The evolution of Taylor Swift, as told by her song lyrics about cars
In announcing 1989, Taylor Swift declared that she was done with country music, explaining that it was her “very first documented, official pop album.” But some of her imagery reveals that she hasn’t completely left the world of country behind: Swift still loves her cars.
Though 1989 doesn’t sound anything like 2006’s Taylor Swift or 2008’s Fearless, Swift’s lyrics often fall back on familiar tropes. In 2010, Autostraddle published a graphic alongside an article titled “Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos.” Even though Swift has since declared herself a feminist, the graphic remains all too relevant: It was a “symbolic analysis” of Swift’s music, charting references to “2 a.m.,” “activity in the rain,” and, most notably, “driving (usually in a pickup truck).” All of those things appear in the lyrics to 1989, though Swift has traded references to princesses for a fascination with old Hollywood.
There are no pickup trucks on 1989; ever since “Red,” the title song from the 2012 album of the same name, Swift has been more of a Maserati kind of woman. But 1989 finds Swift still hanging onto remnants of the genre that raised her. Though Swift was well on her way to abandoning country this time last year, when the genre was embroiled in a debate over its identity stemming from in part an overabundance of pickup truck references, Swift’s interest in hitting the road feels tied to her roots.
One can read a lot into the evolution of Swift through the evolution of her car lyrics in certain songs, album by album; though the vehicles themselves may have changed, Swift is still the girl “riding shotgun with her hair undone in the front seat of his car.”
“Our Song” — “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car/ He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel/ The other on my heart.”
“Tim McGraw” — “Just a boy in a Chevy truck that had a tendency/ of gettin’ stuck on backroads at night/ and I was right there beside him all summer long/ and then the time we woke up to find that summer gone”
“Picture to Burn” — “I hate that stupid old pickup truck/ You never let me drive…”
These certainly aren’t the only references to driving on Swift’s debut, but they appear in the opening verses of three of the biggest hits off the album. Taylor objectifies herself as the archetypical country song heroine: She lets him drive, she loves his truck. Being in a boy’s car is a sign that she is wanted. On “Picture to Burn,” however, Swift shows her burgeoning agency: She may like the way she looks in the passenger seat when she’s in a relationship, but she really wants to drive.
“Fearless” — “We’re drivin’ down the road/ I wonder if you know/ I’m tryin’ so hard not to get caught up now.”
“Fifteen” —“And then you’re on your very first date/ And he’s got a car/ And you’re feeling like flying”
Whereas there is an innocence to the cars in the Taylor Swift lyrics mentioned above and in “Fearless,” the first track off of Swift’s Album of the Year winner, in “Fifteen” a car is associated with temptation. “Fifteen” is a naive song about naivety, and contains one of Swift’s most picked-apart lyrics, the virginity-prizing reference to her best friend Abigail giving “everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” In “Fifteen,” a car is the “senior boy” signifier, but those “senior boys” will ultimately break Taylor and Abigail’s hearts.
“Back to December” — “Then I think about summer, all the beautiful times,/ I watched you laughing from the passenger side”
Speak Now is the first Taylor Swift album where you can truly match up paparazzi photos to song lyrics. Take for instance “Back to December,” which chronicles her relationship with Taylor Lautner, and lo, here is a photo of Swift actually in a passenger’s seat. She doesn’t actually pull out driving imagery too much in Speak Now, but on “Back to the December,” it’s wistful and nostalgic.
“Red” — “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street/ Faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly”
“All Too Well” — “You almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over at me”
In the titular song off the album preceding 1989, Swift is in the driver’s seat, and, forget trucks, she’s driving a Maserati. The car still is a symbol for a boy, but she’s in control. And even though the driving reference on “All Too Well” taps into the same yearning as “Back to December,” she’s the focus of attention. Whereas in “Back to December” she was looking over at the driver, here, he’s distracted by her.
“Style” — “Midnight/ You come and pick me up/ No headlights/ A long drive”
“Out of the Woods” — “Remember when you hit the brakes too soon/Twenty stitches in a hospital room.”
“Wildest Dreams” — “He said, ‘Let’s get out of this town’/ Drive out of the city/ Away from the crowds.”
After all of these years later, Swift is still being picked up by guys in cars, and while she doesn’t drop a brand name as she does in Red, one gets the sense these aren’t pickup trucks. (Actually, the “Out of the Woods” line is referring to a snowmobile accident, but it still counts.) Though Swift has upgraded her rides, she’s frequently still in the passenger seat, only now she sounds world-weary: She knows that these rides can be dangerous, both metaphorically and physically, but she’s giving in and enjoying it. Swift doesn’t seem afraid of getting hurt on 1989, and there’s a, pardon the reference, true fearlessness to how she uses driving.