I suppose this is as good a time as any to write about Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift has had the kind of career that college professors make courses about. One course could chart her transformation from country darling to pop megastar, perhaps analyzing the changing definition of what it means to be “authentic” in pop music. Another could discuss the parallel rise of Swift and our current social media ecosystem, along with the ways the former made use of the latter. Of course, another could go into her songwriting: the symbols, the messages, the importance of December and 2:30 a.m. But maybe the most intriguing option is a feminist studies course, a look at how a misogynistic culture has grappled with Taylor Swift.
At first, she was seen as a silly blond naif who didn’t know how Romeo and Juliet ended. Then, she was seen as a vindictive Medea figure, just waiting for an excuse to rip some poor schmuck apart in a breakup song. A tasteless Kanye lyric and a selectively-edited phone call resulted in her being seen as a sinister, manipulative figure, a living snake emoji weeping crocodile tears. Her initial reluctance to speak out on politics led to a whisper campaign that she was a closet white supremacist; when she broke her silence to advocate against hate, she was scorned as a latte liberal. She has been called a narcissist, a sociopath, and god knows what else.
I am not saying that no one in the world has had it worse than Swift, or that Swift has done nothing wrong, ever, in her life. As an incredibly wealthy white woman born to parents who worked on Wall Street, she has a great deal of privilege, and she has made her fair share of tone-deaf comments (and songs.) But it goes to show just how endemic sexism is in our system: no matter how much money a woman has or how many Grammys she wins, there are some things she just can’t shake off, sick beat or no.
And yet, there are some things Taylor Swift can do. There are some things only Taylor Swift, in her unique position and with her unique gifts, can do. She can turn a dispute with her old label over the rights to her masters into a series of career-spanning retrospectives. She can use her cultural currency to make a critically-acclaimed short film and take over SNL for ten whole minutes. And she can take the details of a fling with an Oscar-nominated actor and make them feel universal to anyone whose heart was broken by a man.
Jake Gyllenhaal is, in all likelihood, doing just fine. He is not dead in a ditch, he is neither quaking nor shooketh, and his wig sits, stubbornly unsnatched, atop his head. The newly released ten-minute version of “All Too Well” lays out his failings as Swift’s ex-boyfriend in sharp, specific detail, but he’s probably not going to be cancelled, or even quasi-cancelled, for this. Celebrities have been called out for a lot worse, in song or otherwise, and moved on with their careers intact.
This is not to say that “All Too Well,” either the beloved original on Red or the unedited version released on Friday, fails at its purpose. It’s honest in its anger and its hurt, but it doesn’t feel like a song of spite or hate. Even in its edited five-minute version, “All Too Well” includes rich details about just what made this romance worth singing about in the first place: Swift has danced with her unnamed (but clearly Gyllenhaal) lover “in the kitchen ‘round the refrigerator light,” and she talks about endearing old pictures of a gawky, glasses-wearing young boy playing tee-ball. She knows him too well to hate him.
And it’s because she knows him so well that she’s so heartbroken by the way he’s hurt her. He is “casually cruel in the name of being honest.” He expects her to be a “never-needy, ever-lovely jewel” with a shine that reflects back on him, making him look better. He habitually dates younger women, then makes subtle digs at her supposed lack of maturity: “you said that if we were closer in age, maybe it would be fine.” “All Too Well” gives you a very clear picture of what Gyllenhaal was like as a boyfriend, for better or for worse.
But Swift takes care not to pathologize the situation. She doesn’t try and armchair diagnose Gyllenhaal as a “narcissist,” or suggest that he “gaslit” her, or use any of the other trendy words that, when used incorrectly, end up conflating conflict with abuse. The listener can draw their own conclusions from the lyrics, but “All Too Well” never feels like a callout post on Instagram. If that sounds like it’s letting him off easy, it isn’t; rather, Swift is making a different kind of point about how men can hurt women.
The key is in the keys. Or rather, the key is on the key chain. I mean, not that key, I…let me start over.
The first new lyrics on the ten-minute version of “All Too Well” are “And you were tossing me the car keys, ‘fuck the patriarchy’ key chain on the ground.” It catches the ear, and not just because it’s still a little jarring to hear Taylor Swift say “fuck.” It’s a sharp bit of irony, pointing out Gyllenhaal’s lack of self-awareness. He might declare his opposition to the patriarchy (performatively, via key chain,) but he still benefits from it. The patriarchy, for starters, is why it’s considered acceptable for a man to date a woman much younger and less mature than himself.
But the idea of avowed male feminists being hypocrites, while sometimes true, is low-hanging fruit. Swift is suggesting something more nuanced: that the patriarchy is so deeply ingrained into our society that someone like Gyllenhaal may not see any hypocrisy at all. Gyllenhaal, as written, is not a card-carrying villain of some Lifetime movie of the week. Similarly, the people who dismissed Swift as a basic bitch making music for airheaded girls might not think they have a sexist bone in their body. But some sexist ideas become so widespread that they’re accepted on an unconscious level. It’s normal for a thirty year old man to date a college-aged young woman. Teenage girls are stupid, frivolous, and shallow, and so are the things they like. Much as “polite” racism is just as insidious as proud bigotry, these assumptions are damaging whether or not they’re purposeful.
Taylor Swift may have been accused of narcissism in the past, and sometimes (like on Reputation) she gazes for too long at her own navel. But she knows that some things are universal among women–they may manifest in different ways, but the heart of the issue is the same. And she knows that there are women who listen to her thoughts and hear their own; who listen to her heartbreaks and hear their own heartbreaks turned into art. It’s no coincidence that “All Too Well” is commonly regarded as her best song, and that it’s gotten the biggest glow-up for Taylor’s Version. It’s the essence of Taylor Swift: her storytelling, her empathy, and her feminist spirit.