Taylor Swift Delphine Lee, Special to the Times

Look What Taylor Swift Made Me Do

I charted, graphed and tracked 99 Taylor Swift songs for three years looking for answers. I didn’t find what I expected.

We met in college.

I knew of Taylor Swift before then, but the girl in the dress and cowboy boots, daydreaming about castles and white horse rescues, was a little much for me.

I was raised by a single dad in a rough part of St. Petersburg and I had no rose-colored glasses through which to view the world. I didn’t listen to country music. I could rap all the words to Go DJ and had a poster of Lil Wayne on my wall.

But then my mom, who lives in Idaho, priority mailed me a 2-year-old CD.

Crazy, curly blond hair spiraled across the cover. Taylor Swift’s Fearless. She was the kind of person whom mothers would love their daughters to befriend.

After listening, I realized we had a lot in common — something I couldn’t comfortably say about Lil Wayne.

We both were 20, only a month and a half apart. We both had a younger brother. We both had friends named Stephen. We both spent time on bleachers, eyeing our athletic crushes and eyerolling the cheerleaders.

We were both white but grew up with different privileges. She was traveling the world and I was getting a journalism degree on scholarship. But we were there for each other. She taught me how to survive the mean girls at my first job. And I cried with her when a guy named John broke her heart.

And that’s when I knew I’d totally be best friends with Taylor Swift.

After a bad day, I’d throw her catalog on iTunes shuffle, looping through the extensive playlist. I kept a mental note of patterns in her lyrics and felt like I had stumbled upon her secrets.

Over a three-year period, I studied every single one of her songs. I kept napkins and notebooks full of tallies and half-baked connections, time lines and word counts, wondering all along why I cared so much.

I’ll get to that Swiftly.

•••

Watch: An introduction to The Taylor Project.

Video: Dirk Shadd, James Borchuck, Eve Edelheit, Tara McCarty. Editing: Danese Kenon.

Also, we held a roundtable discussion dissecting Taylor.

A business-owning mom, a big fan with a master’s degree, a Times music critic, Times web producer intern and a realtor who’s into music sit and talk Taylor. See what they said:

Video: Dirk Shadd, James Borchuck, Eve Edelheit. Editing: Danese Kenon. Additional video: YouTube.com.

•••

There are some who will never come around to her like I did. Taylor is slammed for being disingenuous as often as she is for being boy-crazy or manufactured or not outspoken enough on political issues.

The truth is, few people willing to talk about her actually know the truth. You don’t know the truth. I really don’t. Like Beyoncé and other mega-famous people, Taylor and those close to her carefully curate her professional image in an effort to compartmentalize her private life. And wouldn’t most people want the same?

Celebrities can seem unreachable, and each time Taylor Swift releases an album, she rewards her fans with a little more insight into her life. That is, until something hits the oscillating fan and that image scatters into pieces and she retreats once more.

Call them what you want, Taylor Nation or Swifties, but her spectrum of fans around the world stand ready to defend their friend. When her social media was bombarded with snake emojis after Kim Kardashian-West outed a controversial phone conversation Taylor had with Kanye West, fans swarmed Kim’s account right back.

Tara McCarty, second from left in a blond wig, at the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour at Raymond James Stadium on Halloween 2015 with friends all dressed up as characters from Taylor Swift music videos and performances.
Tara McCarty, third from left in a blond wig and holding the letter T, at the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour at Raymond James Stadium on Halloween 2015 with friends all dressed up as characters from Taylor Swift music videos and performances.

She reminds fans that they can be 15 or 22 or 32 and still growing up now — that they don’t need to have it all figured out. She sends Christmas gifts, hosts secret album listening parties and connects with fans through Instagram and Tumblr.

But what does anyone really know?

Taylor Alison Swift was born in Pennsylvania on Dec. 13, 1989, and spent her childhood on a Christmas tree farm (because, of course she did). When she was 14, the family moved near Nashville. She played guitar and sang about boys and in one Swift move from Kanye West interrupting her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs, she was launched into worldwide popularity. In 2014, she dubbed her group of girlfriends “squad,” creating kind of a cafeteria vibe in the culture: the cool kids and the haters.

