Filling the Blank Space: A Taylor Swift Crash Course


Zara Irshad and Praveen Nair

In our previous article, I, an avid sports fan, pitched former Editor-in-Chief Zara Irshad on baseball, a national pastime I find deeply meaningful and exciting. Today it’s Zara’s turn to explain to me an equally deep-seated American institution: the music of Taylor Swift.

Like anyone alive, I’ve heard Taylor’s hits from 2015. But with her recent Eras Tour, it seems like Swift has taken on an unprecedentedly foundational role in popular culture, and I have no idea why. Over the course of an hour and 36 minutes in The UCSD Guardian office, Zara and I discussed Taylor’s music, her career, and even some parallels with baseball. And I tried to remember all of her album titles in order. The following excerpts are lightly edited for clarity and brevity —- and because our full conversation would fill half this newspaper.

[Editor’s Note: This article, and the preceding one, owe their inception to Alice from Queens’ brilliant account of learning about baseball.]


PRAVEEN: [Swift] clearly means a lot to people. And I don’t think “Shake It Off” means a lot to people. I’m trying to figure out what she did in that interim.

ZARA: There’s definitely been a career shift. She was really big before — “1989” was maybe her peak prior to all this more recent stuff in terms of music and popularity. And then the album that came after, “Reputation,” came after her stepping out of the public for like three or four years. And the album after that, which was “Lover” — we’ll get into a timeline in a second —

PRAVEEN: OK, wait, wait. Before any albums, can I see if I can name every Taylor Swift album? 

ZARA: Yes! From the very beginning.

PRAVEEN: OK, first one is, there’s a self-titled, right? “Taylor Swift.” And then… is it “Speak Now?”

ZARA: That’s the third one; there’s one you’re missing. 

PRAVEEN: Is “Red” the one I’m missing?

ZARA: No, that’s after “Speak Now.

PRAVEEN: Oh, I thought I could name them, but if there’s one before…

ZARA: Here’s your hint, she re-released it.

PRAVEEN: … I don’t know.

ZARA: [Laughs] “Fearless.

PRAVEEN: I’ve heard of that. I wouldn’t have gotten that. OK, “Taylor Swift,” “Fearless,” “Speak Now,” “Red,” “1989,” “Reputation” and then is it “Folklore,” “Evermore” oh, “Lover,” but you did just say that… OK, “Lover,” “Folklore,” “Evermore” (or “Evermore,” “Folklore?”) 

ZARA: “Folklore,” “Evermore. 

PRAVEEN: And then “Midnights.” I did worse than I thought. I thought I had them.

ZARA: For someone who’s not familiar with Taylor Swift —

PRAVEEN: “Fearless.” What’s a song on “Fearless” that I would know?

ZARA: “Love Story”!

PRAVEEN: Oh, I hate that song.

Taylor’s Image and Her Eras

PRAVEEN: If something happens in [Swift’s] life, she’s expected to talk about it and also make good music. That’s super hard to do!

ZARA: I think a good example of that is all the rumors about her splitting with her boyfriend, Joe, of six years, and everyone on Twitter is like, “Oh my god, her next album is going to be so good; this breakup album is gonna be amazing.”

PRAVEEN: And it’s her life!

ZARA: Yeah! And that’s a lot of the reason she moved out of the public eye after “1989”… When she’s seen or paparazzi’d out, it’s very clear to everyone that’s a fan that she’s only seen when she wants to be seen.

PRAVEEN: …Yeah, the cultural idea of Taylor Swift seems to have shifted so much, and I didn’t even notice. She seems legitimately respected now in a way she wasn’t before.

ZARA: There ares two sides; Taylor Swift the public figure and Taylor Swift the music. You don’t need to be well-versed in her public outings to understand her music, but it does add another layer. She’ll call back to her earlier eras … I hear people say all the time, “I’m in my “Lover” era, my “Reputation” era” — each of her albums seems to encapsulate not just a certain time in her life, but certain emotions, so people resonate with different albums at different times.

[Later, Zara pulls out her first visual aid of the conversation, the video for “Look What You Made Me Do.”]

