Taylor Swift’s New Album Puts Mental Health at Center-Stage
If you listen to music, you’ve probably heard at least a few tracks on Taylor Swift’s new album Midnights. True to Swift’s reputation, the album is full of undeniable bops about her personal experiences and relationships (presumably with her partner Joe Alwyn).
Known for her lyricism, Swift has a long history of articulating complex emotions and mental health topics. For many Swifties, these songs have created new ways of thinking about their well-being and, in some cases, even mental illness and neurodivergence. It’s not uncommon for her lyrics to come up in therapy sessions.
In this two-part series, we’ll ask the question: what do her newest songs have to say about mental and behavioral health?
Why Does This Matter?
Taylor Swift is one of the most widely listened-to musicians in the world. There’s an enduring stereotype that her audience is mainly preteen and teenage girls, a demographic whose tastes tend to be maligned and not taken seriously in terms of artistic and social merit. But let’s take a look at the actual current demographics of Taylor Swift listeners:
- Roughly a 50/50 gender split
- Minors: 19%
- 18-24-year-olds: 40%
- 25-34-year-olds: 25%
- 35 and up: 16%
So Taylor Swift actually reaches a pretty reasonable cross-section of the general U.S. population.
She’s also known for writing lyrics that connect with people emotionally. In a way, she’s voicing what a lot of us are thinking. At any given time, her listeners feel like she’s articulating their collective experience.
Case in point: her last two albums (Folklore and Evermore) were released during the pandemic and definitely matched the mood of that time: insular, bare-bones, and grappling with a lot of sadness, grief, and self-doubt. Every time she releases an album, it’s an interesting peek into what’s on the minds of the nation at that given moment.
So, what’s she saying now?
How Taylor Describes Midnights’ Themes
As she put it via her Instagram reels, Midnights was inspired by five overarching emotions:
- Fantasizing about revenge
- Wondering what might’ve been
- Falling in love
- Falling apart
All but number four are pretty heavy. They're the kind of things you lie awake at night thinking about. She’s clearly been going through it lately – as have a lot of us. It’s been a big past few years.
So let’s take a look at some of the major themes in Midnights (and what those themes say about those of us singing along). We’ll quote some of the most relevant excerpts, so even if you’re not a Swiftie, you can still come along for the ride (and understand what everyone’s geeking out about).
Talk about a relevant topic for 2022! Taylor’s bouncing back into pop after her last two (incredible) folk albums, reminding us she can still turn heads and rule the dance floor. Meanwhile, everyone in the country is reshaping their lives after the pandemic changed everything.
“You’re On Your Own, Kid”
On its face, this is a song about coping with life’s inevitable disappointments. It articulates the process of finding yourself after your whole world's fallen apart, picking yourself up out of the rubble, and finding a new place for yourself. There are some obvious parallels to our collective experience here already.
I search the party of better bodies
I hosted parties and starved my body
Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss
Taylor’s talked a lot about body image issues and disordered eating, especially in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana and her personal essays. Some recurring themes: coming to terms with what her body looks like now that she’s an adult, appreciating what eating enough does for her strength and stamina, and expressing frustration at contradictory, unattainable beauty standards that feel oh, so appealing to perfectionists and high-achievers.
You’re on your own, kid
You always have been
As the song progresses, this refrain becomes a rallying cry. The speaker transitions from feeling despair and loneliness to feeling exhilarated by the possibility of independence and change. Now, solitude is empowering.
Make the friendship bracelets
Take the moment and taste it
You’ve got no reason to be afraid
As many of us learned during lockdown, we often learn the most about ourselves during periods of isolation and after big endings. The feeling is conflicting and ambiguous, but empowering.
You’re on your own, kid
Yeah, you can face this
You’re on your own, kid
You always have been
This song is a collective pep talk for getting back into whatever our post-pandemic lives will look like. After “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” it’s an upbeat reminder that transformation can also involve getting back in touch with yourself (and dancing all night).
Baby love, I think I’ve been a little too kind
Didn’t notice you walking all over my peace of mind
The speaker’s feeling downtrodden by her personal relationships. She’s been putting someone first who’s leaving her as an afterthought and, after a struggle, has decided to respond by adjusting her boundaries. We love to see it.
Did all the extra credit then got graded on a curve
High-achievers and perfectionists can relate to this. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been the only contributor to a group project or the only family member pulling together an awesome reunion.