Whether country or pop, Taylor has a writing credit on every one of her 99 songs on her six released albums, including deluxe and platinum editions.

I wondered whether a real dive into the words she had written would shed light on who she really is.

So, I dove.

I copied and pasted every lyric of every song into a spreadsheet — 5,270 rows of data. I got one of our newsroom’s data geniuses to load it into fancy text analysis software and spend a week crunching the numbers a dozen ways. Then I realized most of that was useless and I went back to manually counting words.

The most used word in her catalog is “know.” How fitting. It occurs 354 times.

Total occurrences of the word “know,” by album

0

40

80

120

Taylor Swift (2006)

Fearless (2008)

Speak Now (2010)

Red (2012)

1989 (2014)

Reputation (2017)

And after poring over booklets and napkins of the most unscientific notations anyone has ever seen, all while scream singing in my pajamas, here’s what else I think I know about Taylor Swift:

She’s coming to terms with being an adult but still lives in dreamland

Since her debut album in 2006, when she was 16, Taylor Swift has maintained a level of daydreaminess, wishing and hoping. A group of random words I considered related to fantasy occurred in double digits on each album, peaking on 1989 at 95 times. And while Taylor used the word “damn” or mentioned a bar early in her career, on her latest album, Reputation, those words relating to alcohol and swearing climb up to the same peak as some of the lower-level fantasy words.

Total occurrences of “fantasy” and “reality,” by album

“Fantasy” words

“Reality” words

0

20

40

60

80

100

Taylor Swift (2006)

Fearless (2008)

Speak Now (2010)

Red (2012)

1989 (2014)

Reputation (2017)

METHODOLOGY: Words we used to represent fantasy: wonder, fantasy, fairy tale, wish, hope, enchanted, princess, white horse, prince, daydream, dream, king, kingdom, queen, castle, duchess. Reality: damn, bar , drunk, hell , wine, whisky, beer, s---, champagne, drink, stumble

Before Reputation, Taylor Swift mentions drinking and bars five times, none in relation to herself. In 2010’s Mean, a bar is the future setting for a critic who bashed her in a review and Swift alludes to the critic becoming a ranting, bitter drunk.

By 2017, the tides have turned and Taylor Swift, at 27, tells stories of spilling wine in a bathtub and drinking socially and out of loneliness (“Whisky on ice, Sunset and Vine, you’ve ruined my life, by not being mine” — Gorgeous).

Fearless (2008)

You played in bars, you play guitar
 — Superstar

Speak Now (2010)

And I can see you years from now in a bar
 — Mean

Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing
 — Mean

1989 (2014)

Oh my God, who is she? I get drunk on jealousy
 — Blank Space

You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore
 — Clean

Reputation (2017)

I’m spilling wine in the bathtub, you kiss my face and we’re both drunk
 — Dress

Drinking beer out of plastic cups, say you fancy me, not fancy stuff
 — King of My Heart

I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to be, drinking on a beach with you all over me
 — End Game

We can’t make any promises now, can we, babe? But you can make me a drink
 — Delicate

Dive bar on the east side, where you at?
 — Delicate

You should take it as a compliment that I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk
 — Gorgeous

Guess I'll just stumble on home to my cats, alone, unless you wanna come along, oh...
 — Gorgeous

Whisky on ice, Sunset and Vine, you’ve ruined my life, by not being mine
 — Gorgeous

I knew it from the first old fashioned, we were cursed
 — Getaway Car

But you weren’t thinking, and I was just drinking
 — Getaway Car

I left you in the motel bar
 — Getaway Car

Everyone swimming in a champagne sea
 — This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Met you in a bar
 — So It Goes

Expand

Taylor has always made references to sex and wanting a guy, but in very PG-13 ways. From 2008 (“Run your hands through your hair, absent-mindedly makin’ me want you” — Fearless) to 2014 (“Morning, his place, burnt toast, Sunday, you keep his shirt, he keeps his word” — You Are in Love), her lust is wrapped up in the love stories. That changes in one song in 1989Wildest Dreams (“You see me in hindsight, tangled up with you all night, burning it down”) — where she leaves little room to debate what’s going down. And then comes Reputation, where there are at least 19 references to sex.

