In a corner is an acoustic guitar Swift played as a teenager. She almost certainly wrote some well-known songs on it, but can’t recall which ones. “It would be kind of weird to finish a song and be like, ‘And this moment, I shall remember,’'” she says, laughing. “‘This guitar hath been anointed with my sacred tuneage!'”
The secret session itself is, as the name suggests, deeply off-the-record; it can be confirmed that she drank some white wine, since her glass pops up in some Instagram pictures. She stays until 5 a.m., chatting and taking photos with every one of the fans. Five hours later, we continue our talk at length in Swift’s Nashville condo, in almost exactly the same spot where we did one of our interviews for her 2012 Rolling Stone cover story. She’s hardly changed its whimsical decor in the past seven years (one of the few additions is a pool table replacing the couch where we sat last time), so it’s an old-Taylor time capsule. There’s still a huge bunny made of moss in one corner, and a human-size birdcage in the living room, though the view from the latter is now of generic new condo buildings instead of just distant green hills. Swift is barefoot now, in pale-blue jeans and a blue button-down tied at the waist; her hair is pulled back, her makeup minimal.
How to sum up the past three years of Taylor Swift? In July 2016, after Swift expressed discontent with Kanye West’s “Famous,” Kim Kardashian did her best to destroy her, unleashing clandestine recordings of a phone conversation between Swift and West. In the piecemeal audio, Swift can be heard agreeing to the line “…me and Taylor might still have sex.” We don’t hear her learning about the next lyric, the one she says bothered her — “I made that bitch famous” — and as she’ll explain, there’s more to her side of the story. The backlash was, well, swift, and overwhelming. It still hasn’t altogether subsided. Later that year, Swift chose not to make an endorsement in the 2016 election, which definitely didn’t help. In the face of it all, she made Reputation — fierce, witty, almost-industrial pop offset by love songs of crystalline beauty — and had a wildly successful stadium tour. Somewhere in there, she met her current boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, and judging by certain songs on Lover, the relationship is serious indeed.
Lover is Swift’s most adult album, a rebalancing of sound and persona that opens doors to the next decade of her career; it’s also a welcome return to the sonic diversity of 2012’s Red, with tracks ranging from the St. Vincent-assisted über-bop “Cruel Summer” to the unbearably poignant country-fied “Soon You’ll Get Better” (with the Dixie Chicks) and the “Shake It Off”-worthy pep of “Paper Rings.”
She wants to talk about the music, of course, but she is also ready to explain the past three years of her life, in depth, for the first time. The conversation is often not a light one. She’s built up more armor in the past few years, but still has the opposite of a poker face — you can see every micro-emotion wash over her as she ponders a question, her nose wrinkling in semi-ironic offense at the term “old-school pop stars,” her preposterously blue eyes glistening as she turns to darker subjects. In her worst moments, she says, “You feel like you’re being completely pulled into a riptide. So what are you going to do? Splash a lot? Or hold your breath and hope you somehow resurface? And that’s what I did. And it took three years. Sitting here doing an interview — the fact that we’ve done an interview before is the only reason I’m not in a full body sweat.”
When we talked seven years ago, everything was going so well for you, and you were very worried that something would go wrong.
Yeah, I kind of knew it would. I felt like I was walking along the sidewalk, knowing eventually the pavement was going to crumble and I was gonna fall through. You can’t keep winning and have people like it. People love “new” so much — they raise you up the flagpole, and you’re waving at the top of the flagpole for a while. And then they’re like, “Wait, this new flag is what we actually love.” They decide something you’re doing is incorrect, that you’re not standing for what you should stand for. You’re a bad example. Then if you keep making music and you survive, and you keep connecting with people, eventually they raise you a little bit up the flagpole again, and then they take you back down, and back up again. And it happens to women more than it happens to men in music.
It also happened to you a few times on a smaller scale, didn’t it?
I’ve had several upheavals in my career. When I was 18, they were like, “She doesn’t really write those songs.” So my third album I wrote by myself as a reaction to that. Then they decided I was a serial dater — a boy-crazy man-eater — when I was 22. And so I didn’t date anyone for, like, two years. And then they decided in 2016 that absolutely everything about me was wrong. If I did something good, it was for the wrong reasons. If I did something brave, I didn’t do it correctly. If I stood up for myself, I was throwing a tantrum. And so I found myself in this endless mockery echo chamber. It’s just like — I have a brother who’s two and a half years younger, and we spent the first half of our lives trying to kill each other and the second half as best friends. You know that game kids play? I’d be like, “Mom, can I have some water?” And Austin would be like, “Mom, can I have some water?” And I’m like, “He’s copying me.” And he’d be like, “He’s copying me.” Always in a really obnoxious voice that sounds all twisted. That’s what it felt like in 2016. So I decided to just say nothing. It wasn’t really a decision. It was completely involuntary.
