clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Every song on Taylor Swift’s Midnights, explained

Joe Alwyn! John Mayer! Karlie Kloss?

Taylor Swift reclines on a couch.
How I feel after listening to all 20 songs on Midnights.
Taylor Swift

As of October 21 at midnight, Taylor Swift’s 10th studio album, Midnights, is officially out in the world, and besides the obvious question (is it more like Reputation or more like Lover?), fans can finally dig into all the lyrical hints and Easter eggs characteristic of a much-hyped Swift release in their standard manner: fanatically.

Of course, there have already been fun little gems for Swifties to enjoy; for one, Midnights came out as Swift turned exactly 12,000 days old, alluding to the numbers around a clock, a present motif in her earlier work (and especially in this album). She’s already shared that the album is made up of “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life,” and in her pre-release teasers on Instagram and TikTok, Swift revealed that “Anti-Hero” will be the lead single, a song about her struggles with fame and biggest insecurities. “[It’s] a real guided tour throughout all the things I tend to hate about myself,” she explains.

The rest of Midnights — plus its seven bonus tracks that Swift surprise-released at 3 am — feels equally personal; gone are the fictional stories woven throughout her pandemic indie rock albums Folklore and Evermore. Rather, Midnights is a return to an intensely autobiographical Taylor, making it extremely ripe hunting material for sleuthing Swifties. Let’s get into it.

1) “Lavender Haze”

Gaylor theorists (Swifties who believe Swift is bisexual and has dated several of her female friends) may have been convinced that the “lavender” mentioned in the title was referring to the historically queer connotations of the color, but the first song on Midnights appears to be about Joe Alwyn, Swift’s boyfriend of six years. The singer has said as much in talking about the song on social media: “My relationship for six years, we’ve had to dodge weird rumors, tabloid stuff, and we just ignore it, and so this song is sort of about the act of ignoring that stuff to protect the real stuff.” She specified that she came across the phrase “lavender haze” while watching Mad Men, and that it described the feeling of being in love; Gaylors, naturally, were not pleased.

Swift and Alwyn have frequently dodged rumors and questions that they’re engaged, and this song seems to address that speculation head-on as Swift sings, “All they keep asking me (all they keep asking me) is if I’m gonna be your bride. / The only girl they see (the only girl they see) is a one night or a wife.” This sentiment is also referenced by the line, “I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say.” The lines suggest that Swift is tired of this line of questioning, and signals an interest in subverting gender roles and a desire to be seen as more than a wife or girlfriend.

2) “Maroon”

If you thought “Lavender Haze” would be the only song on the album to reference a very specific color, you’ve clearly never listened to an album by Taylor Swift, noted inventor of the color red. Everything here points to this song being about a short-lived relationship — possibly the one she shared with Tom Hiddleston in 2016. We know that it’s referencing a failed romance (“How the hell did we lose sight of us again? / Sobbin’ with your head in your hands / Ain’t that the way shit always ends?”), and the pair met at the Met Gala (“the one I was dancing with in New York, no shoes”). But one “Maroon” mystery remains: When the hell did Swift have a roommate, not to mention one who buys “cheap-ass screw top rosé”?

3) “Anti-Hero”

The first single release on Midnights pits Swift against herself: The music video features Swift in a ’70s wood-paneled den, trapped with all of her insecurities and self-loathing. In the song, Swift describes herself as the “problem,” singing, “I’ll stare directly at the sun / But never in the mirror / It must be exhausting rooting for the anti-hero,” suggesting she can endure almost anything besides coming to terms with her own problems.

“This song really is a guided tour throughout all of the things I tend to hate about myself,” Swift previously said about it, adding, “I really don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in his detail before.”

It’s an honest portrayal of self-hatred, and the lyrics reveal as much as Swift pokes fun at her height while also nodding to an iconic, albeit odd reference from the television show 30 Rock: “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill.” She also says she has “covert narcissism disguised as optimism” and hints that she has trouble sleeping at night due to her struggles with depression and fraught relationship with food; in the music video, she steps on a scale and the number reads “FAT.”

4) “Snow on the Beach”

Despite the fact that Lana Del Rey is featured on this song (barely), it’s actually a happy one! “Snow On the Beach” describes the “weird but fuckin’ beautiful” sensation of falling in love at the same time as someone is falling in love with you. There’s also a fun callout to Janet Jackson’s iconic 2001 single “All For You” (“Now I’m all for you like Janet”).