Fearless (2008)

Run your hands through your hair, absent-mindedly makin' me want you
 — Fearless

Speak Now (2010)

I'll run my fingers through your hair and watch the lights go wild
 — Sparks Fly

You touch me once and it's really something, you find I'm even better than you imagined I would be
 — Sparks Fly

She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress, whoa
 — Better Than Revenge

Red (2012)

Touching him was like realizing all you ever wanted was right there in front of you
 — Red

And I'll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands
 — Treacherous

Put your lips close to mine, as long as they don't touch
 — Treacherous

1989 (2014)

His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room
 — Wildest Dreams

He's so bad but he does it so well
 — Wildest Dreams

You see me in hindsight, tangled up with you all night, burning it down
 — Wildest Dreams

Morning, his place, burnt toast, Sunday, you keep his shirt, he keeps his word
 — You Are in Love

Reputation (2017)

I can feel the flames on my skin, crimson red paint on my lips
 — I Did Something Bad

In the middle of the night, in my dreams, you should see the things we do, baby
 — Ready for It

Touch me, and you'll never be alone, island breeze and lights down low
 — Ready for It

I don't wanna touch you, I don't wanna be just another ex-love you don't wanna see
 — End Game

Trip of my life, oh, every time you're, every time you're touching me, you’re touching me
 — Don't Blame Me

Do the girls back home touch you like I do?
 — Delicate

Long night, with your hands up in my hair
 — Delicate

I'd kiss you as the lights went out
 — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

And darling, you had turned my bed into a sacred oasis
 — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

I'm spilling wine in the bathtub, you kiss my face and we're both drunk
 — Dress

Carve your name into my bedpost, ‘cause I don't want you like a best friend
 — Dress

All of this silence and patience, pining and anticipation, my hands are shaking from holding back from you
 — Dress

And you should think about the consequence, of you touching my hand in a darkened room
 — Gorgeous

Guess I'll just stumble on home to my cats, alone, unless you wanna come along, oh...
 — Gorgeous

And we rule the kingdom inside my room
 — King of My Heart

Get caught up in the moments, lipstick on your face
 — So It Goes

You know I'm not a bad girl, but I, do bad things with you
 — So It Goes

And when you get me alone, it's so simple
 — So It Goes

Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor, you and me from the night before
 — New Years Day

Expand

So I followed the word “dress.” The feminine piece of clothing represents innocence, hope and status. On Fearless, she’s ready to risk a ruined dress for a guy. In Dear John, the word symbolizes innocence lost from a broken heart, and that theme repeats itself in Clean, where she compares the memory of an ex to a wine-stained dress. In her take-down of a girl who stole her man in Better Than Revenge, no amount of vintage dresses will give the girl dignity. And, finally, in her steamiest songs to date, Wildest Dreams and, of course, Dress, she wears dresses hoping for attention from a guy.

Taylor Swift (2006)

When you think happiness, I hope you think that little black dress
 — Tim McGraw

Fearless (2008)

And I broke down crying, was she worth this mess, after everything and that little black dress
 — Other Side of the Door

With you, I’d dance in a storm in my best dress
 — Fearless

See the lights, see the party, the ball gowns
 — Love Story

I talked to your dad – go pick out a white dress
 — Love Story

Speak Now (2010)

Wearing a gown shaped like a pastry
 — Speak Now

The girl in the dress, cried the whole way home
 — Dear John

No amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity
 — Better Than Revenge

Red (2012)

Spinning like a girl in a brand new dress
 — Holy Ground

Standing there in my party dress
 — The Moment I Knew

1989 (2014)

Standing in a nice dress
 — Wildest Dreams

You’re still all over me like a wine-stained dress I can’t wear anymore
 — Clean

Reputation (2017)

Only bought this dress so you could take it off
 — Dress

Expand

She has been in a lot of relationships but spends a lot of time waiting for boys to come around

Of the 99 songs I analyzed, in a stat that perhaps would surprise no one, 78 percent were about guys.

Approximately 27 percent of those centered around being in a relationship and about 41 percent described a situation with a breakup. With some overlap, roughly 44 percent of her songs about guys placed her in a position of longing for a guy.