But you also had good things happen in your life at the same time — that’s part of Reputation.
The moments of my true story on that album are songs like “Delicate,” “New Year’s Day,” “Call It What You Want,” “Dress.” The one-two punch, bait-and-switch of Reputation is that it was actually a love story. It was a love story in amongst chaos. All the weaponized sort of metallic battle anthems were what was going on outside. That was the battle raging on that I could see from the windows, and then there was what was happening inside my world — my newly quiet, cozy world that was happening on my own terms for the first time. . . . It’s weird, because in some of the worst times of my career, and reputation, dare I say, I had some of the most beautiful times — in my quiet life that I chose to have. And I had some of the most incredible memories with the friends I now knew cared about me, even if everyone hated me. The bad stuff was really significant and damaging. But the good stuff will endure. The good lessons — you realize that you can’t just show your life to people.
I used to be like a golden retriever, just walking up to everybody, like, wagging my tail. “Sure, yeah, of course! What do you want to know? What do you need?” Now, I guess, I have to be a little bit more like a fox.
Do your regrets on that extend to the way the “girl squad” thing was perceived?
Yeah, I never would have imagined that people would have thought, “This is a clique that wouldn’t have accepted me if I wanted to be in it.” Holy shit, that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, “Oh, this did not go the way that I thought it was going to go.” I thought it was going to be we can still stick together, just like men are allowed to do. The patriarchy allows men to have bro packs. If you’re a male artist, there’s an understanding that you have respect for your counterparts.
Whereas women are expected to be feuding with each other?
It’s assumed that we hate each other. Even if we’re smiling and photographed together with our arms around each other, it’s assumed there’s a knife in our pocket.
How much of a danger was there of falling into that thought pattern yourself?
The messaging is dangerous, yes. Nobody is immune, because we’re a product of what society and peer groups and now the internet tells us, unless we learn differently from experience.
You once sang about a star who “took the money and your dignity, and got the hell out.” In 2016, you wrote in your journal, “This summer is the apocalypse.” How close did you come to quitting altogether?
I definitely thought about that a lot. I thought about how words are my only way of making sense of the world and expressing myself — and now any words I say or write are being twisted against me. People love a hate frenzy. It’s like piranhas. People had so much fun hating me, and they didn’t really need very many reasons to do it. I felt like the situation was pretty hopeless. I wrote a lot of really aggressively bitter poems constantly. I wrote a lot of think pieces that I knew I’d never publish, about what it’s like to feel like you’re in a shame spiral. And I couldn’t figure out how to learn from it. Because I wasn’t sure exactly what I did that was so wrong. That was really hard for me, because I cannot stand it when people can’t take criticism. So I try to self-examine, and even though that’s really hard and hurts a lot sometimes, I really try to understand where people are coming from when they don’t like me. And I completely get why people wouldn’t like me. Because, you know, I’ve had my insecurities say those things — and things 1,000 times worse.
But some of your former critics have become your friends, right?
Some of my best friendships came from people publicly criticizing me and then it opening up a conversation. Hayley Kiyoko was doing an interview and she made an example about how I get away with singing about straight relationships and people don’t give me shit the way they give her shit for singing about girls — and it’s totally valid. Like, Ella — Lorde — the first thing she ever said about me publicly was a criticism of my image or whatever. But I can’t really respond to someone saying, “You, as a human being, are fake.” And if they say you’re playing the victim, that completely undermines your ability to ever verbalize how you feel unless it’s positive. So, OK, should I just smile all the time and never say anything hurts me? Because that’s really fake. Or should I be real about how I’m feeling and have valid, legitimate responses to things that happened to me in my life? But wait, would that be playing the victim?
How do you escape that mental trap?
Since I was 15 years old, if people criticized me for something, I changed it. So you realize you might be this amalgamation of criticisms that were hurled at you, and not an actual person who’s made any of these choices themselves. And so I decided I needed to live a quiet life, because a quiet personal life invites no discussion, dissection, and debate. I didn’t realize I was inviting people to feel they had the right to sort of play my life like a video game.
