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If you think Taylor Swift only sings about her exes, then you don't get Taylor Swift

By: Emily Yahr The Washington Post
November 10, 2017 Updated: November 10, 2017 at 4:05 am

Taylor Swift is one of those celebrities so famous that even if you don't listen to her music, you likely know something about her. Usually, the assumption is, "Isn't she the one who always writes songs about her boyfriends?"

It's true that Swift, 27, launched her career in 2006 with "Tim McGraw," a wistful ballad about a guy she dated in high school. When she became a star, she paired with other stars and wrote about them: Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal. While she rarely names the subject of song, she leaves hints via coded messages in the album's liner notes - and likely will continue the practice when she drops her sixth studio album, "Reputation," on Friday.

But those who only know Swift from those headlines and her major commercial hits miss the fact that her music goes beyond crushes and exes. Swift, who has solo or co-written every song she's recorded, also tackles substantive subjects, which have a major impact on her fanbase.

We took a dive into Swift's albums to track her evolution on these other themes:

Life lessons

- Album: "Taylor Swift" (2006): Teenage singer-songwriter Taylor Swift knocked on doors around Music Row, dropping off demo CDs. Her parents saw enough promise to move from Pennsylvania to Nashville, where Swift became the youngest songwriter ever signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing at age 14. Shortly after, Swift landed a record deal with Big Machine.

As she was thrown into an adult world, her songwriting was still very much from a high school perspective. Her lyrics veered from extreme confidence to self-doubt. This connection to her fans would catapult her to superstardom.

- Album: "Fearless" (2008): Swift's solo-written "Change," an anthem about not giving up, was chosen as a 2008 Summer Olympics theme song - but "Fifteen" was the standout track.

In the song, also a solo write, Swift took on the role of the older and wiser teen. Ultimately, she wanted listeners to know it was OK to feel overwhelmed by high school.

- Album: "Speak Now" (2010): Swift wrote this album herself. While the quiet "Innocent" got many headlines - it chided Kanye West for interrupting her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards - one overlooked song was "Never Grow Up," a melancholy guitar acoustic tucked among Swift's forays into rock and pure pop. In the track, 20-year-old Swift grappled with the fear and loss that arrives during the early years of adulthood.


- Album: "Taylor Swift" (2006): As obsessed as Swift would become with her powerful "squad," a BFF group made up of models, singers and actresses, she often talked about how she was bullied in middle school. On "The Outside," you feel her pain.

The sad track was bookended by the buoyant "I'm Only Me When I'm With You" (Swift, Robert Ellis Orrall, Angelo Petraglia). The lyrics allude to soulmates, but fans saw it as an ode to friendship.

- Album: "Fearless" (2008): A similar phenomenon occurred on "Breathe," co-written with singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat. Listeners easily could assume it's about a boyfriend, but Swift confirmed it's about the end of a close friendship.

Swift continued to reflect on the hurt of her middle school days in "The Best Day," a tribute to her close relationship with her mother.

- Album: "Red" (2012): Swift's most famous - and happiest - friendship song arrived in the form of "22" (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback), an upbeat track that basked in a carefree existence.

- Album: "1989" (2014): Though "New Romantics" (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback) is hidden as a "bonus track" on "1989," it's a fan favorite. It has "22" vibes with an 80s sonic spin, celebrating the heartache and joy of being young.


- Album: "Red" (2012): By her fourth album, Swift was officially an international celebrity. She also started to collaborate with Swedish maestros Max Martin and Shellback, who helped shape her new pop sound.

But "The Lucky One," which she wrote by herself, was a bit of a return to form. Like a country song, it told a story - a starlet accomplishes her dream, and then realizes that the perks might not outweigh the dark side of fame.

- Album: "1989" (2014): Swift's stardom skyrocketed again as her pop songs took on mass appeal. "Blank Space" (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback) is a parody of the tabloid media's characterization of Swift: A serial dater with a long list of ex-lovers who'll tell you she's insane.

Martin and Shellback also co-wrote "Shake It Off," one of Swift's top-selling singles, an earworm that hit back at her critics who were "gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate." "I Know Places" (Swift, Ryan Tedder) took a more despondent view of a lifestyle where privacy simply isn't an option.


- Album: "Speak Now" (2010): Swift first displayed her thirst for vengeance against exes on songs such as "Picture to Burn" (Swift, Liz Rose) on her first album, and "Better Than Revenge," about a romantic rival, which she wrote for "Speak Now." But on that third album, her motivation also went beyond boyfriends with "Mean." The song's rumored genesis was a critical blog post by writer Bob Lefsetz, who roasted Swift's cringeworthy duet with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammys.

- Album: "1989" (2014): Swift's most infamous revenge track is "Bad Blood" (Swift, Max Martin, Shellback). Once she revealed that the tune was about a fellow female pop star who tried to "sabotage" an arena tour, the internet quickly figured out it was Katy Perry, who hired several back-up dancers away from Swift's Red Tour.

- Album: "Reputation" (2017): After her longest break without releasing new music, Swift dropped "Look What You Made Me Do" in August. She and Jack Antonoff shared writing credits with Fred Fairbrass, Richard Fairbrass and Rob Manzoli, the trio behind "I'm Too Sexy," because Swift and Antonoff interpolated the 1990s hit.

The dance-pop track declared that the "old Taylor" is "dead." Still, she leaned heavily on her tried-and-true revenge theme, clearly aimed at her nemeses Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West.

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