Of the breakup songs, 15 percent described a situation where a guy broke up with Taylor, 15 percent described a situation where she broke up with a guy and in about 10 percent, it was unclear who broke up with whom.

To my surprise and chagrin, she calls guys “baby” kind of a lot. The term of endearment is used 126 times throughout her catalog, though not always in the same way.

Of the 126 times she uses the word “baby,” about 30 percent of the time it’s used generically or maybe for a girlfriend (and 84 percent of those instances happened on 1989, the album with just a couple songs referencing sex).

The rest of the time, she uses it when she’s speaking to a guy, speaking of a guy, a guy is speaking to her or when she’s calling herself someone’s baby. One interesting note is that she never did the latter two until Reputation, when she claims someone as “my baby” (17 times) and calls herself “his baby” (two times). Maybe she has settled on her current boyfriend, British actor Joe Alwyn, for the long haul.

Taylor Swift (2006) Fearless (2008) Speak Now (2010) Red (2012) 1989 (2014) Reputation (2017)
Total use of all lyrics Taylor Swift (2006) 15 Fearless (2008) 24 Speak Now (2010) 8 Red (2012) 2 1989 (2014) 41 Reputation (2017) 36
Guy-related lyrics Taylor Swift (2006) 9 Fearless (2008) 18 Speak Now (2010) 8 Red (2012) 2 1989 (2014) 9 Reputation (2017) 36
Guy-related lyrics, speaking to a guy Taylor Swift (2006) 8 Fearless (2008) 18 Speak Now (2010) 7 Red (2012) 0 1989 (2014) 9 Reputation (2017) 17
Guy-related lyrics, speaking of a guy Taylor Swift (2006) 0 Fearless (2008) 0 Speak Now (2010) 0 Red (2012) 0 1989 (2014) 0 Reputation (2017) 17
Guy-related lyrics, him speaking to her Taylor Swift (2006) 1 Fearless (2008) 0 Speak Now (2010) 1 Red (2012) 2 1989 (2014) 0 Reputation (2017) 0
Guy-related lyrics, calling herself someone's baby Taylor Swift (2006) 0 Fearless (2008) 0 Speak Now (2010) 0 Red (2012) 0 1989 (2014) 0 Reputation (2017) 2
Other Taylor Swift (2006) 6 Fearless (2008) 0 Speak Now (2010) 0 Red (2012) 0 1989 (2014) 32 Reputation (2017) 0

When she’s not using “baby,” sometimes she uses a guy’s real name. At times we know who he is, and other times we can only guess. Early in her career, the guys were from high school or not famous, like Drew, Cory and Stephen. And though she never says his last name or confirmed Dear John is about John Mayer, she received backlash and never named another guy she was dating in a song.

Taylor Swift (2006)

Drew looks at me, I fake a smile so he won't see, that I want and I'm needing everything that we should be
 — Teardrops on My Guitar

Drew talks to me, I laugh 'cause it's so damn funny, that I can't even see anyone when he's with me
 — Teardrops on My Guitar

Drew walks by me, can he tell that I can't breathe?, and there he goes, so perfectly, the kind of flawless I wish I could be
 — Teardrops on My Guitar

Drew looks at me, I fake a smile so he won't see.
 — Teardrops on My Guitar

Cory’s eyes are like a jungle, he smiles, it's like the radio, he whispers songs into my window, in words that nobody knows
 — Stay Beautiful

Cory finds another way to be, the highlight of my day, I'm taking pictures in my mind, so I can save them for a rainy day, it's hard to make a conversation, when he's taking my breath away
 — Stay Beautiful

But when you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think my favorite song, the one we danced to all night long, the moon like a spotlight on the lake, when you think happiness, I hope you think that little black dress, think of my head on your chest, and my old faded blue jeans, when you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think of me
 — Tim McGraw

Fearless (2008)

Hey Stephen, I know looks can be deceiving, but I know I saw a light in you
 — Hey Stephen

Hey Stephen, boy, you might have me believing, I don't always have to be alone
 — Hey Stephen

Hey Stephen, I've been holding back this feeling, so I've got some things to say to you
 — Hey Stephen

