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‘Mean (Taylor's Version)’ by Taylor Swift - Lyrics & Meaning

July 11, 2023 8:16 pm GMT
Last Edited February 12, 2024 6:43 pm GMT

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Taylor Swift - ‘Mean (Taylor's Version)’

Label: Republic Records & Universal Music Group

Release Date: July 7th 2023

Album: Speak Now (Taylor's Version)

Producers: Taylor Swift & Christopher Rowe

Songwriters: Taylor Swift

Chart Performance:

  • No. 2 on Billboard Hot Country Songs
  • No. 2 on Billboard Hot Digital Songs
  • No. 11 on Billboard Hot 100
  • No. 24 on Billboard's Year-End Country Songs chart for 2011

The Background:

"Why ya gotta be so mean?" We just triggered you a little, didn't we?

If you were conscious between 2010 and 2011, this phrase and its accompanying song are likely burned into your brain, and rightfully so.

When country-turned-pop megastar Taylor Swift was piecing together her third album, Speak Now, she was one of the brightest and fastest growing talents in country music, but not without her fair share of scrutiny and controversy along the way.

Written over a two-year period, Speak Now bottled up all of Swift's feelings of transitioning from adolescent to adulthood, while also peppering in experiences surrounding her fast rise to stardom, living under the public eye and confronting some of her many staunch critics, which is where we find 'Mean'.

To truly see the full picture of the country-tinged callout, we must zoom out and travel back in time to 2010. More specifically, we need to go back to the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards.

That January evening, which would see our then 19-year-old songwriter take home four trophies (Album of the Year, Best Country Album, Best Country Song and Best Female Country Vocal Performance), Swift took the stage alongside Stevie Nicks to perform a medley of her own 'Today Was a Fairytale' and 'You Belong With Me', as well as Fleetwood Mac's 'Rhiannon'.

The performance was notably not her best, which opened up the floodgates for critics far and wide to take their shot at the young artist. There was one notable pundit, though, who decided to let it rain.

Bob Lefsetz, a music lawyer-turned-critic who had previously been a massive supporter of Swift, took to his own The Lefsetz Letter to talk about the performance, saying: "Did Taylor Swift kill her career overnight? I’ll argue she did".

He continued, "Taylor’s too young and dumb to understand the mistake she made. Those surrounding her are addicted to cash and are afraid to tell her no. But last night Taylor Swift SHOULD have auto-tuned. To save her career."

This, along with plenty of other criticism that had been heaped onto our star-in-the-making, led us to 'Mean'.

Taking all of the years of ammunition, Swift wrote the tune from a place of self-awareness regarding her own shortcomings as an artist as she made efforts to overcome the mounting appraisals of her talent, while also making light of Lefsetz's less-than-constructive criticism.

The song seemed to strike a chord with audiences across the board, as it debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaked at No. 2 on the Hot Country Songs chart and sold well over a million digital copies by the end of 2011, not to mention finding a permanent resting place in most of our psyches.

The triple-Platinum tune took home the Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song trophies at the 2012 Grammy Awards where she also performed it, making for quite a cheeky, full-circle moment.

The Sound:

When listening through Speak Now - whether it's the newly minted Taylor's Version or the original - 'Mean' is undoubtedly the most country-rooted song on the record.

While other songs on the album feature elements of pop, rock and some orchestral arrangements, 'Mean' was the one track that critics of Speak Now - both positive and negative - agreed was fitting for the genre that she was, at the time, dominating. In fact, depending on who you ask, the rootsy production of the song could even point you towards the bluegrass genre.

Led by a lone banjo and a quick-picking mandolin, the first verse keeps things pretty simple as we build towards the chorus. Bringing in some downhome hand clapping and a kick drum, the song becomes a full-fledged southern stomper in no time. When the fiddle comes in, it's a certified country anthem and we can't help but toe-tap along to it.

The original track sees Swift and Nathan Chapman as producers, but similar to all of her re-records, Taylor's Version finds the superstar behind the soundboard with Christopher Rowe. However, there's very few sonic differences between the two apart from Swift's voice.

As we would expect, the 2010 version features much squeakier and less developed vocals from a 21-year-old Swift, while the 2023 version features a much richer delivery, proving that our blonde-haired Queen just keeps getting better with age.

While the backstory behind 'Mean' airs on the serious side, Swift doesn't take the tune down such a critical avenue. Though it obviously addresses bullying and was used in some anti-bullying campaigns throughout the early 2010s, the lyrics are at times a little tongue in cheek and playful, which provide some much needed levity to what could be a rather grim song if taken in another direction.

The Meaning:

"You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like a nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Callin' me out when I'm wounded
You, pickin' on the weaker man

Well, you can take me down
With just one single blow
But you don't know what you don't know
"

Swift comes in hot, immediately addressing the critics she's been fending off throughout her career. Comparing their nasty comments and opinions to weapons of various forms, she quickly explains that hearing those things has left her feeling utterly gutted.

Already aware of her shortcomings without anyone needing to bring them to her attention, we get the first potential reference to her 2010 Grammy performance, as she mentions that she's already down and doesn't need other people kicking her while she's there.

"Someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?"

As we sail into the chorus, Swift essentially explains that it doesn't matter what her haters have to say, because one day she's going to reach such prodigious heights that she'll be practically untouchable. Meanwhile, all these people with so much to say about her will only ever be... mean.

"You, with your switching sides
And your wildfire lies and your humiliation
You have pointed out my flaws again
As if I don't already see them
I walk with my head down
Tryna block you out 'cause I'll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again"

The first few lines of the second verse are especially interesting after knowing about our pal Bob Lefsetz's prior support of Swift, making the "switching sides" bit carry a little bit of extra sting. Once again she's drawing attention to the fact that she's aware of her vocal insecurities, especially as it pertains to the Stevie Nicks performance.

