Culture

The Real Reason Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” Resonates with so Many of Us

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November 18, 2021

There is something powerful, almost magical, about Taylor Swift’s new 10-minute version of fan-favorite “All Too Well.” It’s intensely personal, full of idiosyncratic details, yet the feelings behind it are enough to emotionally wreck millions of people who weren’t a part of the relationship but can still relate. Swift’s brilliant imagery, her piercing words, and those poetically angsty bridges all contribute, for sure. But I’d like to posit another reason why “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” resonates so well with so many young women: it encapsulates the unspoken pain of a culture that expects sex without commitment.

The feminist movement has done a lot of good work in destigmatizing conversations about women’s sexuality and insisting that our sexual pasts don’t define us. A woman’s virginity (or lack thereof) does not say anything about her dignity. Yes, sex is fun; yes, sex should be pleasurable for both partners; but there is still a piece missing from the conversation: sex carries emotional weight. As much as we may try to ignore that weight, it is real, and it intensifies the heartbreak that follows a breakup between two people who formed a physical and emotional bond through sex. “All Too Well” is a case study in that heartbreak.

An “All Too Well” primer

When Taylor Swift released Red in 2012, she worried that the 5-minute-long ballad “All Too Well” would be too sad and personal to resonate with most people. She cut it down from the original 10 minutes to make it more palatable. But it ended up being an unexpected fan favorite, and once Swifties found out there was a longer version available, they couldn’t stop talking about it.

Swift indulged her fans by including the full-length version on Red (Taylor’s Version), but surprisingly enough, it wasn’t just diehard megafans who were willing to listen to the full-length version. It ended up being the most-streamed song on Spotify the day of the album’s release, and she brought it to the general public in one of SNL’s longest musical performances ever. That risk seemed to pay off, as her emotional performance has received rave reviews from the likes of The Atlantic, The New York Times and Rolling Stone.

In bringing “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” to the masses, Swift made a powerful statement about the value of young women’s emotions. While her younger self obliged producers who told her she needed to rein it in if she wanted people to listen to her, the older, wiser Swift asserts that young women’s raw, unfiltered expressions of emotional pain deserve to take up space, as much space as they need. And that pain is relatable because it’s so familiar to other young women (and men) navigating today’s relationship culture, which all too often leaves people feeling discarded and hurt.

“All Too Well” and sexuality

What does “All Too Well” have to do with sex? Swift has all but confirmed that the song chronicles her brief but intense three-month long love affair with Jake Gyllenhaal and her emotional turmoil as she recovers. One reason it was so intense, Swifties speculate, is that the then-20-year-old Swift may have lost her virginity to Gyllenhaal.

That may seem like a pretty big assumption, but there are some lyrical clues to back it up. First, there’s the scarf theory. Swift sings of a scarf she left behind, which Gyllenhaal hung onto: “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.” The comparison between the scarf she left with him and innocence suggests that the scarf is a symbol for her virginity. Then, there are other suggestive lines, such as her description of “nights when you made me your own,” in addition to other sexually suggestive lyrics elsewhere on the album.

Truly, we don’t know (or need to know) if Swift actually lost her virginity to Gyllenhaal. It’s an assumption that her listeners are making, and that affects their perception of the song’s meaning and the way it resonates with them.

The “casual cruelty” of noncommitment 

In the first line to deviate from the old version, Swift offers a seemingly minor detail about a keychain: “And you were tossing me the car keys / ‘F--- the patriarchy’ / keychain on the ground.” The naïve Swift sees the image Gyllenhaal projects as this great, feminist guy. But that image falls to the ground as she realizes his feminism is all slogans and no substance. Gyllenhaal gaslights her into believing her desires for emotional connection are unreasonable. Rather than taking her seriously as a partner, as a feminist guy ought to, he holds her to his own standards and belittles her when she deviates from them.

“The idea you had of me, who was she? / A never-needy, ever-lovely jewel whose shine reflects on you,” Swift sings. She resents the way that Gyllenhaal treated her like an object—a lovely jewel, sure, but an object, nonetheless. She was expected to be there for her boyfriend in whatever capacity he desired, sexual or otherwise, without being allowed to express needs of her own. He wanted all the fun of dating a young starlet without any of the responsibilities of being in an intimate relationship with another person with her own thoughts and needs.

What she needed was to feel loved and secure, but her partner refused to express the love she so craved: “And I was thinking on the drive down / any time now / he's gonna say it's love / you never called it what it was.” He refused to commit to her in any meaningful way, publicly or privately, and he gaslit her into believing she was unreasonable for wanting him to express his love and treat the relationship seriously rather than casually.

In perhaps her most piercing line, Swift reflects, “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” She was committed to their relationship like an oath—something serious, long-term, even permanent. On the other hand, he treats her like a secret—something to hide, stressful, to keep under his control, perhaps even something he’s embarrassed or ashamed of. She treats him with the honor of an oath, but he treats her with the reticence of a secret. This mismatch in commitment level leads to their relationship’s demise.

