Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
We all keep lists on our phones — shopping lists, wish lists, to-do lists — but never has an iPhone Notes list been more valuable than the one Taylor Swift collected and turned into 2014’s “Blank Space,” the second single from her blockbuster 1989 album and one of the biggest hits of the decade.
“I had more fun writing ‘Blank Space’ than any song I’d written before,” Swift tells Billboard over email. “I had, over time, compiled lists of lyrics, zingers, and potential Twitter comebacks to criticisms and jokes people had made at my expense. When I finally came up with the chorus and hook for the song, I just went through that list on my phone and one by one slotted them into the song. It was the first time I had ever used songwriting as a humorous coping mechanism for an overly harsh depiction of me in the media, but it wouldn’t be the last.”
You know the one-liners she’s talking about: “You look like my next mistake.” “Love’s a game, wanna play?” “I can make the bad guys good for the weekend.” “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” They’re all T-shirts and memes waiting to happen — oh, and speaking of memes, there’s one lyric from Swift’s list that took on a life of its own. The line in the chorus “Got a long list of ex-lovers” was widely misheard as “All the lonely Starbucks lovers,” leading Swift to write the Feb. 14, 2015, tweet “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentine’s Day…..even though that is not the correct lyric,” with the coffee chain cheekily responding, “Wait, it’s not?”
All those conversation-starting lyrics helped Swift make history on the Billboard charts: On the Nov. 29, 2014-dated Billboard Hot 100, “Blank Space” ousted 1989 lead single “Shake It Off” from the top spot — making Swift the first woman in the chart’s 56-year history to succeed herself at No. 1. It spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100 (Swift’s longest leader to date) and also dominated radio, spending six weeks atop the Pop Songs, Adult Pop Songs and Radio Songs charts, as well as four weeks at No. 1 on Adult Contemporary.
So what made this song stand out from Swift’s already-remarkable catalog? For starters, “Blank Space” — which Swift co-wrote with pop superproducers Max Martin and Shellback — seemed to fully cement her transition from core country to pure pop. Where “Shake It Off” announced Swift’s pop-star reintroduction, “Blank Space” just naturally fit right in on top 40 radio without any explanation. On top of that, the song utterly dismantled and then re-engineered the media’s perception of the singer/songwriter as a serial dater with a musical track record of kissing-and-telling.
She leaned into this concocted character in an over-the-top Joseph Kahn-directed music video, which begins with a picturesque love story set on a palatial estate complete with horseback riding and champagne picnics only to end with Swift throwing flaming clothes off a balcony and swinging a golf club at her ex’s priceless sports car. Oh, and just as her jilted lover peels out of the driveway, a beautiful new boy drives up to start the whole cycle anew. The video clearly resonated with fans and critics alike, racking up north of 2.5 billion views on YouTube to date.
While a lot of coverage of the song and video at the time referred to Swift being “in on the joke,” in hindsight, it feels like “Blank Space” rewrote the joke entirely, making clear how ludicrous the pop star’s public persona was and re-routing the focus back to her music. Just as Swift had made a name for herself with very specific, autobiographical musical storytelling, she continued that trend with “Blank Space” — but this time, she was commenting on her own public narrative by consciously framing it in real time through song, setting the standard for a new, self-aware pop star in the 21st century.
“In reality, I was a 24-year-old young woman who was meeting people and dating the way everyone should be allowed to,” Swift tells Billboard, “but because I’m also a songwriter and in the public eye (and because this was five years ago when the conversation around double standards against women was less of a mainstream argument), people were allowed to shame me, joke about me, and make me feel like I was doing something wrong. I used ‘Blank Space’ as a way to show people that I knew what they were saying, and that the way they were portraying me (a serial man eater, volatile, dramatic, petulant, immature) wasn’t breaking me…it was actually an inspiring character they had drawn up.
“Was it factual or autobiographical? No. Was it a way for me to show strength by turning a scarlet letter into a fashion accessory? Absolutely.”