Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers – two musicians who dominated the pop/indie landscape of 2020. Their diaristic songwriting has invited some comparisons, primarily through Twitter, which Bridgers herself has encouraged, but perhaps their most analogous offerings are Swift’s “Dear John” from her 2010 album Speak Now, and Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness” from her 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps. Back in 2006 Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” to unite sexual violence surviviors, with the phrase spawning a viral hashtag and international movement in 2017, with an initial focus on the entertainment industry in lieu of allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The discussions around power have progressed over the last decade, with the responses to these songs from Swift and Bridgers – detailing their experiences in abusive relationships with fellow, more established musicians – encapsulating this change over the last ten years.
The end of Taylor Swift’s first verse on “Dear John” sees the singer no longer picking up the phone with “this song letting him [sic] know why”. Written shortly after Swift’s relationship with musician John Mayer, the title of the track hints at the subject of the song by utilising the phrase used to denote a letter written to a man by a woman who wishes to end their relationship, popularised during World War II. The song acts as an open letter to Mayer, with the arrangement of the track incriminating Mayer within seconds to anyone familiar with his music – the song sounds exactly like Mayer’s “Gravity” from his 2006 album Continuum. Perhaps these similar bluesy guitar sounds were chosen to highlight the frustrations abuse victims feel towards an abuser’s support network and a common desire to expose their behaviour to those who support them. Even now in a time when “accountability” is a term widely understood and discussed, victims often decide to speak their truth without burdening themselves emotionally with recounting trauma and trying to better a person – a job for the abuser and those complicit in their behaviour. “Dear John” is Swift ignoring Mayer’s calls and speaking her truth.
[fun fact, the album that this track features on, Speak Now, was written Swift without any co-writers, she was aged 19 at the time]
The verses on “Dear John” outline an inconsistent relationship, one where Swift is obsessed with vying for Mayer’s love and affection due to his need to “give love then take it away” – the lack of security resulting in her feeling dependent on him. But with this song, Swift has cracked the dependency that Mayer crafted. On the chorus Swift sings “don’t you think I was too young to be messed with”, acknowledging the age gap between herself and Mayer when they dated. She was 19 and he was 32, an age difference that would be scrutinised today after a decade of discussions around power dynamics. At almost seven minutes long, “Dear John” is Swift’s longest track to date. Over the course of the song she laments how she “shoulda known” before inverting this to “you shoulda known”, directed straight at Mayer. Swift’s discography is filled with these inversions, either in the bridge or the final chorus, but this example hits particularly hard, with Swift seemingly absolving herself of guilt over the relationship and placing the blame firmly where it belongs – on Mayer’s shoulders. By the close of the track Swift expressing that it might be her and her “blind optimism to blame” seems distant. She “sees it all now” indeed.
In August 2017, Swift successfully sued DJ David Mueller. Four years earlier he had groped Swift at an event. Swift informed Mueller’s bosses, leading to him getting fired, resulting in Mueller asserting that Swift was lying and suing for damages. Swift successfully countersued for sexual assault and asked for a symbolic $1 in nominal damages. Although many women who have experienced sexual violence might not have the wealth or platform that Swift has, Swift was praised for encouraging women to stand up against all forms of sexual assault, no matter how normalised it had become. The support Swift received during this case starkly contrasts the media’s coverage of “Dear John” back in 2010, illuminating the progress of the Me Too movement. Rolling Stone ran a whole piece covering how Mayer felt “humiliated” at the track. Mayer didn’t “want to go into that” when discussing the mention of the age gap in the song. It’s hard to imagine a large music magazine centring the feelings of a man in a relationship that would at the very least have eyebrows raising in 2021. Perhaps this is down to the force of the internet, demanding justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators, and consumers expecting at least the bare minimum from publications in supporting the victims of abuse.
In the years that followed “Dear John”, Mayer’s career took a slow nosedive. He released a response to Swift’s song in 2013 titled “Paper Doll”, but by this point people had started to move away from his music, with examples of his bad behaviour making headlines over the course of a few years – most notably a series of racist and homophobic ramblings in 2012. Last year, another of Mayer’s exes, Jessica Simpson, outlined a similar relationship with Mayer in her memoir Open Book, but even in 2010 it was clear that Mayer’s relationships all followed a similar pattern. On “Dear John” Swift acknowledges how she looked “back in regret” for ignoring those who told her to run from Mayer, “those” being his “long list of traitors”, which could include his exes with “tired lifeless eyes”, which Swift mentions later on the track. It’s common in abusive relationships to fall for some half baked explanation of why someone’s exes are all psychos whilst ignoring the common denominator in those relationships. Swift finds solidarity with Mayer’s ex partners, something Bridgers found a year after releasing “Motion Sickness”.