Hey Stephen, why are people always leaving?, I think you and I should stay the same
 — Hey Stephen

Hey Stephen, I could give you fifty reasons, why I should be the one you choose
 — Hey Stephen

Little did I know..., that you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles, and my daddy said, "Stay away from Juliet"
 — Love Story

Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone, I'll be waiting, all that's left to do is run
 — Love Story

‘Cause you were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter, and my daddy said, "Stay away from Juliet," but you were everything to me, I was begging you, "Please don't go"
 — Love Story

Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone, I'll be waiting, all that's left to do is run
 — Love Story

Romeo, save me, they're trying to tell me how to feel, this love is difficult but it's real
 — Love Story

Romeo, save me, I've been feeling so alone, I keep waiting for you, but you never come
 — Love Story

Speak Now (2010)

Dear John, I see it all now that you're gone, don't you think I was too young, to be messed with, the girl in the dress, cried the whole way home, I should've known
 — Dear John

Dear John, I see it all now that you're gone, don't you think I was too young, to be messed with, the girl in the dress, cried the whole way home
 — Dear John

Dear John, I see it all now it was wrong, don’t you think nineteen’s too young, to be played by your dark, twisted games, when I loved you so, I should've known
 — Dear John

Dear John, I see it all now that you're gone, don't you think I was too young, to be messed with, the girl in the dress, cried the whole way home
 — Dear John

Red (2012)

I met Bobby on the boardwalk, summer of '45, picked me up late one night out the window, we were 17 and crazy, running wild, wild
 — Starlight

You said you never met one girl, who had as many James Taylor records as you, but I do
 — Begin Again

1989 (2014)

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye, and I got that red lip classic thing that you like, and when we go crashing down, we come back every time, ‘cause we never go out of style
 — Style

Expand

She has always been super nostalgic

Taylor relies on memories, which helps listeners relate. Maybe it’s not interesting hearing about what she was doing when she was 5, but my theory is, it reminds people what they were like. For instance, a line in The Best Day describes Taylor watching a home video of her mom painting and talking with her. I watched videos of my mom singing and speaking Spanish to her ESOL students when I was little and missed her.

Key words like “remember,” “back” and “since” might be enough evidence to prove Taylor has a rearview mirror hanging in her recording studio. It’s not an all-encompassing look at her nostalgic nature, however.

“Remember”

0

5

10

15

20

Taylor Swift (2006)

Fearless (2008)

Speak Now (2010)

Red (2012)

1989 (2014)

Reputation (2017)

“Back”

0

20

40

60

Taylor Swift (2006)

Fearless (2008)

Speak Now (2010)

Red (2012)

1989 (2014)

Reputation (2017)

“Since”

0

2

4

6

Taylor Swift (2006)

Fearless (2008)

Speak Now (2010)

Red (2012)

1989 (2014)

Reputation (2017)

According to the above chart, she looks back less on Reputation. But the album contains three of the more proportionally past tense songs in the whole catalog: Look What You Made Me Do, Getaway Car and, the song containing the most past tense verbs at 64, Dancing With Our Hands Tied.

Past tense and present tense, by song

Past tense

Present tense

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

Tim McGraw

Taylor begins with a look back on a summer romance.

Picture To Burn

Teardrops On My Guitar

A Place In This World

Cold As You

The Outside

Tied Together With A Smile

Stay Beautiful

Should've Said No

Mary's Song (Oh My My My)

Our Song

I'm Only Me When I'm With You

Invisible

A Perfectly Good Heart

Jump Then Fall

Untouchable

Forever & Always

Come In With The Rain

Superstar

The Other Side Of The Door

Fearless

Released when Taylor was nearly 19; focuses on the trials of being a teenager.

Fifteen

Love Story

Hey Stephen

White Horse

You Belong With Me

Breathe

Tell Me Why

You're Not Sorry

The Way I Loved You

She stretched back further to reflect on time with her mom, who’s always been there for her.

The Best Day

Change

Mine

Sparks Fly

Back To December

Speak Now

Dear John

Mean

The Story Of Us

Never Grow Up

Enchanted

Better Than Revenge

Innocent

Haunted

Last Kiss

But Taylor doesn't only walk memory lane with boys and her mom. Here's her tale of a legendary friendship.

