Swift Analysis: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to the Subjects of All 19 ‘Red’ Songs

Reading through the lyric booklet of Taylor Swift's Red, you may be surprised to come across the secret message that reads:

P-A-U-L-I-S D-E-A-D.

Just kidding. But not since the late '60s, when worried Beatlemaniacs scanned every microscopic bit of every album looking for confirmation that Paul McCartney had died, have so many fans spent as much time analyzing cryptic C-L-U-E-S as they are this week, now that Red is out and peppered with hints about the subjects of Swift's songs.

As you may know, on every album, Swift indulges in inappropriate capitalizations in the printed lyrics of her songs, and it's not because she spilled a Coke on the shift key of her old IBM Selectric. When you put together those capitalized letters, they spell out messages about the meanings or origins of the tune in question. Which made for decoder-ring-style fun from the get-go, but which is particularly provocative now that there's a national guessing game about which well-known boyfriend each number might be about.

It's as if Swift's giving us tacit permission to guess away. You could say she gets to have it both ways: refusing to talk about the specific subjects of most of her songs, but also teasing fans with clues that range from utterly opaque to dead give-away spoilers. Isn't she simultaneously discouraging and encouraging this kind of voyeuristic speculation? Maybe, but she's said in interviews that she doesn't mind people guessing who the tunes are about if that means they're focused in on lyrics. And if you're a music buff, you can only applaud her for prompting a new generation of pop fans to indulge in the nearly lost practice of staring at a lyric sheet for hours.

Naturally, we want to play Nancy Drew and join in the fun. Two years ago, we did a song-by-song analysis on Speak Now, and Swift told us how much she enjoyed reading our piece on "what you think my songs were about." Think was the operative word there, and should have been a tip-off that we got at least one dead-wrong. Which we did: Because we hadn't seen the hidden messages before writing that piece, we mistakenly pegged "Story of Us" as being about Joe Jonas instead of its true subject, John Mayer. Silly us! This time, we waited till all the clues were in hand before venturing any guesses.

Here is our possibly fallible take on all 19 songs—16 on the regular edition, and three more on the deluxe:

1. "State of Grace"

Clue: "I love you doesn't count after goodbye"

All we really learn from the hidden message is that this boyfriend probably dumped her, then had second thoughts and came back for another shot, which Swift wasn't giving. But the lyrics hold better clues: "Just twin fire signs, four blue eyes." Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal are both blue-eyed Sagitariuses.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 99%

2. "Red"

Clue: "Sag" (or is it "SAG"?)

The hidden message could mean any of three things: short for Sagitarius (see above), short for Sag Harbor (the kind of place a New Yorker and his date might go take a spin around), or the well-known acronym for the Screen Actors Guild. Alternately, maybe she just means this intense love affair... sagged. Any one of those four interpretations points in one direction.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 90%

3. "Treacherous"

Clue: "Won't stop till it's over"

Well, that's one not much help... as far as we can tell. Some fans have speculated this is about One Direction's Harry Styles because he has a tattoo that says "Won't stop till we surrender." That's... interesting, if hardly definitive. But in lieu of other evidence, we'll buy it, for now, especially since the song seems to be about a mostly sensual—and uneasy—connection, as opposed to other songs on the album that make it clear she was really comfortable and in love with Gyllenhaal.

Best bet: Styles

Our confidence level: 55%

4. "I Knew You Were Trouble"

Clue: "When you saw me dancing"

Many people were quick to peg this as a Gyllenhaal slap when it came out on iTunes a few weeks ago. The "trouble" with that is the lyrics make it sound like there was not much love lost when this one came to an end, and she always knew it would end badly, which hardly seems to be the case in the overtly Jake-centered breakup songs. Also, get a load of the bridge: "The saddest fear comes creeping in that you never loved me, or her... or anyone..." This suggests that there was a romantic rival that brought the relationship to an end. Now, if you've been reading the latest gossip about Swift's supposed romance with One Direction's Harry Styles last spring, you know that it allegedly all came to an end when she saw tabloid photos of him canoodling with another woman. So: advantage, Styles. But the hidden message also has some import here. Swift and pal Selena Gomez were seen dancing to One Direction last year in the front row at the Kids' Choice Awards. That may well be where Styles "saw (her) dancing."

Best bet: Styles

Our confidence level: 75%

5. "All Too Well"

Clue: "Maple lattes"

Honestly, this one's a no-brainer. It takes place in autumn—when Swift was dating Gyllenhaal—and includes references to meeting the ex-boyfriend's family. There are references to a "scarf from that very first week" that the ex never returned when he sent back her other stuff, and of course Swift was first photographed by paparazzi walking the streets of New York with Jake wearing a scarf, in a walking clinch that almost looked like a sweet recreation of the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. But that hidden message—come on. Google "maple lattes" and one of the first things that comes up is a November 2010 People magazine story about this particular couple sharing that particular beverage at a Starbucks.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 99%

6. "22"

Clue: "Ashley Dianna Claire Selena"

These were apparently the attendants at a 22nd birthday celebration.

Best bets: Ashley Avignone, Dianna Agron, Claire Callaway, and Selena Gomez.

