Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ and Reflections on Girlhood

Juno Ormonde breaks down Taylor Swift’s newest chart-topping album, and how it can be used as an introspective tool to learn about our perceptions of femininity and the self.

People tend to spend a lot of their time in the past; regretting, reminiscing or being nostalgic. Since turning twenty I have noticed the amount of retrospection I have done has increased: as I become a woman, I can’t stop thinking about being a girl. 

Enter Taylor Swift’s latest record, Midnights. The concept album follows Swift, in her own words, through ‘thirteen sleepless nights’ throughout her life. The album is by its nature nostalgic, a musical memoir that features songs inspired by Swift’s life from the ages of sixteen to thirty-two. Having such an in-depth retrospection from the adult Taylor Swift spanning such a formative time makes Midnights an album I would recommend to any twenty-something who is just starting to transition from misunderstood teen to boring/sad adult. We should heed the advice of thirty-something women looking back on their twenties. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to cry over, when a thirty-two-year-old woman reflects on her adolescence. 

In ‘You’re On Your Own, Kid’ Swift thinks about her origins and wonders about the alternative life she might have led if she hadn’t left her hometown. Listen to this song if you come from a small town and left the second you had the chance, it will act as therapy (or make you really need therapy). When we are little, we are told, through multiple means, about the cycle of life: you get married, have kids, get old and die; it seems to me that Swift is wondering about the version of her life where she didn’t make her ‘great escape’ from the town she ‘didn’t choose’ and dreamt about leaving. It seems part of her wishes she could have been satisfied with a life of ‘sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes’, a more simple cookie-cutter life than the life of creativity and fame she pursued instead. However, the conclusion of the song in the outro is more optimistic. She stops thinking about the past and advises the listener — and herself — to `take the moment and taste it, you’ve got no reason to be afraid,’ suddenly ‘you’re on your own, kid’ ceases to be a sad proclamation and becomes inspiring. The life of an adult, starting a life away from all you’ve known, is terrifying, suddenly you alone are responsible for you and your life; but with responsibility comes agency, with being ‘on your own’ comes freedom. Don’t just mourn your girlhood, enjoy the liberation of being an adult. 

Swift’s retrospection on how her life may have been different continues in ‘Midnight Rain’. She does this by comparing herself to her boyfriend at the time, contrasting them by saying ‘he was sunshine, I was midnight rain, / He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain.’ Knowing who we are is not something we can really know until we’re older, it’s one of the best things about growing up; it’s the product of the dreadful teenage years when you’re basically unbaked clay. It’s comforting, if a little sad, knowing what and who you are, even if it means you have to know your limitations. If you are ‘Midnight Rain’ girlies, who swift personifies as ambitions, creative, restless and independent then you may wish you could have been satisfied with a simpler life, the marriage-kids-growing-old-together life, instead of pursuing a life that will lead to more excitement and pain.There’s a special kind of regret when you don’t exactly regret your decisions but you regret who you are, but there is also a satisfaction to knowing who you are and what you want in life. Perhaps adulthood is just knowing ourselves, as opposed by the experience of being a kid and where everything is possible.

Artwork by Charlotte Carpenter

‘‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’’, is the third song where Swift primarily focuses on the theme of girlhood and growing up. This song, and in particular one line of the song, has become infamous in the weeks since the album’s release. If you’ve been on Tik Tok recently you’ve likely seen at least one video of a young woman screaming the lyrics to the bridge with all her broken heart. The line: ‘Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts, give me back my girlhood, it was mine first’ is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard, made even more so by how so many girls related to it. 

If I had to pinpoint the moment my childhood ended, it would be the first time I was catcalled when I was eleven. I am filled with regret for the actions of those men, because I know they don’t; I regret how it affected me. The song is theorised to be about a relationship Swift had at nineteen with John Mayer, thirty-two at the time. The start of the song explores what would have happened if Mayer had acted differently. In retrospect Swift truly understands how much the relationship affected her, saying: ‘If you never touched me, I would’ve/Gone along with the righteous’’; she is regretting the decisions of a person in her life who should have known better; Afterall, as she points out, he was a grown man. 

We all have a chorus about what would have happened, what should have happened and what could have happened, and as we start to understand what it means to be grown up, we stay in that space more and more. It seems womanhood continues to be haunted by girlhood, or in Swift’s own words, ‘Now that I’m grown, I’m scared of Ghosts.’ 

So, is Adulthood the exciting but scary liberation from the oppression of childhood, as outlined by “You”re On Your Own, Kid’? Is it the understanding of who we are as people, as shown in the melancholic acceptance of ‘Midnight Rain’? Or is adulthood just going to be spent unpacking childhood trauma, lost in a spiralling abyss of regret? Maybe all three? 

I guess we’ll find out. But at least we get to figure it out while listening to Taylor Swift.

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