Taylor Swift, 22-year-old singer, songwriter and serial breaker-upper, has just released a new album. Many of the songs on Red are breakup songs -- put on your Taylor Swift "surprise face" here -- with highly specific references to ex-boyfriends. If you need help narrowing down the field -- is it Joe? or John? or Jake? -- there are convenient clues embedded in the liner-note lyrics.
Swift uses a rudimentary code -- it involves the sinister use of the caps-lock key -- to set up hidden messages that sometimes point in the direction of former squeezes. Swift's choruses may be about smartening up, moving on and beginning again. But her verses are often about needy, whiny, insecure, flip-flopping, need-my-space guys. Clearly, writing mean breakup songs is the best revenge.
A lot of writers draw on autobiography. Breaking up is hard to do, and it's not surprising that these kind of incidents would wander into the country-pop-crossover star's killingly confessional lyrics. Usually, the deal is that you transform raw experience through the refining crucible of art. If you can't manage that, you at least change names and identifying details.
Swift challenges basic breakup etiquette with songs that are barely one step up from Facebook status updates. They are packed with enough "you know who I mean" clues that most listeners will easily connect the celebrity-boyfriend dots. Swift has coyly told interviewers that she never discloses who her songs are about, but she's certainly prepared to drop hints.
According to unofficial pop-culture code-breakers -- who've parsed this latest round of songs, videos and ciphers and found references to astrological signs and eye colour, work schedules and taste in plaid shirts -- Jake Gyllenhaal is taking a big hit on Red. You know that guy with whom she's "never ever getting back together?" Like, never, ever, ever? That's Jake.
Ever since penning a public "Dear John" letter to dead-eyed womanizer John Mayer, Swift has been known for her breakup songs, developing a million-selling kiss-and-tell routine that would be considered caddish in a male. Swift is let off, possibly because she looks like a baby deer wearing lipstick.
And it's not all her fault. Partly, this tendency to Too Much Information is just the way things work these days. The coded message in the song "All Too Well" is MAPLE LATTES, which seems to be an unmistakable allusion to a photo op with Gyllenhaal. (Do a Google Image search for "maple lattes" and guess whose pic comes up?)
This kind of probing research was harder in the pre-Internet days. Carly Simon's 1972 song You're So Vain is about a self-absorbed ex-lover, but the guy's real-life identity has always been disputed, with Mick Jagger and Warren Beatty heading up a long list of possibles. (True to the song's famous line, Beatty does think that the song is about him, so bonus points there!) Even the origins of Alanis Morissette's 1995 post-breakup tirade, You Oughta Know, remain murky. Possible subjects include hockey player Mike Peluso and America's Funniest Home Videos host Bob Saget(!).
In these media-saturated times, we just know a lot more about famous people -- especially famous people who only date other famous people. Taylor Swift has had high-profile dalliances with Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Glee's Cory Monteith and -- in one of those awkward 21st-century androgynous first-name overlaps -- Taylor Lautner. In a recent interview, Ellen DeGeneres jokingly implicated Swift in the Danny DeVito-Rhea Perlman split.
You can argue that anyone who dates Swift is signing up to be part of the celebrity-media machine. He should expect exposure and be prepared to take the bad with the good. You could even argue that Gyllenhaal deserves to be punished -- just a tiny wee bit -- for dating an ingenue like Swift in the first place. (Many grown-ups viewed his short-lived relationship with Swift as the love-life equivalent of starring in The Prince of Persia.)
But Swift's latest fella is Conor Kennedy, an 18-year-old who's still in prep school. News broke -- just as the album dropped -- that these two have also split. Of course, their relationship is still rosy on Red, part of that Kennedy-clan fairy tale that had Swift dressing like the young Jackie O and buying a house in Hyannis Port. But by the next album, Swift's Begin Again optimism may have morphed into her deeply spiteful -- yet deceptively cute! -- breakup mode. Let's hope she leaves the poor kid alone.