Our confidence level: 99%

7. "I Almost Do"

Clue: "Wrote this instead of calling"

Swift was clearly feeling some post-breakup ambivalence when she wrote this one, which is about barely resisting the urge to make a reconciliatory phone call in the wake of a split. "Each time you reach out," she sings, "there's no reply/I bet it never, ever occurred to you/That I can't say hello to you and risk another goodbye." This would seem to suggest the song is a partner with "State of Grace," which bears a hidden message indicating that the beau in question tried to say "I love you" after instigating the split. Swift's clear ongoing affection for the subject of the song clearly rules out a regretted quickie romance, i.e., Styles. So unless she's dipping further back into her romantic past (which is not her usual writing m.o.), the process of elimination leaves one guy.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 85%

8. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"

Clue: "When I stopped caring what you thought"

The assumption about this first single was that it had to be about Gyllenhaal, but that was before there was widespread speculation that Styles had figured into last year's mix for Swift. The lyrics really aren't much help, since they speak of multiple breakups and reunions, and none of Swift's recent publicly known relationships have seemed that protracted. She tells the story of getting a visit in the studio from a friend of the ex who loudly talked about the couple getting back together—and it seems more likely that a friend of a One Direction member would happen to be in a recording studio than a friend of an actor. But the fact that Swift admits caring about the relationship for a long time after it was over, and mentions a post-split "I love you" phone call like the ones references in earlier songs, points toward the first assumption being right.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 60%

9. "Stay Stay Stay"

Clue: "Daydreaming about real love"

Since this is the most cheerful song on the album aside from a couple at the end that are clearly about Conor Kennedy, some fans have assumed this one is, too. They point toward a reference to the sweet new boyfriend donning a football helmet to add some levity to a tense moment, and Kennedy plays football, so... it has to be, no? Well, no, because the hidden message informs us that the song is a "daydream." A reality-inspired daydream, perhaps—we're not ruling Kennedy out!—but more likely just a daydream-daydream, intended to add some hope and light in the middle of a dark stretch of the album.

Best bet: Non-existent fantasy lover

Our confidence level: 70%

10. "The Last Time"

Clue: "LA on your break"

"All the times I let you in/Just for you to go again" makes it clear that this is probably the same on-again/off-again relationship alluded to in "We Are Never Getting Back Together," and that suggests Gyllenhaal. But the reference to a "best apology" could mean either Jake or Harry, since it sounds like they both did some apologizing. The "L.A." hidden message? Not helping us here.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 50%

11. "Holy Ground"

Clue: "When you came to the show in SD"

Who came to Swift's show last year in San Diego? Or South Dakota? No idea here—sorry. But the fact that Swift would still think of their shared ground as hallowed after the fact would seem to rule in potential-great-love Gyllenhaal and rule out silly-boy Styles. The reference to "New York time" cements it.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 75%

12. "Sad Beautiful Tragic"

Clue: "While you were on a train"

Again, the hookup with Gyllenhaal seems to be the only one from the last two years Swift cared about to regard in tragedian terms. And he did tag along on a train tour with Mumford & Sons.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 85%

13. "The Lucky One"

Clue: "Wouldn't you like to know"

Thanks for that total non-clue, Taylor. This is a (mostly) third-person story about an overwhelmed starlet who finally chucks it all and retires... and Swift's envy over her ability to walk away from the madness. Could this just be a fictional construct conceived to make a statement about stardom, a la Tom Petty's "Into the Great White Open"? Quite possibly, although Swift almost always deals in non-fiction, and the "Wouldn't you like to know" strongly hints that there's an answer she has no plans to tell. The Vulture website speculated that this one is about Joni Mitchell, which makes a slight bit of sense, since Swift would have heavily researched Mitchell's life because of ongoing plans to portray her in a biopic, and Joni has unofficially retired. But we can't buy it, because the song clearly portrays its subject as easily victimized and not really in control of her circumstances, and if you know Joni Mitchell...

Best bet: No idea whatsoever

Confidence level: 0%

14. "Everything Has Changed"

Clue: "Hyannis Port"

"Hyannis Port"? "Green eyes and freckles"? This one is pretty much the opposite of "Wouldn't you like to know."

Best bet: Conor Kennedy

Our confidence level: 100%

15. "Starlight"

Clue: "For Ethel"

Some critics—we'll be kind and not name names—assumed this was about Conor because of a line about sneaking into a yacht club party, as if this were an autobiographical reference to their so-called "wedding crasher" incident. Back to Remedial Lyric Comprehension 101, post haste, for all these writers. Because even without the benefit of the lyric sheet and it's "For Ethel" clue, what about the references to "Bobby," "the summer of '45," "we were seventeen," and "have ten kids" does not scream Period Piece About Bobby & Ethel Kennedy?

Best bet: Bobby and Ethel Kennedy

Our confidence level: 200%

16. "Begin Again"

Clue: "I can wear heels now"

Conor Kennedy is 6'2". Enough said. Or is it? The sweet ballad has Swift saying this first date has given her faith after eight months of feeling hopeless about love. So some fans have used that to speculate that it was really inspired by her supposedly going out late last year with Parachute singer Will Anderson. But Anderson just doesn't look that tall to us, so we're going with the new guy. We don't have personal knowledge that Kennedy shows up early instead of late and pulls out chairs for women, but we'll take her word for it.

Best bet: Conor Kennedy

Our confidence level: 80%

And now, the bonus tracks from the Target deluxe edition. With no printed lyrics, these three songs lack hidden messages, but in least one case, that's no hindrance in making a subject-matter determination.

17. "The Moment I Knew"

The most nakedly confessional song on the album (if you consider this extra disc part of the album). Swift describes being at her birthday party, with the Christmas lights already up, hoping her beau will walk through the door. He doesn't, though he calls to apologize later, and that's when she knows it's over. Devastating, and unmistakable.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 100%

18. "Come Back... Be Here"

The yearning quality makes it of a piece with the album's other most soul-searching songs, even if doesn't have one-tenth the specifics of the song preceding it on the bonus disc.

Best bet: Gyllenhaal

Our confidence level: 70%

19. "Girl at Home"

Swift's confidence that the boyfriend in this song has a girl in every port—or at least one key landing pad—points toward what we know about Styles, and how gossip reports had them breaking up after Swift saw some incriminating tabloid photos.

Best bet: Styles

Our confidence level: 80%