ZARA: So this is an example of how she calls back her eras herself. This is the peak of all Easter eggs. [Presses play.] This dress she’s wearing, it’s from the “Out of the Woods” music video from the “1989” era. You can barely see it in good lighting, but people know. 

[Zara skips to about 2:24 in the video, and we see Taylor atop a pyramid of versions of herself.]

ZARA: So there’s current Taylor. And all of these people are past Taylor Swift music video costumes.


ZARA: [Pointing out Taylors on her screen.] “Red” era tour, this was the costume she wore. This is “Fearless,” she used to wear that on tour. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” music video outfit, she wore this to an award show, everything is specifically from her history — “You Belong With Me” music video … This probably means nothing to you; you don’t know half these songs I’m referencing.

PRAVEEN: But that they are referencing songs is what is interesting. But I can tell these are different versions of her, but if you’re a Taylor Swift fan — the equivalent of “knowing ball” — I said earlier there’s Taylor Swift the music, and Taylor Swift the meta-story. But it’s a cycle! It’s not the music and then “everything else” because it all feeds into itself. Because she knows that’s gonna mean something to you.

[I watch the end of the video, featuring Taylor playing several versions of herself in conversation.]

PRAVEEN: This is insane

ZARA: [Quietly] These are all significant outfits.

ZARA: [After we finish] That’s her first time acknowledging the eras. She does that on her tour, too, her costumes are throwbacks to what she used to wear on tour or in music videos. It’s such an intentional thing.

PRAVEEN: I really hope she has a therapist. On the one hand, you’re using your previous life experience as content, but on the other hand, you really need to be careful, right? How do you make that music video and not go insane?

Easter Eggs

PRAVEEN: Do Taylor Swift songs make you cry?

ZARA: Sometimes, yes, I’ve cried to some songs. I feel like a lot of people do. Not so much with the re-recordings, just because she’s older, not living it right now. But with some of the older songs, you can hear it in her voice. Like, her voice catches, and … that must sound —

PRAVEEN: But, remember, it’s like the crack of the bat. [Last week, I had made Zara watch a compilation of the crack of Shohei Ohtani’s bat, which she found unremarkable and I, frankly, found sensual.] It’s insane to me how exactly the same it is. 

ZARA: It is exactly the same. It’s so interesting because I have a playlist of sad Taylor Swift breakup songs that I can cry to, but I also have a playlist of Taylor Swift songs I can listen to when I’m getting ready to go out. The upbeat ones are obviously more popular, but the deep cuts are worth listening to.

[We discuss some Easter eggs in the video for “Bejeweled.”]

PRAVEEN: I do think I want to become a Taylor Swift fan now, just so I can be insane. 

ZARA: Oh yeah, absolutely unhinged.

PRAVEEN: Just for the conspiracy theories.

ZARA: Yeah! This is a balcony she would float around the stage on in the “Speak Now” tour. And the balcony — same balcony! So she’s teasing it; it’s very clear. And then, in the “Anti-Hero” video — I’m so sorry, this is such a tangent.

PRAVEEN: No, no, this is really neat.

ZARA: So there’s this guitar she used in the “Speak Now” tour, this koi fish guitar, very pretty, right? Here in the “Anti-Hero” video: guitar! And she’s smashing it. So small things like that — what other fan base will recognize a guitar from ten years ago that she used in a concert? 

ZARA: …You know how albums have lyric booklets? She would capitalize certain letters in the lyrics to spell out hidden messages. She did this for “Fearless” through “1989.” For every song. The “All Too Well” secret message is “Maple Latte” because she was seen getting a maple latte with Jake Gyllenhaal. 

PRAVEEN: The fact that people know — how do people know what she ordered?

ZARA: Because they read the cup!

PRAVEEN: They read the cup?!

ZARA: But the fact that she connected it to that song, and people realized the song was about him, they put the pieces together. But enough of me being unhinged about that.

PRAVEEN: Well, it sounds like she’s pretty unhinged. [Zara: She’s very unhinged!] It’s not like you’re the one who wrote that stuff.

ZARA: I feel like such a big part of Taylor Swift fan culture is scrolling through Twitter and TikTok, and watching all these theories. Every week, I see Taylor Swift trending on Twitter on a Thursday night, and everyone’s like, “She’s gonna surprise release “Speak Now” right now,” and it never happens. 