“The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because she’s dead!” was funny — but how seriously should we take it?
There’s a part of me that definitely is always going to be different. I needed to grow up in many ways. I needed to make boundaries, to figure out what was mine and what was the public’s. That old version of me that shares unfailingly and unblinkingly with a world that is probably not fit to be shared with? I think that’s gone. But it was definitely just, like, a fun moment in the studio with me and Jack [Antonoff] where I wanted to play on the idea of a phone call — because that’s how all of this started, a stupid phone call I shouldn’t have picked up.
It would have been much easier if that’s what you’d just said.
It would have been so, so great if I would have just said that [laughs].
Some of the Lover iconography does suggest old Taylor’s return, though.
I don’t think I’ve ever leaned into the old version of myself more creatively than I have on this album, where it’s very, very autobiographical. But also moments of extreme catchiness and moments of extreme personal confession.
Did you do anything wrong from your perspective in dealing with that phone call? Is there anything you regret?
The world didn’t understand the context and the events that led up to it. Because nothing ever just happens like that without some lead-up. Some events took place to cause me to be pissed off when he called me a bitch. That was not just a singular event. Basically, I got really sick of the dynamic between he and I. And that wasn’t just based on what happened on that phone call and with that song — it was kind of a chain reaction of things.
I started to feel like we reconnected, which felt great for me — because all I ever wanted my whole career after that thing happened in 2009 was for him to respect me. When someone doesn’t respect you so loudly and says you literally don’t deserve to be here — I just so badly wanted that respect from him, and I hate that about myself, that I was like, “This guy who’s antagonizing me, I just want his approval.” But that’s where I was. And so we’d go to dinner and stuff. And I was so happy, because he would say really nice things about my music. It just felt like I was healing some childhood rejection or something from when I was 19. But the 2015 VMAs come around. He’s getting the Vanguard Award. He called me up beforehand — I didn’t illegally record it, so I can’t play it for you. But he called me up, maybe a week or so before the event, and we had maybe over an hourlong conversation, and he’s like, “I really, really would like for you to present this Vanguard Award to me, this would mean so much to me,” and went into all the reasons why it means so much, because he can be so sweet. He can be the sweetest. And I was so stoked that he asked me that. And so I wrote this speech up, and then we get to the VMAs and I make this speech and he screams, “MTV got Taylor Swift up here to present me this award for ratings!” [His exact words: “You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award ’cause it got them more ratings?”] And I’m standing in the audience with my arm around his wife, and this chill ran through my body. I realized he is so two-faced. That he wants to be nice to me behind the scenes, but then he wants to look cool, get up in front of everyone and talk shit. And I was so upset. He wanted me to come talk to him after the event in his dressing room. I wouldn’t go. So then he sent this big, big thing of flowers the next day to apologize. And I was like, “You know what? I really don’t want us to be on bad terms again. So whatever, I’m just going to move past this.” So when he gets on the phone with me, and I was so touched that he would be respectful and, like, tell me about this one line in the song.
The line being “. . . me and Taylor might still have sex”?
[Nods] And I was like, “OK, good. We’re back on good terms.” And then when I heard the song, I was like, “I’m done with this. If you want to be on bad terms, let’s be on bad terms, but just be real about it.” And then he literally did the same thing to Drake. He gravely affected the trajectory of Drake’s family and their lives. It’s the same thing. Getting close to you, earning your trust, detonating you. I really don’t want to talk about it anymore because I get worked up, and I don’t want to just talk about negative shit all day, but it’s the same thing. Go watch Drake talk about what happened. [West denied any involvement in Pusha-T’s revelation of Drake’s child and apologized for sending “negative energy” toward Drake.]
When did you get to the place that’s described on the opening track of Lover, “I Forgot That You Existed”?
It was sometime on the Reputation tour, which was the most transformative emotional experience of my career. That tour put me in the healthiest, most balanced place I’ve ever been. After that tour, bad stuff can happen to me, but it doesn’t level me anymore. The stuff that happened a couple of months ago with Scott [Borchetta] would have leveled me three years ago and silenced me. I would have been too afraid to speak up. Something about that tour made me disengage from some part of public perception I used to hang my entire identity on, which I now know is incredibly unhealthy.
What was the actual revelation?
