Thought Catalog

13 Elements Of A Taylor Swift Song

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Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift

Say what you want about Taylor Swift, but it’s pretty clear from her record-breaking one million sales of 1989 in a single week that she’s both a social media marketing genius and a master songstress. Her pop (and formerly hybrid country) tracks are crazy catchy, weaseling their way into the hearts of even the most ardent haters. So what’s the secret formula? Why can’t we help loving her even while her sound continues to evolve?

If you ask me, it’s not so much the standard pop song structure as it is the repetition throughout her lyrics of the same images and motifs—things that are so basic, intimate, familiar and universal to the modern girl-to-woman experience that when we hear them it’s like listening to a friend setting our own diaries to music. As she returns to these motifs year after year, much like any author, she defines a music all her own and creates themes for us to trace, basically guiding us through her own evolution as an artist. So, in this brief, unscientific tour through Swift’s work, we’ll see over and over again what Taylor Swift (and a whole bunch of her fans) are made of.

Driving, Cars, & Headlights

Taylor Swift seems too famous to drive herself anywhere anymore, but that doesn’t stop her from singing about driving around and watching for headlights passing through window panes. From “Our Song” to “Shake It Off,” driving plays a pretty large role in many of Swift songs. Sometimes she’s singing carefree in the car with the love interest of the moment, evoking the freedom of the winding, country road, but more often she’s waiting at home and getting picked up in the middle of the night. Speaking of which, doesn’t she know nothing good happens past 2 am? All this driving around, fighting, and late-night phone calls don’t bode well.

• “But I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving” (“Shake It Off,” 1989)

• “Midnight, you come and pick me up / No headlights / Long drive, could end in burning flames or paradise” (“Style,” 1989)

• “So it goes / He can’t keep his wild eyes on the road” (“Style,” 1989)

• “All I know is that you drove us off the road” (“All You Had To Do Was Stay,” 1989)

• “It’s 2 am, in your car / Windows down, pass my street, the memories start / You say it’s in the past, you drive straight ahead” (“I Wish You Would,” 1989)

• “It’s 2 am, in my room / Headlights pass the window pane, I think of you” (“I Wish You Would,” 1989)

• “He said let’s get out of this town / drive out of the city, away from the crowds” (“Wildest Dreams,” 1989)

• “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street” (“Red,” Red)

• “Two headlights shine through the sleepless night…And I just think you should, think you should know / That nothing safe is worth the drive” (“Treacherous,” Red)

• “We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate” (“All Too Well,” Red)

• “And we walked down the block to my car and I almost brought him up” (“Begin Again,” Red)

• “You’re in the car on the way to the movies / And you’re mortified your mom’s dropping you off” (“Never Grow Up,” Speak Now)

• “There’s a glow off the pavement / you walk me to the car” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “We’re drivin’ down the road / I wonder if you know” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “So baby drive slow / ’til we run out of road” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “Oh, I remember you driving to my house / in the middle of the night” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

• “So I drove home alone / As I turn out the light / I’ll put his picture down / And maybe get some sleep tonight” (“Teardrops On My Guitar,” Taylor Swift)

• “I was ridin’ shotgun / with my hair undone / in the front seat of his car” (“Our Song,” Taylor Swift)

Clothes

Ah, like many girls, Swift pays attention to her clothes. If we trace her style through the ages, she went from rocking old blue jeans to tight little skirts, from sneakers to high heels, and from little dresses to tight little skirts. Her men, meanwhile, have upgraded from worn-out jeans to suits and ties, but sometimes they opt for a classic white t-shirts.

• “New money, suit and tie / I can read you like a magazine” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “You got that long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt / And I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt” (“Style,” 1989)

• “Say you’ll remember me / Standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset” (“Wildest Dreams,” 1989)

• “You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore” (“Clean,” 1989)

• “And I left my scarf there at your sister’s house / And you’ve still got it in your drawer even now” (“All Too Well,” Red)

• “Spinning like a girl in a brand-new dress” (“Holy Ground,” Red)

• “He didn’t like it when I wore high heels, but I do” (“Begin Again,” Red)

• “Wearing a gown shaped like a pastry” (“Speak Now,” Speak Now)

• “The girl in the dress / Cried the whole way home” (“Dear John,” Speak Now)

• “No amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity” (“Better Than Revenge,” Speak Now)

• “Cause for a moment a band of thieves / in ripped-up jeans got to rule the world” (“Long Live,” Speak Now)