Long Live

Ours

If This Was A Movie

Superman

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

State Of Grace

Red

Treacherous

I Knew You Were Trouble

All Too Well

22

I Almost Do

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Stay Stay Stay

The Last Time

Holy Ground

Sad Beautiful Tragic

The Lucky One

Everything Has Changed

Starlight

Begin Again

The Moment I Knew

Come Back... Be Here

Girl At Home

Welcome To New York

Blank Space

Style

Out Of The Woods

All You Had To Do Was Stay

Shake It Off

I Wish You Would

Bad Blood

This song echoes the sentiments of Tim McGraw, hoping a guy won't forget her; a little more scandalous this time.

Wildest Dreams

How You Get The Girl

This Love

I Know Places

Clean

Wonderland

You Are In Love

New Romantics

...Ready For It?

End Game

I Did Something Bad

Taylor messed up …

Don't Blame Me

Don’t blame her ...

Delicate

It was someone else’s fault, anyway.

Look What You Made Me Do

So It Goes...

Gorgeous

Getaway Car

King Of My Heart

Dancing With Our Hands Tied

More past tense verbs than any other song. It's clear the relationship she sings about here didn't last.

Dress

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Call It What You Want

New Year's Day

0

20

40

60

80

100

120

METHODOLOGY: The quickest/sloppiest-but-still-slightly-scientific analysis possible with Python text analysis library NLTK.

All Too Well and Mary’s Song contain specific references to the past.

In Mary’s Song, Taylor sings the story of childhood friends living out their lives together: “Take me back to the creek beds we turned up, 2 a.m. riding in your truck, and all I need is you next to me.”

In what I can only describe as a lyrical masterpiece, All Too Well, she reminisces about a past relationship. It charts at a little less than 50 percent past tense.

I determined about 29 percent of her songs are nostalgic. However, this chart shows only about 13 percent with about 50 percent or more verbs in past tense. The context of a song goes a long way in determining the tense of it, as nostalgia is something more felt than seen.

She cares about her friends, but can be really petty

Taylor Swift, like, invented the word squad, right? So how come it doesn’t make an appearance in any of her songs? (Neither does the word country, by the way.) And take the word friend. Oh, it appears, but of the 35 instances of it in 99 songs, only twice did it occur in a song actually about friendship (Fifteen — shout-out to her best friend Abigail!) and not boys. In most cases, Taylor seems to be reeling from a friendship gone wrong (Bad Blood, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things), she’s dismayed to find herself in the friend zone (Dress) or she’s merely referencing her friends on the sideline of a relationship (The Moment I Knew, Last Kiss).

Taylor Swift (2006)

State the obvious, I didn't get my perfect fantasy, I realize you love yourself more than you could ever love me, so go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy, that's fine I'll tell mine that you're gay!
 — Picture to Burn

There's no time for tears, I'm just sitting here planning my revenge, there's nothing stopping me, from going out with all of your best friends
 — Picture to Burn

Fearless (2008)

You take a deep breath and you walk through the doors, it's the morning of your very first day, you say “Hi” to your friends you ain't seen in a while, try and stay out of everybody's way
 — Fifteen

You sit in class next to a redhead named Abigail, and soon enough you're best friends, laughing at the other girls who think they're so cool, we'll be out of here as soon as we can
 — Fifteen

It's 2 a.m., feelin’ like I just lost a friend, hope you know it's not easy, easy for me, it's 2 a.m., feelin’ like I just lost a friend, hope you know this ain't easy, easy for me.
 — Breathe

He is sensible and so incredible, and all my single friends are jealous, he says everything I need to hear and it’s like, I couldn't ask for anything better
 — The Way I Loved You

Speak Now (2010)

I sneak in and see your friends, and her snotty little family all dressed in pastel, and she is yelling at a bridesmaid, somewhere back inside a room, wearing a gown shaped like a pastry
 — Speak Now

Soon she's gonna find, stealing other people's toys, on the playground won't, make you many friends, she should keep in mind, she should keep in mind, there is nothing I do better than revenge
 — Better Than Revenge