5) “You’re On Your Own, Kid”

“You’re On Your Own, Kid” is possibly the oldest “midnight” out of the 13 midnights we hear described on the album: The song describes a girl waiting for a boy to notice her, but she eventually gets tired of waiting and runs away to play songs. When she finally achieves fame and fortune, however, she realizes she’s still on her own. “I hosted parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss” recall several pieces of Swiftian lore: her very public “girl squad” during her 1989 era, the eating disorder she spoke about in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, and waiting for a new love to save her. The song ends on a rather comforting note, however: You may be on your own, but you always have been, so there’s nothing to be afraid of.

6) “Midnight Rain”

Warning: The intro to “Midnight Rain” might be a jump scare. It begins with a distorted, deep voice: “He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain / He wanted a bride / I was making my own name / Chasing that fame, he stayed the same / All of me changed like midnight.” But the rest of the song is pure Taylor, alluding to the heartbreak of breaking someone else’s heart by putting one’s career ahead of a relationship.

Mentions of rain in her lyrics are famously sprinkled throughout her discography, from her self-titled debut to Evermore. It also references the themes of starting over, a woman with big dreams escaping her small-town life (see “’Tis the damn season” and “Dorothea”). It’s the only track with “midnight” in the title, suggesting that the song is both an experiment and an ode to revisiting and reinventing “old memories and midnights past.” But who is the man who stayed the same? Theorists are guessing Taylor Lautner and Hiddleston, two men she’s suspected of having dumped for being, among other things, too nice for their own good.

7) “Question ...?”

The lyrics may literally begin with the line “Good girl, sad boy,” but Gaylors are convinced that the “question” in question is directed toward Swift’s former best friend, and possible (?) kissing partner Karlie Kloss. The evidence? Frequent usage of she/her pronouns (“Do you wish you could still touch her?”) and the line, “Did you ever have someone kiss you in a crowded room?” which some think is a reference to the lines in Reputation’s “Dress” (which Kaylor stans believe is also about Kloss): “Our secret moments in your crowded room / They’ve got no idea about you and me” and “I don’t want you like a best friend / Only bought this dress so you could take it off.” Theories aside, “Question…?” includes a classic Swiftian homage to the color of feelings: “Before you painted all my nights a color I’ve searched for since” recalls lyrics past, such as the “Illicit Affairs” lyric “You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else” and, well, the entirety of Red.

8) “Vigilante Shit”

“Vigilante Shit” is all the evidence we need to know that “Karma” (Swift’s rumored album that was scrapped and reworked into Reputation in the wake of her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West) is real, except this time it’s also loaded with references to Scooter Braun. The heavy bass mixed with the bad-girl persona she adopted for the Reputation album cycle is on full display: “I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends / Don’t get sad, get even / So on the weekends, I don’t dress for friends / Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge.” (A Princess Diana reference? Who knows!) It’s also Swift’s second song about ruining a man to avenge a friend (following in the tradition of Evermore’s “No Body, No Crime.” The plot here is, essentially, that an evil man cheated on his wife and did some white-collar crimes, and Swift helped the ex-wife get revenge, and both of them looked really hot. Could be about anyone, really, but we’ll likely get more clues once the “Vigilante Shit” video drops, which Swifties are already convinced will happen.

9) “Bejeweled”

“Bejeweled” is a song about a woman in a relationship who feels used and taken for granted by her partner, but who can still “make the whole place shimmer” when she walks into a room. By the end, she realizes she’s worth more than some guy’s arm candy (“a diamond’s gotta shine!”), and for some reason, I’m personally convinced this song is about Swift’s ex-boyfriend “Calvin” “Harris,” also referenced in the Reputation lyric, “If he drops my name, then I owe him nothin’ / And if he spends my change, then he had it comin’.” I rest my case.

10) “Labyrinth”

Another Alwyn love song! This one appears to be about the anxiety Swift faces when falling in love, expecting the worst, then being pleasantly surprised that it worked out. “Oh, I’m falling in love / I thought the plane was goin’ down / How’d you turn it right around?” Planes are an often-used motif in Swift’s discography, seemingly symbolizing the conflicting set of emotions that come with falling in love but the fear of crashing and burning it all to the ground.