• “After everything and that little black dress / After everything I must confess, I need you” (“The Other Side Of The Door,” Fearless)

• “And I don’t know why but with you I’d dance in a storm in my best dress” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “But she wears short skirts / I wear t-shirts…She wears high heels, I wear sneakers” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

• “Walk in the streets with you in your worn-out jeans” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

• “See the lights, see the party, the ball gowns” (“Love Story,” Fearless)

• “Got the radio on, my old blue jeans / And I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve” (“A Place In This World,” Taylor Swift)

Red/Cherry Lips

Speaking of appearances, Swift also seems really into her lips lately. In 1989, she’s all about calling attention to those cherry-red puckers. She also tends to sing about hair, but not as descriptively.

• “Cherry lips, crystal skies / I could show you incredible things/ Stolen kisses, pretty lies” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like” (“Style,” 1989)

• “Red lips and rosy cheeks / Say you’ll see me again even if it’s just in your wildest dreams” (“Wildest Dreams,” 1989)

Phone Calls

The quintessential Swift song features some kind of phone call interaction, mirroring the ubiquity of the cell phone in modern society. Like many girls, lovesick, single, or in a relationship, she seems to fixate on phones—just enough to drive herself crazy. When things are good, the phone is your friend, and when they’re bad, it’s your sworn enemy. You pick it up, you stare at it, you throw it across the room. Classic.

• “Here you are now / Calling me up / But I don’t know what to say” (“All You Had To Do Was Stay,” 1989)

• “I wish you would come back / Wish I never hung up the phone like I did” (“I Wish You Would,” 1989)

• “And I just wanna tell you / It takes everything in me not to call you” (“I Almost Do,” Red)

• “Ooh, you called me up again tonight / But ooh, this time I’m telling you, I’m telling you” (“We Are Never Getting Back Together,” Red)

• “I threw my phone across the room at you” (“Stay Stay Stay,” Red)

• “When your birthday passed and I didn’t call” (“Back To December,” Red)

• “Wonderin’ which version of you I might get on the phone, tonight” (“Dear John,” Speak Now)

• “We’re on the phone and without a warning / I realize your laugh is the best sound I have ever heard” (“Jump Then Fall,” Fearless)

• “And I stare at the phone, / He still hasn’t called” (“Forever & Always,” Fearless)

• “Me and my stupid pride are sitting here alone / Going through photographs, staring at the phone” (“The Other Side Of The Door,” Fearless)

• “You’re on the phone with your girlfriend—she’s upset” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

• “You don’t have to call anymore / I won’t pick up the phone” (“You’re Not Sorry,” Fearless)

• “When we’re on the phone and you talk real slow / ’Cause it’s late and your mama don’t know” (“Our Song,” Taylor Swift)

Rain + Storms

It seems like anything worth mentioning to Swift happens in the rain or can be described in terms of rain and storms. She’s probably right—sunsets and roses don’t make the best drama, but kissing in the pouring rain, man, that’s the stuff.

• “Screaming, crying, perfect storm / I can make all the tables turn” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “Stand there like a ghost / Shaking from the rain, rain” (“How You Get The Girl,” 1989)

• “And the sky turn black like a perfect storm” (“Clean,” 1989)

• “Rain came pouring down when I was drowning” (“Clean,” 1989)

• “The way you move is like a full on rainstorm…” (“Sparks Fly,” Speak Now)

• “Drop everything now / Meet me in the pouring rain” (“Sparks Fly,” Speak Now)

• “You paint me a blue sky / And go back and turn it to rain” (“Dear John,” Speak Now)

• “I do recall now the smell of the rain / fresh on the pavement” (“Last Kiss,” Speak Now)

• “Oh, and it rains in your bedroom / Everything is wrong / It rains when you’re here and it rains when you’re gone” (“Forever & Always,” Fearless)

• “Just know that I’m right here hopin’ / That you’ll come in with the rain” (“Come In With The Rain,” Fearless)

• “Wait there in the pouring rain, come back for more” (“The Other Side of the Door,” Fearless)

• “But I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain / And it’s 2 am and I’m cursing your name” (“The Way I Loved You,” Fearless)

• “There’s somethin’ ’bout the way / The street looks when it’s just rained” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “And I don’t know why but with you I’d dance in a storm in my best dress” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “’Cause I can’t help it if you look like an angel / Can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain” (“Hey Stephen,” Fearless)

Suns

It can’t rain all the time, though, so occasionally the sun makes an appearance, along with the wind, the skies, and the air.

