On its tenth birthday, I go on a track-by-track deep dive of the album that defined my twenties.
Ten years ago today, Taylor Swift released her third album, Speak Now. It sold over a million copies in the first week and sent her already-impressive young career into the stratosphere. Her first release since the notorious MTV VMAs where she was interrupted by Kanye West, Swift was determined to make sure she reclaimed her own story: at just twenty years old, she single-handedly wrote every track on the album and also served as co-producer.
The morning it was released, I set my alarm early so that my friend Bryony and I could run into town to HMV, to buy our copies as soon as we possibly could. We overslept, of course, because we were students, but that’s not the point. I was – and am – a diehard Swiftie and Speak Now is my favourite Taylor Swift album, although it’s really an impossible question to answer because it depends on my mood, what I’m doing and the weather (rain = folklore). It’s a few songs too long and some of them haven’t aged brilliantly, but it can still make me feel every single feeling I had when I first heard it ten years ago. The fact that ten years have passed since its arrival feels wild and totally reasonable at the same time.
To celebrate this momentous milestone for the album, I have been listening to nothing else this week. Here are my extremely comprehensive and unbiased thoughts on the ten-year-old work of perfect genius that is Taylor Swift’s Speak Now.
Swift has a habit of releasing lead singles that don’t turn out to be the strongest track on the album and, for me, ‘Mine’ is no exception. It’s a fantastic early-era Taylor Swift song, but it doesn’t really take us to places we hadn’t seen before. Luckily for ‘Mine’, Swift’s early work is great; this is classic noughties Swift and an extremely solid start for the album.
Best bit: The opening “oh oh-oh oh” where you realise you’re listening to ‘Speak Now’ for a review and you remember how you felt
sitting by the water when you heard all these songs for the very first time. Or that part after the bridge where she’s deftly changing the perspective and ends up singing “she is the best thing that’s ever been mine” and you mentally add the song to the queer canon even though it’s reported speech, boo.
This song was a fan favourite long before Speak Now was released, with footage of it being performed live circling online for several years, and it’s easy to see why. It’s exciting, it’s powerful, and – ironically, for the oldest song on the album – it represents a more grown-up, mature Swift (I’m saying it’s super sexy). Reviewer Jonathan Keefe called it “perhaps the most perfectly constructed single in a career built on tracks that are marvels of pop production and songwriting… It’s a testament to everything Taylor Swift gets right” and that’s exactly it. When I hear it, in my mind’s eye I see the wonderful music video, which is made up of clips from the Speak Now World Tour, a 110-date megalith of glitter, sparkly dresses and fireworks which I had the pleasure of screaming through at the O2 Arena on 30th March 2011.
Best bit: The “dundundundundundundun” after “I run my fingers through your hair and watch the lights go wild”.
Back To December
Before the album was released, Swift famously said that it featured the first ever ‘apology song’ she’d had to write because of how a relationship ended. ‘Back To December’ is a track about maybe breaking Taylor Lautner’s heart, a concept that dominated the cultural landscape in the late noughties, amazingly enough. It makes me feel like I’m 20 years old and I’ve just donated a copy of Breaking Dawn to my old school library and the Taylor/Taylor thing is still relevant and it’s sunny and the world is easy and I love it so much. My sister has asked me to point out that she would always skip it because it’s “boring”, so y’know, I could be wrong. (I’m not: it’s a nostalgic song about nostalgia that makes me nostalgic for itself! Meta!)
Best bit: The backing vocals on the chorus that are really high in the mix so you can pick them out easily and harmonise with Taylor and feel like a musical goddess every time.
The title track is one of a couple of low points on the album where Swift’s youthful tendency towards misogyny is on full display. This is a song about bursting into a wedding and whisking away the groom but it’s okay because the bride was such a huge bitch. The snarky barbs about her “snotty little family” and how “she is yelling at a bridesmaid … wearing a gown shaped like a pastry” are a lot more jarring today. As her future duet partner Brendon Urie might tell her in another wedding-ruining banger, “it’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality”. Also, 2005-me would like to point out that Busted had already made the perfect song about crashing weddings. Sonically though, this is a lovely, dreamy, cutesy pop song with motown-esque shoopy harmonies and a delightfully sparing use of tubular bells.
