We trace the history of the singer’s lyrical love affair with the color wheel

By Mary Sollosi
August 24, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Let it be known: Henceforth, Taylor Swift is a Lover, not a fighter.

The singer’s hotly anticipated seventh album dropped Friday, following months of candy-colored Instagrams, confessional magazine covers, and carefully plotted Easter eggs tucked into every corner of Swiftdom.

In the Lover liner notes, Swift calls the album “a love letter to love itself — all the captivating, spellbinding, maddening, devastating, red, blue, gray, golden aspects of it.” Which, as far as a raison d’être for an album, is a far cry from 2017’s dark, occasionally spiteful Reputation — but the colorful rhetoric, at least, is nothing new for the artist. Ever since her very first single, “Tim McGraw,” Swift has expressed herself, both in lyrics and aesthetics, chromatically. Here’s how she got from that track’s faded blue jeans and little black dress to today’s whole rainbow of emotions, one album at a time.

Taylor Swift (2006)

Before she was referencing herself and her futureself and her fans and her feuds and her fame in her music, Swift was just a teenage girl writing catchy country songs. So she kept it literal on “Tim McGraw,” which brought her first mention of eye color (blue, which will also become her most-mentioned), as well as describing her clothes.

“Cold As You” would introduce color as an emotional state with the line “You put up the walls and paint them all a shade of gray,” and in “Tied Together with a Smile,” she sadly observes, “You don’t tell anyone / That you might not be the golden one.” You know what is a golden one, though? That would be…

Fearless (2008)

Swift’s second album gleams white and gold, even in its sadder moments, and her fairy-tale wardrobe of dreamy white dresses matched. “Look now, the sky is gold,” she sings on “The Best Day,” and she name-drops familiar color-coded images on “White Horse” and “Love Story,” which included her first mention of bridal white as well as her first (but, remarkably, not her last) reference to a scarlet letter.

But while “You were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter / And my daddy said stay away from Juliet” is a pretty preposterous line insofar as the way it invokes Nathaniel Hawthorne, it does indicate her developing fixation with chromatic symbols — and specifically with the color red. But first, we have…

Speak Now (2010)

More eyes (green, deep brown) come up on Speak Now, and the title track sees Swift crashing a “white-veil occasion” where she sneers at the bride’s “snotty little family, all dressed in pastel” (you’ll feel much friendlier toward that palette in about a decade, Tay). But the most piercing flash of color appears on the ever-significant track 5, “Dear John,” in which she laments, “My mother accused me of losing my mind / But I swore I was fine, you paint me a blue sky.” There will be eight songs using the word “paint” by the time we get to the end of Lover, where colors are fully feelings, and a bucket of the stuff is a powerful emotionally transformative tool. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Things really start picking up with…

Red (2012)

Here we go! Swift’s commitment to the color wheel truly began with Red’s title track, which cemented her use of hue as emotional shorthand with the line, “Losing him was blue like I’d never known / Missing him was dark grey all alone / Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met / But loving him was red.” The album art, too, was all soft gold of her hair, her skin, and a matching hazy background — with her made-up mouth right in the center, matching the title.

The color also comes up in the much-beloved track 5 “All Too Well,” where her (red-cheeked) lover “almost ran the red ‘cause you were looking over me;” on the flip side, “Holy Ground” name-checks “Took off faster than a green light ‘go,’” and rounding out the trio is the hollow line from “The Lucky One”: “Now it’s big black cars and Riviera views / And your lover in the foyer doesn’t even know you.” (And those are all just from one album — looking through her entire discography, Swift’s car-related lyrics are a whole other breakdown, or maybe a master’s thesis.)