• “But when the sun came up I was looking at you…When the sun came up you were looking at me” (“Out Of The Woods,” 1989)

• “Say you’ll remember me / Standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset” (“Wildest Dreams,” 1989)

• “And I hope the sun shines / And it’s a beautiful day / And something reminds you / You wish you had stayed” (“Last Kiss,” Speak Now)

• “Untouchable, burning brighter than the sun” (“Untouchable,” Fearless)

Daydreams / Dreams

And when the weather just doesn’t want to cooperate, what girl doesn’t daydream, or dream for that matter? Plenty of Swift songs are about dreaming—deepest desires and fears come alive in them. Maybe that’s what she’s trying to tell us over the years: never stop dreaming.

• “But you’ll come back each time you leave / Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye” (“Style,” 1989)

• “In silent screams, in wildest dreams / I never dreamed of this” (“This Love,” 1989)

• “It seems like one of those nights, / we ditch the whole scene and end up dreaming instead of sleeping” (“22,” Red)

• “In my dreams you’re touching my face / And asking me if I wanna try again with you” (“I Almost Do,” Red)

• “Your little eyelids flutter cause you’re dreaming” (“Never Grow Up,” Speak Now)

• “In the middle of the night / when I’m in this dream / It’s like a million little stars / spelling out your name” (“Untouchable,” Fearless)

• “Good morning loneliness, comes around when I’m not / dreaming about you” (“Superstar,” Fearless)

• “I know your favorite songs / And you tell me about your dreams” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

Cities

T. Swift is now New York City’s new “global welcome ambassador,” but she’s been singing about the contrast between cities and countries for a while. Her optimistic take on cities, though, is mostly ingenuous. Cities are cool, but she makes them sound like they’re sparkling paradises where you can be alone in crowds rather than the concrete jungles they are. Also, in response to the line “The lights are so bright / But they never blind me” in “Welcome To New York,” there is definitely a set of new, blinding billboards in lower Times Square that scorch my retinas every morning.

• The entirety of “Welcome To New York,” but especially “walking through a crowd / the village is aglow” (“Welcome To New York,” 1989)

• “He said let’s get out of this town / drive out of the city, away from the crowds” (“Wildest Dreams,” 1989)

• “I’m walking fast through the traffic lights / Busy streets and busy lives” (“State of Grace,” Red)

• “I bet you’re sitting in your chair by the window looking out at the city” (“I Almost Do,” Red)

• “I was reminiscing just the other day, / While having coffee all alone and Lord, it took me away / Back to a first-glance feeling on New York Time” (“Holy Ground,” Red)

• “We had this big wide city all to ourselves / We blocked the noise with the sound of ‘I need you’” (“Holy Ground,” Red)

• “We both wake in lonely beds in different cities” (“Sad Beautiful Tragic,” Red)

• “New to town with a made-up name in the angel city, chasing fortune and fame” (“The Lucky One,” Red)

• “Do you remember all the city lights on the water? / You made me start to believe for the first time” (“Mine,” Speak Now)

• “Someday I’ll be living in a big ol’ city” (“Mean,” Speak Now)

• “So here I am in my new apartment / In a big city you just dropped me off” (“Never Grow Up,” Speak Now)

Pictures, Frames, + Photo Albums

Long before Instagram, T. Swift and the rest of us 1989ers were poring over printed pictures in frames and albums. The 1989 CD comes with a stack of faux Polaroids courtesy of Taylor, which sends us straight back to the early days of instant photo processing.

• “You took a Polaroid of us” (“Out Of The Woods,” 1989)

• “Remind her how it used to be…With pictures in frames, of kisses on cheeks” (“How You Get the Girl,” 1989)

• “Let the flood carry away all the pictures of you” (“Clean,” 1989)

• “Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turning red” (“All Too Well,” Red)

• “So I’ll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep” (“Last Kiss,” Speak Now)

• “I said remember this feeling / I pass the pictures around” (Long Live, Speak Now)

• “If you have children someday / When they point to the pictures / Please tell them my name” (“Long Live,” Speak Now)

• “Me and my stupid pride are sitting here alone / Going through photographs, staring at the phone” (“The Other Side Of The Door,” Fearless)

• “You’re just another picture to burn” (Picture To Burn, Taylor Swift)

• “So I drove home alone / As I turn out the light / I’ll put his picture down / And maybe get some sleep tonight” (Teardrops On My Guitar, Taylor Swift)

Lying Around

Now and again, when she’s not promoting an album, playing with cats, accepting awards, making appearances, and performing on tour, Taylor can be found lying around (just like the rest of us!).

