Taylor Swift's Lyrical Obsession With Cars, From 'Tim McGraw' to 'Reputation'

Taylor Swift
John Salangsang/Invision/AP

Taylor Swift performs at DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston.

<a href="/music/taylor-swift">Taylor Swift</a> wants you to know that Old Taylor is dead. The new Taylor of her latest album, <a href="/articles/columns/pop/8031184/taylor-swift-reputation-album-review">Reputation</a> -- with its harsh, hip-hop-inspired beats and aggressive pose -- sounds far from the plucky, innocent teenager who won over country radio a decade ago.

But fans will recognize Swift's familiar brand all over the lyrics. There are callbacks to old hits like "Love Story," references to exes and cats, and her unmistakably Swiftian songwriting style. Oh, and a car song.

To say that Swift loves car references is a dramatic understatement. She mentions cars and transportation more generally on all of her albums, and not just in passing: Vehicles in her songs have an enormous amount of significance. They're central characters and sometimes even the subject matter, telling us about what's happening in her life. You can even find meticulous documentation of the phenomenon online <a href="" target="_blank">here</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>. No other recent major artist has been so obsessed with cars, <a href="" target="_blank">except Frank Ocean</a>. 

Reputation's car track, "Getaway Car," is a standout. It gets right to the point: She leaves one man for another in his ride, but the relationship is doomed. "Nothing good starts in a getaway car," Swift sings over a synthpop beat that recalls 1989. It could hint at her relationship with Tom Hiddleston after splitting with <a href="/music/Calvin-Harris">Calvin Harris</a>, but the personal details hardly matter. Anyone can relate to running off with somebody, Bonnie and Clyde-style, only to have it blow up in their face. 

Cars, like whiskey, are no strangers to country music. Swift clearly learned the power of finely wrought, everyday details in her songwriting years ago, and she's continued to wield those skills even as she's swapped sonic backdrops. She pined for a "boy in a Chevy truck" on her debut single, "Tim McGraw," from her self-titled 2006 album, released when she was only 16.

Her second album, 2008's Fearless, masterfully bridged her country roots with a pop sensibility. Swift once again jumped right back into her favorite trope: "You walk me to the car / And you know I wanna ask you to dance right there / In the middle of the parking lot," she sings on the title song. The single follows a couple as they drive "'til we run out of road in this one-horse town" -- a getaway that leaves Swift's narrator emboldened and happy, rather than dejected. 

Swift, who's uniquely aware of her own talents and limits as a singer, knows better than to let a good thing go. She went back to the same structure on Red (2012), which is something like an album-length love affair that takes place in cars and planes (the latter having become more frequent as she's shed her humble Nashville image).

Her finest automotive lyric is also her most specific, on Red's title song: "Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street" tells you everything you could want to know about her feelings.

"Treacherous" is about taking a trek even when you know you shouldn't, a poignant metaphor for new love ("nothing safe is worth the drive"). On her best song to date, "All Too Well," she remembers a joy ride with an ex in painfully photographic detail: "'Cause there we are again on that little town street / You almost ran the red 'cause you were looking over at me."

The lovers change, but the cars are always there. She goes on a midnight drive with the mystery man behind 1989's "Style" (again, he can't keep his "eyes on the road") and cares for someone who's hospitalized after crashing a vehicle on "Out of the Woods." (Fans think both are about <a href="/music/Harry-Styles">Harry Styles</a>.)

Swift has moved on from singing about Chevys, but she's still discerning about brands. On another Reputation track, "King of My Heart," she dismisses fancy boys with "their Range Rovers and their Jaguars."

It's all enough to wonder if Swift is a closeted auto enthusiast. In any case, in her work, cars mean everything. They're omniscient witnesses to first kisses, courtships, breakups and life-changing mistakes. Who knew driving could be so dramatic?


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