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3 November 2017

A line-by-line lyric analysis of Taylor Swift’s song Call It What You Want

Warning: this is very, very detailed.

By Anna Leszkiewicz


As always happens whenever a new Taylor Swift song comes out, this morning the internet has been scrambling to decode the little references she hides in her songs about her love life and tabloid controversies. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Swift’s song writing is the amount she nods to her back catalogue, revisiting old images with new twists, to try and paint a bigger picture of how her life’s changed over time.

“Call It What You Want”, like most of the singles released in anticipation of her upcoming album Reputation, is a little defensive – insisting that even though her public life fell apart thanks to her high-profile row with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian last year, her romantic life was actually going very well, thank you very much. She deliberately calls back to earlier songs to project narrative that her current relationship with Joe Alwyn is different to the ones that have gone before and ended in disaster.

Let’s break it down, line by line.

Verse 1

My castle1 crumbled overnight
I brought a knife to a gunfight2
They took the crown3 but it’s alright
All the liars are calling me one
Nobody’s heard from me for months4
I’m doing better than I ever was

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[1] Castles are a recurring image in Swift’s work, part of the fairytale imagery that has reappeared since her second album Fearless. But from 1989 onwards, they’re used in a much more self-referential way, with more reference to people trying to burst her fairytale bubble (like “I could build a castle / Out of all the bricks they threw at me” from “New Romantics”). She continues that thread here, the innocent image she had build for herself “crumbled overnight” with the Kimye PR scandal.

[2] Knives and guns are images that only really appear on songs about the media, critics and haters: think the “scars on my back from your knife” from “Bad Blood”, “they got the cages and guns” from “I Know Places”, and “You said the gun was mine” from “Look What You Made Me Do”.

[3] Crowns, kings and queens – more from Swift’s fairytale world. All the way back in 2010, on her song “Long Live”, Taylor was looking at her career with nothing but warmth and pride, and images of royalty and kingdoms are earnest metaphors for her relationship with her fandom. “We were the Kings and the Queens”, she sings, as well as “You traded your baseball cap for a crown”, “How the kingdom lights shined just for me and you”. In that song, only “cynics” look at their kingdom without smiling. But since then, those images have dissolved. On “Blank Space” Swift sings, “I could show you incredible things / Stolen kisses, pretty lies / You’re the King, baby, I’m your Queen”: already, the idea of Taylor Swift as some kind of queen is a “pretty lie” – like she’s realised the saccharine “You be the prince and I’ll be the princess” dream from “Love Story” is always just that: a dream. In the Reputation cycle, everything’s got even more bitter: celebrity is imagined as a hollow and fake kingship. On “Look What You Made Me Do”, she sings “I don’t like your kingdom keys / They once belonged to me”. Here, “They” (presumably Kim and Kanye) have the crown, so it has soured as a symbol. FOR WITHIN THE HOLLOW CROWN THAT ROUNDS THE MORTAL TEMPLES OF A KING KEEPS DEATH HIS COURT.

[4] Swift famously went quiet after the Kimye fued – taking a step back from social media, not giving interviews, and appearing in public so little people thought she was hiding in suitcases. This could be a reference to that, or her letting us know that the same was true in her personal life, just to emphasise how much the whole scandal affected her.


Cause… My baby’s fit5 like a daydream6
Walking with his head down7
I’m the one he’s walking to
So call it what you want, yeah
Call it what you want to
My baby’s fly like a jet stream8
High above the whole scene
Loves me like I’m brand new9
So call it what you want, yeah
Call it what you want to

[5] A very British word, one that Taylor’s never used before – it feels like another deliberate reference to her British boyfriend Joe Alwyn – this album cycle’s been littered with them.

[6] Another very, very Swift word usually used to describe the perfect ideal of a person – it’s appeared on every album except her second. Each time she uses the word, she seems closer to attaining the daydream. On her first album’s “Stay Beautiful”, she worries that her love is a “daydream” she’ll “never get to hold”. On the title track to her third album “Speak Now” she “loses herself” in a daydream about stopping her crush’s wedding. on “Treacherous” the “daydream” of love is “dangerous” – because it could happen. On 1989’s “Blank Space” and “Style”, she uses the word daydream in conjunction with relationships she does seem to actually be in, but that seem doomed from the start. Now, she’s using it to talk about a loving, serious relationship with her boyfriend. What character development! (You can trace the same pattern with words like “dream” and “dreamer”, too.)