Many autistic people also relate to feeling a disproportionate sense of pressure to stack up to societal expectations while their allistic peers get by without all the work of neurotypical social conventions.
Best believe I’m still bejeweled
When I walk in the room
I can still make the whole place shimmer
The song ends on a high note as the speaker discovers she likes her new boundaries with her partner. It’s an optimistic, aspirational daydream for anyone struggling to make their interpersonal relationships work without running themselves ragged.
If you’re thinking “Hey, they didn’t even mention the ‘Bejeweled’ music video,” we didn’t forget about it. It’s coming up in the next section.
Self-Actualization in the Face of Societal Pressure
As an ambitious woman who grew up in the limelight, Swift is no stranger to public scrutiny and disdain.
Lots of people made significant self-discoveries in the past few years, including uncovering marginalized identities like sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health issues, and neurodivergence. Unfortunately, that also often means they’re experiencing (or recognizing) discrimination in ways they’d never encountered before.
Like all good bubbly love songs, this track is just as much about how the world perceives the speaker's love as it is about her actual relationship. The speaker’s facing melancholia about the societal pressure she feels to conform to what people say her life “should” look like.
All they keep asking me
Is if I’m gonna be your bride
The only kinda girl they see
Is a one-night or a wife
The song is about the importance of having people in your life who support you in cultivating a life that fits your priorities, not the (often oppressive) priorities of those around you. It’s also about loving your relationships for what they are, not for what they’re “supposed” to look like. These emotions often go hand-in-hand with boundary-setting and are something a lot of people grapple with in therapy.
I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say
I just wanna stay in that lavender haze
The “Bejeweled” Music Video
Speaking of boundary-setting, let’s talk about “Bejeweled” some more (it’s a rich text). Taylor Swift plays the “house wench” version of herself in a twist on Cinderella. She attends the royal ball not to win a prince’s heart, but his castle (often interpreted as a metaphor for Swift’s crowning glory: her artistic and career aspirations).
Swift leans hard into the theme of facing friction head-on while she goes against the grain as an unmarried woman in her thirties. She learns a burlesque routine (an art form associated with self-confidence, feminism, and body acceptance), parts ways with the prince, and lives happily in her new domain. She gets everything she wants without having to compromise. It’s a self-congratulatory anthem, refreshing in its idealism. Because all that self-hatred can get kind of exhausting.
The past few years have made us all very familiar with grief. Here’s what Taylor has to say about it.
This brooding track comes directly after the euphoric independence of “You’re On Your Own, Kid.” The clear message: claiming the life you want doesn’t come without a cost.
He stayed the same
All of me changed like midnight rain
Embracing the life of your dreams can be a lonely trek full of quiet nights. The speaker is haunted by relationships she’s cast aside or moved past. This is a common theme throughout the album – and in a lot of people’s lives as they realize the relationships they may have valued previously no longer fit.
I guess sometimes we all get
Just what we wanted
This is a natural part of life, but it can also shake us to our core and leave us feeling like we’ve lost something that once felt central to us. In other words: grief. No one has to have died for you to grieve someone (or something) you’ve lost.
“Bigger Than The Whole Sky”
No words appear before me in the aftermath
Salt streams out my eyes and into my ears
Every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness
The lyrics are light on details. We don’t know what heartbreak the speaker is facing, but we’re right there with them as the waves of grief hit. Even as the speaker tries to go through the motions of her life, her heartache taints everything she comes into contact with.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
You were bigger than the whole sky
You were more than just a short time
And I’ve got a lot to pine about
I’ve got a lot to live without
I’m never gonna meet
What could’ve been, would’ve been
What should’ve been you
Thanks to Swift’s lyrical restraint, we don’t know who she’s pining for or why they’re gone. Is she talking about a miscarriage, as many fans have theorized? Is she grieving the loss of someone she was once close to, but has changed, causing them to drift apart while Taylor mourns who she thought her loved one would turn out to be? Is she grieving a lost version of herself?
Did some bird flap its winds over in Asia?
Did some force take you because I didn’t pray?
Every single thing to come has turned to ashes
Without answers, the speaker turns to bargaining, scrambling to find reason in her loss. In the moment, even self-blame is easier to digest than accepting that grief comes for us all from time to time. Here’s hoping Taylor (and anyone relating to this song right now) has a good support system to help her remember healthy grieving doesn’t have to include self-hatred.
