As befits a singer/songwriter who was young enough to have been reading The Scarlet Letter in Language Arts class when she became famous, Taylor Swift’s songs have always been very heavy on recurrent symbols. Her early albums were so reliant on the same shorthand of lyrical signifiers — items to represent romance, anxiety, heartbreak and freedom — that three separate songs on the deluxe edition of 2006’s Fearless include characters throwing rocks or pebbles at windows. Now, Swift’s songwriting has evolved in the years since, and so has her repertoire of metaphors, but it seems she’ll never escape certain go-to emblems — rain, smiles, dancing — entirely.
With her fifth album, 1989, due for release next week, we’ve decided to comb over Taylor’s discography and come up with the ultimate index of her most frequent and meaningful lyrical symbols. Some of them may have followed her to New York, some she may have left behind in Nashville, but they’re all inextricable elements of the Taylor Swift experience to date, and are crucial to understanding the work of one of the best pop songwriters of the 21st century.
Meaning: The scary-but-exciting place where adults move when they become big and important and successful.
Examples: “Some day I’ll be living in a big ol’ city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean” (“Mean”); “So here I am in my new apartment / In a big city, they just dropped me off” (“Never Grow Up”)
Variations: Los Angeles (“The Lucky One”); New York (“Welcome to New York”); London (“Come Back… Be Here”)
Meaning: The consummate game-changer for young men looking to sweep young women off their feet.
Examples: “And then you’re on your very first date and he’s got a car / And you’re feeling like f-lyyyy-iiiiing” (“Fifteen”); “He opens up my door and I get into his car” (“The Way I Loved You”); “In the front seat of his car / He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel / The other on my heart” (“Our Song”); “You carry me from your car up the stairs” (“The Other Side of the Door”)
Meaning: The hanging ornament that reminds you how everything would be happy and wonderful if that special someone was under them with you.
Examples: “Christmas lights glisten / I’ve got my eye on the door / Just waiting for you to walk in” (“The Moment I Knew”); “When you were putting up the lights this year / Did you notice one less pair of hands?” (“Christmases When You Were Mine”)
Meaning: The ultimate expression of youthful freedom and exuberance.
Examples: “I’m wonderstruck, dancing around all alone” (“Enchanted”); “I’m dancing on my own / I make the moves up as I go” (“Shake It Off”); this scene from the “You Belong With Me” music video
Variations: Dancing in pajams (“Never Grow Up”); Dancing before bedtime (“Ronan”); Dancing in a storm or a parking lot (“Fearless”); Dancing to a new soundtrack forevermore (“Welcome to New York”)
Meaning: The month of incliment weather and impending breakups.
Examples: “I’d go back to Decemeber, turn around and make it all right” (“Back to December”); “Last December / We were built to fall apart” (“Out of the Woods”)
Meaning: The brave face one puts on whilst not-so-secretly dying inside.
Examples: “Drew looks at me / I fake a smile so he won’t see” (“Teardrops on My Guitar”); “And you’re tied together with a smile / But you’re coming undone” (“Tied Together With a Smile); “He can’t see the smile I’m faking” (“The Way I Love You”); “There I was again tonight, forcing laughter, faking smiles” (“Enchanted”)
Meaning: The top priority of the small-town folks you can’t wait to leave behind.
Examples: “And I can see you years from now in a bar / Talking over a football game / With that same big loud opinion / But nobody’s listening” (“Mean”); “But in your life you’ll do things greater than dating the boy on the football team” (“Fifteen”)
Meaning: The entry point of love if opened, the death knell if closed.
Examples: “I hope your love will lead you back to my front door” (“Stay Beautiful”); “And don’t you leave ’cause I know / All I need is on the other side of the door” (“The Other Side of the Door”); “Wishing you were at my door / I’d open up and you would say, ‘Hey'” (“Enchanted”); “I’ve got my eye on the door / Just waiting for you to walk in” (“The Moment I Knew”); “And I just wanna see you back at my front door” (“If This Was a Movie”); “I’d go back in time and change it, but I can’t / So if the chain is on your door, I understand” (“Back to December”)
Variations: Back Door (“You Belong With Me”)
Meaning: Those most callous of trendy individuals, who exist primarily to mock and be mocked.
Examples: “It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters” (“22”); “Hide away and find your peace of mind / With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine” (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”); “They wouldn’t teach you that in prep school so it’s up to me / But no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity” (“Better Than Revenge”)
Meaning: The most romantic thing you could possibly ever do in your life.
Examples: “Drop everything now / Meet me in the pouring rain / Kiss me on the sidewalk / Take away the pain” (“Sparks Fly”); “But I miss screaming and fighting and kissing in the rain” (“The Way I Loved You”); “Can’t help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain” (“Hey Stephen”)
Meaning: The definitive garment for young women looking to make a memory.
Examples: “When you think happiness / I hope you think that little black dress” (“Tim McGraw”); “And I broke down crying, was she worth this mess? / After everything and that little black dress” (“The Other Side of the Door”)
Variations: Dress (Colorless) (“Dear John,” “Today Was a Fairytale”)
Meaning: The time of the day when all things melodramatic happen.
