"Dear John" - Taylor Swift
The Girl In The Dress Wrote You A Song
I don’t think “Dear John” is the best song Taylor has ever written, and it isn’t technically my favorite, but I do think maybe it’s her masterpiece. I do think it matters, widely, profoundly, in a way that radiates up and down my bones. I do think, up to this point in time, it is the Taylor Swiftest Taylor Swift song, a piece that most effectively incorporates her greatest strengths, her strengths as a writer and singer, and the strengths of her public self which unavoidably inform the listening experience, and does so for the greatest emotional payoff. If I wanted to try to make someone with no prior knowledge about her (which, is, I guess probably no one) understand what Taylor Swift is about, I’d play them “Dear John.” Possibly like seventeen times in a row while weeping because I’m at least as strange and taxing to be around as Taylor Swift appears to be.
When I heard “Dear John” for the first time, my initial reaction was almost a kind of panic. An anxiousness that can come along with the feeling of finding your own truth in a place you would never have expected it. Of finding truth at all, of having to see and hear and accept what something has the power to do to you, the you that you’ve been made or become. The song poured over me, into, I felt it inside of wounds I prefer to pretend are no longer open. It punched me in the gut so much harder than I could imagine anything from the girl who sings “Love Story” ever could. The girl in the dress. But, of course, that’s the whole point.
Obviously Taylor Swift is not the first person to write a song that makes the listener think to themselves, “this is for me. this about me.” Obviously Taylor Swift is not the first person to use this writing technique, this careful dissemination of just the right amount of details to create a narrative both accessible and confessional at once. (Like, to beat a dead horse with unrelenting viciousness, it doesn’t actually matter if they are actually “confessional” or not, it matters that they sound that way, and intentionally so.) She’s not the first person, but that seventeen million dollar house she just bought is hard evidence that she’s pretty good at it. Taylor Swift songs envelope you entirely. When a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio you are invited, asked, to find yourself in it, in spite of and because, like, every other person you drive your car by is doing the exact same thing. Inside and everywhere, one giant bleeding heart (or, like, a hand heart.) Overwrought lines like, “you paint me a blue sky and go back and turn it to gray,” are interlaced with tiny daggers of personalization that sting and throb, though dropped in as if they’re nothing. My mother accused me of losing my mind, but I swore I was fine.
The Taylor Swift of “Dear John” is not a victim, however victimized. “Dear John” is not a sad song even if moments sting so closely and intimately (“and you’ll add my name to your long list of traitors who don’t understand / and I’ll look back and regret how I ignored when they said / run as fast as you can”) that the ache is physical. There is head-high dismissal blended with the admissions of pain. There is a confidence that won’t be shaken. There is the thrill of a Banshee wail in this gentle pop song. There is, implicitly, more “I was there,” resonance. “Wondering which version I might get on the phone tonight / Well, I stopped picking up, and this song is to let you know why.” This Is What You Did To Me, “Dear John” says, and, This Is What I Think Of You Now. You can’t take it back, you can’t keep me quiet. I was there. Taylor retreads in many of her songs the experience of having your sense of self undermined by a person in who you had placed your love and trust, a person to whom you had given that self, unreserved. This a common violence we do unto one another, over and over, back and forth. Maybe Taylor has a chip on her shoulder; maybe Taylor just thinks enough of herself not to weather assaults silently. I was there.
"The girl in the dress cried the whole way home," but then she wrote you a song about it that millions of people will listen to. Millions of people will know. "The girl in the dress" creates a distance between selves past and present. The girl in the dress, that frilly, disposable thing you never took seriously, speaking back. Fighting back. The girl in the dress is and is not Taylor Swift. The girl in the dress was an insult and now it’s a mantra. Just the girl in the dress. The girl in the dress wrote you a song.
"Don’t you think I was too young," she repeats throughout, “don’t you think nineteen’s too young to be played by your dark twisted games,” it goes, but these lines evolve. By the song’s close, by that last meandering “don’t you think I was too young,” any self-pity has been rinsed clean, or, more appropriately, burned off. “Don’t you think I was too young,” now, sounds more like an accusation. “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” How embarrassing for you.
The regretful refrain of, “I should’ve known,” becomes “you should’ve known,” sung not weakly, or tiredly, but low and firm and devoid of any of the vocal gymnastics that can be used to denote anger or pointed blame, as if those words represent the absolute last energy she will ever bother to waste on this person who hurt her.
"Dear John" attacks quietly. The lyrics make accusations without reserve, the emotion is unblinking, unafraid of being Too Much, of admitting to too much injury, to being so vulnerable as to be injured, of spilling over, but all the while the whole affair stays somehow gentle, sweet and sad sounding, the musical equivalent of a rainy Tuesday afternoon alone by accident. Until the very end.
At the very end, something magical happens. At the very end, comes the moment that pulls the whole almost seven minute melodramatic epic thing together and seals the deal on the triumph of the narrator, of Taylor, of us, the thing that makes me start to bounce up and down with sheer excitement every time I hear it, really, an moment that makes me physically re-energized, a shiver of swirling, intertwined fury and glee, down my spine. At the very end, Taylor refrains from using the lines “but I took your matches before fire could catch me, so don’t look now…” as a big, building crescendo, or at least not a proper one, hints only, little ones, of what is coming. Instead, she keeps it delicate, she continues to play at the helplessness the song’s subject placed upon her. Like, we all know there has to be a soaring finale. We know Taylor Swift and we’ve heard a pop song before and we know what’s coming, but she doesn’t give it away. She stays, almost, seemingly, by all appearances the crushed girl of the song’s first two-thirds, but, oh, the attitude dripping from the frailty of her voice, the verbal eye roll as she plays The Girl in the Dress all the way through and then, booms suddenly, perfectly, majestically, into “I’M SHINING LIKE FIREWORKS OVER YOUR SAD EMPTY TOWN,” and, my god, it’s everything. It’s everything, we’re lucky to have it, I’m happy for all of us, don’t you feel so much better now?
Plus, like, the semi-jazzy guitar and whimpery dude voice puttering around underneath Taylor’s vocals come off as far too perfect a John Mayer parody for me to let it pass as an unintentional coincidence. This is hilarious and beautiful, and, like, even if everything else about the song sucked, that would be enough to make me want it memorialized forever with some national monument made of glitter and bro tears. Hey, man, you should’ve known.