So I'll watch your life in pictures like I used to watch you sleep, and I feel you forget me like I used to feel you breathe, and I keep up with our old friends just to ask them how you are, hope it's nice where you are
 — Last Kiss

I know people change and these things happen, but I remember how it was back then, locked up in your arms and our friends are laughing, ‘cause nothing like this ever happened to them
 — If This Was a Movie

Red (2012)

You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me, but we are never ever ever ever getting back together
 — We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

And the hours pass by, Now I just wanna be alone, but your close friends always seem to know, when there's something really wrong, so they follow me down the hall, and there in the bathroom, I try not to fall apart, and the sinking feeling starts, as I say hopelessly, he said he'd be here
 — The Moment I Knew

1989 (2014)

New money, suit and tie, I can read you like a magazine, ain't it funny, rumors fly, and I know you heard about me, so hey, let's be friends, I'm dying to see how this one ends, grab your passport and my hand, I can make the bad guys good for a weekend
 — Blank Space

One night he wakes, strange look on his face, pauses, then says, you're my best friend, and you knew what it was, he is in love
 — You Are in Love

Reputation (2017)

Say my name and everything just stops, I don't want you like a best friend, only bought this dress so you could take it off, take it off
 — Dress

It was so nice being friends again, there I was giving you a second chance, but you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand, and therein lies the issue, friends don't try to trick you, get you on the phone and mind-twist you, and so I took an axe to a mended fence, but I'm not the only friend you've lost lately, if only you weren't, so shady
 — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Here's a toast to my real friends, they don't care about that he said, she said
 — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

This is why we can't have nice things, darling, (and here's to my real friends), because you break them, I had to take them away, (and here's to my baby), this is why we can't have nice things, darling, (he didn't care about that he said, she said
 — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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Taylor, for all her bouncy ponytails and polite manners, has quite a number of songs about tearing people down. Okay, she has nine. But compare that to the number of friendship anthems: six. Where’s the discrepancy for the queen of Fourth of July parties? It feels better to write in your diary about something that frustrated you than all the beautiful, perfect things in your life. It’s therapeutic.

Picture to Burn (Taylor Swift, 2006)

So go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy, that's fine I'll tell mine that you're gay

Fifteen (Fearless, 2008)

You sit in class next to a redhead named Abigail, and soon enough you're best friends, laughing at the other girls who think they're so cool, we'll be out of here as soon as we can

Change (Fearless, 2008)

But I believe in whatever you do, and I’ll do anything to see it through, because these things will change, can you feel it now, these walls that they put up to hold us back will fall down, this revolution, the time will come, for us to finally win, and we’ll sing hallelujah, we’ll sing hallelujah

Better Than Revenge (Speak Now, 2010)

But sophistication isn't what you wear or who you know, or pushing people down to get you where you wanna go, they wouldn't teach you that in prep school so it's up to me, but no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity

Long Live (Speak Now, 2010)

I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you, and long, long live that look on your face, and bring on all the pretenders, one day, we will be remembered

22 (Red, 2012)

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22, everything will be alright, if you keep me next to you

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Red, 2012)

I'm really gonna miss you picking fights, and me falling for it screaming that I'm right, and you would hide away and find your peace of mind, with some indie record that's much cooler than mine

Blank Space (1989, 2014)

Got a long list of ex-lovers, they'll tell you I'm insane, but I've got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name

Shake It Off (1989, 2014)

Just think while you've been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, you could've been getting down to this sick beat

Bad Blood (1989, 2014)

Band-aids don't fix bullet holes, you say sorry just for show, if you live like that, you live with ghosts

New Romantics (1989, 2014)

We are too busy dancing, to get knocked off our feet, baby, we're the new romantics, the best people in life are free

I Did Something Bad (Reputation, 2017)

They're burning all the witches, even if you aren't one, they got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons

Look What You Made Me Do (Reputation, 2017)

"I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now." "Why?" "Oh, 'cause she's dead!"