Best bit: The moment when I remembered that Crashed The Wedding exists and listened to that for the first time in 14 years. Or the fun double-clap after “marrying the wrong girl”, I GUESS. Oh, and the giggle before the last chorus. Okay this song is lovely.
In 2010, seven years before the #MeToo movement went mainstream (but four years after the phrase was first used in that context by activist Tarana Burke), Taylor Swift released a song detailing textbook emotional abuse and gaslighting by a high-profile male celebrity, and even named him in the title of the song, and the world collectively shrugged and said “yeah, great song, pal”.
“You paint me a blue sky
And go back and turn it to rain
And I lived in your chess game,
But you changed the rules every day
Wondering which version of you I might get on the phone tonight.”
The New York Times called it “flagrantly provocative” and “deeply uncomfortable” and the Hollywood Reporter said “it’s a brilliant song, and not necessarily an easy one to listen to” but there was never any real debate about the ethics of the relationship detailed in the lyrics, widely understood to be about John Mayer, who was in his thirties at the time. The situation described in this song – the tension, the gaslighting – is all too common. It breaks my heart a little bit that when we heard it ten years ago, we saw it as just another tale of a relationship gone wrong and not as the emotional abuse that it clearly is. Swift explicitly asked “don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by your dark, twisted games?” In 2020, at least, I hope the answer is yes.
Best bit: The part where she’s shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town! Obvs.
The most overtly country song on the album, the banjo and handclap-heavy single is a response to mean music critics but its message of empowerment works for just about anything. The lyrics of the chorus (“someday I’ll be living in a big old city / And all you’re ever gonna be is mean”) are pretty irresistible, especially when sung in lush all-female harmonies that wouldn’t sound out of place in the [Dixie] Chicks’ repertoire. Incidentally, in the music video – a fun flapper-era caper interspersed with scenes of bullied kids growing up and triumphing over their tormentors by having outstanding lives – there is a young boy who is clearly queer-coded: Taylor really said gay rights long before she’d escaped the world of country.
Best bit: The part where the music drops out after “you have pointed out my flaws again” for the words “as if I don’t already see them”. I remember feeling truly shocked that a) even Taylor Swift thinks she has flaws and b) it’s possible to acknowledge you have flaws but still have confidence in yourself and your ability to achieve your dreams.
The Story Of Us
To put how much I like this song into perspective, it has been on my running playlist for the last 10 years and I still listen to it for pleasure despite the fact that it makes me feel exhausted just thinking about it. The other thing to know about this song is that even though it’s established fact that it is about a post breakup encounter with John Mayer at the 2010 CMT Awards, I have always seen it as a sister song to ‘Tonight’ by the Jonas Brothers, with the two songs reflecting on the same event from different angles. It’s not, to be clear. I just like that idea. Anyway, its rockier sound and intense energy might not seem like a natural fit for a song about, essentially, an awkward silence, but they work perfectly to convey the chaotic energy of a youthful breakup. I want to throw things and/or go for a jog!!
Best bit: The cute spoken words and references to storytelling (“next chapter”, “the end”, “lately I don’t even know what page you’re on” etc.) that bring the lyrics together in such a fun way.
Never Grow Up
Whenever people used to dismiss Swift for only writing about boys and breakups, I wanted to sit them down in a chair and play them this song on repeat until they admitted she’s one of the 21st century’s great songwriters. ‘Never Grown Up’ is one of those Taylor Swift songs that holds a space very close to my heart (and, I assume, hers). Along with ‘The Best Day’ from 2008’s Fearless and the almost unbearably poignant ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ on 2019’s Lover, it makes up the trio of delicate, heartfelt odes to her family and in particular her mother Andrea. A sweet, deceptively simple song about growing up and stepping out into the world on your own for the first time, ‘Never Grow Up’ has been there for a good, cathartic cry countless times over the last decade.
