10 Years of Speak Now: I Rank All 14 Songs From My Most Cherished Taylor Swift Album

Two anecdotes to attempt to explain the depths of my devotion to the music of Taylor Swift, which might also inadvertently reveal a mildly concerning emotional fragility:

  1. I have cried literal tears each of the three times I’ve seen Taylor Swift in concert. Not heaving, full-body sobs, or anything- I’m only half a lunatic. Picture instead an elderly Catholic grandmother attending an Easter Mass in Vatican City, as she catches her first glimpse of the Pope up on his balcony- the emotion welling up within her, catching her off guard and making her eyes shine. Basically that is me as a concert attendee.
  2. I have a recurring nightmare in which I somehow encounter Taylor Swift in the wild and am unable to express how much her music has meant to me for a range of dream-logic reasons: my mouth has been sewn shut, or there are wolves chasing me, or she has somewhere else to be. In my waking hours I have legitimately considered jotting down some notes on the subject to keep with me at all times, just in case. Though I suppose now it would be more efficient to just point her towards this blog.

So. There. Two completely normal, extremely chill things to admit to the Internet forever. But I could never pretend to be anything other than exuberantly enthusiastic and achingly sincere when it comes to the songs that have soundtracked my life for nearly fifteen years, the lyrics that have helped shape my worldview and the mad dreamer-genius behind it all.

Every one of Taylor’s eight studio albums is uniquely meaningful to me and each one contains songs that can instantly evoke random memories: wandering around my university campus in the rain; or dancing with my friends in a hotel room; or waiting for an apology on an empty subway platform from someone who will never arrive. The paradox of The Taylor Swift Musical Experience has always been the universal emotion that can be derived from lyrics that are personally (and often piercingly) specific. Never has this phenomenon been more apparent than on the album released on October 25th, 2010, exactly ten years ago today: Speak Now.

Wedged between 2008’s Grammy-studded Fearless and Red, the 2012 release widely regarded by fans to be her masterpiece, Speak Now is often overlooked and under-appreciated. But it’s the only album she’s written thus far entirely by herself, with zero collaborators, and up until three months ago it was my uncontested favorite of all her output. It remains the purest distillation of her early artistry: at times grand, sweeping and romantic, with layers of nostalgia and earned wisdom, along with a few occasional bouts of pettiness. Long before folklore, this compilation of songs showcased Taylor’s elite storytelling skills, with fully developed characters moving across an elegant narrative arc, only four minutes at a time.

In 2010 I had just finished university and was in that emotionally fraught period of figuring out what the rest of my life was going to look like, what kind of person I wanted to be. How benevolent the universe was, to allow a record like this to enter my consciousness at that time: this turbulent whirlwind of sounds and high drama, this view of the world from optimistic peaks and cynical valleys. These were the songs I listened to as I first learned to cook actual recipes, as I travelled to and from my first real job, as I realized with certainty that I would also devote my life to storytelling, to one day hopefully embedding my ideas in somebody else’s heart, even if it would take me significantly longer than four minutes to convey them.

It astounds me that this album has been around for a decade, and that necessarily this version of me has been around for just as long. Somehow it feels like I’m still learning a lot of the same lessons I was back then, still making a lot of the same mistakes. I’m definitely still listening to the same songs. So, now with ten years of playlist experience, please indulge me while I rank all fourteen tracks from my beloved Speak Now.

14. Speak Now

We begin with an anomaly and a contradiction: the rare Taylor Swift song that I straight up do not like (I have listened to this song on purpose only twice) that also happens to be the namesake for the album that I love. The song’s conceit and its paper thin characters are well beneath Taylor’s abilities. “Speak Now” the song is to “You Belong With Me” what the new Star Wars trilogy is to the original– a redundant exploration of themes that were better captured the first time around.

Stand-out lyric: fond gestures are exchanged, and the organ starts to play a song that sounds like a death march

13. Back To December

Maybe there’s some latent contrarian aspect of my personality that only rarely makes itself known, but for some reason the songs Taylor chooses for her singles are almost invariably the songs I like least. I have no vendetta against “Back To December”, it is a perfectly pleasant song that I have been known to belt in the shower, but it doesn’t mean all that much to me compared to others on this list.

Stand-out lyric: turns out freedom ain’t nothing but missing you

12. The Story of Us

A top shelf “dance around the kitchen while waiting for your sauce to simmer” song. Not that deep, but a lot of fun.

Stand-out lyric: I used to know my place was the spot next to you, now I’m searching the room for an empty seat.

11. Innocent

Assigning each of Taylor’s songs to a person or incident in her real life was something of a cottage industry during her first few albums. “Innocent” is widely speculated to be in response to Kanye West’s infamous interruption at the 2009 MTV VMA’s, but I’ve always thought it could be more accurately interpreted as commentary on John Mayer’s disastrous 2010 interview with Playboy magazine. John Mayer is prominently figured elsewhere on this album, and this paean to lost innocence makes more sense and resonates more powerfully if it’s about a self-absorbed celebrity she actually cared about, as opposed to a self-absorbed celebrity who ruined one night of her life (at least at that point).

Stand-out lyric: wasn’t it beautiful when you believed in everything and everyone believed in you? It’s alright, just wait and see, your string of lights is still bright to me.

