In the two years she's had to write and record her new album, Taylor Swift has had exactly zero high-profile romances with fellow celebrities. This is good for her, we're certain… and bad for everyone who likes to scrutinize her lyrics for clues as to who her songs are about. What if all the songs on the forthcoming record are laden with clues to her feelings about… the joys of being single and unencumbered for a long stretch of time?
We have a feeling she'll satisfy her fans even if we do end up putting our magnifying glasses and decoder rings away. But if so, we'll still always have Red and Speak Now, albums that were chock-full of hints about past beaus and antagonists. You could take a prurient interest in wanting to know more about her personal life, or just use the real-life references as reason to further admire Swift for her amazing gift for turning autobiography into pop art.
Although in her earliest days Swift acknowledged the high school crushes or boyfriends who prompted her tunes ("Drew" not exactly having posed a challenge to anyone looking up her school roster), she's been more reluctant to reveal her sources in recent years, beyond embedding a treasure trough of allusions. Here are some of the Swiftian inspirations and provocations we feel most confident about having correctly divined.
Joe Jonas: "Forever and Always," "Better Than Revenge," "Last Kiss"
The ironically titled "Forever and Always" marked the first time Swift delivered a hot-off-the-presses broadside about a recent public romance. As the story goes, Jonas broke up with her in a 27-second phone call shortly before her sophomore album went to press — although he suggested that her hanging up might have been the reason that call was so short — and the result was a last-minute addition to 2008's Fearless. He got his revenge by putting two songs about his "freaking out" ex on a Jonas Brothers album the following year: "Paranoid," plus "Much Better," an apparent ode to then-new girlfriend Camilla Belle that included the lines, "Now I'm done with superstars/And all the teardrops on her guitar." Swift responded to that by singing, "C'mon, show me how much better you are" on her next album's "Better Than Revenge," seeming to address Belle, the vintage dress-wearing actress who "thinks I'm psycho 'cause I like to rhyme her name with things." (What does Belle rhyme with? Hmmm.)
But wait — on her third album, Swift actually wrote a tender and beautiful eulogy about her relationship with Jonas. Giving him that satisfaction may be the worst revenge, but it was touching honesty. How do we know that lovely lament was about him? Because embedded in the lyrics were capital letters that spelled out "Forever and Always." There's also the telling line about how "I ran off the plane that July 9," which happened to be the date she saw the Jonases in Dallas in 2008. It seems he took a lot longer than 27 seconds to get out of her system.
Bob Lefsetz: "Mean"
This banjo-driven hit wasn't just a song about a supposedly nasty writer. It had to do with the sting of betrayal because that writer used to be a fan. That's clear from the message embedded in the lyric sheet: "I thought you got me." Widely read industry blogger Lefsetz had been a huge proponent of Swift in her early days, when other critics were dismissing her talent. But after she seemed to be out of tune in a duet with Stevie Nicks on the 2010 Grammys, Lefsetz turned on her to pen a scathing piece, saying, "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." He wasn't exactly prophetic, but he did inspire one of the best country singles of the 21st century.
Adam Young: "Enchanted"
Swift has sometimes written about unrequited or at least unconsummated crushes. For instance, "Mine" didn't describe a real relationship but a fantasy that flashed through her mind of a long and happy relationship when a guy merely put his arm around her. The guy who inspired that reverie is the source of some conjecture, but there's far less mystery about the casual encounter that inspired "Enchanted."
"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," she told New Yorkmagazine. "And meeting him, it was just this overwhelming feeling of: 'I really hope that you're not in love 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."
That jibed with Swift meeting Adam Young, leader of the band Owl City, at a New York concert. But that would be just conjecture if she hadn't noted that she used the word "wonderstruck" in the song because this fellow was a fan of the word. A search showed Young had repeatedly used it in his blogs. Oh, one other tiny clue: The capital letters A-D-A-M were embedded in the lyrics.
Taylor Lautner: "Back to December"
Swift is famous for writing about being dumped, but this gorgeous ballad cast her, for once, as the dumper, and established once and for all that she was far too reflective to spend her career just playing the victim, as alleged. The letters T-A-Y embedded in the lyric sheet didn't leave much room for speculation about who she felt so rueful about leaving behind.
John Mayer: "Ours," "Dear John," "The Story of Us"
It had been a while since Swift had called out high school crush "Drew" in "Teardrops on My Guitar," but she got around to naming first names again in the eviscerating, epic ballad "Dear John," which was definitely not a Dear-John-letter in spirit only. Although she's never explicitly acknowledged it was about Mayer, it was obvious enough that he finally responded in a Rolling Stone interview almost two years later, saying: "It made me feel terrible. Because I didn't deserve it. I'm pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do."
