On Nov. 12, Taylor Swift rereleased her chart-topping, genre-bending, country-pop album Red (Taylor’s version). With it came the uncut version of her song “All Too Well,” a heartbreaking breakup anthem that, despite not being a single, quickly became a fan favorite when it was first released in 2012. The song is largely speculated to be about her relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal and was originally ten minutes long, but obviously was cut down to fit on the album. Now, as Taylor is re-releasing her music in order to finally take ownership over her creative endeavors, she has given us the full force of this beautiful song. If you haven’t heard it yet, I highly recommend you go listen to it first and then come back. You won’t regret it.
Unfortunately, with a song this long I can’t comb through every single lyric, but I’ve gone back through and picked out my favorites. Without further ado, “All Too Well!”
“I left my scarf there at your sister’s house
And you still got it in your drawer, even now”
Most Swifties are well-versed in the scarf metaphor, but let me quickly give some context to those of you who aren’t. Essentially, there (probably) was a real scarf that Taylor left with Jake that he kept and wore in public long after their relationship had ended. In the song “All Too Well,” many people interpret the scarf as a metaphor for Taylor’s innocence. I agree with this reading and would like to point out her apparent lack of agency in the matter of his ownership over it. The “scarf” is not something she actively gifted to her lover, it’s something she left behind and he decided to take. I see this as functioning to point out how Taylor’s naivety was taken advantage of in this relationship without her knowing. It also demonstrates that when Taylor wrote these lyrics, she felt a part of her was taken from her when this relationship ended, something she could never get back.
“…my wide-eyed gaze”
This descriptor reinforces Taylor’s naivety in the relationship, as a wide-eyed gaze would imply the lack of experience that comes with being a fresh young woman. When they started dating Taylor was 20 while Jake was 29.
“You almost ran the red cuz you were looking over at me”
The color red is, of course, the main thematic concern of Red as a whole. Red is used to describe the type of relationship Taylor is experiencing; a passionate, toxic, indescribable whirlwind romance that can only end in flames. That’s why placing the color so subtly into this moment is interesting. The driver almost missing the red light reminds the audience of all the red flags that were missed as this relationship progressed, and of the disaster that is lurking around the corner. It’s a foreshadowing of a seemingly inevitable demise, just like the line in the title track of Red:
“Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street
Faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly”
The notion of missing a red light highlights the dangers of this romance, and so does the imagery of driving a car straight into a wall as we see here. Taylor is categorizing this love as a terrifying and exhilarating car crash that will, in the end, hurt everyone involved. We get this on a smaller scale in “All Too Well.”
“As I reached for you but all I felt was shame, as you held my lifeless frame”
Here Taylor seems to symbolize the death of a relationship by her literal bodily death. She remembers the way she was reduced to lifelessness, which gives us an idea of how all-encompassing the romance was for her. Without the love she had with this person she feels like she’s no longer alive, really once again hammering home the intensity that colors everything on this album and in this song burning red.
“And there we are again when nobody had to know,
you kept me like a secret but I kept you like an oath”
These are probably my favorite new lyrics so far from the ten minute version. It shows us the different levels of investment in this relationship in such a beautiful and poetic way. Taylor’s lover is one foot out the door at all times. He keeps her like a secret because, much like a secret, he’s ashamed of her. He hides her. He muffles the relationship out of something akin to embarrassment or fear. However, Taylor is fully invested in this relationship—keeping him like an oath. An oath is something reverent and special, it’s something a person will be very careful not to break. She’s keeping this relationship between them because of how important it is to her, and maybe even because of how desperately she wants to keep it from falling apart.
“Maybe we got lost in translation
maybe I asked for too much
But maybe this thing was a masterpiece
till you tore it all up”
We see a progression of thought so poignantly through these short lines. First Taylor wonders if maybe the relationship went wrong because of some kind of logistical reason (marked by getting “lost in translation”) like lack of communication. Then she wonders what she did wrong; was I too needy? Another moment of self blame, a moment that many women have latched unto and been able to relate to in terms of their own failed relationships. Then finally she wonders if it hadn’t been her fault completely and if maybe they actually had something great that her lover ruined for the both of them. I love these lines because they are so simple and yet so powerful. They quickly and concisely lay out the long and painful process of thinking through the reasons behind a breakup.
