Taylor Swift Can’t Be Saved by a Perfect Kiss

Not Even at Midnight

Sarah Woodard / 12.14.22

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to sit with it — and some time to emotionally recover from the fact that, more likely than not, I will not be seeing her Eras tour — I’m ready to share some of my Midnights musings. Ticketmaster will most certainly not be getting a Christmas card from me this year. Moving on — because I, for one, have to (ha) — Taylor Swift was once again my top artist of the year on Spotify Wrapped, not only because of how often I return to her older albums and re-released Taylor’s Version songs, but because of how much time I have spent listening to her newest 10th studio album Midnights that came out on October 21st at, you guessed it, midnight.

I will be the first to admit that I have so bought into her music that she could release total trash and I would probably rave about it. But I really do think she is, in her own words, a musical, lyrical “Mastermind.” And she keeps churning out new masterpieces, Midnights being no exception. A lot of people clearly agree with me, as she continues to smash records. Spotify announced that Midnights was the most streamed album in a single day (one of three records she broke on Spotify that day). She is also the first artist to claim all ten slots in the US Billboard Hot 100. I mean, wow.

In an Instagram announcing the release date of the album, Swift calls Midnights “a complete concept album” and “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” She writes:

We lie awake in love and fear, in turmoil and in tears. We stare at walls and drink until they speak out. We twist in our self-made cages and pray that we aren’t — right this minute — about to make some fateful, life-altering mistake.

This is a collection of music written in the middle of the night, a journey through terrors and sweet dreams. The floors we pace and the demons we face. For all of us who have tossed and turned and decided to keep the lanterns lit and go searching — hoping that just maybe, when the clock strikes 12 … we’ll meet ourselves.

If you’ve ever wondered what keeps Taylor Swift up at night, rejoice! She gives us a guided tour of her late-night intrusive thoughts. After a whimsical yet somber wander into the woods with folklore and evermore — a wonderfully prolonged stay there, really — Swift has again come back to a cityscape. This album has a synth pop sound, featuring vocal layering, Wurlitzers, and digital effects. It is a sound Swift thrives in, one oozing in bass, melancholy, and nostalgia.

On Midnights, Swift also returns to her long-standing tradition of writing autobiographical lyrics after the two-album-long reprieve of folklore tales. Sonically and thematically, Midnights has the sound and feel of a cross between Reputation, 1989, and Lover, simultaneously encompassing the dark broodiness of Reputation, the light-hearted, upbeat feel of 1989, and the romanticism of Lover as Swift explores the happy and haunting memories that she lays awake turning over in her mind.


In her opening track, “Lavender Haze,” Swift invites us to “meet [her] at midnight,” as she “star[es] at the ceiling” sleepless, setting the scene of the album. Swift dreams of revenge, regret, and redemption. With more years gone by and more wisdom gained — as much as I love the lyric, I have to disagree with her opening line to “Anti-Hero” that “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” — she returns to her former work with a more mature and often more complex, nuanced perspective. In the words of another reviewer,

If Swift is a dedicated self-portraitist, Midnights is the first time she has allowed herself to edit her previous work. Putting herself in conversation with her past self, Swift seems to be telegraphing that these songs — these polaroids of different midnights — capture accurately who she was during moments when we thought we knew who she was.

As Brittany Spanos writes in Rolling Stone, on this album “Swift does some light inner child therapy work.” This kind of therapy stems from the belief that you have to reckon with past trauma and pain to heal in present time, a theory I fully agree with. Time alone doesn’t heal all wounds. As Swift herself sings in easily one of the best songs she has ever written, “Would’ve, Could’ve Should’ve,” a scathing song that appears to revisit her almost sweetly sad song from 2010 “Dear John” (maybe about a John she dated, we all have our theories): “Now that I’m grown / I’m scared of ghosts / Memories feel like weapons.” The heart-aimed knife of her memories has seemed to sharpen rather than dull over time. In another bonus track “The Great War,” Swift’s past “talk[s]” and even “scream[s] from the crypt.”

As she tosses and turns and paces the floor at midnight, Swift knows that she needs more than time to heal her — yes, therapy is good for healing, but on Midnights I believe she suggests only saving grace will suffice. I have been theorizing about Swift’s spiritual reckonings and undertones in her lyrics for some time now (see my reviews on folklore and evermore), and Midnights has only made me go further down this road.

More than perhaps on any other album, Swift divulges herself in a very delicate, raw way. This album is full of honest confessions that stopped me in my tracks. It seems to me that the longer she goes in her music career, the more she is allowing us to see her as a broken, imperfect human. Mainly, I think, because staying on the pedestal of perfection crushes her. In a video she posted on her Instagram explaining “Anti-Hero,” what may be the strongest song on her album, Swift says:

I don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before. I struggle a lot with the idea that my life has become unmanageably sized. Not to sound too dark but I just struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person.

So to remind us of just how human she is, she writes a song that is, as she goes on to say, “a real guided tour through all the things I tend to hate about myself.” The now-trending chorus goes: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me / At tea time, everybody agrees / I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting, always rooting for the anti-hero.” She admits to struggling with “depression” — the first time she uses this word in a song to my knowledge — and a depression that seems to be brought on by the burden of trying and failing to live up to both her own and the world’s expectations.

If an “anti-hero” is someone that people call a hero but is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities, then Swift herself feels “exhausted” from “rooting” and relying on herself to be the one to save the day. She doesn’t feel like she has the heroic qualities she is expected to have; she is “the problem,” not the one who solves it. A hero’s cape weighs heavy, and Swift wants to throw it off.

