Taylor Swift has always been applauded for her songwriting – it’s rare, especially in country music, for singers to actually write their own songs, especially at the tender age of 15.
But now that Swift is 24, she has about a decade of songwriting experience. What does she write about? (Duh – ex-boyfriends) Has her songwriting improved?
I undertook a quick textual analysis of her lyrics, complete with word clouds, to see what it is Swift actually writes about. Since Swift has released four albums, I divided the albums into a timeline of two albums each: 2006-2008, and 2010-2012, to measure her evolution. I took the lyrics from her tracks from all four albums, which according to allmusic.com were all written by Swift.
The lyrics were taken from azlyrics.com, which may or may not correctly transcribe every single word correctly. Some words may appear more popular than others simply because they are repeated over and over in a verse, or a chorus is repeated several times. But choruses usually take on a more important role (that’s why we sing them several times), so the higher frequency of those words could imply more importance in general in the song.
The Early Years
Here’s a word cloud of the 100 most commonly used words in Swift’s lyrics from 2006-2008, excluding stop words (you, I, and, her, on, etc.)
Nothing really mind-provoking here, but she’s a young budding singer-songwriter. She seems sure of herself, as the word “know” is by far the most popular word used. Things are black and white – know implies certainty, while “never” has no wiggle room at all. But then there are the words “way” and “come” and “back”, as if Swift is searching for a path out of something. It’s typical teenage behavior – everything is certain until uncertainty creeps in. Other words could almost be stop words: “like,” “wanna” and “cause” (probably ’cause). Love is pretty popular, but not a major theme – not as much as “like”. Perhaps she hasn’t found love yet (insert boyfriend joke here).
The Later Years
Yes, this is a different word cloud. You may have to look twice.
The only real changes are more immediacy (“now” is more apparent, as is “time”), and “never” and “back” is more popular – probably exclusively from “We are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). Other than that, we don’t really see much of a change. “Like” is still bigger than “love”, “back” is still popular, and we still see casual contractions like “wanna” and “’cause”. Swift either hasn’t evolved as a songwriter or she’s found a formula and is sticking with it. Or both.
Well surely you could take anyone’s lyrics and they’d look this ridiculous, right? Well, here are the lyrics from U2’s first four albums:
Already we see “love” as a big topic, as is “singing”, “heart”, and “day”, followed by “goodbye”, “tomorrow” and “sky” – a much more robust and descriptive list. (Bono endlessly repeating “Sunday Bloody Sunday” skews the results somewhat, don’t you think?)
I ran Swift’s entire catalogue through a tool that finds common phrases. Here are the top 10 three-word phrases used:
- i don’t know
- la la la
- everybody knows that
- know you better
- i just wanna
- oh oh oh
- all i know
- why would you/would you wanna (two parts of a four-word phrase)
- this is the
- you’ve got a
I’ll restrain from any jokes on the most popular one. “La la la” and “oh oh oh” are common in pop songs, so I’ll give her a break on those. Other than that, again, not much substance here – it’s as if we’re catching her in the middle of a phone call to her BFF. Again, let’s compare with U2:
- in the name/the name of/name of love (five word phrase)
- be with you
- give you my/you my love
- sunday bloody sunday
- i will follow
- you be back/be back tomorrow
- sing this song
- i’ll be there
- but i know
- out of control
No, this isn’t scientific. I would have liked to have taken all the repeated phrases out to weigh everything equally. And in defense of Swift, I’ll take a good melody with subpar lyrics over poetry set to bad music. But it does seem as if Swift doesn’t put a lot of thought into her lyrics (except maybe the ones involving ex-boyfriends), nor is she trying harder as she grows older. Let’s hope she eventually matures as a songwriter and gives us a little variety, complexity or even abstractness in her lyrics. Her time in the spotlight has certainly grown predictable.
Just for kicks, here’s the top 200 words in Swift’s entire catalogue:
Know like never wanna back time, oh just see ever now. Hmm, sounds like the start to a new song.