I’m Only Me When I’m With You depicts two friends who stargaze in a field and share their secrets. Swift feels like she is only herself around this friend, hence the title of the song.
Literary Device: Allusion
The second verse alludes to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’
Just a small-town girl
Livin’ in a lonely world
She took a midnight train goin’ anywhere...
Just a small-town boy and girl
Living in the crazy world
Tryin’ to figure out what is and isn’t true
Swift rewrites Journey’s classic to depict a small-town girl who is not alone! She is with a boy. Because they are together, they are living in a world that is crazy rather than lonely. Instead of taking a midnight train going anywhere, they stay put and “[try] to figure out what is and isn’t true.” These substitutions provide a hint to the theme of the song. Because she is with her friend, Swift removes loneliness. She doesn’t have to seek A Place in this World where she isn’t lonely. Instead, she seeks to know and be known.
In I’m Only Me When I’m With You, noted epistemologist Taylor Swift revisits the theme of knowledge, previously explored in Tied Together with a Smile, Stay Beautiful, and Should’ve Said No. Swift’s earlier treatises were about the imperfect exchange of knowledge. In IOMWIWY, Swift depicts two friends who exchange knowledge perfectly. Swift proclaims about her friend:
“I know everything about you”
“You know everything about me”
“Nobody gets me like you do”
“It’s so hard to be myself / And only you can tell”
Not only do the friends share knowledge, but friendship is portrayed as a sort of exchange of knowledge. To be a friend is to know and be known by another person. Philosophers all the way back to Gorgias of Leontini have argued that knowledge outside the self cannot be obtained, let alone communicated to another person*. Swift negates these solipsistic epistemologists and calls this knowledge “friendship.”
Swift’s poem indicates that the special knowledge of friendship is not obtained passively, however. Friendship requires effort from both parties. Swift illustrates this by telling us that she and her friend are “trying to figure out what is and isn’t true.” As Swift taught us in Stay Beautiful, some knowledge must be obtained through effort. On the other hand, the subject of such knowledge must wish to be known. Swift elaborates: “I don’t try to hide my tears / my secrets or my deepest fears.” Unlike the protagonist of Tied Together with a Smile, Swift allows another person to learn about her. In fact, Swift even proactively offers up information by spending half of her time “only trying / to let you know that what I feel is true.” Friendship is thus a partnership between two people who wish to know and be known by one another perfectly. Both knowing and being known require active effort.
Friendship may take effort, but the reward is self-actualization as well as the actualization of the beloved friend. Swift states: “I’m only me when I’m with you” and “When I’m with anybody else / it’s so hard to be myself.” Swift’s self is therefore reified by the presence of another self that truly and deeply knows it. In I’m Only Me When I’m With You, friendship is the cycle of one self reifying and being reified by another self through the effortful exchange of knowledge.