Taylor Swift remembers a relationship that consistently made her feel upset and confused. She writes a “Dear John” letter that explains why she will not be picking up the phone anymore when he calls.
Literary Device: Metaphor
Taylor Swift describes the experience of dating John with the metaphor “And I lived in your chess game / But you changed the rules everyday.” We can learn several things about Taylor and John’s relationship from this comparison. First, a game of chess is a battle of wits in which two adversaries face off against one another. Second, chess has notoriously complicated rules about how different pieces can move in relationship to one another. If that weren’t enough, John changes the rules everyday. Taylor Swift sees her relationship with John as a battle for supremacy rather than a situation in which they are on the same team. Furthermore, it is a battle that she is entering on her opponent’s convoluted terms rather than her own.
In Dear John, Swift returns to two of her favorite motifs – knowledge and seeing. In addition to framing her relationship as a game of chess, Swift refers to John’s “dark, twisted games” and the fact that he is “never impressed by me acing your tests.” Throughout the song, John makes Taylor Swift prove herself by passing tests and winning games. John changes the rules of the games and uses other tactics to preserve the imbalance of knowledge in the relationship. For example, Swift often “wonder[s] which version of you I might get on the phone tonight.” These tactics are often represented with visual imagery. Swift writes, “You are an expert at… keeping lines blurry.” She also explains that he has used similar tactics with other girls in the past: All the girls that you’ve run dry have tired lifeless eyes / ‘Cause you burned them out.” John maintains power in his relationships by preventing her partners from seeing what is truly happening.
As a result of John’s tactics as well as her own disposition, Swift was unable to see what was really going on in this relationship. She writes “Maybe it’s me / And my blind optimism to blame,” indicating that her optimism also prevented her from seeing the truth. Accordingly, she “ignored when they said / Run as fast as you can.” On the other side of the relationship, Swift can see clearly. Each chorus begins with “Dear John, I see it all now that you’re gone” and one chorus includes the variation “I see it all now, it was wrong.” Swift could not see during the relationship, but she can now that it was over.
Swift uses her newfound sight to illuminate John’s true character for others as well. She writes, “But I took your matches before fire could catch me / So don’t look now / I’m shining like fireworks over your sad empty town.” Swift takes the matches that John was using in order to burn women’s eyes out and uses them to make something of beauty – fireworks. John relied upon darkness to cover up his misdeeds, so Swift becomes a radiant source of light, illuminating not just herself, but his whole town by writing this open Dear John letter. The early choruses end with “I should’ve known,” placing the blame on herself. After Swift illuminates John, she changes the phrase to “You should’ve known.” Now that she can see clearly, the blame is squarely on John.
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