  • “Last Kiss” (Speak Now): “I do recall now the smell of rain fresh off the pavement, I ran off the pane.”
  • “Come Back… Be Here” (Red): “Spinning faster than the plane that took you.”
  • “Out Of The Woods” (1989): “Two paper airplanes flying, flying, flying, and I remember thinking…”
  • “Getaway Car” (Reputation): “We were jet set Bonnie and Clyde.”
  • “Call It What You Want” (Reputation): “My baby’s fly like a jet stream high above the whole scene.”

Swift appears to try to quash her anxieties about getting hurt from this relationship as she sings, “Breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out.” Swift quoted this lyric in her commencement speech at New York University months before Midnights was released, saying, “Hard things will happen to us, we will recover, we will learn from it, we will grow more resilient because of it, and as long as we are fortunate enough to be breathing, we will breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, and breathe out.”

11) “Karma”

To understand the song “Karma,” you also have to understand the album Karma — an album that never actually existed, but that theorists believe would have been released had Kim Kardashian not “exposed” Swift in the wake of her feud with Kanye West (read more about that here). When “Karma” the song was announced on the track list for Midnights, fans assumed it would be a diss track aimed at West, who has recently been under fire for antisemitic comments and racist fashion shows.

In an interview with Apple Music about Midnights, Swift explains that the song “is written from a perspective of feeling like, really happy, really proud of the way your life is, feeling like this must be a reward for doing stuff right and it’s a song that I really love because I think we all need some of those moments. We can’t just be beating ourselves up all the time.” The bridge also recounts and affirms Swift’s long-term planning and determination to have a lifelong career: “Ask me what I learned from all those years / Ask me what I earned from all those tears / Ask me why so many fade, but I’m still here.” Also: “Karma is a cat purring in my lap ’cause it loves me” might just very well be Taylor Swift’s most Taylor Swift lyric yet.

12) “Sweet Nothing”

Add “Sweet Nothing” to the list of Taylor Swift songs that would be appropriate on a wedding playlist. It’s for hopeless romantics and Folklore lovers. The lyrics “you’re in the kitchen humming” evoke past references to the casual intimacy of being at home with a romantic partner. To name a couple, remember the dancing around the kitchen visuals in “All Too Well”? Or being barefoot in the kitchen with sacred new beginnings in “Cornelia Street”? Rather than the painful outcomes of the former and the anxieties rippling throughout the latter, “Sweet Nothing” portrays the comfort of Swift finally being with someone who feels like home.

What makes the song even sweeter is that it’s the sixth song Swift has co-written with Alwyn. While the “industry disruptors and soul deconstructors / And smooth-talking hucksters out glad-handing each other” seem to nod to Swift’s feelings of being used for her money and fame, critics of her work and personal life, and her battle to gain ownership of her masters, it is refreshing to hear lyrics suggesting Alwyn doesn’t add to those stressors. “I’m just too soft for all of it.” Me too, Taylor.

13) “Mastermind”

This one’s definitely going to be playing in all your group fitness classes for the next six months. From lyrics on deliberation to a reminiscent bridge, “Mastermind” is a portrait of reclamation and self-analysis. The lyrics “what if I told you it was accidental” draw a parallel to Lover’s “Paper Rings,” where she sings “I hate accidents / Except when we went from friends to this.” Hi again, Joe Alwyn.

Many past public criticisms have painted Swift as a master manipulator. The lyrics “What if I told you I’m the mastermind? And now you’re mine / It was all by design” reframe her as a clever puppet master, but her intentions are actually coming from a place of anxiety. “I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since to make them love me and make it seem effortless” also seems to call back to “I’ve never been a natural / All I do is try, try, try” from “Mirrorball.” Full of references to classic Swift motifs like youth and stars, this song makes clear she might very well be a mastermind.

14) “The Great War”

It’s not the first time Swift has referred to her relationship as a battle, but it’s certainly the first time she’s compared it, literally, to World War I — though, like, a proper Anglophile, she uses the British term. It’s a song about the regular trials of being in a relationship: trying not to let the past creep in and sabotage what you’ve built, and the relief that you can survive even the worst fights. “I will always be yours ’cause we survived the Great War,” she sings. One can assume we know who this one’s about.