ThisRed’s got plenty of blue swirled into it too, though, and not just because of another eye-color shoutout. “All my walls stood tall, painted blue / And I’ll take ‘em down, take ‘em down / And open up the door for you,” she and Ed Sheeran sing on “Everything Has Changed,” mixing metaphors of feeling like watercolors. And the nostalgic “Starlight” offers the wisdom, “He said, ‘Look at you, worrying so much about things you can’t change / You’ll spend your whole life singing the blues if you keep thinking that way.’” She seems to have taken that to heart, based on what we heard in…

1989 (2014)

Pucker up! Swift’s first pure pop record was a little flirtier, a little sexier, and paid special attention to her pout, which was still typically fire-engine red. On “Style,” she observes of herself and her elegant lover, “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I got that red-lip classic thing that you like;” while on “Blank Space,” she promises “Cherry lips, crystal skies/ I could show you incredible things” — the aftermath of which she seems to describe on “Wildest Dreams,” with “Red lips and rosy cheeks / Say you’ll see me again, even if it’s just in your wildest dreams.”

Even 1989’s album cover was a Polaroid depicting Swift from her nose to her waist, her pale blue sweatshirt washed out but her bright lips popping at the top of the frame. The image was echoed in the evocative “Out of the Woods” line, “You took a Polaroid of us / and then discovered / The rest of the world was black and white / But we were in screaming color.” Funny she should mention black and white, when what came next was…

Reputation (2017)

Where 1989’s art was hip and slightly arty, Reputation sapped all the color right out of the star for its newsprint-inspired cover. The album brought a dark new incarnation of Swift, who swapped her bright, clean wardrobe for black leotards, surrounded herself with snake imagery, and spouted vengeful, snarky lyrics — one of the earliest of which, from lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” told an enemy, “I’ve got a list of names and yours is in red, underlined.”

While we’re on the subject of red, she still sang about her lipstick, but in more intense contexts: “I can feel the flames on my skin / Crimson red paint on my lips” in “I Did Something Bad,” and promising “a truth from my red lips” on “End Game.” It looked like she had turned on the “burning” shade that inspired a whole album title just five years prior, in favor of another primary color; the softer, sweeter songs on the record sigh, “Oh damn, never seen that color blue” (“Delicate”) or “Ocean-blue eyes looking in mine / I feel like I might sink and drown and die” (“Gorgeous”). So, too, had precious metal sparkled in her eye — gold appears on four different tracks, sometimes branding Swift or holding her hostage, sometimes elevating her lover.

Her feelings about feelings had cooled, or they’d heated, or they’d just become exhausted in the wake of Swift’s dramatic 2016, it seemed. “The ties were black, the lies were white / And shades of gray in candlelight,” she crooned on album highlight “Getaway Car.” She wouldn’t learn to embrace the whole spectrum until…

Lover (2019)

Swift has been derided for her sometimes-baffling picks for lead singles, and “Me!” was among her worst-received. It does function as a thesis statement for the new era, however, in its phrase, “One of these things is not like the others / Like a rainbow with all of the colors.”

Lover is not like the others for that very reason. For months, her Instagram teases and her wardrobe have been rendered almost exclusively in happy pastels (a sharp change after black-and-white-and-more-black Reputation), usually with some hearts or butterflies thrown in. The album’s music videos have made use of the whole rainbow, too, especially for the romantic title track, which takes place in a dollhouse inside a snow globe, with each room taking on a different color for a different aspect of the couple’s love story.

The album itself reinforces the new visual language — Swift lays it out in the liner notes, then repaints her world over the course of 18 tracks (11 of which have colors in the lyrics). The sadness of blue reappears in five of them, but the singer expands her color spectrum with a different type of love — for her cancer-stricken mother — on the devastating Dixie Chicks collaboration “Soon You’ll Get Better,” which calls out to “Holy orange bottles, each night, I pray to you,” and promises that she’ll “paint the kitchen neon, I’ll brighten up the sky.”

Finally, the sky shifts from ultraviolet to light pink to happy gold between “Afterglow,” “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” and “Daylight,” respectively — and the latter track, Lover’s last, brings the journey to an end. “I once believed love would be (black and white) / But it’s golden (golden),” Swift sings without the cynicism of Reputation, but with new maturity since Red. “I once believed love would be (burning red) / But it’s golden / Like daylight.”

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