By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘22’ is a classic example of a pop song whose meaning appears straightforward but is, in fact, slightly more complex and ambiguous once we probe under the surface. Taken from her fourth album Red (2012), ‘22’ is in some ways a quintessential Taylor Swift song, combining poppy and uptempo music with seemingly breezy and carefree lyrics.
Yet when we stop to analyse the meaning of the song’s lyrics more closely, a more intriguing picture emerges.
‘22’: song meaning
Taylor Swift co-wrote ‘22’ with the song’s producers, Max Martin and Shellback. In summary, the song celebrates the feeling of being 22 years old: young, carefree, and in the mood to party and not think too much about life.
The song begins with a verse focusing on getting ready for a girls’ night spent dressed up in party attire and making fun of ex-boyfriends (and ex-girlfriends?). This is the sort of night when you just eat whatever you want, even eating at midnight the food you normally have for breakfast. Go to a party and pull some randoms! Why not? You’re only 22 once.
The bridge between the verse and chorus of Swift’s song sums up the feelings of being 22 years old: joy, freedom, but also confusion and even loneliness. It’s both miserable and strangely special. The chorus celebrates this feeling of being 22, young and carefree and losing sense of one’s responsibilities through dancing with strangers.
The second verse sees Swift and her friends ditch the party or club because there are too many people there. They abandon dancing and partying in favour of dreaming – presumably, about what the future might have in store, and what their wildest ambitions are.
‘22’: song analysis
Many listeners will assume that Taylor Swift’s ‘22’ is a paean to being young and carefree, but this analysis of the song only tells half the story. It’s a half-truth at best. Why?
Because being 22 is not the same as being, say, 17. When you’re 22 you probably have a job, perhaps a graduate debt, and rent to pay every month. You have responsibilities. Swift’s song acknowledges this cold, hard reality with its reference to the deadlines: work deadlines, one assumes.
In other words, ‘22’ is not a song in celebration of how carefree one’s life is at that age. It’s actually a song celebrating those few moments when you can recover true freedom and a lack of responsibility, because it is no longer the norm.
But how joyous even is this night of freedom the song depicts? As the bridge to the song has it, being 22 is about being happy and free but also confused and lonely. It’s both magical and miserable. Even on this night of Dionysian hedonism, as Swift and her cronies head to the club to dance their socks off, there’s a reminder that all is not rosy in the Edenic paradise of 22dom.
What’s more, observing the mystical rites of 22dom seems to involve relying on the attention of strangers for full validation. Everything, Swift’s chorus reminds us, will be all right as long as [random bloke] keeps her next to him on the dancefloor. She doesn’t know him from Adam (to continue the Edenic theme), and he doesn’t know her from Eve, but all that matters is losing oneself in the healing powers of dance.
In other words, putting reality on hold and suspending it, in favour of losing oneself in a delicious illusion.
But even the illusion cannot last. The place is too crowded for Swift and her fellow 22ers. They’re not 18 any more, and they’re already getting too old for all these other people. The reference to too many cool kids cements the fuddy-duddiness of the Swift crew: it’s as if the younger kids around them, who haven’t even heard of Taylor Swift (where have they been, one wants to ask?), might as well be a different generation.
So they leave this site of Bacchanalian and Terpsichorean revelry and give themselves over to dreaming: again, a suspension of the here-and-now, and abandoning reality for the illusory or imaginary.
This is not to say that the song is an out-and-out miseryfest. Far from it. Rather its power, and depth, lie in undercutting the superficial jubilation and triumphalism of the lyrics, and the upbeat poppiness of the synths, with a slightly darker and starker reminder of what being ‘22’ really means: the true onset of adulthood and responsibility, the passing already of the first phase of one’s youth, and the preference for comforting dreams and random strangers over the mundane or unsatisfying realities of one’s life.