15) “Bigger Than the Whole Sky”

She might be in a serious long-term relationship, but “Bigger Than the Whole Sky” is a reminder that Swift can still write a deep cut about the one that got away. It’s not clear who the song is about (some on Twitter have posited that it could be referencing a miscarriage, possibly a friend’s), though anyone who’s ever had someone taken too soon can relate to the lyrics “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye / You were bigger than the whole sky / You were more than just a short time.” No surprise that this is the biggest waterworks-inducing track on the album.

16) “Paris”

Swift evokes the city of love while describing the early stages of being in a relationship, the feeling of being so infatuated that every place you go feels magical and even if you’re drinking cheap wine, it tastes like champagne. Again, she says that romance is sweeter “if you keep it just yours,” and, in a possible reference to “Mastermind,” she sings, “I want to brainwash you into loving me forever.” Normal!

17) “High Infidelity”

“Do you really wanna know where I was on April 29? / Do I really have to tell you how he brought me to life?” Swift sings on the track. This date is important because on April 29, 2016, Swift’s then-boyfriend Calvin Harris released the song “This Is What You Came For” with Rihanna, a song that was later confirmed to have been written by Swift under a pseudonym, Nils Sjoberg.

At the time, Swift and Harris, who had been dating for more than a year, kept their professional collaboration under wraps. But that same day, Harris was asked in an interview whether he planned to collaborate with Swift and he responded, “You know, we haven’t ever spoken about it. I can’t see it happening, though.” The couple broke up roughly a month later, and TMZ reported then that the track was the “breaking point” in the pair’s relationship, with Swift reportedly feeling “disrespected” by Harris during the song’s release.

So where was Swift on April, 29, 2016? That remains unclear, but we do know that on April 28, she was photographed celebrating BFF Gigi Hadid’s birthday in Los Angeles, and images surfaced of Swift leaving the party in the early hours of April 29. It’s not known what she did the rest of the day, but by May 2, she was attending the Met Gala in New York City, which is where fans believe she met Tom Hiddleston, whom she dated after Harris.

“I bent the truth too far tonight / I was dancing around, dancing around it,” Swift sings. “Do you really want to know where I was on April 29? / Do I really have to tell you how he brought me back to life?” Fans think Swift previously sang about leaving Harris for Hiddleston on the 2017 track “Getaway Car.”

18) “Glitch”

This one also appears to be inspired by Swift and Alwyn. In it, Swift sings of an unlikely relationship: “We were supposed to be just friends’’ and “I thought we had no chance,” and seems to suggest that they’ve endured longer than she (and, perhaps, her critics) expected. “But it’s been two thousand one hundred ninety days of our love blackout / The system’s breaking down,” she sings; 2,190 days is equivalent to six years, which is roughly the amount of time that Swift and Alwyn have been together and is thought to be her longest relationship.

In the past, Swift has come under scrutiny over her romantic history, particularly for having many ex-boyfriends. In “Glitch,” Swift appears to internalize the criticism she has received as she sings “I was supposed to sweat you out in search of glorious happenings / of happenstance on someone else’s playground / but it’s been two thousand one hundred ninety days of our love blackout.” The fact that her relationship has endured for this long appears to surprise Swift, who sings it “must be counterfeit / I think there’s been a glitch.”

19) “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”

Move over, Jake Gyllenhaal, the Swifties’ new Enemy No. 1 is John Mayer, whom fans think “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is about. The song refers to a relationship between a 19-year-old Swift and an older man (they dated when she was 19 and he was 32, Swift’s current age). “Now that I’m grown, I’m scared of ghosts / Memories feel like weapons,” she says, acknowledging that even though “the pain was heaven” at the time, she regrets it ever happened.

20) “Dear Reader”

“Dear Reader” is part apologia, part disclaimer: We may have been listening to Swift’s music for the past decade and a half, but here, she warns us not to trust too much of it. “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart,” she says in the chorus, after she’s just given us a whole verse-ful of advice, then adds in the outro, “You should find another guiding light, but I shine so bright.” Like in the rest of Midnights, Swift is reckoning with celebrity and a life that’s become too unwieldy for one person to bear. In “Anti-Hero,” she wonders whether she’s even learned anything from her fame (“I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser”), and “Dear Reader” feels like a callback. It’s a fitting end to an extremely retrospective album, a sad but sweet reminder that Swift is, at the end of the day, human.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.