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (Reputation, 2017)

And here's to you, 'cause forgiveness is a nice thing to do, haha, I can't even say it with a straight face

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And I can’t not talk about this. We’re in phase two of one of the most famous feuds of all time: Kanye West and Taylor Swift. After making up after the VMAs incident, their newfound friendship crumbled overnight, centering on whether she gave West permission to call her a disparaging word in his 2016 song Famous. (Her other famous feud with Katy Perry doesn’t come close.) For a glimpse at how time can change things, consider these two lyrics believed to be written about West:

“Time turns flames to embers, you’ll have new Septembers, every one of us has messed up too, minds change like the weather, I hope you remember, today is never too late to be brand new.” (Innocent, 2010)

“It was so nice being friends again, there I was giving you a second chance, but you stabbed me in the back while shaking my hand, and therein lies the issue, friends don’t try to trick you, get you on the phone and mind-twist you, and so I took an axe to a mended fence.” (This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, 2017)

She has a lot of reasons to escape from the public eye, and sometimes she does

When things get bad, Taylor retreats. She disappears into the darkness of mansions and private jets and waits.

“All the liars are calling me one, nobody’s heard from me for months, I’m doing better than I ever was.” (Call It What You Want, 2017)

She spends more time writing about hiding and getting away than she does the reasons for it, like drama and rumors and her reputation.

The elements of escape

The act of running

Her reasons why

0

20

40

60

80

100

Taylor Swift/2006

Fearless/2008

Speak Now/2010

Red/2012

1989/2014

Reputation/2017

METHODOLOGY: Words we used to represent running: wonder, fantasy, fairy tale, wish, hope, enchanted, princess, white horse, prince, daydream, dream, king, kingdom, queen, castle, duchess. Reasons: secret, reputation, rumor, lie, liar, drama, mind-twist

•••

It has been eight years since I got Fearless in the mail. We’ve been on quite the journey.

And the conclusion is, there’s no conclusion. Not about Taylor, anyway. Maybe I scoured her lyrics for truth with such determination because I was really searching for my own truth.

We’re both still growing up. I still like Lil Wayne. I hung her poster next to his in my room.

I became a fan of the "Best Rapper Alive" as a teenager. I cannot, for the life of me, remember when or where I got this poster of him.
An ex-boyfriend bought me this Taylor Swift poster for Christmas 2012.

I tend to retreat too, taking a break when things get too intense. I find encouragement in her candidness about social drinking and adventuring with guys — things I’ve shied away from talking about, things I would not have wanted my family to know.

After analyzing this data — way more than we have room for here — I called my mom. Why did I do this? What did it all mean? Did she have any idea the impact that piece of mail would have?

My mom said she recognized how Taylor documented all the rites of passage, demonstrating what a clean life looked like. She knew she wouldn’t be a bad influence.

She had heard criticism of Taylor Swift dating 13 boys in one year. Her response? That’s how she gathers material, how she’s inspired.

And if I dated 13 guys in a year?

“I should think that by the end of the year, you’d pick one to be permanent,” my mom said. “But that’s the difference between the age you are and the age she was.”

We’re both 28 now. It’s the age of knowing which friends lasted beyond college or your fourth world tour, knowing that it’s okay to step away during moments of pressure, knowing that looking back can bring perspective.

The best art allows us to see ourselves in it. And that’s what my friend, Taylor Swift, has done for me.

Contact Tara McCarty at tmccarty@tampabay.com. Follow @tmac0201.

This article was updated on Aug. 10 to correct several song titles.

Additional credits

  • Video: Dirk Shadd, James Borchuck, Eve Edelheit, Tara McCarty
  • Video editing: Danese Kenon
  • Additional video YouTube.com
  • Editor: Stephanie Hayes
  • Illustration: Delphine Lee, Special to the Times
  • Photography: Courtesy of Tara McCarty
  • Data analysis: Eli Murray
  • Data visualization: Eli Zhang
  • Story design: Martin Frobisher, Eli Zhang
Tara McCarty has her mom, Sandy, to thank for her love of Taylor Swift. She sent Tara the album Fearless in the mail.
Tara McCarty, at left in a blond wig and holding the “We,” at the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour at Raymond James Stadium on Halloween 2015 with friends all dressed up as characters from Taylor Swift music videos and performances.