What was less immediately clear was that a couple of less attention-getting songs on 2010's Speak Now were inspired by Mayer, too. "The Story of Us" was about being "at an awards show, and there had been this falling-out between me and this guy. I think both of us had so much that we wanted to say, but we're sitting six seats away from each other, just fighting this silent war of 'I don't care that you're here.'" Initially, most fans assumed it was about Lautner — except that the two of them had happily posed at an awards show post-breakup, which didn't square with the speechlessness she described. Eventually, the "CMT Awards" clue on the lyric sheet was what made it clear that she was talking about an unlikely 2012 CMT presenter, Mayer.
The cheerful "Ours" was the song fans were slowest to pick up on probably being about Mayer, since it'd clearly ended on a bitter note. Maybe the reference to tattoos should have been a giveaway. But Swift dropped other hints that it had been written during happier times, when she was defending her then-choice of beaus against worried relatives. "It's a song I wrote about someone that I really liked at the time," she explained at a VH1 Storytellers taping. "And when I was dating someone that people didn't think I should have been — because I shouldn't have been dating him! … I wrote this song to let him know I didn't care what anyone else thought." (Maybe someday she'll get around to writing "You Were Right, Mom.")
Kanye West: "Innocent"
After the infamous VMAs incident in 2009, "I think a lot of people expected me to write a song about him," she told New York magazine. "But, for me, it was important to write a song to him." She intended it in the spirit of generosity instead of vengeance. But West seemed to have found it patronizing. Having previously publicly said he was sorry, he later walked back the apology, explaining, "I have, as a human being, fallen to peer pressure." In the words of one of her earlier songs, then, "You're not sorry"… and, in the words of Britney, he's not that innocent, either.
Harry Styles: "I Knew You Were Trouble," "Girl at Home," "Treacherous"
Upon the release of Red in 2012, fans immediately suspected that "Trouble" was about Jake Gyllenhaal. Swift publicly went out with the One Direction dude after the release of Red, and it hadn't been widely publicized that she'd quietly dated and broken up with him earlier in 2012. But her songs about Gyllenhaal emphasized the initially idyllic quality of that romance, while "Trouble" characterized someone who was a bad boy from the start — the kind of bad boy who, in one of the album's bonus tracks, is revealed to have a "Girl at Home," a la the gal Styles had been photographed canoodling with around the time of the first breakup. The hidden message "When you saw me dancing" also seemed to refer to Swift publicly dancing to One Direction at the 2011 Kids' Choice Awards — maybe.
As for "Treacherous," it certainly fit with the theme of the other two Styles-centric songs, and the embedded message "Won't stop till it's over" may well have been a riff on a Styles tattoo that reads: "Won't stop till we surrender." Why'd she take up with him a second time, after the release of Red, if she'd already devoted some serious lyricism to the pretty boy being problematic? Maybe that's a subject for the new album.
Ethel Kennedy: "Starlight"
We're still not sure whether either "Everything Has Changed" or "Begin Again" was about her brief sweet relationship with Conor Kennedy or someone else who came as sweet relief right after Gyllenhaal. But we do know "Starlight" is a reverie about Conor's grandparents, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy, imagining their teen romance. If you want to write something that happy, sometimes you have to stretch beyond your own experience to do a little Somewhere in Time-traveling.
Jake Gyllenhaal: "We Are Never Getting Back Together," "All Too Well," "State of Grace," "Red," "I Almost Do," "The Last Time," "Sad Beautiful Tragic," "Holy Ground," "The Moment I Knew"
Whoa… right? Swift clearly had something to get out of her system about one relationship in particular on the Red album two years ago. A relationship with a seemingly perfect but fatally flawed partner who's hard to resist when he keeps nosing around after a breakup… at least up to a "never, ever" point.
Who was that guy? Some unknown suitor, perhaps. Because maybe it was just coincidence that Swift would embed the phrase "maple lattes" in the lyrics of "All Too Well" after People magazine reported how she and Gyllenhaal shared that beverage. Maybe that actor's fondness for indie bands bears no relation to the tastes humorously cited in "Never Getting Back Together." Maybe the train ride he took with Mumford & Sons is unrelated to the trip passingly referenced in "Sad Beautiful Tragic." It could even be that the fact that he and Swift are both blue-eyed Sagittarians has nothing to do with the line about "twin fire signs, four blue eyes" in "State of Grace."
Or, maybe the romance with Gyllenhaal just brought in a haul of the greatest wealth of material Swift ever got out of one relationship. If that's the case, we're almost sad she said "never, ever" to that one, only because she mined so many of her finest and most mature songs out of it.
On the other hand, we wouldn't mind taking off our detective hats to dance to a Max Martin-driven "I am woman, hear me roar" album, either. Only this fall will tell whether we're in store for another bracing set of tell-alls.