It’s almost like I feel more clear about the fact that my job is to be an entertainer. It’s not like this massive thing that sometimes my brain makes it into, and sometimes the media makes it into, where we’re all on this battlefield and everyone’s gonna die except one person, who wins. It’s like, “No, do you know what? Katy is going to be legendary. Gaga is going to be legendary. Beyoncé is going to be legendary. Rihanna is going to be legendary. Because the work that they made completely overshadows the myopia of this 24-hour news cycle of clickbait.” And somehow I realized that on tour, as I was looking at people’s faces. We’re just entertaining people, and it’s supposed to be fun.
It’s interesting to look at these albums as a trilogy. 1989 was really a reset button.
Oh, in every way. I’ve been very vocal about the fact that that decision was mine and mine alone, and it was definitely met with a lot of resistance. Internally.
After realizing that things were not all smiles with your former label boss, Scott Borchetta, it’s hard not to wonder how much additional conflict there was over things like that.
A lot of the best things I ever did creatively were things that I had to really fight — and I mean aggressively fight — to have happen. But, you know, I’m not like him, making crazy, petty accusations about the past. . . . When you have a business relationship with someone for 15 years, there are going to be a lot of ups and a lot of downs. But I truly, legitimately thought he looked at me as the daughter he never had. And so even though we had a lot of really bad times and creative differences, I was going to hang my hat on the good stuff. I wanted to be friends with him. I thought I knew what betrayal felt like, but this stuff that happened with him was a redefinition of betrayal for me, just because it felt like it was family. To go from feeling like you’re being looked at as a daughter to this grotesque feeling of “Oh, I was actually his prized calf that he was fattening up to sell to the slaughterhouse that would pay the most.”
He accused you of declining the Parkland march and Manchester benefit show.
Unbelievable. Here’s the thing: Everyone in my team knew if Scooter Braun brings us something, do not bring it to me. The fact that those two are in business together after the things he said about Scooter Braun — it’s really hard to shock me. And this was utterly shocking. These are two very rich, very powerful men, using $300 million of other people’s money to purchase, like, the most feminine body of work. And then they’re standing in a wood-panel bar doing a tacky photo shoot, raising a glass of scotch to themselves. Because they pulled one over on me and got this done so sneakily that I didn’t even see it coming. And I couldn’t say anything about it.
In some ways, on a musical level, Lover feels like the most indie-ish of your albums.
That’s amazing, thank you. It’s definitely a quirky record. With this album, I felt like I sort of gave myself permission to revisit older themes that I used to write about, maybe look at them with fresh eyes. And to revisit older instruments — older in terms of when I used to use them. Because when I was making 1989, I was so obsessed with it being this concept of Eighties big pop, whether it was Eighties in its production or Eighties in its nature, just having these big choruses — being unapologetically big. And then Reputation, there was a reason why I had it all in lowercase. I felt like it wasn’t unapologetically commercial. It’s weird, because that is the album that took the most amount of explanation, and yet it’s the one I didn’t talk about. In the Reputation secret sessions I kind of had to explain to my fans, “I know we’re doing a new thing here that I’d never done before.” I’d never played with characters before. For a lot of pop stars, that’s a really fun trick, where they’re like, “This is my alter ego.” I had never played with that before. It’s really fun. And it was just so fun to play with on tour — the darkness and the bombast and the bitterness and the love and the ups and the downs of an emotional-turmoil record.
“Daylight” is a beautiful song. It feels like it could have been the title track.
It almost was. I thought it might be a little bit too sentimental.
And I guess maybe too on-the-nose.
Right, yeah, way too on-the-nose. That’s what I thought, because I was kind of in my head referring to the album as Daylight for a while. But Lover, to me, was a more interesting title, more of an accurate theme in my head, and more elastic as a concept. That’s why “You Need to Calm Down” can make sense within the theme of the album — one of the things it addresses is how certain people are not allowed to live their lives without discrimination just based on who they love.
For the more organic songs on this album, like “Lover” and “Paper Rings,” you said you were imagining a wedding band playing them. How often does that kind of visualization shape a song’s production style?