”So here I am in my new apartment
In a big city, they just dropped me off
It’s so much colder than I thought it would be
So I tuck myself in and turn my nightlight on”
More than any other song on the album, it felt like this song was just one twenty-year-old speaking to another; we were in the same place. The night I moved into my first London flat, I lay on the bed listening to this song over and over (weeping, obviously) and let myself feel slightly less alone.
Best bit: The part where she reminds you that everything you have is someday gonna be gone, because what’s country pop without a little existential angst?
Let me tell you a story. In her early albums, Swift used to leave ‘coded’ messages in the lyrics booklet giving hints about who or what the songs were about. For ‘Enchanted’ the message was simply ‘Adam’. Adam was widely rumoured to be Adam Young, aka Owl City of ‘Fireflies’ fame. The song tells of a boring industry event where she meets someone enchanting, blushes all the way home and ends up wishing “please don’t be in love with someone else, please don’t have someone waiting on you.” It’s a delightful song which, as the top YouTube comment on the video below, from one Diana Alberts, puts it, “explains exactly what having a crush feels like. The music, the rhythm, the lyrics…it’s the epitome of being in love.” Fast forward to Valentine’s Day 2011, four months after the album was released. There is a post on Owl City’s blog entitled ‘Dear Taylor’. It is nothing less than a full-on declaration of love in the form of a cover of this song where he’s adjusted the lyrics into a reply (“I was never in love with someone else, I never had somebody waiting on me / ‘Cause you were all of my dreams come true / And I just wish you knew / Taylor, I was so in love with you”). And… she never replied. It was the most intense thing to ever exist and I was obsessed. And, for obvious reasons, it is all I can think about when I hear this song.
Best bit: The huge crescendo into the chorus.
Better Than Revenge
As I mentioned above, this album has some awkward moments when it comes to feminism. ‘Better Than Revenge’ is, for me, the biggest misstep of Swift’s career in terms of songwriting, with the possible exception of Reputation’s ‘Bad Blood’ which treads similar lyrical ground. Some background: baby Taylor dated baby Joe Jonas. Joe broke up with her over the phone and soon afterwards started dating a young actress*. Taylor was upset about this and spoke about it in public, including on a high profile interview on Ellen. The Jonas Brothers later release a mediocre song called ‘Much Better’ on their album Lines, Vines and Trying Times featuring the following opening verse:
“I’m done with superstars
And all the tears on her guitar …
Now I see everything I’d ever need
Is the girl in front of me.
She’s much better.”
It’s not the most subtle reference in the world (to Swift’s 2007 single ‘Teardrops On My Guitar’) but it touched a nerve. However, instead of turning the spiky end of her pen at the boy who broke her heart and then wrote a crass song brandishing his new partner like a weapon, she took aim at his then-girlfriend. The song opens by saying “now go stand in the corner and think about what you did” and goes on to make all sorts of cruel comments about her frown, her clothes, her career (“she’s an actress / she’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress”) and her alleged “theft”’ of Swift’s man. Towards the end, almost as a throwaway, she sings “Let’s hear the applause / Come on, show me how ‘much better’ you are,” and you remember, vaguely, that all this vitriol has something to do with a Jonas Brother.
I can’t pretend I didn’t devour ‘Better Than Revenge’ when the album came out, living for the drama and the way that my Taylor had completely body-slammed Joe’s weak attempt at a diss track. I mean, to quote Omar Little, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” But it was entirely the wrong target for a response. ‘Better Than Revenge’ is a great song, right up there with that other girl-on-girl misogyny anthem ‘Misery Business’ by Paramore. Perhaps if it was telling a fictional story, I’d blast it on 11 and rock out. As it is, it’s the only surefire ‘skip’ in the entire Swift catalogue.
*Her name, by the way, is a matter of public record and I am not using it here simply because I don’t want to be responsible for clogging up her internet search results with yet another reminder of how briefly dating a boy in the late noughties led to millions of teenage fans – people who could theoretically have been the audience for projects she might have wanted to work on – being turned against her.