10. Better Than Revenge

With the way the discourse has evolved, this song is now widely considered to be controversial and “problematic”, and as such I doubt that Taylor will ever perform it live again, but I personally would not be so quick to disavow it. True, the lyrics are vicious and messy, directed towards a girl Taylor perceived as having stolen her boyfriend. But honesty is messy. Not all of the thoughts in our head are something to be proud of. Blind, illogical rage is just as human as heartbreak, and just as worthy of being captured in a song. Particularly one that’s this fun to scream along to during karaoke.

Stand-out lyric: They wouldn’t teach you that in prep school so it’s up to me, but no amount of vintage dresses gives you dignity.

9. Never Grow Up

Nobody does wistful over the shoulder glances back at childhood like Taylor. My baby sister was across the ocean, studying in England when this song was released, so it cut extra deep. I still can’t make it through trying to sing along with this one without multiple catches in my throat.

Stand-out lyric: I just realized everything I have is someday gonna be gone.

8. Mean

The banjo and a somewhat twangier Taylor make this the most purely country track on the record, as well as the one with the most off-the-charts petty energy. This song was allegedly inspired by a mean review from a critic, and I can’t imagine any revenge more exhilarating than, not only writing this song, but performing it at the Grammys.

Stand-out lyric: you, with your switching sides and your wildfire lies and your humiliation. You have pointed out my flaws again as if I don’t already see them.

7. Haunted

In point of fact I prefer the acoustic version of this song, where, without the overwrought production, the devastation behind the lyrics is much clearer. Still, this song is a sweeping showcase for capital-R Romantic Taylor, one of my favorite versions of her.

Stand-out lyric: come on, come on, don’t leave me like this, I thought I had you figured out.

6. Mine

The completeness of the story in this brief radio-friendly pop song displays a mastery that would make Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro clutch their pens a little tighter. Within the first verse you have a deep knowledge of who these characters are, and by the time the the conflict erupts in the bridge it feels natural and deserved. This is the foundation she’ll eventually build folklore on, which makes it all the more satisfying to listen to in retrospect.

Stand-out lyric: do you remember we were sitting there, by the water? You put your arm around me for the first time. You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter. You are the best thing that’s ever been mine.

5. Last Kiss

This song is sad in the way few things can be sad; in the way of lonely widowers bringing flowers to a gravesite, or a good dog’s last day before he must be sent over the rainbow bridge. This song is all the painful “whys” of heartbreak that won’t ever be answered, the way you must grieve a million little things before you have a single hope of moving on. Taylor writes in dates and times and mannerisms that are particular to her and her ex-boyfriend, but somehow the whole of these parts is a song that is imminently relatable. Absolute magic.

Stand-out lyrics: (I could not choose just one, so.)

  • I’ll go sit on the floor wearing your clothes, all that I know is I don’t know how to be something you miss.
  • Because I love your handshake, meeting my father, I love how you walk with your hands in your pockets, how you’d kiss me when I was in the middle of saying something. There’s not a day I don’t miss those rude interruptions.
  • You can plan for a change in the weather and time, but I never planned on your changing your mind.

4. Enchanted

You play “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, and “Monster Mash” on Halloween, and if you meet somebody at a party and feel instantly smitten by them, you have to go home and listen to this song, that’s just a general life rule. Never before has longing sounded so rapturous, so sublime.

Stand-out lyric: this night is sparkling, don’t you let it go, I’m wonderstruck, blushing all the way home. I’ll spend forever wondering if you knew I was enchanted to meet you.

3. Sparks Fly

The intro to this song is a straight shot of serotonin to me. I’ve never caught my real-time reaction to hearing it on camera but I imagine if I did, you’d see the tension in my forehead fade and my eyes start to sparkle. Speak Now in general I’ve long considered to be my desert island album, and “Sparks Fly” might be my desert island song.

Stand-out lyric: get me with those green eyes, baby, as the lights go down, give me something that’ll haunt me when you’re not around

2. Dear John

All the mournful balladry of “Last Kiss” blended in with the pencil-sharpening savage vengeance of “Mean”, this one is a true tour de force. While it’s widely accepted to be about John Mayer, the identity of the John in question is almost beside the point. This song is a complete character study of a man who is mercurial and manipulative, who is as convinced of his own importance as he is of the inferiority of whatever woman he happens to be dating. With just a few well-chosen verses, Taylor manages to make the listener fear this man before joining her in contempt towards him. Also includes a glorious crescendo of a bridge— the Ponte Vecchio of bridges, really, brimming as it is with gold.

Stand-out lyric: You are an expert at sorry, and keeping lines blurry, never impressed by me acing your tests. All the girls that you’ve run dry have tired lifeless eyes ’cause you burned them out. But I took your matches before fire could catch me so don’t look now– I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town.

1. Long Live

“Long Live” was written in the triumphant aftermath of Taylor’s armful of Fearless Grammys, and that’s exactly why it’s so dear to me, because how often do nineteen year old girls get to bask in their own glory, get to be proud of themselves at all? To this day, my all time favorite Taylor Swift lyric– the only one I have legitimately considered tattooing onto my skin– is from the song “Fifteen”: back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine. Forget everything I wrote above, that line is the true thesis of The Taylor Swift Experience. People get distracted by the celebrity boyfriends and the break-ups she chronicles so well, but the real narrative thread that ties it all together is this– one woman and the big dreams she realized by relentlessly pursuing her art.

Stand-out lyric: ’cause for a moment a band of thieves in ripped up jeans got to rule the world

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