• “Looking at it now, it all seem so simple / We were lying on your couch, I remember” (“Out Of The Woods,” 1989)

• “Now I’m lying on the cold hard ground” (I Knew You Were Trouble, Red)

• “I say ‘Can you believe it?’ as we’re lying on the couch / The moment I can see it” (“Mine,” Speak Now)

Dancing

But she’s never down for long. Most of the time she’s just dancing, dancing, always dancing.

• “I’m dancing on my own / make the moves up as I go” (“Shake It Off,” 1989)

• “It’s a new soundtrack / I could dance to this beat” (“Welcome To New York,” 1989)

• “The night we couldn’t quite forget / When we decided / To move the furniture so we could dance” (“Out Of The Woods,” 1989)

• “Cause there we are again in the middle of the night / We’re dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light” (“All Too Well,” Red)

• “Everything will be alright / if we just keep dancing like we’re 22” (“22,” Red)

• “Tonight I’m gonna dance for all that we’ve been through” (“Holy Ground,” Red)

• “The whole place was dressed to the nines / And we were dancing, dancing” (“Starlight,” Red)

• “And don’t lose the way that you dance around in your PJ’s getting ready for school” (“Never Grow Up,” Speak Now)

• “And they read off our names / The night you danced like you knew our lives / would never be the same” (“Long Live,” Fearless)

• “And you know I wanna ask you to dance right there / in the middle of the parking lot” (“Fearless,” Fearless)

• “And you’re dancing ‘round your room when the night ends / When the night ends” (“Fifteen,” Fearless)

Burning Stuff

The following songs cater to everyone’s inner pyromaniac. Here, love is compared to fire, flames. It’s both fragile and delicate, and it burns more dangerously than it used to.

• “So it’s gonna be forever / or it’s gonna go down in flames” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “Midnight, you come and pick me up / No headlights / Long drive, could end in burning flames or paradise” (“Style,” 1989)

• “Love’s a fragile little flame, it could burn out” (“I Know Places,” 1989)

• “You, with your switching sides / And your wildfire lies and your humiliation” (“Mean,” Speak Now)

• “You’re just another picture to burn” (“Picture To Burn,” Taylor Swift)

Storytelling + Fairytales

At the end of the day though, Swift is just a storyteller, as evidenced by her frequent allusions to books, magazines, famous characters, and story constructs. She talks about fantasies, once upon a times, different genres, and even gets pretty meta in “Story Of Us.”

• “New money, suit & tie / I can read you like a magazine” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “You’re the king, baby I’m your queen” (“Blank Space,” 1989)

• “The story’s got dust on every page” (“Holy Ground,” Red)

• “Once upon a time a few mistakes ago” (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” Red)

• “This life—sweeter than fiction” (“Sweeter Than Fiction,” One Chance soundtrack)

• “The story of us looks a lot like a tragedy now” (“The Story Of Us,” Speak Now)

• “The story starts when it was hot and it was summer” (“Better Than Revenge,” Speak Now)

• “Today was a fairytale / You were the prince / I used to be a damsel in distress” (“Today Was A Fairytale,” Valentine’s Day soundtrack)

• “We were the kings and the queens / And they read off our names” (“Long Live,” Fearless)

• “You held your head like a hero / on a history book page” (“Long Live,” Fearless)

• “She’ll never know your story like I do” (“You Belong With Me,” Fearless)

• “Once upon a time / I believe it was a Tuesday when I caught your eye” (“Forever & Always,” Fearless)

• “That I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale” (“White Horse,” Fearless)

• “’Cause you were Romeo—I was a scarlet letter / And my daddy said, ‘Stay away from Juliet’” (“Love Story,” Fearless)

• “You could write a book on how to ruin someone’s perfect day” (“Tell Me Why,” Taylor Swift)

And there you have it, the 13 (Taylor would be proud) basic elements of a Taylor Swift song. Honorable mentions go out to use of forever, lights, lurking by doors, breathing, 2 am, and colors, but for the most part, these 13 things comprise the Swiftian universe. TC mark

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