[7] There could be some call backs here, too. It sounds like a stretch, but Swift does seem interested in how people carry their heads. In “Mean”, Taylor sings “I walk with my head down” when she’s feeling run down by snarky critics, and on “Clean”, about the dissolution of a relationship, she sings “Hung my head as I lost the war”. On the triumphant “Long Live” she sings, “You hold your head like a hero”, the tentatively joyful “Begin Again” has a chorus that mentions her new lover has his “head back laughing like a little kid”. “Call It What You Want” seems interested in misleading appearances and public disappointments verses private happiness. So, yes, her boyfriend has his head down, and she’s always thought that hiding and losing are synonymous – but now she knows better. It looks like losing, and you can call it losing if you want, but she still feels like a winner.

[8] “Paper airplanes”, referenced in Out of the Woods, are a big Harry Styles symbol in the Swift fandom (he used to wear a paper plane necklace, and when they were dating, Taylor Swift did too (hence the “Woods” lyric “Your necklace hanging round my neck”). A jet seems like a serious level up.

[9] On “Innocent”, a song that was widely interpreted to be Taylor’s song of forgiveness to Kanye West for hijacking her award acceptance speech at the MTV VMAs, Swift sang “I hope you remember / Today is never too late to be brand new”. Now it seems like she’s saying her new boyfriend reminded her of the same thing when she was cast as the villain. 

[See also: Why is Taylor Swift re-recording her old albums?]

Verse 2

All my flowers grew back as thorns
Windows boarded up after the storm10
He built a fire just to keep me warm11
All the drama queens taking swings
All the jokers dressing up as kings12
They fade to nothing when I look at him
And I know I make the same mistakes every time
Bridges burn, I never learn13
At least I did one thing right
I did one thing right
I’m laughing with my lover
Making forts under covers
Trust him like a brother14
Yeah, you know I did one thing right
Starry eyes sparking up my darkest night15

[10] Flowers, thorns and storms are normally grand romantic metaphors for Taylor: see “Blank Space”, “Clean”. Here they’re used to emphasise that as the rest of her life was falling apart, her love life was going quietly well.

[11] Fire, again, is usually a metaphor for romantic drama – fireworks, sparks flying, getting burned by relationships, burning old pictures, burning red, burning bridges. It’s not a word she usually associates with domestic warmth, again, perhaps Taylor’s way of saying this, for her, is a newer, quieter, more domestic kind of relationship.

[12] More HOLLOW CROWN shit. Queens? More like DRAMA QUEENS. Kings? MORE LIKE FOOLS. See above.

[13] “You’re just another picture to burn”, “All love ever does is break and burn and end”, “Could end in burning flames”, “Burning it down”, “Love’s a fragile little flame, it could burn out” – so many of Taylor’s songs see relationships end by burning, and she knows that she has a habit of doing the same things over and over.

[14] Forts, brothers, blankets – these are very childish and platonic words when Taylor usually goes for dramatic, sparky, romantic, sexy lyrics. Again, it feels like she’s trying to prove to us that this time it really is different. The only time we’ve seen lyrics like this before are in “Begin Again” (“you throw your head back laughing like a little kid”; “you start to talk about the movies that your family watches every single Christmas”), which was also about finding new love after trauma, and in songs that deliberately look back to literal childhood (“Mary’s Song”, “All Too Well”, “Never Grow Up”).

[15] Taylor has used “dark” so many times in her songs, and sung a lot about finding love in the dark (see also “Last Kiss”: “Lit through the darkness”, “This Love”: “This love is glowing in the dark”). But never “darkest”. How’s that for emphasis.


I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck
Chain round my neck16
Not because he owns me
But ‘cause he really knows me
Which is more than they can say, I
I recall late November, holding my breath
Slowly I said, “You don’t need to save me
But would you run away with me?”17

[16] She had a paper airplane necklace when she was dating Harry Styles, a lover’s locket with Calvin Harris, and now she’s dating Joe Alwyn she wears a J around her neck.

[17] She hasn’t asked anyone to run away with her in a song since “Speak Now” – and that was obviously a fantasy. Well done Joe, you’re cleaning up.

[See also: I was a teenage Taylor Swift fan – before Fearless, she was our little secret]

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