Taylor Swift addresses somebody who has insulted her, revealing over and over how his words caused her pain. In the chorus, she gleefully declares that it will be ok because someday she’ll be “living in a big old city” but all he’s “ever gonna be is mean.”
Literary Device: Cohortatio
Cohortatio is a type of amplification, a repetition that is intended to emphasize the faults of an opponent and provoke the audience’s indignation.* In Mean, the maligned narrator employs cohortatio multiple times, beginning with the first sentence. Swift declares “You, with your words like knives / And swords and weapons that you use against me.” The words “swords” and “weapons” repeat and amplify the point already made by “knives” – that words have the power to inflict pain. Swift uses cohortatio again in the second verse, listing the ways in which her critic has wielded these weapons by “switching sides… wildfire lies and… humiliation” as well as “point[ing] out [her] flaws.”
Swift really wants to emphasize that words can inflict pain. First, words have the power to eviscerate – to cut and remove substance from a body. In addition to the comparisons to knives and swords in the opening lines, words are used to “wound” and “pick.” Words also have the power to bring someone to the ground. They “knock [her] off [her] feet”, “take down”, “hit” and “push around.” Our narrator also explores the concept of a cycle of abuse. Trying to imagine why someone would verbally attack her, she hypothesizes, “I bet you got pushed around / Somebody made you cold / But the cycle ends right now / “Cause you can’t lead me down that road.” Swift is aware of the harmful power of words, and she declares her intention to break the cycle rather than being mean in turn.
Indeed, Swift begins with and maintains a defensive posture for most of the song. Her cohortatio arouses indignation that someone would treat her this way and she describes defensive tactics. For example, she states “I walk with my head down / Trying to block you out, ‘cause I’ll never impress you” and that “I just wanna feel okay again.” In the chorus, she describes another method of defense, becoming “big enough so you can’t hit me.” In the bridge, however, our narrator can’t help but take her defense so far that it turns into offense. Rather than emphasizing his treatment of her, Swift shifts her focus to his flaws. She imagines him “washed up and ranging about the same old bitter things / Drunk and grumbling” before describing him as “pathetic” and “alone in life.” So much for not being led down that road!
Like quintessential revenge heroes Hamlet or Cady Heron, Swift takes her desire for justice too far and leaves a wake of destruction behind her. Our narrator is so consumed by revenge that she forgets how to write. Her third attempt at cohortatio is comedic. She has devolved from sharp metaphors to playground insults and senseless repetition: “All you are is mean / And a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life / And mean, and mean, and mean, and mean.” In the same way that her opponent is washed up and repeating his old points, Swift’s narrator is also reduced to repetition of the single word “mean.” Words can be used as weapons, but Mean subtly suggests that wielding them as such damages the speaker as well as the intended victim.