Best bit: Remembering how my friend Bryony would adorably sing “Santa Claus” instead in the line “she took him faster than you could say sabotage.”
I don’t know what to say about this song that hasn’t already been said. It is a song about/to Kanye West ‘forgiving’ him for the infamous moment at the MTV VMAs in 2009 where he interrupted Swift’s speech. And it is precisely as patronising as that sounds (“it’s okay, life is a tough crowd, thirty-two and still growing up now”). It might help to remember that we all cared very much about it at the time: even President Obama called him “a jackass”. The recent Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, shed some light on how deeply Swift was affected by the incident but that still doesn’t really excuse the existence of this song as a thing in the world. The deep-seated, complex issues at the heart of why a pretty white girl being upset by a black man enraged quite so many people are in no way interrogated or even touched upon here. Despite how patronising and awkward it is, I’ve always admired its message that nothing is ever too broken to be fixed and “today is never too late to be brand new”.
Best bit: That tattoo I onced designed (and did not get) out of lyrics from this song, which would have been a weird one to explain to the grandkids/literally anyone who asked.
The run time of Speak Now is well over an hour. This one could have been left on the cutting room floor and it would still have been a near-perfect album. I’m glad we have it though – this is Swift living out her theatre goth fantasies. The lyrics have less of the specificity I love so much in her work, meaning it’s not a particular favourite of mine but it showcases a dark side we’d rarely seen before. With dramatic strings and crunching guitars, this operatic song feels like it was built for the arenas and stadiums it would inevitably end up in. When it was performed at the Speak Now Tour there were aerobats! On silks! Dropping out of giant church bells! Which eventually landed on top of Taylor! It is all extremely extra and it’s great that we have a spooky Taylor Swift song with Halloween just around the corner.
Best bit: The over pronunciation of the “k” sounds in the first verse for the DRAMA.
Anytime a writer compiles a comprehensive ranking of Taylor Swift songs, there is always one clear winner: ‘All Too Well’ from 2012’s Red. It’s a song that clocks in at well over five minutes, reminiscing about a lost love through an exploration of the type of tiny personal details that make Swift such a compelling songwriter. ‘All Too Well’ is a peerless song, but it has ‘Last Kiss’s melancholy, six minute, intimately detailed fingerprints all over it. ‘Last Kiss’ sounds like a journal entry put to delicate guitar music and it’s a gift to us all. Fun fact: in a god-tier petty move, the intro is precisely 27 seconds long, the same length as the phone call in which Joe Jonas (the song’s alleged subject) informed Swift that their relationship was over.
Best bit: The production here is unusually sparse, leaving space for one of Swift’s most delicate, vulnerable vocal performances ever. Pop on some headphones and luxuriate in it.
Initially a little bit of a throwaway song on an already-overstuffed album, ‘Long Live’ has become an important entry in the all-time Swift songbook. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that it is played as the final song at Swiftogeddon, a Taylor Swift-themed club night that I have, of course, been to. It’s an uplifting anthem to friendship, to defiance, to making memories and making the most of time spent with people you love. At the Reputation Stadium Tour, ‘Long Live’ was the only song from Speak Now to make it onto the setlist and when introducing it, Swift said that it has always always been, for her, a love letter to her fans. There is almost no greater feeling in the world than scream-singing this song in a place (whether it’s a small club or a sold-out stadium) packed to the rafters with people feeling all the same feelings as you, and when you know that those feelings are reciprocated by the person singing to you in the first place, well, we all just have a lot of feelings!
Best bit: The part where the outraged cynics scream “THIS IS ABSURD”, but we’re a band of thieves in ripped up jeans and we’re too busy ruling the world to care.
I adore your writing on music and this was particularly nice as I am someone who ararely listens to lyrics (usually cause I’m doing other stuff while I listen to music), so I miss a lot of details and tend not to realise what songs are about.
This article gives a lot of context to an artist I really enjoy but don’t often really engage with.
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