[Exactly one day after we had this conversation, this exact thing happened. Swift surprise released “Speak Now.”]

Taylor Swift is A Lot Like Baseball

PRAVEEN: It’s the connection that makes it. It’s not just that it’s not about the individual units, but to even speak of the individual units as isolated from the whole is ridiculous, right? It’s all — oh my god, this is so much like baseball! [I pound the table.] This is exactly what I said! It’s exactly the same thing! To watch a baseball game devoid — motherfucker, this is so good! 

ZARA: Yeah, it still fits, but it has a new layer of meaning when you know everything. But you can still enjoy it — you don’t need to know everything, but you can!

PRAVEEN: [Frighteningly animated] Yeah, just like all my selling you on baseball and how it was about the tapestry — the whole environment around it. It’s kind of the same thing with Taylor Swift. You didn’t sell me on, “oh, “Red” is a really good album, this song is really good” — you didn’t write this as a music review, right? You talked about the, because you — I should speak in complete sentences because I’m going to have to transcribe this.

ZARA: Yes.

PRAVEEN: One question I want to ask — you might hate this — what’s your favorite Taylor Swift song?

ZARA: Oh my God. One?

PRAVEEN: [Backing down because I can immediately see that it’s messed up to ask this] You don’t have to tell me, on the record, one Taylor Swift song. And, like you mentioned earlier, this will change, right? But right now, what’s one that you feel like is underrated and doesn’t get a lot of love?

ZARA: …There’s one with the guy from Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody, called “The Last Time” — it’s so underrated, nobody likes it. I think it’s fantastic. It’s just sad, but this is a sad album. It’s a duet, and I’m not usually a duet kind of person, but I feel like it works … There’s another song from “Red” that I think really illustrates her lyricism if you’re going to go back, is “Sad, Beautiful, Tragic.” You think of Taylor Swift as this, “I’m feeling 22,” hype, very baseline lyrics —

PRAVEEN: I was gonna say, you said “Red” is a very sad album. “22” is from “Red,” right?

ZARA: “I Knew You Were Trouble” is from that album, and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” is from that album. These are poppy songs!

PRAVEEN: Yeah, that’s what I know from that album.

ZARA: But some of her saddest songs are from that album! These two songs I told you, they’re sad! It almost feels like there are two sides to that album: there’s the appealing-to-the-mainstream-media pop album, which she used to launch her career, then there’s how she’s actually feeling, the ugly stuff that isn’t going to appeal to mass audiences — that’s the kind of stuff that people who listen to her for the lyrics, they go to this.

The Final Exam

PRAVEEN: … I think we’re pretty much done, right? Any final remarks from you?

ZARA: Can you please name and rank the Taylor Swift albums?


ZARA: No, not rank. You haven’t listened to them enough to rank them. But please name them.

PRAVEEN: “Taylor Swift.”

ZARA: Yes.

PRAVEEN: “Fearless?” [Zara: Yes!] “Speak Now.” [Yes.] “Red. [Yes.]1989. “Reputation.” [Mhmm!] “Lover!” [Yes!] “Lover,” that was the one I was gonna forget. The last one is just the order of the “-mores” — “Folklore,”Evermore” [Yes!] “Midnights!” There we go! We did it!

ZARA: Yes, we did it! Oh, I’m so proud. 

PRAVEEN: I know Taylor Swift! I don’t know if I’m proud of that.

After our conversation, Zara sent me a playlist of 18 Taylor Swift deep cuts to give me a taste of what I’ve been missing out on. And while not all of them were my style, I was surprised by how much I liked them. My favorite? “Nothing New,” a track “from the Vault” on “Red (Taylor’s Version)” that features Phoebe Bridgers. 

Am I a converted Swiftie? No, I don’t think so. But I get it. Even now, I find myself feeling more and more warmly towards Zara’s playlist of Swift’s music. I’ve even learned to play “Nothing New” on my guitar. To paraphrase a literary work whose very title mirrors that of one of Swift’s albums: The struggle was finished. I had won the victory over myself. I loved Taylor Swift.


Image courtesy of The Daily Northwestern