The Real Meaning Behind John Mayer’s Misunderstood “Paper Doll”

John Mayer is no stranger to making headlines with his music. He experienced this full force in 2013 with “Paper Doll” which quickly made headlines, as it was rumored to be about his megastar ex-girlfriend, Taylor Swift.

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The two dated briefly in 2009 and 2010 when Mayer was 32 and Swift was 19. Fans quickly speculated that her 2010 ballad, “Dear John,” was about him. The song features lyrics, Dear John, I see it all now that you’re gone/Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? and You’ll add my name to your long list of traitors/Who don’t understand/And I’ll look back and regret how I ignored when they said /”Run as fast as you can.” Mayer was accused of responding in 2013 with “Paper Doll” as he sings, You’re like 22 girls in one/And none of them know what they’re runnin’ from/Was it just too far to fall?/For a little paper doll.

The song resurfaced in 2023 when Mayer performed a snippet of it at his show in Sacramento, California, in April where he opened up about its meaning, saying that the song came from a place of “hurt” as opposed to angst. “I wonder if people don’t like it because it sounds a little pissed off. I don’t really like ‘pissed off’ as a song, I think it was more ‘hurt,'” he explained. “But is there something about it that’s a little bitchy? There might be. I try not to get bitchiness in the songs, and it happens sometimes. I guess I don’t do it very well, ‘sarcastic bitchy.'”

[RELATED: Taylor Lautner “Praying” for John Mayer When Taylor Swift Re-Releases ‘Speak Now’]

In a 2015 interview, Mayer said that “Paper Doll” didn’t get a chance to simply be a song, rather it was turned into attention-grabbing headlines about his wildly famous ex-girlfriend. “The song never got listened to as a song, it became a news story because of the lyrics,” he professed to MSNBC. “I’m not in the business of telling people what the song’s about.”

He reiterated this point in a 2019 episode of his online series, Current Mood, where he squashed the idea that the song is about Swift, adding that “Paper Doll” is a song from his catalog that didn’t get the love it deserved. He said at the time of the song’s release, he tried to “stand strong” on “one of the tenants of being a singer-songwriter” which is not revealing who a song is about.

“When ‘Paper Doll’ came out, 100 percent of the people believed it was about somebody, and the person that they thought it was about brought a certain amount of superficial, pop-culture back and forth about it that I think shat on the song. But the song was not about that person,” he affirmed. “I could never tell anybody ‘that’s not true’ because then I would be breaking my rule…so I had to burn ‘Paper Doll’ to save the integrity of being a singer-songwriter.” He went on to say that he felt the song didn’t get “the credit it deserves” due to all the rumors that overshadowed it. “But it wasn’t what people thought it was and I had to let it go,” he added.

“Paper Doll” was a deep cut on Mayer’s 2013 album, Paradise Valley, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 while clinching the top spot on the Top Rock and Folk Albums charts.

Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

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