“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest”
These lyrics are so stunning and are delivered with a forceful punch by Taylor (once again if you haven’t listened to it, you really should!). This is another example of the tension created throughout this piece regarding secrets, promises, oaths, and dreams. He was supposed to “keep” the promise of their love, and instead he broke it. It parallels nicely with the lines before, allowing the reader to imagine this lover as a destroyer. He tore up their masterpiece, and now he’s increasing the damage. Taylor was the secret, the promise, the beautiful young innocent girl; and he took this “pureness” within her and used it against her, breaking her in the process.
It’s also worth it to note that Taylor has a similar line from a “vault track” off of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) called “Mr. Perfectly Fine”:
“Hello, Mr. ‘Casually cruel’ / Goodbye ‘Mr. Casually Cruel’”
The words “casually cruel” are so sonically compatible, with contrasts nicely with the way these two words are so distinctly different. Her lover(s) have been unimaginably unkind, which is emphasized by their clear lack of courtesy. They don’t care enough to soften the blow.
“They say that all’s well that ends well
but I’m in a new hell every time
you double cross my mind”
This sequence of lyrics is so genius. Taylor plays on the name of the song, twisting “All Too Well” into the familiar idiom all’s well that ends well. She discredits the saying by telling us that even though things are over now all is not well. She implies that all will never be well because the memory of her lover haunts her constantly. Once again, Taylor has connected her lyrics across albums, as she has a very similar lyric with an extremely different tone in her title track from Lover:
“All’s well that ends well to end up with you”
This clever wordplay has a much sweeter connotation here. The song and whole album of Lover depict Taylor’s matured vision of romance, with these lyrical parallels being a perfect example. By the time she makes it to the relationship she’s in during the album Lover all finally is well. Her past pain seems to be a price Taylor is finally willing to pay for the place she has found herself in. This is a true manifestation of her immense growth and healing.
She also creates a double entendre with “double cross my mind.” This deepens the characterization of her lover as a sneaky person, who not only broke her promises but also double crossed her. It also reiterates the main theme of the song, which is remembrance. With every remembered moment she had with him, also comes the feeling of how he betrayed her.
“You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine
and that made me want to die”
These lyrics are so potent with feeling. They also demonstrate to the reader how the person Taylor was with manipulated and degraded her. These lyrics strike me as ones that actually were stuck in the vault; there’s something young about the sentiment “that made me want to die.” She describes this memory with such disdain and it’s so stunningly painful.
“The idea you had of me, who was she?
A never needy, ever lovely jewel
whose shine reflects on you”
I could go on forever about the implications of these lines. Although likely based on her own personal experience, these lyrics speak to the difficulties many women face in relationships (romantic or otherwise) with men as they live under a patriarchy. Taylor is demonstrating the objectification and infantilization of women. Oftentimes men, and even non-men since we all live and have been socialized into a patriarchy, come to relationships with women with an idea of what they should act like or be, as shown by the first line. We’ve all also been conditioned to see women as something to be obtained (ever lovely jewel) that reflects what we like about ourselves back onto us. Something that only holds value because it is beautiful, shiny and new—implying that once the jewel loses its luster it will be left behind.
“It’s supposed to be fun, turning twenty one”
This lyric is likely recognition of Taylor’s 21st birthday party, an event that she sings extensively about in her song “The Moment I Knew”:
“And what do you do when the one who means the most to you
Is the one who didn’t show?”
Taylor’s boyfriend at the time, Jake Gyllenhaal, seems to be the person who left her hanging on her birthday. The ways these lines mirror each other perfectly highlight how important this moment was for her, and he wasn’t there. “All Too Well” is all about remembering and the hauntings of a dead relationship. This memory of the night he wasn’t there for her was the nail in the coffin for their relationship—the final thing that proved to her that this would never work.
“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”
A big theme of “All Too Well” is the passage of time and the tension between past and current states of being. Taylor once again makes use of a popular idiom, “time flies when you’re having fun” by turning it on its head. Time doesn’t fly because Taylor is in a lot of pain. She’s frozen from the memories, unable to move on. Her desire to return to the person she was before is obviously met with resistance, as she has experienced an extremely world shattering relationship.
“You were there, you remember it all too well”
Here Taylor shifts from using “I” pronouns to “you” pronouns. This is very notable because she’s finally directly addressing the person who wounded her. She knows this relationship haunts the other person too; she knows this is something so huge that both of them will be changed forever by it.
