On October 25th, 2010 Taylor Swift released her third studio album, Speak Now. The 5th track on the album was entitled “Dear John” as an ode to Swift’s short-lived and controversial relationship with singer-songwriter John Mayer. Swift has called the song a “last email” that you send to an ex, unloading everything that was left unsaid. Some also interpret the song to be representative of a Dear John Letter, an old expression used that refers to a wife or girlfriend writing to inform a man their relationship is over. The lyrics emulate the hurt and frustration Swift felt over how she was treated by Mayer, and how she ignored the warnings she received.
And I lived in your chess game, – But you changed the rules every dayLines 7-8
This lyric uses the comparison of their relationship to a game, with Swift claiming Mayer changed the rules to suit whatever his needs were at the time. When she didn’t please him or follow his “rules” he would lash out at her creating an extremely toxic relationship. This use of comparison is powerful because it shows the manipulation and gaslighting occurring throughout the course of an entire relationship in just two lines. These lines invest listeners right away in their relationship, and give them a clear idea of the exact conflicts taking place.
All the girls that you’ve run dry – Have tired, lifeless eyes – ‘Cause you burned them out – But I took your matches before fire could catch me, – So don’t look now, I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty townLines 29-32
The use of fire and light imagery is used to show Swift’s feelings after breaking free from Mayer. Throughout the whole song she is recalling what she escaped and how she denied him the satisfaction of ruining her like he did in his previous relationships. Fire is often associated with knowledge and the entire song is about her knowing better now, repeatedly saying “I should’ve known” at the end of each chorus. Swift, unlike the other women, was able to escape Mayer before she completely lost herself. The last line is a sort of emphasis on the overall theme of the song, that she’s better off than he is, now knowing the extent of his corruption.
Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with? – The girl in the dress wrote you a song – You should’ve known, you should’ve known – Don’t you think I was too young? You should’ve knownLines 37-40
The repetition of the line “you should’ve known” in this final stanza solidifies Swift’s overall message of reflection and regret, while also leaving the intended listener, Mayer, with a message: that he should have known better. This line diverges slightly from the previous iterations of the chorus which end with “I should’ve known” instead. She was 19 years old at the time of their relationship and he, twelve years her senior, certainly knew better. It is only at the very end, after Swift recalls everything Mayer did to her and the lessons she learned, that she flips the message on him. The repetition reinforces the idea that Mayer is in the wrong and now that Swift understands what she went through, she places responsibility on him, not just on herself. Over and over again she emphasizes the realization, she should have listened to the warnings and seen the signs, but ultimately the blame lies with him. It is at the end of the song that Swift emphasizes the growth she achieved after their relationship, no matter how painful it was to get to that point.