If President Barack Obama ever considered adding the job of director of celebrity relations to his staff list, Taylor Swift would be a shoo-in. The girl is a vault. Chatting with her via phone from Nashville about her recently released third album, Speak Now, and her ascent into the charts and hearts of America, she communicates with the professional grace of a media-trained politician: it’s hard to believe she’s only 20 years old.
Asked about the famous names that might have inspired the songs on Speak Now—a subject that is making headlines on both gossip blogs and global news sites—a confident Swift says, “I’ve never, ever been shy about the fact that I write songs about people in my life—no matter who they are. Everyone I know has had fair warning! I’ve always written about who is spending time with me, so if they get into any kind of relationship with me, they know what they are getting into.” Jake Gyllenhaal—reported to have been spotted holding hands with Swift in New York last Sunday—might want to take note.
One of the most talked-about rumours is an obvious allusion to 33-year-old John Mayer—reportedly Swift’s former flame—in a track called Dear John. The song’s finale ends with the lyrics, “You’ll add my name to your long list of traitors who don’t understand and I’ll look back in regret I ignored what they said”—suggesting Swift could have been pre-warned by Jessica Simpson to keep from becoming another of Mayer’s locker-room anecdotes. Swift, who refuses to confirm or deny Mayer’s inspiration, shrewdly offers a cryptic explanation. “I can never tell if these songs will come back to haunt me, since my personal life and this album are so intertwined,” she says. “I do know one thing: you should never regret honesty.”
Swift is clear about the impetus for one song, though. Mean “was an open letter to a critic who crossed over the line. I never quoted the person but it is about how [his judgments] affected me emotionally,” she says. “He’s one of the reasons I stopped reading stories with me in them.” Plenty of online chatter links Mean to entertainment lawyer Bob Lefsetz, since Swift reportedly telephoned him after he lambasted her in one of his “Lefsetz letters” (whose subscribers are mostly music industry types), saying she didn’t have the pipes to earn four Grammys. “So here I am giving Taylor Swift the publicity she desires,” Lefsetz writes in one of his many Internet rants since the song was released. “She won. But she still can’t sing and isn’t it time to start acting like an adult?”
Various LGBT-friendly blogs are already adopting Swift’s Mean as an anti-bully anthem, citing the timeliness of the song’s lyrics in light of the recent news reports about the number of young men and women committing suicide because of the harassment and violence directed at them.
And who better to relate to those being bullied than Swift, who was publicly shoved aside by Kanye West at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards? It may not be anything like constant homophobic ridicule, but Swift’s public humiliation—regardless of how it swayed in her favour afterwards—definitely marked her.
A song called Innocent on Speak Now addresses this. She pointedly performed it at this year’s MTV VMAs, quaking the lyrics “It’s okay, life is a tough crowd / 32 / and still growin’ up now / Who you are is not what you did.” Says Swift now, “There is a strength in letting bygones be bygones. It was therapeutic to write and perform. Sometimes it’s best not to say anything; I just save it for the music.”
As for her image, Swift says she’s grateful she’s “able to make the choices about what I wear in photo shoots and on stage,” and attributes her non-Gaga, far-from-Xtina wardrobe choices to her upbringing. “A lot of my life has been about growing up the right way. Trying to be 18, 19, and 20 the right way. The only way I can do that is based on the decisions I’ve learned to make. So sometimes I show up at a photo shoot and they’ll have a rack of corsets and tiny little things for me to wear. At that point it’s up to me to say, ‘No, I’ll be wearing a little bit more clothing than that.’ For me, all of it is about growing up and hopefully finding out who you are.”