“And I was never good at telling jokes
but the punchline goes:
I’ll get older but your lovers stay my age”
Many lyrics, like this one, read like Taylor reflecting on her past and realizing she was groomed. She was barely an adult when she dated Jake Gyllenhaal, and at the time she probably didn’t realize how much of a power imbalance there was between them—but now she does. In a way, lyrics like these read almost like Taylor incorporating a hidden apology to her younger self, in the form of an acknowledgment of the pain she went through. Taylor is taking back her power.
The new lyrics have already sparked conversations about the issue of predatory dating in Hollywood—and not just referring to Taylor’s relationships. This reflective moment is pushing to the forefront the problem of men getting away with dating women that are way too young for them, and the way that oftentimes the women who come out of these relationships extremely traumatized are then publicly blamed for it, regardless of the fact that they were groomed.
The mention of “jokes” also ties to another song on Red. In “Begin Again,” she wrote,
“I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny, ’cause
He never did”
“Begin Again” is about the cycle of healing finally finishing, and a new romantic interest sparking new life in Taylor’s heart. It’s also about discovering who you are outside of a relationship. These lyrics demonstrate how Taylor’s own identity was largely determined by the person who hurt her, but she soon after realizes that she’s so much more than what he made her think she was.
“I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight”
I think that for Taylor, this soldier metaphor is a way for her to rationalize the traumatic experiences she’s had in her relationships. The lost weight is a huge indicator of the stress her body has been under due to the violent end to the love affair. I’m also interested in the use of “returning” in this line. Is she returning back to normalcy? To me, it almost seems as if this is also a more recent comment from her as she thinks back on how she felt as she was recovering from the breakup.
The soldier imagery in this line reminds me a lot of the soldier imagery in her song “epiphany” off of folklore:
“Keep your helmet, keep your life, son
Just a flesh wound, here’s your rifle
Crawling up the beaches now
‘Sir, I think he’s bleeding out’
And some things you just can’t speak about”
Along with these lyrics being heart wrenchingly poetic, they speak to the main theme of the short song “epiphany.” “epiphany” is about intense trauma, and the way it never leaves you no matter what you do. As she says, there will always be “some things you just can’t speak about.” I think this also ties in a little with “All Too Well.” As she comes back to reality after this battle of a relationship, she is dealing with a lot—some of it she may never heal from. She’s acknowledging that with the weight she has lost, she has also gained emotional baggage that she’ll have to carry for the rest of her life.
“And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?”
I love the conflict between the words flame/bruise and paint/blue. There’s a tactile nature to the diction here that contradicts itself. The flame is hot, yet it doesn’t burn. A bruise might very well be blue, but the action of painting is gentle and careful, unlike the brute force necessary to inflict a bruise. This goes along perfectly with the way Taylor has described love throughout “All Too Well” and overall on the album Red. For her, love is an inherent contradiction. It is a soft and gentle bruise—it’s a cool flame.
As soon as I heard this lyric I knew it was connected to one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite songs off Red, “State of Grace”:
“Just twin fire signs, four blue eyes”
This recurring idea of “twin” signs/flames brings up the idea of soulmates. Taylor is a hopeless romantic, and in both of these scenarios she expected her partner to be her perfect match. The one who would make her whole. Yet, there’s a danger present in both due to the presence of the flame. This connection is, as we’ve seen time and time again, very fragile. It could easily end in explosive terror.
“Just between us did the love affair maim you too / you all too well?”
“Just between us do you remember it all too well?”
In the end, Taylor still wants his recognition. No matter how much she’s moved on she’ll always remember this relationship, and she’ll always find herself drifting in thought back to how it all ended. She wonders about—in a way almost insinuates—the struggle her ex went through. The struggle he may still be going through. This intimate question creates a striking final plea: remember me as I’ve remembered you, and let the pain follow you as it has ceaselessly followed me.
“All Too Well” is a song about memory. It is a song about trauma, guilt, blame and passion. More than anything, it is a song that has become something bigger than what it started out as. Taylor has said many times that her fans have changed the meaning of “All Too Well” for her by making it something joyful when it was once too painful to bear. What she doesn’t know is how her version of “All Too Well” has also changed the way we experience the song, and that it has brought more people comfort and connection than she ever could imagine. As Taylor Swift takes back ownership over her music and her image, she also transforms the way we as listeners understand her music, and through her fighting to take back her power she allows us to imagine that we can do the same.