Sometimes I’ll have a strange sort of fantasy of where the songs would be played. And so for songs like “Paper Rings” or “Lover” I was imagining a wedding-reception band, but in the Seventies, so they couldn’t play instruments that wouldn’t have been invented yet. I have all these visuals. For Reputation, it was nighttime cityscape. I didn’t really want any — or very minimal — traditional acoustic instruments. I imagined old warehouse buildings that had been deserted and factory spaces and all this industrial kind of imagery. So I wanted the production to have nothing wooden. There’s no wood floors on that album. Lover is, like, completely just a barn wood floor and some ripped curtains flowing in the breeze, and fields of flowers and, you know, velvet.
How did you come to use high school metaphors to touch on politics with “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”?
There are so many influences that go into that particular song. I wrote it a couple of months after midterm elections, and I wanted to take the idea of politics and pick a metaphorical place for that to exist. And so I was thinking about a traditional American high school, where there’s all these kinds of social events that could make someone feel completely alienated. And I think a lot of people in our political landscape are just feeling like we need to huddle up under the bleachers and figure out a plan to make things better.
I feel like your Fall Out Boy fandom might’ve slipped out in that title.
I love Fall Out Boy so much. Their songwriting really influenced me, lyrically, maybe more than anyone else. They take a phrase and they twist it. “Loaded God complex/Cock it and pull it”? When I heard that, I was like, “I’m dreaming.”
You sing about “American stories burning before me.” Do you mean the illusions of what America is?
It’s about the illusions of what I thought America was before our political landscape took this turn, and that naivete that we used to have about it. And it’s also the idea of people who live in America, who just want to live their lives, make a living, have a family, love who they love, and watching those people lose their rights, or watching those people feel not at home in their home. I have that line “I see the high-fives between the bad guys” because not only are some really racist, horrific undertones now becoming overtones in our political climate, but the people who are representing those concepts and that way of looking at the world are celebrating loudly, and it’s horrific.
You’re in this weird place of being a blond, blue-eyed pop star in this era — to the point where until you endorsed some Democratic candidates, right-wingers, and worse, assumed you were on their side.
I don’t think they do anymore. Yeah, that was jarring, and I didn’t hear about that until after it had happened. Because at this point, I, for a very long time, I didn’t have the internet on my phone, and my team and my family were really worried about me because I was not in a good place. And there was a lot of stuff that they just dealt with without telling me about it. Which is the only time that’s ever happened in my career. I’m always in the pilot seat, trying to fly the plane that is my career in exactly the direction I want to take it. But there was a time when I just had to throw my hands up and say, “Guys, I can’t. I can’t do this. I need you to just take over for me and I’m just going to disappear.”
Are you referring to when a white-supremacist site suggested you were on their team?
I didn’t even see that, but, like, if that happened, that’s just disgusting. There’s literally nothing worse than white supremacy. It’s repulsive. There should be no place for it. Really, I keep trying to learn as much as I can about politics, and it’s become something I’m now obsessed with, whereas before, I was living in this sort of political ambivalence, because the person I voted for had always won. We were in such an amazing time when Obama was president because foreign nations respected us. We were so excited to have this dignified person in the White House. My first election was voting for him when he made it into office, and then voting to re-elect him. I think a lot of people are like me, where they just didn’t really know that this could happen. But I’m just focused on the 2020 election. I’m really focused on it. I’m really focused on how I can help and not hinder. Because I also don’t want it to backfire again, because I do feel that the celebrity involvement with Hillary’s campaign was used against her in a lot of ways.
You took a lot of heat for not getting involved. Does any part of you regret that you just didn’t say “fuck it” and gotten more specific when you said to vote that November?
Totally. Yeah, I regret a lot of things all the time. It’s like a daily ritual.
Were you just convinced that it would backfire?
That’s literally what it was. Yeah. It’s a very powerful thing when you legitimately feel like numbers have proven that pretty much everyone hates you. Like, quantifiably. That’s not me being dramatic. And you know that.
There were a lot of people in those stadiums.
It’s true. But that was two years later. . . . I do think, as a party, we need to be more of a team. With Republicans, if you’re wearing that red hat, you’re one of them. And if we’re going to do anything to change what’s happening, we need to stick together. We need to stop dissecting why someone’s on our side or if they’re on our side in the right way or if they phrased it correctly. We need to not have the right kind of Democrat and the wrong kind of Democrat. We need to just be like, “You’re a Democrat? Sick. Get in the car. We’re going to the mall.
Here’s a hard question for you: As a superfan, what did you think of the Game of Thrones finale?
Oh, my God. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. So, clinically our brain responds to our favorite show ending the same way we feel when a breakup occurs. I read that. There’s no good way for it to end. No matter what would have happened in that finale, people still would have been really upset because of the fact that it’s over.
I was glad to see you confirm that your line about a “list of names” was a reference to Arya.
I like to be influenced by movies and shows and books and stuff. I love to write about a character dynamic. And not all of my life is going to be as kind of complex as these intricate webs of characters on TV shows and movies.
There was a time when it was.
But is the idea that as your own life becomes less dramatic, you’ll need to pull ideas from other places?
I don’t feel like that yet. I think I might feel like that possibly when I have a family. If I have a family. [Pauses] I don’t know why I said that! But that’s what I’ve heard from other artists, that they were very protective of their personal life, so they had to draw inspiration from other things. But again, I don’t know why I said that. Because I don’t know how my life is going to go or what I’m going to do. But right now, I feel like it’s easier for me to write than it ever was.
You don’t talk about your relationship, but you’ll sing about it in wildly revealing detail. What’s the difference for you?
Singing about something helps you to express it in a way that feels more accurate. You cannot, no matter what, put words in a quote and have it move someone the same way as if you heard those words with the perfect sonic representation of that feeling. . . . There is that weird conflict in being a confessional songwriter and then also having my life, you know, 10 years ago, be catapulted into this strange pop-culture thing.
I’ve heard you say that people got too interested in which song was about who, which I can understand — at the same time, to be fair, it was a game you played into, wasn’t it?
I realized very early on that no matter what, that was going to happen to me regardless. So when you realize the rules of the game you’re playing and how it will affect you, you got to look at the board and make your strategy. But at the same time, writing songs has never been a strategic element of my career. But I’m not scared anymore to say that other things in my career, like how to market an album, are strictly strategic. And I’m sick of women not being able to say that they have strategic business minds — because male artists are allowed to. And so I’m sick and tired of having to pretend like I don’t mastermind my own business. But, it’s a different part of my brain than I use to write.
You’ve been masterminding your business since you were a teenager.
Yeah, but I’ve also tried very hard — and this is one thing I regret — to convince people that I wasn’t the one holding the puppet strings of my marketing existence, or the fact that I sit in a conference room several times a week and come up with these ideas. I felt for a very long time that people don’t want to think of a woman in music who isn’t just a happy, talented accident. We’re all forced to kind of be like, “Aw, shucks, this happened again! We’re still doing well! Aw, that’s so great.” Alex Morgan celebrating scoring a goal at the World Cup and getting shit for it is a perfect example of why we’re not allowed to flaunt or celebrate, or reveal that, like, “Oh, yeah, it was me. I came up with this stuff.” I think it’s really unfair. People love new female artists so much because they’re able to explain that woman’s success. There’s an easy trajectory. Look at the Game of Thrones finale. I specifically really related to Daenerys’ storyline because for me it portrayed that it is a lot easier for a woman to attain power than to maintain it.
I mean, she did murder . . .
It’s a total metaphor! Like, obviously I didn’t want Daenerys to become that kind of character, but in taking away what I chose to take away from it, I thought maybe they’re trying to portray her climbing the ladder to the top was a lot easier than maintaining it, because for me, the times when I felt like I was going insane was when I was trying to maintain my career in the same way that I ascended. It’s easier to get power than to keep it. It’s easier to get acclaim than to keep it. It’s easier to get attention than to keep it.
Well, I guess we should be glad you didn’t have a dragon in 2016. . . .
[Fiercely] I told you I don’t like that she did that! But, I mean, watching the show, though, maybe this is a reflection on how we treat women in power, how we are totally going to conspire against them and tear at them until they feel this — this insane shift, where you wonder, like, “What changed?” And I’ve had that happen, like, 60 times in my career where I’m like, “OK, you liked me last year, what changed? I guess I’ll change so I can keep entertaining you guys.”
You once said that your mom could never punish you when you were little because you’d punish yourself. This idea of changing in the face of criticism and needing approval — that’s all part of wanting to be good, right? Whatever that means. But that seems to be a real driving force in your life.
Yeah, that’s definitely very perceptive of you. And the question posed to me is, if you kept trying to do good things, but everyone saw those things in a cynical way and assumed them to be done with bad motivation and bad intent, would you still do good things, even though nothing that you did was looked at as good? And the answer is, yes. Criticism that’s constructive is helpful to my character growth. Baseless criticism is stuff I’ve got to toss out now.
That sounds healthy. Is this therapy talking or is this just experience?
No, I’ve never been to therapy. I talk to my mom a lot, because my mom is the one who’s seen everything. God, it takes so long to download somebody on the last 29 years of my life, and my mom has seen it all. She knows exactly where I’m coming from. And we talk endlessly. There were times when I used to have really, really, really bad days where we would just be on the phone for hours and hours and hours. I’d write something that I wanted to say, and instead of posting it, I’d just read it to her.
I somehow connect all this to the lyric in “Daylight,” the idea of “so many lines that I’ve crossed unforgiven” — it’s a different kind of confession.
I am really glad you liked that line, because that’s something that does bother me, looking back at life and realizing that no matter what, you screw things up. Sometimes there are people that were in your life and they’re not anymore — and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fix it, you can’t change it. I told the fans last night that sometimes on my bad days, I feel like my life is a pile of crap accumulated of only the bad headlines or the bad things that have happened, or the mistakes I’ve made or clichés or rumors or things that people think about me or have thought for the last 15 years. And that was part of the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, where I had a pile of literal old selves fighting each other.
But, yeah, that line is indicative of my anxiety about how in life you can’t get everything right. A lot of times you make the wrong call, make the wrong decision. Say the wrong thing. Hurt people, even if you didn’t mean to. You don’t really know how to fix all of that. When it’s, like, 29 years’ worth.
To be Mr. “Rolling Stone” for a second, there’s a Springsteen lyric, “Ain’t no one leaving this world, buddy/Without their shirttail dirty or hands a little bloody.”
That’s really good! No one gets through it unscathed. No one gets through in one piece. I think that’s a hard thing for a lot of people to grasp. I know it was hard for me, because I kind of grew up thinking, “If I’m nice, and if I try to do the right thing, you know, maybe I can just, like, ace this whole thing.” And it turns out I can’t.
It’s interesting to look at “I Did Something Bad” in this context.
You pointing that out is really interesting because it’s something I’ve had to reconcile within myself in the last couple of years — that sort of “good” complex. Because from the time I was a kid I’d try to be kind, be a good person. Try really hard. But you get walked all over sometimes. And how do you respond to being walked all over? You can’t just sit there and eat your salad and let it happen. “I Did Something Bad” was about doing something that was so against what I would usually do. Katy [Perry] and I were talking about our signs. . . . [Laughs] Of course we were.
That’s the greatest sentence ever.
[Laughs] I hate you. We were talking about our signs because we had this really, really long talk when we were reconnecting and stuff. And I remember in the long talk, she was like, “If we had one glass of white wine right now, we’d both be crying.” Because we were drinking tea. We’ve had some really good conversations.
We were talking about how we’ve had miscommunications with people in the past, not even specifically with each other. She’s like, “I’m a Scorpio. Scorpios just strike when they feel threatened.” And I was like, “Well, I’m an archer. We literally stand back, assess the situation, process how we feel about it, raise a bow, pull it back, and fire.” So it’s completely different ways of processing pain, confusion, misconception. And oftentimes I’ve had this delay in feeling something that hurts me and then saying that it hurts me. Do you know what I mean? And so I can understand how people in my life would have been like, “Whoa, I didn’t know that was how you felt.” Because it takes me a second.
If you watch the video of the 2009 VMAs, I literally freeze. I literally stand there. And that is how I handle any discomfort, any pain. I stand there, I freeze. And then five minutes later, I know how I feel. But in the moment, I’m probably overreacting and I should be nice. Then I process it, and in five minutes, if it’s gone, it’s past, and I’m like, “I was overreacting, everything’s fine. I can get through this. I’m glad I didn’t say anything harsh in the moment.” But when it’s actually something bad that happened, and I feel really, really hurt or upset about it, I only know after the fact. Because I’ve tried so hard to squash it: “This probably isn’t what you think.” That’s something I had to work on.
You could end up gaslighting yourself.
Yeah, for sure. ’Cause so many situations where if I would have said the first thing that came to my mind, people would have been like, “Whoa!” And maybe I would have been wrong or combative. So a couple of years ago I started working on actually just responding to my emotions in a quicker fashion. And it’s really helped with stuff. It’s helped so much because sometimes you get in arguments. But conflict in the moment is so much better than combat after the fact.
I do feel like I just did a therapy session. As someone who’s never been to therapy, I can safely say that was the best therapy session.