If you’re a Taylor Swift fan, as I am, you’ve likely been riveted by last month’s release of the extended version of her song “All Too Well,” which, at 10 minutes 13 seconds, just overtook “American Pie” as the longest-ever single to hit #1 on the Billboard chart. “All Too Well”—her best song, off her best album—tells the story of her short-lived relationship with an older man generally presumed to be Jake Gyllenhaal. The original is a masterpiece of elision and economy. The extended version is, in my view, significantly worse: winding and a bit bloated, but still worthwhile as a demonstration of the power of the editing process and as an example of the many different paths one idea can take.
Unsurprisingly, the song’s reissue has, as usual, inspired a rash of commentary: about its supposed deeper-than-usual vulnerability, about how its story hews to the hero’s journey, about how it corrects the power imbalance that is its subject. Like any good Swift fan, I’ve devoured every one of these pieces. But I’ve also been struck by the way they all share the same unspoken assumption: that the events in the song actually happened as described
Of course, we know that the rough outlines of the song are true: Gyllenhaal really did date Swift for a few months, when he was 29 and she was a grossly inappropriate 20. And of course the song is emotionally true—that’s part of what makes it so good. But the late-night dancing around the kitchen? The stories the man’s mother tells about what he was like as a child? Or even the infamous scarf? I see no reason to blindly assume any of these things are more than canny metaphors. Swift, like many of the most interesting pop stars, is a master manipulator of her own public image, and to assume she sticks exclusively to the literal truth in even her most personal songs is to undersell her talents.
Besides, some amount of artistic license—which is really just a more polite word for lying—is inevitable in the creative process. I’m mostly honest in this newsletter, but not everything I write about happened exactly as I say it did. I edit or invent smaller details all the time—to protect someone’s privacy, to make something sound better, or just because I’m writing about something that took place a while ago, and I can no longer remember exactly how it happened.
And I do all that in a medium that has the explicit promise of truth. Unlike this newsletter, though, autobiographical songs live in a strange place between memoir and fiction. Their honesty is usually just assumed, a byproduct of the intimate nature of their delivery, and so there’s no shared contract that can be said to be broken if and when they turn out not to be so true after all. If James Frey had written a confessional album instead of a memoir, he never would have ended up in that confrontation with Oprah.
Back in the days when I was primarily a fiction writer, I was constantly annoyed at the way readers would attempt to locate my real feelings and experiences in my work. Friends would read my stories and speculate as to which events in my life they were secretly about; even people I didn’t know that well would attempt to find connections to things that had actually happened to me. My freshman year of college, my parents even went so far as to suggest I take down from my website a comic poem about an imaginary ex-girlfriend, because they were worried that my real ex-girlfriend—who I had loved deeply, parted with on good terms, and never said a single bad word about—would think it was about her. (Spoiler alert: she did not.)
Of course, there’s a baseline level at which these connections between art and reality are always there: I was writing about breakups because I had recently gone through one. But, as with dreams, the links between one’s output and what’s going on inside are rarely so literal. The ideas and images stewing around in your mind usually find their way out somehow, but what they mean specifically can’t be inferred so easily.
Taylor Swift, of course, actively encourages these comparisons—her entire public persona is constructed around the idea that she’s telling us “the truth.” But it’s still constructed. And we do her and her art a disservice when we blindly assume that everything in her lyrics is drawn directly from real life. After all, it’s much more impressive for her to have invented the resonant imagery in “All Too Well” than it would be for her to have just reported it directly from real life.
If I were her, maybe I’d be astonished at how easily my fans take every word of my songs for the literal truth. Maybe I’d be irritated that they weren’t seeing the level of artistry that had gone into my creations. Or maybe their doing so would have been part of my plan all along, and I’d lie back with my London boy in our house with the Christmas tree still up in January, and give a sly smile about how easily I had them all fooled.
Yours in wanting to be extra clear that I am definitely not defending Jake Gyllenhaal here,
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