There’s a reason this chorus has been the top-trending sound on TikTok: we all feel like we’re the problem and can’t live up to the standard of perfection. She’s never been so relatable.

Elsewhere on this album, she sings of not being able to achieve the standard. In “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” her fifth track, which all Swifties know implies tragic, Swift admits she gave her “blood, sweat, and tears” trying to get an unrequited love to notice her. She strives and strives to be enough for him: “I hosted parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss.” In a harrowing revelation, she turns against herself trying to win his affection only to be met with callousness and indifference: he “never cared.”

The notion of trying and failing to win a lover’s attention is most prominent on a song from folklore I wrote about previously, “mirrorball.” If indeed Swift is putting her past self in conversation with her present self on Midnights, this comparison is worth taking a closer look at.

In “mirrorball,” Swift sings: “I’m still on that tight rope … I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try / I’m still on that trapeze / I’m still trying everything / To keep you looking at me.” On Midnights, we get a bit of a history of this tendency. Ever since she was a “kid” she behaved this way, hosting parties and starving her body, trying and trying to be “saved by a perfect kiss.” In “Mastermind,” the album’s final track in which Swift likens herself to a master chess player who meticulously plans out her every move, she finally confesses why she keeps trying (while simultaneously trying to make it seem like she’s not trying at all):

No one wanted to play with me as a little kid
So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since
To make them love me and make it seem effortless
This is the first time I’ve felt the need to confess
And I swear
I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ’cause I care

Wow. This confession to me feels like the thesis of all of her lyrics to date. Her only solution to her pain and loneliness, to her need to be loved? To scheme like a criminal. To stay on the tightrope trying. The problem is, even when she tries everything, it’s still not enough to win love and acceptance. It’s still not enough to save her.


A better solution comes on an unlikely song, “Sweet Nothing.” I love the soft piano and Swift’s smooth, honey voice in this soothing tune that conjures the image of a mother coo-ing her baby to sleep with a lullaby. It reminds me of the innocence of childhood, of the fragility and holiness of ordinary life somehow. She opens with a reference to a children’s game: “I spy with my little tired eye / Tiny as a firefly / A pebble that we picked up last July.”

The song is so heartwarming, it gave me goosebumps. Swift has never sounded so at ease. Here’s the chorus:

They said the end is coming
Everyone’s up to something
I find myself running home to your
Sweet nothings
Outside they’re push and shoving
You’re in the kitchen humming
All that you ever wanted from me was
Sweet nothing

She juxtaposes a cold, calculating, demanding world with a warm, safe home, a lover’s embrace. In “mirrorball,” Swift similarly says that “I know they said the end is near.” But while she stays “on my tallest tiptoes / Spinning” in “mirrorball,” in “Sweet Nothing,” she runs home to love — a love that expects “nothing” from her in return. I love the turn of phrase here: lovers are often said to express “sweet nothings,” or affectionate words and compliments, and the sweetest nothing of all is that her lover expects “nothing” from her in return. Instead, he offers her a hand coming down off the tightrope. At the end of “Mastermind,” after Swift has basically been claiming that her lover fell into her carefully planned out trap to fall in love with her (“What if I told you I’m a mastermind? / And now you’re mine / It was all my design / ‘Cause I’m a mastermind”), she realizes that her lover knew what she was doing the whole time (“You knew that I’m a mastermind / And now you’re mine / Yeah, all you did was smile”). He wasn’t tricked or played; he did not lose a chess game and end up with her. He knowingly loves her in her scheming and plots. Sounds like the gospel to me, no?

And then we get one of Swift’s best and most meaningful confessions in the bridge when her voice is at its most delicate:

Industry disrupters and soul deconstructors
And smooth-talking hucksters
Out glad-handing each other
And the voices that implore
“You should be doing more”
To you I can admit
That I’m just too soft for all of it

I love that last line, one which sounds like a deep exhale for Swift: she tries to be fierce and menacing to deal with her hurt and fears in songs like “Vigilante Shit” and even “Karma” — although brighter and bubblier on the surface, in this song, she revels in her enemies’ bad luck and indulges in petty delight at seeing them get what they deserve — and don’t get me wrong, I love those songs. The opening of “Vigilante Shit,” “Draw the cat eye, sharp enough to kill a man,” is delectably dark and clever. And I haven’t been able to get the line “karma is my boyfriend” out of my head for weeks. But ultimately, she admits that she’s “too soft for all of it.” She can’t keep spinning on her highest heels or drawing the cat eye.

What she really wants, like all of us, is one who will accept her as she is and expect nothing in return. In other words, she wants grace. At her most vulnerable, she can confess that. And while grace extended from her lover brings her peace and comfort, we’ve heard enough Taylor Swift music to know how, well, complicated love can be. As great as it might be, there is only One who will never write a breakup song. A perfect kiss won’t save Taylor Swift or any of the rest of us, but grace from above surely can.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


4 responses to “Taylor Swift Can’t Be Saved by a Perfect Kiss”

  1. Cali Yee says:

    This is amazing, Sarah! I always look forward to your TS album essays :’)

  2. Jacque Anthony says:

    Great work Sarah! Love this.

  3. Nancy Scoper says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing, Sarah !
    Love from The North End , Va Beach , Virginia
    Nancy Scoper

  4. […] Swift, Midnights — By now, you know every lyric by heart. Sarah Woodard delivers a top-notch article on Taylor Swift’s latest […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *