Taylor Swift, “Mean”

“Mean” is kind of like Taylor Swift’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” In rock and roll, it’s what’s become known as a kiss-off song.

While Dylan’s ire seems to be aimed specifically at a lover and perhaps more generally at the New York purist folk scene, Swift says her song is directed at “one guy” who continually has tried to bring her down.

“When you do what I do,” says Swift, “which is you put yourself out there for a lot of people to say whatever they want, there are a million different opinions from a million different people. I get it that not everyone is going to like what you do, and I get that no matter what, you’re going to be criticized for something. But I also get that there are different ways to criticize someone. There’s constructive criticism, there’s professional criticism and then there’s just being mean. And there’s a line that you cross when you just start to attack everything about a person. And there’s one guy, man, who just crossed the line over and over again of just being mean and just saying things that would ruin my day. This happens no matter what you do, no matter how old you are, no matter what your job is, no matter what your place is in life, there’s always going to be someone who’s just mean to you. And dealing with that is all that you can control.”

Lyrically, these types of songs usually find their best, most direct expression through conversational vernacular. Swift: “you don’t know what you don’t know”; Dylan: “you say I let you down, you know it’s not like that.”

Just as with Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street,” as the writer Andy Gill observed, the songs end up being a bit of a one-sided argument. I guess that’s just what happens if you cross a songwriter, who’s always gets the last laugh.

Watch the video for “Mean” on Vevo.

“Mean”

You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again got me feeling like I’m nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard, calling me out when I’m wounded
You, pickin’ on the weaker man

Well, you can take me down with just one single blow
But you don’t know what you don’t know

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so mean?

You, with your switching sides and your walk-by lies and your humiliation
You, have pointed out my flaws again as if I don’t already see them
I’ll walk with my head down trying to block you out ’cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again

I’ll bet you got pushed around, somebody made you cold
But the cycle ends right now ’cause you can’t lead me down that road
And you don’t know what you don’t know

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so mean?

And I can see you years from now in a bar, talking over a football game
With that same big loud opinion but nobody’s listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can’t sing

But all you are is mean
All you are is mean and a liar and pathetic and alone in life
And mean, and mean, and mean, and mean

But someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean, yeah
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so mean?

Someday, I’ll be, living in a big old city
(Why you gotta be so mean?)
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
(Why you gotta be so mean?)
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
(Why you gotta be so mean?)
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean

Why you gotta be so mean?

Written by Taylor Swift

31 Comments

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  1. I read this expecting to reveal who the song is directed at (like others who read this I’m sure… it is called “behind the lyrics” afterall) . I suppose it’s too obvious to mention Kanye West. I’m sure this didn’t really hurt Kanye’s feelings. But he’s made an ass out of himself in public enough times for everyone to understand where Taylor Swift is coming from.

    The comparison to Dylan isn’t appropriate, but that’s not Taylor Swift’s fault.

  2. Not only mean but a little absurd. I realize having taylor gets you more readers…. but lyric of the week? Come on, American Songwriter, YOUR just being…mean.

  3. This is another great song by taylor. She is right by saying that their are many ways that you can criticize someone. And that your always going to be judged for anything that you do. Another hit for taylor!

  4. The lyrics of “Mean” are first-class from all kinds of perspectives: authentic and conversational; interesting but not cute internal rhymes like “same big loud opinion but nobody’s listening”; a story that launches into a great bridge; and attention-getting twists in the structure of the song. I say bravo.

  5. Gotta give Taylor credit. She can write stuff that gets to the point, makes her point, is listener friendly and sticks in your head. AND as a big, big plus, she is articulate.
    Not exactly my type of music, but I have woke up with these lyrics running through my brain…

  6. Comparing Swift to Dylan is no more absurd than comparing anybody else to Dylan. There are points of comparison, however.
    Both relocated far from their birthplaces, obsessed to see the mecca of their favorite music and artists. Both outraged the purists of their initial genres by growing, incorporating influences from rock/pop and expanding their audiences. And both have been called the voice of their generation.

    Some people may superficially listen to Swift’s catchy radio hits, and lump this self-made artist (with a very defined vision) into a pile with Disney creations, but anyone with critical acumen who examines the lyrics of songs like “Fearless” or “Last Kiss” knows the absurdity of that generalization.
    More unsettling is the misogynistic inference that — after years of idolizing juvenile macho posturings by the likes of Jagger/Richards — the genuine emotions of typical young women, rendered more honestly than anyone has ever done in song, is not worthy of attention.

  7. lyrics correction: it’s “wildfire lies”, NOT “walk-by lies”

    The song is directed at Bob Lefsetz because he kept “switching sides” with his opinion on her and went from saying nice things to straight up bashing every little thing about her. In a broader sense it could be applied to all of the other critics who say mean, unprofessional things about her. It is not about Kanye West.

  8. David, how do you know that the people who say the “genuine emotions of typical young women” are shallow and irrelevant do not also say the same thing of the “juvenile macho posturings by the likes of Jagger/Richards?”

  9. I don’t get her music, I’ll just say that up front. (Hello Bert!) I don’t think this is a strong lyric, but I feel that way about a lot of lyrics of the week.

    I’ve always heard this song is about Lefsetz & I have to say (Grammys cough Grammys) that there seems to be plenty of evidence that despite a lifetime of singing lessons & appearing in musicals from a young age, she doesn’t have a great voice and has trouble staying in tune in live appearances.

    I think if you’re going to put yourself out there as a professional singer, then attacking someone who criticizes your singing voice is childish. That’s his job, right? Prove him wrong, don’t accuse him of meanness.

    But she’s made her career by making an emotional connection to her audience, and this song is part of that. She’s giving her fans what they want.

    I just don’t get why A.S. is so excited about her???

  10. I’ll play along….isn’t this very song a contradiction to the following lines:

    “I’ll bet you got pushed around, somebody made you cold
    But the cycle ends right now ’cause you can’t lead me down that road
    And you don’t know what you don’t know”

    …especially with the following lines:

    “But all you are is mean
    All you are is mean and a liar and pathetic and alone in life
    And mean, and mean, and mean, and mean”

    This is sophomoric teenage drivel. All of Swift’s songs should begin with “Dear Diary”.

  11. I think this is a brilliant song.

    correction: it’s not her management that called her the ‘voice of this generation’ it’s the country stars and the media. brad paisley and keith urban said that.

    I can see the comparison of Dylan to her. My dad also said that he love Swift and Dylan.

    I love her songwriting style. If you don’t get the girl or her songs, it doesn’t mean she’s bad or her songs are bad.
    Just saying.

  12. I stand corrected…I was hoping it wasn’t about Kanye West. I don’t follow her career, and that’s the only thing people who only have a passing knowledge of her career could surmise. Thanks for setting me (and everyone else that aren’t very familiar with the details of her career) straight. It makes more sense now. I do have to say I have noticed (as have plenty others) that she often struggles with live singing. But that doesn’t take anything away from her studio and songwriting work. Actually, there’s another similarity! – Bob didn’t sing well live. Or in the studio. But that’s just like, my opinion, man.

  13. Sophomoric teenage drivel. Never in my life did I think I’d find myself defending Taylor Swift. It’s not her fault A.S. featured her. She doesn’t proclaim to be anything, she is just seeing how far she can take this thing. Sure, a lot of other people – even her management (and some fans and people that may post here) may proclaim her to be something greater than she is. But I don’t hear that from her. Okay I’m done talking about Taylor Swift. I’m letting my subscription to A.S. expire for a couple of reasons, but the main one is just not knowing/serving who your readers are in a consistent way: All the gear reviews (guitars, recording interfaces, micas, etc) are for the most expensive products. There are some very good writers that speak to real musicians that don’t have a big budget. Right next to that will be a review about a $5,000 guitar. Obvious conflict of interests going on.

  14. Are you folks for reals?they were comparing two songs that had a simular theme,the theme was a basic kiss off!Nobody said Taylor was like Dylan but one day they will say Dylan was great ,you know like Taylor Swift.

  15. Yes, Jan, her label management did call her the “Voice of her Generation”.
    So have Country superstars like Brad Paisley.
    So did “Men’s Health” in their “25 most influential people” issue, citing her as a once-in-a-generation performer.
    So did Louis Messina, who has promoted many of the biggest recording artists but says he “never seen anything like it (the demand for her tickets) … Bruce Springsteen was the voice of his generation, Taylor is the voice of her generation.” Dateline used his quote in their special on Swift.
    And Stevie Nicks, writing for Time Magazine, phrased it even better: “Taylor is writing for the universal woman, and for the man who wants to know her.”

  16. David, you’re saying 50+ men and women define this generation? Interesting. I’m not buying that this girl speaks for my generation. I really hope that my generation cares about more than boys and “mean” critics.

    I don’t think that her lyrics being honest is any indicator of how well-written they are or are not. As Bert pointed out, this song contradicts itself. Probably because the thoughts are hastily conceived, because they are juvenile. As are the “macho posturings” you criticize, while acclaiming what you describe as the young girl’s equivalent from Taylor Swift. Do you realize that you, too, are contradicting yourself by committing the reverse of the hypocrisy you are trying to condemn?

    I agree with Juice, though, that she isn’t making herself out to be something greater than she is. It is the media that does, and her fans (but that is to be expected, of course.)

  17. Jan, I simply refuted your erroneous statement that “no one has called Taylor the voice of a generation except her management”. I chose a sampling of knowledgeable representatives from the music industry and elsewhere to make the point. You didn’t say it had to be someone in Taylor’s own generation.

    Given Swift’s unmatched Billboard album sales over the last 3 years, her world record digital sales, her #1 airplay ranking, her social network rank and her absolute dominance in concert ticket sales ever since the “Speak Now” tour went on sale, isn’t it kind of obvious what her own peer group thinks?

    I don’t know what generation you inhabit, but I’m guessing that Swift — a regular American girl whose 3 albums cover her life from 11 to 21 — is reflecting interests and emotions that are quite universal and genuine for most of her Gen Z peers.
    Writing about what you know isn’t childish, it’s honest; writing about an immature time of life doesn’t make the writing itself immature — in the right hands, it’s a tremendous insight into the formative years.

    Even on her first album, Swift dealt with the intense emotions of that age:
    “The Outside”, written at 11, about trying to fit in, being bullied and shunned;
    “Tied Together With a Smile”, about a friend so obsessed with being popular that her mental health was affected;
    “Place in This World”, about 15 -year -old Swift trying to gain respect in a job where everyone else was an adult, mostly male.

    Just “boys and ‘mean’ critics”, you say? Perhaps you should get more familiar with an artist before criticizing.

  18. Jan, I was pointing out that young male rock/pop stars, from Elvis to the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys and on, have caused a frenzy of screaming young female fans to idolize them, even as they performed songs as simplistic as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, or kiss-offs like “Hound Dog”, “Under Your Thumb” and “Stupid Girl”.
    Now — the first time that a female has inspired similar fan hysteria — she is criticized as being “juvenile”, even though her songs are far more sophisticated. Where’s the contradiction?

    As for Swift’s “Mean”, not so contradictory either. It’s a song about bullies — specifically one critic who crossed the line with outright lies and constant personal attacks, but also, in general, about any bully who goes out of their way to ridicule and demean people 9as the video makes clear).

    And because bullies are first encountered on the schoolyard, Taylor chooses to adopt the cadence and idiom of the schoolyard (“You’re Mean”), lightening the mood with some humor and country twang.
    No, she couldn’t resist a retort (“Liar.. and pathetic”) but that description, while true of the critic, are part of an imagined future , where a bitter, negative person is shown, Scrooge-like, that the person always destroyed by constant negativity and hatred … is the hater.

    THAT’S the road she won’t be led down — anger and negativity. The hallmark of Swift’s persona is a refusal to quit or to be beaten down, but to remain optimistic and joyful about life and the future.

  19. I am familiar with her music and have heard those songs before.

    I stand by my statement (that honesty does not mean the lyrics are well written or good by any other measure) which you have done nothing to refute other than simply restating your original position. I’m not saying writing about an immature time of life makes the writing itself immature, you were saying (or implying) that writing honestly makes the writing good. I’m saying that is not a legitimate argument. I’m being honest right now. I guess that means I’m the next Charles Dickens.

    The fact that she has sold many albums is certainly commendable, but it does not speak for a generation that largely downloads music illegally. The same argument could be made about Lady Gaga, who has sold just as many, if not more records, and who has had more hits. These artists have very different messages and appeal to different segments of the same generation.

    Swift sells tickets because she is talented, yes, but also because she appeals to young children and is a safe bet for parents.

    Swift is reflecting emotions that are near-universal, but she is only ever speaking of her love life or personal life, there are things happening in the world today affecting this generation, and we do care and we are aware. At least Gaga broaches (some of) these subjects, Swift doesn’t even try. In my opinion, she would have to in order to be labeled the voice of a generation.

    Please don’t think I’m saying Lady Gaga is the voice of a generation either, I’m not saying that. I’m just giving an example.

    This generation is more diverse musically than any one that has come before it. With the advent of the internet, anyone with a computer (which is most people in the Western world) can get their music out there and everyone has access to it instantly should they come across it. I don’t think it makes sense to label one artist as speaking for the entire generation. Music today isn’t as label- and radio-oriented as it was. These two outlets lose influence daily and and people in the industry want to ignore it by labeling the biggest sellers (Gaga and Swift) the “voice of a generation!” to make them seem more legitimate and sustain album sales.

    Calling someone pathetic and alone in life and telling them that they will be drunk and rambling in the future is itself an ad hominem attack on someone who, as Swift makes clear when she sings, “All about how I can’t sing,” was making a legitimate criticism. Her response is to launch a series of ad hominem attacks and call the person “mean.” You don’t see how ad hominems and projections of alcoholism are mean while criticizing a singer for singing poorly is not? Okay.

    Picture To Burn, “You’re a redneck.” Gee, that’s mean. Her songs Better Than Revenge and Dear John? Trashing Joe Jonas on her vlog and on Ellen? It’s interesting to me that musicians (not just Taylor) can publicly name and ridicule people who are famous too and are essentially working for a the same public to whom they are speaking and no one criticizes them for it. But if someone did that in “real life” they would be called childish, petty, and mean. I don’t get it.

  20. So, Jan, the opinions of 50-year-old men don’t count, even though their experts in their field. And the overwhelming opinion of fans who are Swift’s age don’t matter either, because they are “children”.
    Swift’s fan are quite similar to the ones who screamed for Elvis or the Beatles ( the voices of their generations).

    You also mix generations. Gaga is Gen Y, Taylor is Gen Z. I like Gaga, she makes great dance music and she’s fun, but do you really believe that Gaga represents the the average young woman? Gaga is basically Madonna re-invented for the new century.

    Despite the iconic stature of Gaga/ Madonna, their concerts do not generate the kind of fan frenzy that Taylor ‘s do, and she does it, not with dance music or sexuality, but with simple songs and experiences that make her one with her her fans. What other female country or pop artist has EVER done that?

    The critic said she can’t sing and her career was officially over after the Grammy performance. Was he right?
    He also said, among other lies, that she used autotune in concert (how else to explain the absolutely glowing critical reviews Taylor, the “non-singer”, receives for her hundreds of live concerts); according to his own column, she called him up to say she NEVER used autotune live, and challenged him to come and see for himself (he backed off).

    Nobody said Taylor was a Disney Princess. She gets angry, like any young woman, and she vents. Like Emma Stone just said, she’s a pretty normal girl.

  21. Swift and Gaga are 3 years apart in age. I think you think Taylor is younger than she is. If you are saying Taylor is the voice of generation Z (meaning the 8 – 14-year-olds) then the voice of generation Y would be the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys, not Gaga or anyone else who is just coming along now when these people are in their 20s. You need to define your terms “generation Y” and “generation Z.” These monikers do often overlap and are not set in stone. You are not really making much of a distinction here.

    What is wrong with sexuality in music? You can’t make the argument that Swift lyrics are genuine even if they are about an immature part of life, and then turn around and act like lyrics about sex are not genuine. These people are all writing about different aspects of real life. Same argument applies to your critiquing Gaga for making dance music. What’s wrong with that? It’s a type of music just like any other. It seems you are making the argument that Swift deserves more credit simply because she writes a different style of music and uses more limited scope of lyrical subjects.

    I also think you might be surprised to learn Gaga has more international appeal than Swift, but no matter.

    If the critic you are speaking of is Bob Lefsetz, he didn’t say her career was officially over, he said that she shortened her career unless she does some sort of damage control. I agree with him on that. Prior to that Grammy performance I did not know much of Taylor Swift other than her crossover hits and Kanye West. To people who are not her die hard fans, I think she seemed legitimate. But in that setting, among professionals, tanking like she did, it just made her come across as inexperienced, unprofessional, etc. I’m not saying these things are inexcusable or career enders, but it largely changed public perception of her (outside of her die hard fan base.) Swift’s people had been marketing her essentially as the real deal in a sea of fakes. The Grammys performance (along with most of her other televised performances) demonstrated that she has most definitely been doing some faking too.

  22. Actually Gaga is younger than I thought she was — 25 to Taylor’s 21.

    But you miss the point:
    Taylor Swift’s albums to date have been a chronicle of her own, rather normal young life, told sequentially, from 11-years-old to present.
    No female musical artist … HAS EVER DONE THIS BEFORE! And certainly nobody has done it in such a way as to strike a chord with so many other females of all ages a (and quite a few men as well)..

    We have had tons of sexy sirens (nothing wrong with sex at all — it’s just a more typical way women have tried to compete with me in the past. Or they try to be as punk as any guy…punk-rock, leather jackets, cigs, f-bombs every other verse. Rolling Stone’s latest list of the top 100 pop/rock artists ever includes 92 men, 8 women.

    Taylor has given a voice to the average girl, as she grows. Her fans admire her for her prodigy-like lyrical gifts, her soul-baring honesty, her eye for details, her ear for memorable phrases and hooks, and her passion and emotion.
    She is first and foremost a story-teller and a communicator. NOT a dance music-artist. Not a blues-belter. The kind of artist who expresses exactly what her fans feel, in words that ring true.

    She also consistently delivers an extremely positive message.

  23. Jan, I have to address some misrepresentations in your last 2 posts.
    (1)Taylor does not “publicly name and ridicule people who are famous”.
    Where she does name people, they tend to be boys she crushed on (Stephen, Drew), whose biggest failing was being oblivious to her worship — hardly ridicule.
    She has never confirmed the targets of her angriest songs. Yes, in all likelihood, “Dear John” is probably more than a colloquialism, and Ellen did get her to name Joe Jonas to “Forever and Always”, but what’s the ridicule? That a guy told her forever and always? That a much older guy played mind games with a naive 19-year-old?

    (2) She never uses the phrase “You’re a redneck”— the line is :
    “you’re a redneck heartbreak
    who’s really bad at lying”
    It’s not a slur at all (some boys are “proud to be a redneck”) — I’m guessing it’s used because of it’s approximate rhyme on the downbeat (redNECK heartBREAK).

    (3)Yes, Lefsetz pretty much said Taylor’s career was over.
    I have in front of me the Bob Lefsetz letter on the Grammys, from Feb., 2010. Let me quote (omitting his ramblings, f-bombs and more colorful language) the most relevant lines:
    “Did Taylor kill her career overnight? I’ll argue she did ……. In one fell swoop, Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms …. Taylor’s too young and dumb to understand the mistake she made.”

    Sweet, huh?

    Songs are where Swift expresses what she really feels. She did that here, but the song, rather than responding in kind to Bob’s nasty rants, is defiantly exuberant and almost humorous, like saying nah-nah-nah to the schoolyard bully. And it ends by very astutely advising him of the path where bitterness and anger will lead. (Of course, she’s so young and dumb, and oh yes, just interested in boys, what would she know?)

    Given Taylor’s incredible last six months of album sales, ticket sales, awards, honors and records, Lefsetz just looks like a fool. The Grammy performance, in all probability caused by a faulty earpiece anyway, is just irrelevant. If anything, that momentary failure just makes her all the more vulnerable and real to her fans.

  24. please don’t ever compare taylor swift to bob dylan ever again. ever. not even close. AS- you should know better. Not to mention this is another terribly written song by taylor swift. lyric of the week? come on. please be serious. and no, I’m not just “being mean.” you’re ruining any credibility you might have had by printing this kind of stuff.

  25. Skip to the :58 mark http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANPk-mRtpLc&feature=related
    Skip to the 1:29 and 1:56 to the VERY obvious usage of auto-tune http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zudLJdajX5Y&feature=channel. Now… who is really wrong here? Just because she doesn’t over use the heck out of it in all of her live performances, doesn’t mean she doesn’t use it. Also… Why didn’t she take vocal lessons BEFORE branding herself as a singer? She probably would have been seen as a truly authentic and talented performer if she took lessons before milking impressionable girls for everything they’re worth. Please have ALL of the facts and let us not take sides like we are immature school children. Yes she’s a decent songwriter that has plenty of room to grow and maybe she can be an even better singer once she ditches the auto-tune and the compelling need to lie about not ever using it.

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