In Fifteen, a wizened Taylor Swift addresses her fifteen-year-old self. Now eighteen, Swift has acquired the wisdom that comes with age.
Literary Device: Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton is repetition of the same conjunction. In Fifteen, Taylor Swift uses polysyndeton to great effect to describe the feeling of a first date:
And then you’re on your very first date
And he’s got a car
And you’re feeling like flying
And you’re mama’s waiting up
And you’re thinking he’s the one
And you’re dancing around the room when the night ends
When the night ends
Swift’s polysyndeton mimics how a teenager might describe a date to a close friend. The narrator here is too excited to even finish a sentence, piling on detail after detail in a rush. The sequence of “ands” also gives the impression of rapid movement, creating contrast in a song that has so far been largely about staying in one place — high school — for the next four years.
Fifteen was a significant age for Taylor Swift, who balanced high school with working on her debut album. From analyzing that album, we know that young Taylor Swift was concerned with how relationships are preserved in memory across time, finding her place/purpose, and how knowledge is obtained. In the song Fifteen, eighteen-year-old Swift addresses these past concerns with the perspective that only old age can bring.
The key to understanding the song occurs in the penultimate stanza:
I’ve found time can heal most anything
And you just might find who you’re supposed to be
I didn’t know who I was supposed to be
Throughout her early repertoire, Swift has been deeply anxious about the passage of time. Will the man with whom she danced to Tim McGraw remember her? Will she remember the song of slamming screen doors if never hears it again? Will she ever be as happy as she is sitting in the passenger seat of his car? Looking backwards, Swift is comforted by the passage of time rather than afraid of it. Far from the vicious eraser of memories that Swift had imagined, time is “healing.”
Specifically, time is healing because of the increase in knowledge that it provides. In the bridge, Swift wishes she could go back and reassure herself that everything will be ok: “Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now.” Throughout the song, Swift provides several examples of knowledge that she was lacking at fifteen. First, Swift did not know how to evaluate her suitors and protect her heart: “When you’re fifteen / Somebody tells you they love you / You’re gonna believe them,” and “Don’t forget to look before you fall.” Second, Swift has gained the knowledge of herself and her purpose that she was lacking in songs such as A Place in this World and The Outside: “This is life before you know who you’re gonna be” and “You just might find who you’re supposed to be / I didn’t know it at fifteen.”
Most significantly, the passage of time provides additional context with which to evaluate a situation: “In your life you’ll do things / Greater than dating the boy on the football team / But I didn’t know it at fifteen.” At the time it was happening, breaking up with a boy on the football team would seem like a catastrophe. When placed in the greater context of Swift’s eighteen years of life and accomplishments, it is not. Swift emphasizes this point by repeating it in the final verse: “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday / But I realized some bigger dreams of mine.” Throughout the song, Swift strives to place high school on a larger continuum of time. At the beginning of the song, the “next four years” seems like a long time. By the second verse, a moment, sitting in class “next to a red-head named Abigail” is placed against the larger context of a lifelong friendship: “soon enough you’re best friends.” That moment in time is just a blip on a larger timeline. They will both be out of high school as “soon as [they] can.”
Young Swift had feared that time would erase her memories. Instead of erasing information, time provided information. Swift can now evaluate what felt like cataclysmic moments with greater knowledge of herself, the world, and how those moments fit into the larger timeline of her life.