When Phoebe Bridgers released “Motion Sickness” in 2017 her career was just getting started. The track focussed on her abusive relationship with musician Ryan Adams. The title is seemingly borrowed from a Bright Eyes song, with Conor Oberst, the lead singer of Bright Eyes, providing vocals on the track’s parent album. Bridgers would later collaborate with Oberst on the 2019 EP Better Oblivion Community Choir. The title is also a reference to Adams’ struggle with Ménière's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that is characterised by feelings of dizziness or vertigo. Bridgers used Adams’ disorder to illustrate the turbulence of her own feelings during her relationship with him.
The opening lines of the song – “I hate you for what you did and I miss you like a little kid” – spotlight the complexity of loving an abuser. Although clearly about Adams (“you sing in an English accent”), the abusive nature of their relationship was made explicit by Bridgers in an interview a year after the song’s release. The interview, from Bridgers and several other women, including Mandy Moore, Adams’ ex-wife, details several accounts of abuse from Adams. Adams had offered to help Bridgers with her career but retracted the professional assistance he’d promised her. Adams wielded his power in the music industry to punish Bridgers for ending their relationship by not allowing her to release the music they had worked on together and dropping her performances from his upcoming shows. But now Bridgers, unshackled from professional ties, was able to expose Adams through her song “Motion Sickness” and later the interview with other victims of his abuse, which included details of Adams exposing himself to Bridgers, an inappropriate relationship Adams had with a 14 year old, and various accounts of emotional abuse and sexual violence.
Bridgers found solidarity with other victims of Adams’ abuse, and it is this solidarity that is central to the Me Too movement. Adams, over 20 years into his career by 2017, had abused women for years and faced no repercussions. It’s likely many of the women felt they needed to keep Adams on side for the sake of their careers, given the power he held within the industry. According to a tweet from Bridgers, Adams once bragged about having the power to remove her criticism of him from an article in Consequence of Sound. However, after Bridgers exposed Adams, not a single music magazine reviewed his 2020 album, pushing the established singer into obscurity for anyone who isn’t a die hard fan. "There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out" Bridgers sings on the chorus, but through this song and her subsequent exposure of Adams' behaviour, she has done just that. “Motion Sickness” raised questions that were answered through the interview with Bridgers, but after the song’s release, music magazine’s weren’t rushing to contact Adams for his response like Rolling Stone were with Mayer’s response to “Dear John”.
The context of these two releases were starkly different thanks to progressing conversations around power, abuse, and sexual violence. Bridgers and Adams had a similar age difference, and the placement of the line “you were in a band when I was born” at the end of the bridge in “Motion Sickness” felt, by 2017, like Bridgers explicitly calling Adams an abuser, whereas Swift’s acknowledgement of the age gap on the chorus of “Dear John” was read like Swift expressing an awareness of her vulnerability and naivety. Swift’s music was often criticised by indie magazines for being juvenile, due to teenage girls being her primary audience and her willingness to talk so freely and emotionally about things that men might find trivial. Now, later in her career, her whole discography is praised for its maturity. This shift in the media’s perception of Swift is particularly well encapsulated by Pitchfork writing glittering reviews of her first five albums in 2018, having previously chosen not to review any of her releases (while still reviewing Ryan Adams’ complete cover of her 2014 album 1989), only to then include Swift in their roundups of greatest albums and songs of the decade. This critical reappraisal of Swift’s songwriting signals a shift toward centring women’s voices in the music industry.
In an Instagram post in 2019, Bridgers criticised Ryan’s network, demanding that if people are friends with an abuser that they “call them out”. With so much abuse and sexual violence in the entertainment industry going unreported due to certain power dynamics and at times professional dependency, it is vital that those who have the power to call things out, do. Whilst the comparisons between “Dear John” and “Motion Sickness” are hugely discernable, there are countless examples of similar instances of abusive relationships among musicians, it just seems that only Swift and Bridgers felt able to so directly call out their abusers through song. Whilst it is clear that Swift and Bridgers received different responses due to the years these tracks were released, their whiteness afforded them a similar privilege in being listened to. Although the term “Me Too” was first popularised by Tanara Burke, a black woman, the Me Too movement largely centres white voices. In the instances where the victims were black women, the industry did not listen or take appropriate action. R&B superstar Aaliyah married singer R. Kelly when she was underage. Only when the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly was aired in 2019 did people begin to hold Kelly to account for decades of well documented and reported cases of sexual violence. These similar songs by Swift and Bridgers may highlight the progress of the Me Too movement, but they also highlight that successful white women are in a better position to demand justice and retribution.