Feeling crumpled and maimed

Because they were not on the same page about commitment, the song suggests that Swift and her partner turn to sex to try to revive their relationship, despite knowing deep down that it was long gone. “And then you wondered where it went to / as I reached for you / but all I felt was shame / and you held my lifeless frame.” She reaches out to her partner for support and connection, but it doesn’t feel right. Instead, she feels ashamed and reduced to a lifeless body. This shame may come from continuing to grasp at a relationship despite admittedly knowing it had been “dead and gone and buried… three months in the grave.” She didn’t trust her own judgment, and she regrets that.  

But I imagine another reason she chose the word “shame” rather than something like regret or emptiness was to reflect the unique role that her sexuality played in her feelings of loss of the relationship. Girls growing up in this country receive an onslaught of toxic, shame-oriented messages about sex and purity. Thinking back to better days before the relationship turned sour, Swift remembers the “first fall of snow and how it glistened as it fell,” an image that connotes purity and innocence. In contrast, at the song’s climax, she laments, “I’m a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here,” which is reminiscent of infamous sex-ed exercises that use crumpled paper or no-longer-sticky tape to represent the damage done to girls’ marriage prospects if the have premarital sex.

In this case, our culture is attacking her from both sides—on the one hand, the cultural pressure to have sex to be a good girlfriend or an empowered woman, and on the other side, the cultural taboo that treats non-virginal women as damaged goods. They both hurt women in different ways, and taken together, they’ve left her feeling reduced to a crumpled-up mess rather than a human being with dignity.

Because of the physical nature of their relationship, Swift processes her pain in corporeal terms. She feels “paralyzed” and “bruise[d].” Their time together “broke [her] skin and bones.” She wonders if he feels physically pained in the same way: “Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?” While they were only together for a few months, the corporeal imagery suggests that the physicality of their relationship contributed to the intensity of her pain and the slowness of her healing.  

Wisdom from Swift and the Church

There is a reason that the Church guides us to pair sexual intimacy with the commitment of marriage: it is intended to guide us to healthy, committed relationships. We make vows in front of our community to ensure that our love is an oath, not a secret. This is not to say that all marriages are healthy, nor that people who aren’t married can’t be committed to one another.

But Catholic marriage, as God desired it, is intended to give us the best possible outlet to express our gift of sexuality. We can think of this guidance not as a rule meant to restrict our freedom, but rather a piece of wisdom intended to prevent us from suffering the intensity of pain encapsulated in “All Too Well.” With commitment, sex can be sacred. But without it, we are vulnerable to be left feeling maimed and hurt.

Looking at Swift’s body of work, we can see that she eventually comes to a similar conclusion about commitment. In her early songs, such as “Mary’s Song,” “Love Story,” and “Starlight,” she idealizes marriage as the pinnacle of romance, but she is always singing about someone else’s story—Mary’s, Juliet’s, Ethel’s—never does she dare to dream of that future for herself.

As a young woman in her teens and early 20s, she knows that women who think too much about marriage are perceived as either childish or crazy, neither of which is desirable. Our culture expects young women to put off marriage until after they have “found themselves” and established their career, rather than recognizing that marriage can be a space of support and security to grow alongside someone else. Swift ends up suffering through a series of toxic and unhealthy relationships with men who gaslight her into believing that commitment is an unreasonable thing to ask of someone. (I say this not to blame her for her misfortune, as that is only the fault of the people who made the choice to mistreat her, but rather to give context to her development.)

But once she builds a stable, committed relationship with her current partner, Joe Alwyn, Swift’s songwriting begins to blossom in a new direction. She not only remembers her youthful belief that marriage is incredibly romantic; she also begins to realize it is a real option for herself. In her more recent albums, Reputation (2017) and Lover (2019), Swift includes numerous songs that signal her openness to marriage and long-term commitment, such as “Paper Rings,” “New Year’s Day,” and “Lover.” The entire bridge of “Lover” is a statement of vows, prompting some Swifites to speculate that Swift and Alwyn are actually already married. This is probably not true, but regardless, it is powerful to see a mature Swift at 30 singing about marriage with even more awe and wonder than she had as a teenager idealizing Romeo and Juliet.

Okay, but not fine at all

To paraphrase Swift in “All Too Well,” we might be okay in a culture that treats sex casually, but we’re not fine at all. It’s time we take the emotional weight of sex seriously and recognize that it is not unreasonable to expect love and commitment from our partners before entering into sexual intimacy. It’s time that each of us consider for ourselves what we want the role of sex to be in our lives and our relationships, with guidance from the wisdom of the Church, from our own experiences, and even from Taylor Swift.

Liana Bowery

Liana lives in Idaho and loves country music, cocktails, and comfy sweatpants.

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