I never don’t cry at the bar
I slur your name ‘til someone
Puts me in a car
Starting off with problem-drinking is a big swing, so we know the speaker is in a bad place. She’s out in public, deep in her feelings, dependent on someone literally putting her away and sending her home (unclear at this point whether it’s a group of exasperated friends or a good Samaritan).
I stopped receiving invitations
Oof. Looks like those exasperated friends got tired of putting her in a car. Swift, like the rest of us, knows what it’s like to suffer social isolation as she deals with depression.
I find the artifacts, cried over a hat
The song paints a picture of a drunk, sloppy girl stumbling through life in the wake of loss. It’s not a terribly healthy way to cope, but it is common.
I heard your key turn in the door
Down the hallway
Is that your key in the door?
Is it okay? Is it you?
Or have they come to take me away
The bridge gets really honest about the ugly, sad, scary parts of grief. Even in her daze, she’s aware that her behavior is concerning and someone might be coming to “take her away.” Considering the recent popularization of the term “grippy sock vacation” on social media and in mental health circles, many people can certainly relate.
This track captures the blissful, terrifying moment of the speaker realizing she’s opening herself up to emotional intimacy even though she’s still scarred from a past heartbreak.
I’ll be getting over you my whole life
The song is deliberately ethereal and light on details. But what we do learn implies the speaker is facing a moment where she’s about to pursue a new possibility, still aching from the past.
Breathe in, breathe through
Breathe deep, breathe out
We’re just including these lines because it’s not often you see such an evocative portrayal of breathwork slipped into a pop song. We love to see it, Taylor!
“Aw, what a cute love song!” That’s what we all thought when we first heard this track. Then these lines from the bridge hit us over the head:
No one wanted to play with me as a little kid
So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since
To make them love me and make it seem effortless
Wow! Okay Taylor, sure, just hit us right where it hurts. As for the mental health connections:
- Feeling unlovable from childhood (or other) wounds
- This could be read as a reference to autistic masking, wherein autistic individuals feel overwhelming social pressure to go to great lengths to perform socially “acceptable” behavior
“The Great War”
My knuckles were bruised like violets
Sucker-punching walls, cursed you as I sleep-talked
Peppy beat aside, the speaker clearly isn’t in a good place.
Flashes of the battle come back to me in a blur
This is shaping up to be a story about a fight with whoever the speaker is addressing (often presumed to be her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, but it could be anyone).
You drew up some good-faith treaties
I drew curtains closed
Drank my poison all alone
The speaker’s memories haunt her dreams. Even as her loved one tries to make amends and put her at ease, she digs deeper into her trauma, distancing herself from the world and drinking to cope.
Maybe it’s the past that’s talking
Screaming from the crypt
Telling me to punish you for things you never did
Something from the speaker's past continues to haunt her, poisoning her current relationships. The person she’s addressing is doing everything they can to support her through the conflict.
But the speaker admits they might not even be reacting to the present moment. As trauma has a knack of doing, her memories are skewing her perceptions of the present. Considering the title references the historical event that gave us the term “shell-shock,” which we now conceptualize as post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s not a stretch to assume Swift made this parallel deliberately.
Unlike a lot of songs on this album, “The Great War” ends on an optimistic note. The speaker “calls off the troops,” she and her partner put the past behind them, and they start building their future, “vowing not to fight anymore.”
“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”
This follow-up to Swift’s harrowing song “Dear John” (which elegantly articulates the precarious footwork of navigating an emotionally abusive relationship) doesn’t mince words.
Now that I’m grown
I’m scared of ghosts
Memories feel like weapons
Childhood and early-life trauma leaves scars that are notoriously hard to heal. The fact that Swift is coming out publicly as still struggling in her thirties with a relationship that harmed her in her teens is honest, courageous, and does a service to anyone who finds themselves thinking “Shouldn’t I be over this already? It happened so long ago.”
I miss who I used to be
The tomb won’t close
There are too many lines that hit close to home in this song for us to quote all of them. But survivors of trauma, particularly childhood trauma at the hands of a trusted adult, are likely to find solace in Swift’s words.
Can’t let this go
I fight with you in my sleep
The wound won’t close
If any of these lyrics speak to you (or if anyone you know has been blasting this song on repeat), do yourself a favor and give it a listen. Then maybe book an appointment with a therapist.
Give me back my girlhood
It was mine first
In part 2, we’ll take a close look at “Anti-Hero,” the album’s lead single and peppy self-hatred anthem. We'll also analyze what it says about our collective consciousness that it’s been #1 for the past two weeks straight.