Examples: “Cause there we are again in the middle of the night” (“All Too Well”); “Oh, I remember you driving to my house / In the middle of the night” (“You Belong With Me”); “Oh, in the middle of the night / Waking from this dream” (“Untouchable”)
Variations: 1:58 AM (“Last Kiss”); 2:00 AM (“The Way I Loved You,” “Enchanted”); 2:30 AM (“Mine”); 4:00 AM (“Come Back… Be Here”)
Meaning: The pant of choice for young men and women of high character, later to be looked back upon with wistful nostalgia for a more innocent time.
Examples: “Think of my head on your chest / And my old faded blue jeans” (“Tim McGraw”); “Got the radio on, my old blue jeans / And I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve” (“A Place in This World)
Variations: Ripped-up jeans (“Long Live”); Worn-out jeans (“You Belong With Me”)
Meaning: The most sentimental conveyance of popular music and most frequent soundtrack to pivotal relationship moments.
Examples: “Someday you’ll turn your radio on / I hope it takes you back to that place” (“Tim McGraw”); “Sing me to sleep / Every night from the radio” (“Superstar”); “Got the radio on, my old blue jeans” (“A Place in This World”); “I look around, turn the radio down / He says, ‘Baby is something wrong?” (“Our Song”); “He smiles, it’s like the radio” (“Stay Beautiful”)
Meaning: Take a guess.
Examles: “I almost didn’t notice / All the roses / And the note that said…” (“Our Song”); “You gave me roses and I left them there to die” (“Back to December”)
Variations: Flowers (“Should’ve Said No,” “Superman”)
Meaning: Warmer to relationships than December, certainly, though still with the hint of impending winter.
Examples: “Time turns flames to embers / You’ll have new Septembers” (“Innocent”); “And how you held me in your arms that September night” (“Back to December”); “September saw a month of tears” (“Tim McGraw”)
Meaning: A pretty clear tell that you’re about to do or say something super-dramatic and/or theatrical.
Examples: “I stand up with shaky hands, all eyes on me” (“Speak Now”); “I said remember this moment in the back of my mind / The time we stood with our shaking hands” (“Long Live”); “Well you stood there with me in the doorway / My hands shake” (“Fearless”)
Meaning: An ideal way to establish a romantic connection with someone.
Examples: “You said you never met one girl / Who had as many James Taylor records as you / But I do” (“Begin Again”); “I know your favorite songs / And you tell me about your dreams” (“You Belong With Me”); the entirety of “Our Song”
Meaning: Second only to dancing alone in terms of intense, engrossing music-related experiences.
Examples: “He’s the song in the car I keep singing” (“Teardrops on My Guitar”); “We’re singing in the car, getting lost upstate” (“All Too Well”).
Meaning: The sweetest and most soulful thing about a person (when not faked).
Examples: “You’ve got a smile that takes me to another planet” (“Today Was a Fairytale”); “Should’ve burst through the door / With that ‘baby I’m right here’ smile,” (“The Moment I Knew”); “And all I’ve seen since eighteen hours ago / Is green eyes and freckles and your smile” (“Everything Has Changed”); “I miss your tanned skin, your sweet smile” (“Back to December”); “You smile that beautiful smile” (“Superstar”); “I see sparks fly whenever you smile” (“Sparks Fly”); “And you’ve got a smile / That can light up this whole town” (“You Belong With Me”)
Meaning: The saddest act of depraved loneliness routinely performed by the heartbroken.
Examples: “And I stare at the phone / He still hasn’t called / And then you feel so low you can’t feel nothing at all” (“Forever & Always”); “Me and my stupid pride are sitting here alone / Going through the photographs, staring at the phone” (“The Other Side of the Door”)
Variations: Dreading the phone (“Dear John”); Refusing to pick up the phone (“You’re Not Sorry”); Throwing the phone across the room (“Stay Stay Stay”)
Meaning: That all-too-brief time of the year when everything is absolutely perfect.
Examples: “And I was right there beside him all summer long” (“Tim McGraw”); “And I think about summer, all the beautiful times” (“Back to December”); “I close my eyes and the flashback starts / I’m standing there on a balcony in summer air” (“Love Story”); “The story starts when it was hot and it was summer and / I had it all, I had him right there where I wanted him” (“Better Than Revenge”)
Meaning: See “Cars.” (Dialect regional to Nashville area.)
Examples: “Two A.M. riding in your truck and all I need is you next to me” (“Mary’s Song”), “I hate that stupid old pickup truck / You never let me drive” (“Picture to Burn”)
Variations: Chevy Truck (“Tim McGraw”)
Meaning: Items to be tapped and have rocks or pebbles thrown at, in order to capture the attention of the young man or woman on the other side in the most charming way possible.
Examples: “Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window” (“Our Song”); “You were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles” (“Love Story”); “All I really want is you / To stand outside my window throwing pebbles / Screaming, ‘I’m in love with you.'” (“The Other Side of the Door”); “Of all the girls tossing rocks at your window / I’ll be the one waiting there even when it’s cold” (“Hey Stephen”)
Meaning: The most powerful way to venerate or excoriate an intended subject, depending.
Examples: “I’ll fight their doubt and give you faith / With this song for you” (“Ours”); “All those other girls / Well, they’re beautiful / But would they write a song for you?” (“Hey Stephen”); “And she thinks I’m psycho ’cause I like to rhyme her name with things” (“Better Than Revenge”); “The girl in the dress / Wrote you a song” (“Dear John”).
Illustrations by James Grebey