I walked through the door with you, the air was cold,
But something 'bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister's house,
And you still got it in your drawer even now.
It’s been years since Taylor Swift penned All Too Well into the minds and hearts of Swifties everywhere, yet two eras later (at the time of this writing), it’s still the song that gets her fans sobbing uncontrollably while shouting the lyrics at the tops of their lungs. Being in a sea of ugly criers as Taylor deftly navigates the entire dynamic spectrum of vocal prowess—from what feels like an intimate whisper, to a rueful exclamation—is perhaps one of the more awe-striking things I’ve ever experienced at a concert, vicariously or otherwise. It’s always fascinated me as to why and how All Too Well became the singer-songwriter’s unofficial fandom anthem, but I think hidden in the answer to the song’s success lies the greater allegory of why Taylor Swift, herself, has endured as such a treasure to her fandom—snake emojis be damned.
Oh, your sweet disposition and my wide-eyed gaze.
We're singing in the car, getting lost upstate.
The Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place,
And I can picture it after all these days.
When you look at the lyrics of All Too Well, one thing is obvious: this is a very specific vignette about Taylor’s life. There’s no pretention, here. Taylor is putting her own agony on display—something over which I imagine most record labels would find apprehension. “It’s not relatable! How will fans sing along to something so specifically not about them?” Yet to this day, All Too Well is one of the most participated-in songs at her concerts. It’s not a single. It’s not even an up-beat song. So what’s the deal? Why is it the loudest song at every show if it’s so “unrelatable”? I think it’s because it’s not trying to be.
And I know it's long gone,
And that magic's not here no more,
And I might be okay,
But I'm not fine at all.
'Cause there we are again on that little town street.
You almost ran the red 'cause you were looking over me.
Wind in my hair, I was there, I remember it all too well.
No matter what you think about Taylor Swift, she is adept at making her fan base feel like they’re more than just her fans—she makes them feel like they’re her friends. And if you think about your friends, I absolutely guarantee that you’ve been there to commiserate with them about a traumatic event in their lives. Taylor even said in an NPR interview that “people have essentially gotten to read [her] diary for the last 10 years. [She] still [writes] personal songs, and sometimes people like to put a very irritating, negative, spin on that—as if [she’s] oversharing; as if it's too much information—when this has been the way [she’s] lived [her] life and run [her] career the entire time. So [she does] think it's really important that [she continues] to give people an insight into what [her] life is actually like, even though it comes at a higher cost now.” And that’s what friends do—they share their lives with you. All Too Well is a snapshot of Taylor’s life. As her “friends,” we sympathize with her, and we want her to feel loved and validated, so we do that in the only way we really know how: we sing along. Loudly.
Photo album on the counter, your cheeks were turning red.
You used to be a little kid with glasses in a twin-size bed
And your mother's telling stories about you on a tee ball team
You tell me 'bout your past, thinking your future was me.
And I know it's long gone
And there was nothing else I could do
And I forget about you long enough
To forget why I needed to
That being said, I believe that All Too Well (and, frankly, Taylor’s entire catalog) is far more relatable than people give it credit. Think about a really good movie you saw recently. Now, think about the plot of that movie and ask yourself, “is this relatable to me?” Chances are that maybe you relate to the protagonist of a story, but I bet you don’t relate to the specific story—very few of us are billionaire superheroes, but we wrestle with complex ethics and morals daily, so Batman and Iron Man feel relatable to us. Taylor Swift has done to her music what filmmakers have been doing to their movies throughout all of time: craft a sympathetic protagonist.
Is Taylor Swift a perfect paragon of relatability and innocence? No, probably not. But what interesting character (or human being, for that matter) is? Batman is mired in the complexities of living a dual life; Iron Man is often the victim of his own hubris (ahem snake emoji ahem). Music that is perfectly agnostic and interchangeable between the artist performing it and the listeners consuming it is fine and dandy. But the satisfaction behind that can be superficial and ephemeral. We crave elaborate narratives because the drama is intriguing, and that intrigue has longevity.
'Cause there we are again in the middle of the night.
We dance around the kitchen in the refrigerator light
Down the stairs, I was there, I remember it all too well, yeah.
Maybe we got lost in translation, maybe I asked for too much,
And maybe this thing was a masterpiece 'til you tore it all up.
Running scared, I was there, I remember it all too well.
Okay, so we understand that from a relatability standpoint, Taylor’s music is relatable in an evolved way past being cut-and-paste stories into which we can substitute ourselves. But what about musically? Sonically, Taylor Swift’s music falls squarely in the category of four-chord pop. On the surface, All Too Well is about as simple as it gets. For the musically inclined, it doesn’t stray from the I–V–vi–IV progression once. But there’s something else incredibly interesting about it that satiates the hunger for variety, and that’s its lyrics.
Hey, you call me up again just to break me like a promise.
So casually cruel in the name of being honest.
I'm a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
'Cause I remember it all, all, all too well.
If you listen to the song, you’ll notice that it’s missing something fairly integral to most pop music on the airwaves today, and that’s a chorus. As Bo Burnham eloquently put it, “America says we love a chorus / But don't get complicated and bore us / Though meaning might be missin' / We need to know the words after just one listen / So repeat stuff.”
All Too Well’s only repeated lyric is “I remember it all too well,” which is preceded by what could be interpreted as a chorus, but lyrically and melodically, each of those sections is distinct from another—so it’s not a chorus. All Too Well is five minutes and twenty-eight seconds of pure storytelling—no filler, and we. are. FED!
Time won't fly, it's like I'm paralyzed by it
I'd like to be my old self again, but I'm still trying to find it
After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
'Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can't get rid of it, 'cause you remember it all too well, yeah
'Cause there we are again, when I loved you so
Back before you lost the one real thing you've ever known
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well
Wind in my hair, you were there, you remember it all
Down the stairs, you were there, you remember it all
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.
Taylor Swift’s All Too Well is pop music’s shining beacon of what a melancholy ballad should aspire to be. It follows the sonic conventions of successful pop music while providing the narrative satisfaction of great cinema and evoking a multi-dimensional sense of social connection (to Taylor and other Swifties). Whether or not you like Taylor Swift’s music, it is undeniable that she is a master of her craft, and that as long as she keeps writing songs that are authentic to her experience, her fans will unwaveringly stand right beside her.
And I think she knows that all, all, all too well.