet for Speak Now. As usual, Swift has capitalized seemingly random letters in the printed lyrics for each song, and as usual, the capitalizations aren't random at all. They spell out sometimes cryptic, sometimes obvious "secret" messages, usually about who or what inspired the tune.
Swift is notoriously coy about outrightly confirming any of these song subjects in interviews. She claims it's because she's shy about discussing personal issues in person and can only do it in song. But given her tendency toward transparency, I suspect it's less about reticence and really more about the kid in her playfully coming out: She just enjoys forcing us to get out our decoder rings. (Not that she is half-old enough to remember decoder rings. But you get the picture.)
One of the bigger revelations comes in the secret message that comes with "The Story of Us," a song about awkwardly avoiding an ex at an awards telecast. String together the capital letters and you get: C-M-T-A-W-A-R-D-S. Which says a lot in just nine letters.
When fans first got wind of this song, most assumed it was about seeing Joe Jonas at the Grammys or AMAs or one of the other awards telecasts they've both attended since breaking up in 2008. But Swift told me that it was the last song written for Speak Now, and that she penned it right after getting home from the show in question. Knowing that it involved a reasonably fresh wound, I mistakenly assumed that it was really written about her and Taylor Lautner, since news accounts of the People's Choice Awards this past January described how the two managed to avoid running into one other, just weeks after their December 2009 breakup.
Rewind video: John Mayer gushes about Taylor Swift
Turns out you we all guessed wrong on this one. Per the hidden message, the "Story of Us" setting is the CMT Awards, held in Nashville just four months ago—where, you may have forgotten, Mayer turned up to do a number with Keith Urban. Since the rumors about Mayer and Swift having been in a romance had been strictly speculative, he hadn't really been on anyone's minds as a likely song subject until the crashing confirmation that came in the form of "Dear John."
Just in case there was a shadow of a doubt as to who "The Story of Us" is about, USA Today writer Brian Mansfield— trickster that he is—got Swift to confess that "Dear John" and "The Story of Us" were both inspired by the same person.
If so, what can we glean from the lyrics about her feelings? For one thing, that whenever they split, she was not at all over it by June. The chorus has them on different sides of "a crowded room, and we're not speaking/And I'm dying to know/Is it killing you/Like it's killing me?" Later, she sings of "losing my mind when I saw you here/But you held your pride like you should have held me.../Why are we pretending this is nothing?" From the sound of it, she held out the faintest of hopes for a reconciliation: "This is looking like a contest/Of who can act like they care less.../The battle's in your hands now/But I would lay my armor down/If you'd say you'd rather love than fight."
In "Dear John," meanwhile, her armor is definitely on when she sings of the subject's "dark, twisted games" and "sick need to give love then take it away," before she triumphantly describes "shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town." But the hidden message for "Dear John" underscores the ballad's vulnerability: LOVED YOU FROM THE VERY FIRST DAY, it says.
So "Story of Us" is not the story of Joe and Taylor after all... but "Last Kiss" apparently is. The all-caps hidden message for that one: FOREVER AND ALWAYS.
As any fan knows, "Forever and Always" was the title of the not-so-complimentary song Swift wrote for Jonas on her previous album, so there's no escaping the meaning of seeing that phrase repeated here. It may seem like a bit of a mixed message, since that previous Joe-themed song was bitter and vituperative, whereas "Last Kiss" is tender, regretful, and unabashedly owns up to deeply missing that certain someone. But it would appear that maybe time has lent a gentler perspective than she perhaps had when that first deeply angry song was written.
If the embedding of FOREVER AND ALWAYS in the "Last Kiss" is not clue enough, there are other hints in the actual details of the song. She sings about remembering how "I ran off the plane that July 9th" for a happy reunion. Hardcore archivists of Swift/Jonas lore will point out that she flew to Dallas on July 9, 2008 to sit in the audience for a Jonas Brothers show.
How does Swift still miss Jonas, if indeed that's who the song is about? Let her count the ways: "I loved how you walked with your hands in your pockets/How you kissed me when I was in the middle of saying something/There's not a day when I don't miss those rude interruptions.../All I know is that I don't know how to be something you miss."
If "Last Kiss" takes an unexpectedly sweet tone toward matters Jonas, there is nothing the slightest bit gentle about another song that tangentially involves Joe. That would be "Better Than Revenge," a wildly caustic song virtually all fans believe is directed at Camilla Belle, whom Jonas reportedly broke up with Swift to be with in '08. The hidden message in this raging rocker about a boyfriend-pilferer: YOU THOUGHT I WOULD FORGET.
The rea giveaway hints here are in the lyrics. The line "She's an actress" could be taken figuratively... or could be taken literally. The aside about "vintage dresses" could refer to Belle's known style sense. But the kicker is the coda, where Swift sings "C'mon, show me how much better you are." This has a special resonance in Jonas/Swift lore, because the Jonas Brothers recorded a song called "Much Better" in 2009 that was widely read as being a mean-spirited dig at how superior Belle was in comparison Swift. ("Now I'm done with superstars/And all the teardrops on her guitar," Joe sang at the time. "Now I see everything I need/Is the girl in front of me/She's much better.") When Swift sings that she "always gets the last word," she means it.
