As I write this, the ten-minute version of Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” is at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100—and has been there for a week. Of course, Taylor makes good music, and this ten-minute ballad is a gorgeous song as well as apparently a juicy piece of celebrity gossip about her relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal.
But “All Too Well,” and the Red album overall, is a masterpiece because it captures a very specific breakup emotion: realizing someone doesn’t deserve you. Rather than denying the beauty of the relationship, Taylor insists that her partner didn’t value what they had: “you lost the one real thing you've ever known / It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”
Consider the relationship messages behind some of the other Top 100 songs right now. #2 on the charts, Adele’s “Easy on Me,” is apologetic: “Go easy on me, baby / I was still a child / Didn't get the chance to / Feel the world around me / Had no time to choose / What I chose to do.” Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” focuses on the experience of being rejected: “I've lost my mind, I've spent the night / Crying on the floor of my bathroom / But you're so unaffected, I really don't get it / But I guess good for you.” “STAY,” by Justin Bieber and The Kid LAROI, is the opposite of an empowered breakup anthem: “Know that I can't find nobody else as good as you / I need you to stay, need you to stay, hey.” Of course, the emotions of being rejected and wanting someone back are natural.
But Taylor, even in a song about being rejected like “All Too Well,” is willing to dwell on these sad feelings while also reclaiming her power in the relationship and calling out bad behavior on the other side (like being “casually cruel in the name of being honest”).
Throughout the album, Taylor makes it clear that while she’s not perfect, her standards are high, and if they aren’t met she’s happy to walk away. Many women internalize narratives that their standards are too high, that they should feel shame in leaving not only good-enough relationships, but also toxic or bad ones, and that they are not worthy of being treated with respect. To these women, Red reminds us that we don’t have to stand for all behavior. Red models what it looks like to have the self-confidence to leave something behind if it isn’t right for you.
When knowing you should leave doesn't make it any easier
The most obvious example of this women's-empowering relational message is “Better Man,” where Taylor reflects on a relationship with a toxic ex. In the song, she’s modeling positive self-talk after leaving an abusive relationship, while also being realistic about how difficult it is to fully let go:
I know I'm probably better off on my own /
Than lovin’ a man who didn't know what he had when he had it /
And I see the permanent damage you did to me /
Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic.
Throughout the song, Taylor pulls no punches on this man’s behavior: “I know I’m probably better off all alone / Than needing a man who could change his mind / At any given minute . . . your jealousy, oh, I can hear it now / Talking down to me like I'd always be around.” But she also acknowledges how much she loved that man, and how difficult it was to let him go: “I wish it wasn't 4 AM, standing in the mirror / Saying to myself, ‘You know you had to do it’ / I know the bravest thing I ever did was run.”
For those of us familiar with the statistic that it takes an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship, these are powerful lines. Swift is writing from the perspective of a woman who has left a relationship that she knows was not good for her, encouraging herself not to go back.
Swift’s music also makes it clear that holding her man to a higher standard doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him. It means that she isn’t willing to tolerate bad behavior, and she is willing to face the facts when she sees that behavior isn’t changing. That’s the beautiful insight of the song: she misses him, and she wishes he were a better man. But he isn’t. “We might still be in love / If you were a better man / You would've been the one / If you were a better man.”
Sticking around in an abusive relationship hoping things will get better is enabling or codependent behavior: “hoping they might turn sweet again / like it was in the beginning.” But having healthy boundaries involves knowing when it’s time to say no, to walk out, to say goodbye. With this song, Taylor shows us that it’s okay to know one’s worth and walk away, in spite of the difficulty.
The difference between being forgiving and being a doormat
“Babe” is a song about walking out on a cheating ex. Another song (like “Better Man”) that Taylor gave to another band and is only now recording herself, “Babe” is a song that emphasizes a cheating partner’s broken promises and recognizes that the time for second chances is past.
The beginning of the first verse of the song is another instance of Taylor capturing a very specific breakup emotion, one that isn’t the rage and disdain that sometimes characterizes her breakup ballads: “What a shame / didn’t want to be the one that got away.” As in “Better Man,” she just wishes the bad behavior hadn’t happened. She doesn’t globalize it into a huge enmity between her and her ex, but she’s also unflinching on the reality that he has crossed her boundary and there are consequences for this: “what about your promises, promises?” All her dreams and her love are still present, and they’re making the breakup more painful for her, but she doesn’t take the guilt upon herself and sticks to the reality of the situation.
What a waste /
Takin' down the pictures and the plans we made, yeah /
And it's strange how your face doesn't look so innocent /
Your secret has its consequence and that's on you, babe.
Having boundaries means that you don’t have to give someone something you don’t want to. Can you give a cheating partner a second chance? Sure. But Taylor reminds us that it’s okay to have a boundary here. Those who struggle with boundary problems often have trouble sticking with something over a personal conviction, and this song is a great model for following through on the consequences when a partner crosses boundaries: “you said no one else . . . You really blew this, babe / We ain’t getting through this one, babe.”
The catchy “Girl at Home” is about holding a stranger accountable for his behavior toward his own partner and toward her. “Don’t look at me, you got a girl at home and everybody knows that,” she says, calling a man out for trying to make a move when he’s already taken.
I don't even know her /
But I feel a responsibility to do what's upstanding and right /
It's kinda like a code, yeah /
And you've been getting closer and closer, and crossing so many lines. /
And it would be a fine proposition /
If I was a stupid girl /
But honey, I am no one's exception /
This I have previously learned.
Sticking to her values is a boundary for Taylor here. She is under no delusions about being a perfect moral standard: she acknowledges that she’s made mistakes like this in the past. But this is her boundary, and there are consequences for “crossing so many lines.”
In a way, it’s harder to be clear on our boundaries with strangers. Especially as women, who are encouraged to be compliant and who at times bear the burden of the consequences of other people’s actions, it can feel difficult to call someone out on their behavior toward us or toward others if we don’t know them. But Taylor knows that both she and the other woman in this situation deserve better. Empathy for others is also empathy for herself: “And yeah, I might go with it / If I hadn't once been just like her.”
With that empathy in place, Taylor holds her boundary in no uncertain terms: “I just wanna make sure / You understand perfectly, you’re the kind of man who makes me sad . . . Call a cab, lose my number, you’re about to lose your girl / Call a cab, lose my number, let’s consider this lesson learned.” She owes this man nothing, and doesn’t mind teaching him a lesson in the process.
A mirror to modern women’s relationship challenges
As women, we don’t like to say, even in retrospect, “he didn’t deserve me.” It feels vain or self-centered. We much prefer phrases like “we just weren’t the right fit,” or “it’s not you, it’s me.” But Taylor, like a matter-of-fact older sister, gives the advice that we as women sometimes need: you can do better. By modeling what it looks like to have high standards and to be willing to say goodbye when those are not met, Taylor opens that possibility up for us. If someone doesn’t treat you well, it’s okay to walk away.