Taylor Swift’s first song, Tim McGraw, uses a complex structure to reflect on whether past relationships stay in the past or live on through memories. In the first verse, the narrator recalls a moment of dialogue between two young lovers. The second verse recalls the month after their separation and reveals that the narrator wrote a letter to her lover that she never sent, placing it instead in a box under her bed. The bridge, the only part of the song set in the present, sees the narrator placing the letter on her former lover’s doorstep. The chorus contains the contents of the letter, in which she wishes that he remembers her whenever he hears music by country singer Tim McGraw. The memory is vivid, appealing to the senses with images of the “moon like a spotlight on the lake,” the sound of a Tim McGraw song that the lovers “danced to all night long” and the feeling of “my head on your chest.”
Throughout the song, the narrator grapples with memory and her agency (or lack thereof) over past time. The lover himself is incidental, he is only present as a memory in the dark. Swift contrasts two concepts of time: as a historical moment that has passed, or something that can be captured and returned to. Early in the narrative of the song, time has agency over the narrator. She wakes to find that summer “had gone.” While she was passively sleeping, summer, the time of their relationship, got up and left. The month after summer, September, “saw a month of tears.” Again, time has an agency that the young narrator lacks.
In response, the narrator attempts to establish control over that time of her life by giving it physical space in the form of a letter. Rather than something that is fleeting and that can get up and leave, that summer is embodied in words on a page that she can place in a box under her bed and return to whenever she would like. The “old, faded blue jeans” that Swift refers to in the letter are another example of how time and the past can have a physical reality since the discoloration and frayed texture of jeans are caused by the passage of time. Blue jeans are a perfect metaphor for nostalgia since denim becomes softer and more comfortable as it fades and shapes to a particular person. The letter (and the title of the song) refer to another way that the experience of time can be manipulated — through the temporal medium of music. The narrator’s memories are given a temporal shape through listening to a song by Tim McGraw. For the duration of that song, the relationship is real again.
While the narrator is successful in claiming/reclaiming this period of time for herself, she is unable to gain similar control over her former partner’s memory over the relationship, as indicated by the repeated use of the word “hope” in the chorus: “I hope you think my favorite song”, “I hope you think that little black dress”, “I hope it takes you back to that place.” This is further represented by the act of placing the letter on the doorstep. “There’s a letter left on your doorstep” removes all agency and does not depict a narrator who is in control.
By the end of the song, the narrator has regained agency over her past. Although the summer of the relationship got up and left, it is not gone, for the narrator can return to the pleasant memories through words and music. Indeed, the song itself achieves this goal by ending with a repetition of the first three lines after the final chorus:
“You said the way my blue eyes shined
Put those Georgia stars to shame that night
I said, "That's a lie."
Considered along with the fact that Swift specifically calls out one of country music's greatest stars, Tim McGraw can be read as a meta-commentary on country music's role in reframing past hurt as nostalgia.