Given how "Last Kiss" establishes that Swift may not have gotten completely over Jonas after all, it may not be a stretch to imagine that "Haunted" was inspired by him, too. The secret message for that one doesn't give much away, except that the relationship that haunts her was a ways back in her past. STILL TO THIS DAY, it reads.
The jury is out on the not-so-specific "Haunted," though. Let's move on to one that is more easily and conclusively deciphered, then—namely, "Enchanted." Lyric booklet clue: ADAM.
This is the big, glorious, sweeping crush song of the album. When I interviewed Swift last month, she strongly suggested that this was about an infatuation that never came to any fruition in the end.
"That song is sort of about pining away for if you're ever going to see someone again, walking away too early," she told me. "It was about this guy that I met in New York City, and I had talked to him on email before, but I had never met him. And meeting him, it was just this overwhelming feeling of: I really hope that you're not inlove with somebody. And the whole entire way home, I just remember the glittery New York City buildings passing by and then just sitting there thinking, am I ever gonna talk to this person again? It was that feeling of pining away for a romance that may never even happen, but all you have is this hope that it could, and the fear that it never will."
Critically for our decoding mission, she also mentioned that she used the word "wonderstruck" in the lyrics deliberately, because this was a word that the guy the song was intended for used, which she found striking.
Googling reveals that Adam Young, the young man behind Owl City, is a fan of the word "wonderstruck," having used it at least twice in his blogs. It also just so happens that Swift danced and cheered through Young's concert at the Bowery Ballroom last September and tweeted her enthusiasm before and after the show.
(If only Young had picked up on Swift's hints at the time, she might have been spared getting in too deep with Mr. "Your Body is a Wonderland." Then again, we would have been denied "Dear John," so never mind.)
Let's go back to "Mine," the first single. The clue there is TOBY. We know who that almost certainly refers to—British actor Toby Hemingway, who was the male lead in her video for "Mine," and a rumored dating companion when it was being filmed—but we don't know how it could be about him, since they didn't meet until shooting the video, unless there is some sort of time travel/"I'm My Own Grandpa" scenario at work here. Most likely, Swift prefers to keep the guy who really did put his arm around her at a lake (Cory Monteith? some anonymous small-town beachgoer?) under wraps, and/or it simply became associated most with Hemingway in her mind well after it had been written.
The hidden message for "Sparks Fly" is more elusive: PORTLAND OREGON. That may simply refer to the first time the song was performed publicly, which, according to fan lore, was at a Portland show in 2008. The electrically charged boy in question? Anyone's guess. But, thanks to the song's dated lineage, we can at least rule out Mayer, Lautner, Young, and Kanye West.
Speaking of whom: "Innocent," her rumination on the guy who stole her thunder at the 2009 MTV Awards, comes with this message: LIFE IS FULL OF LITTLE INTERRUPTIONS.
Kanye isn't the only critic she addresses. "Mean" initially seems to be written as a kids' anti-bullying chant ("Someday I'll be big enough that you can't hit me"), before it playfully reveals itself as more autobiographical when Swift imagines the subject of the song "years from now in a bar... washed up and ranging about the same old bitter things/Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing."
Certainly there was no shortage of naysayers criticizing Swift's vocal ability after her duet with Stevie Nicks on the Grammys this year, so "Mean" could be seen as directed at any number of critical suspects. But the hidden clue makes it clearer: I THOUGHT YOU GOT ME. This reinforces a hint in the lyrics, when Swift says "You, with your switching sides..." Those phrases in particular are seen as pointing to widely read industry blogger Bob Lefsetz, who once praised Swift through the roof. After the Grammys, he turned on her in a big way, writing: "Now, everybody knows that Taylor Swift can't sing... Did Taylor Swift kill her career overnight? I'll argue that she did... In one fell swoop, Taylor Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms." (Naturally, Lefsetz has already addressed the idea that "Mean" is about him in his blog.)
Not every song is about a guy. "Speak Now," which Swift says was inspired by worry over the pending nuptials of a friend, carries this aphoristic warning: YOU ALWAYS REGRET WHAT YOU DON'T SAY. For the plaintive "Never Grow Up," which turns from a lullaby into a clearly autobiographical song about Swift feeling alone as she spends her first night in her first apartment of her own, the message is simply: MOVED OUT IN JULY.
"Long Live," the album capper, is a bit more mysterious, and I'd previously guessed it was memorializing the moments that she and Lautner shared together in the limelight. But the line "a band of thieves in ripped up jeans got to rule the world" does suggest that maybe she's celebrating the group of musicians she's taken out on the road. Also, each spread in the lyric booklet has a photograph that corresponds to one of the songs, and this particular spread includes a two-page band photo, which might indicate that the secret message FOR YOU refers to those pictured.
On the other hand, that's a slightly boring explanation, compared to it being about an ex, so, all new evidence to the contrary, I may have to stick with Lautner on that one, just for the sake of provocation.
Of course, The Other Taylor does not go uncelebrated on the album, as Swift uses the hidden message in "Back to December" to confirm that it addressed... TAY.
What's your take on the subjects of these songs? Who do you think the still-mysterious "Haunted" and "Mine" were really inspired by? Do you believe that "For You" is actually for you?
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- Taylor Swift
- John Mayer
- Dear John
- Taylor Lautner