Swift also explains that despite how hard she tries to ignore what everyone is saying about her and her talent, and knowing that she'll never be able to win over everyone, the whole ordeal has had a profound affect on her headspace and likely her confidence.

"I'll bet you got pushed around
Somebody made you cold
But the cycle ends right now
'Cause you can't lead me down that road
And you don't know what you don't know"

Before we head into another round of the chorus, Swift prefaces it by diving into a mantra as old as time: "hurt people hurt people".

Operating under the assumption that all of her bullies were also bullied in the past, she firmly states that she won't continue the vicious cycle or pay the rudeness forward. Rather, she's trying to turn an unfortunate situation into a constructive one.

"And I can see you years from now in a bar talkin' over a football game
With that same big loud opinion, but nobody's listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing

But all you are is mean
All you are is mean
And a liar, and pathetic
And alone in life and mean
And mean, and mean, and mean"

We come to a bit of a time jump where she can see her haters spewing the same negativity and putting their opinions on full display, but this time around, no one seems to care.

Years from now, while they're still going on and on about her lack of talent or whatever else they want to nitpick, they'll still just be jerks and bullies.

This song, and specifically this bridge, saw a resurgence in late 2023 and early 2024 as they seemingly reflected Swift's current experience dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end, Travis Kelce.

After coming under an onslaught of scrutiny for appearing on-screen across NFL broadcasts, these lyrics ring a little too clearly considering they were written nearly 15 years ago.

"But someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean, yeah
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean"

What has Taylor Swift said about ‘Mean’?

When Swift was first teasing the songs included in Speak Now in 2010, she released a video preview of 'Mean' that has now been all but scrubbed from the internet. However, thanks to coverage on the song like that from Entertainment Weekly, the transcript is out there.

In the video, a 21-year-old Swift said: "When you do what I do, which is put yourself out there for a lot of people to say whatever they want about it, there are a million different opinions from a million different people. I get that not everyone is going to like everything that you do, and I get that no matter what, you're going to be criticized for something. But I also get that there are different kinds of ways to criticize someone.

“There is constructive criticism. There's professional criticism. And then, there's just being mean,” she noted. “There's a line that you cross when you just start to attack everything about a person, and there's one guy who just crossed the line over and over again." She added, "No matter what you do, no matter how old you are, no matter what your job is, no matter what your place is in life, there's always going to be someone who's just mean to you. Dealing with that is all you can control about that situation, how you handle it. ‘Mean’ is about how I handle it, and sort of my mind set about this whole situation."

Upon the release of Speak Now (Taylor's Version) on July 7, 2023, Swift also addressed the now 13-year old controversy in the album's prologue, sharing: "I had released my second album, Fearless. It became the breakthrough moment I’d always dreamt of, one that catapulted my career to new realms of success. It had brought with it a tidal wave of pressures and pitfalls and growing pains.” She continued, “In my darker moments, I was tormented by the doubt that swirled loudly around my ascent and my merits as an artist. I was trying to create a follow up to the most awarded country album in history, while staring directly into the face of intense criticism. I had been widely and publicly slammed for my singing voice”.

Noting that in the years since she’s developed thicker skin for criticism, she added: “I wanted to get better, to challenge myself, and to build on my skills as a writer, an artist, and a performer. I didn’t want to just be handed respect and acceptance in my field, I wanted to earn it. To try and confront these demons, I underwent extensive vocal training and made a decision that would completely define this album: I decided I would write it entirely on my own".

With the release of this letter in the album's liner notes, it marked the first time Swift has formally addressed any sort of vocal training.

Now, as we arrive full circle back at Lefsetz's blog post about the 2010 Grammys, it's worth mentioning that he later boldly proclaimed: “Taylor Swift shortened her career last night. And since she says she calls all her own shots, she has to shoulder the blame. Yes, her dream came true, she made it, she’s a star, but the real test is longevity. Elton John can play with Gaga decades later. Will Taylor Swift be duetting with the stars of the 2030s? Doubtful”.

We don’t know about everyone else, but considering her massively successful The Eras Tour, her never ending streak of breaking records and the unstoppable legion of Swifties she's acquired over the last twenty years or so, we’re pretty sure Taylor Swift will be doing just fine come 2030.

For the full lyrics to Taylor Swift’s ‘Mean (Taylor's Version)’, see below:

"You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like a nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Callin' me out when I'm wounded
You, pickin' on the weaker man

Well, you can take me down
With just one single blow
But you don't know what you don't know

Someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

You, with your switching sides
And your wildfire lies and your humiliation
You have pointed out my flaws again
As if I don't already see them
I walk with my head down
Tryna block you out 'cause I'll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again

I'll bet you got pushed around
Somebody made you cold
But the cycle ends right now
'Cause you can't lead me down that road
And you don't know what you don't know

Someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

And I can see you years from now in a bar talkin' over a football game
With that same big loud opinion, but nobody's listening
Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things
Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing

But all you are is mean
All you are is mean
And a liar, and pathetic
And alone in life and mean
And mean, and mean, and mean

But someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean, yeah
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
(Why you gotta be so mean?)
Someday, I'll be livin' in a big old city (why you gotta be so mean?)
And all you're ever gonna be is mean (why you gotta be so mean?)
Someday, I'll be big enough so you can't hit me (why you gotta be so mean?)
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?"

For more on Taylor Swift, see below:

Written by Lydia Farthing
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