On Nov. 22, Taylor Swift’s 10-minute ballad about embittered female rage vaulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. An ambitious reworking of her 2012 breakup track, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From the Vault)” is the latest single in Swift’s effort to re-record her entire back catalogue and own her master recordings.
It is also so much more than that. In picking up what her 21-year-old self left on the cutting room floor, Swift, now 31, has proven that her discography had undeniably feminist themes all along. Too many of us were just not listening.
In 2012, I was 11 years old and had already internalized that liking Swift was a serious blow to my budding feminist credentials. Two years earlier, left-leaning publications Jezebel and Autostraddle had run articles with this blunt declaration: “Taylor Swift is a feminist nightmare.”
Marie Lyn Bernard, Autostraddle’s CEO, was one of many voices sounding off on Swift mining her love life for lyrical inspiration, which struck many as “boy crazy” or immature.
“Swift’s lyrical message to teenage girls is clear: BOYS. That’s it. Just boys,” Bernard wrote. “Crying over boys and feeling broken and/or completed by boys.”
To be fair, Bernard has since changed her tune, calling Swift’s 2015 “Bad Blood” video with Kendrick Lamar “(expletive) awesome.”
If you ask the internet, “All Too Well” and its 2021 reincarnation are indeed about a boy: Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal. However, if you ask Swift, you get a much more nuanced story about uncomfortable age gaps in romantic relationships.
“(Who my songs are about is) not (a) paternity test,” she said at the Nov. 12 premiere of the “All Too Well” short film, which accompanies the song’s rerelease. “(This) is a coming-of-age film about a very specific time in someone’s life when you are between 19 and 20.”
Swift’s new lyrics in “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” have much more to say about how older men get away with courting barely-legal women.
“I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes: ‘I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age,’” Swift sings.
The video, which features actors Sadie Sink, 19, and Dylan O’Brien, 30, as its romantic leads, will make your skin crawl. Doing the dishes after a dinner party with his friends, the two characters exchange dialogue that captures an unhealthy power dynamic.
“I don’t know any of these people, they’re all strangers, they’re all older than me!” Sink’s character screams. “You’re making me feel (expletive) stupid.”
“I don’t think I’m making you feel that way,” O’Brien’s character says. “I think you’re making yourself feel that way.”
At the risk of relying on the internet’s most overused buzzword, Swift’s video is about gaslighting, plain and simple.
New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz wonders if Swift might be giving her vulnerable younger self some grace.
“‘All Too Well’ parallels the emotional work that many women have been privately undertaking in the wake of the #MeToo movement … wondering what exactly constitutes exploitation or emotional abuse,” Zoladz wrote.
On Nov. 13, Swift performed “All Too Well (10 Minute Version),” bringing the house down on “Saturday Night Live.” Abruptly stopping her guitar playing, Swift snarled more than she sang: “The idea you had of me: who was she? A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel, whose shine reflects on you.”
After nine years, Swift is allowing herself to get angry. We should too. Quite frankly, if a first-year or sophomore woman at LC told me she was dating a 29 year-old, I would express fear and concern for her well-being. Was what happened to Swift any different? Could “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) teach young women at LC to recognize and refuse to tolerate these power imbalances?
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” is not a mere breakup song; it is a feminist statement about imbalances of power and a cautionary tale for Swift’s predominantly female fanbase. So, the next time we listen to Taylor Swift’s new single, we should make sure we really hear what she is saying.