The subterranean dungeon of Taylor Swift’s Rhode Island mansion is painted a folksy, endearing robin’s-egg blue, a delicate contrast to the exposed copper piping which runs the length of the cavernous room, and to which I am presently shackled.
As forced captivities go, this has been an eminently pleasant one. And it was my fault, really, in that I fell for the oldest trick in the book. We were out on the cool, shady patio where she receives guests, a gorgeous view of the bay framed in wisps of ivy and wisteria, when she offered to make me a mojito. I said yes, but make it virgin, please; she returned bearing a tall, sweating glass of seltzer, lime juice, honey, simple syrup, mint leaves, and enough ketamine to put a cocker spaniel to sleep.
I awoke some hours later in her well-appointed basement, shackled, as I’ve mentioned, to her plumbing. Across from my perch on the concrete floor — strewn with whimsical, hand-woven rugs, lending a quirky pop of color to the place — Taylor reclined on a plush chaise longue, stirring what looked like sugar into a cup of what may have been tea.
Fortunately, my phone, in my pocket, was still recording the voice memo I’d opened when we’d begun our interview, and the gadget had enough of a charge that I was able to record our conversation in its entirety.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Peyton: What the…
Taylor: Oh, great! You’re awake!
Peyton: Where am I?
Taylor: My basement.
Peyton: …It’s really nice.
Taylor: Aww, that’s so sweet! Thank you!
Peyton: What kind of person bothers to decorate their basement?
Taylor: Well, I’m in the habit of tranquilizing journalists and shackling them down here, so I figured I’d make it a little homey.
Peyton: Is this a sex thing?
Taylor: What, just because a powerful woman drugs reporters and chains them up in her basement, it must be a sex thing?
Peyton: Well, frankly, I’m struggling to see another purpose for this room.
Taylor: It’s simple, really. I lock you up, you agree to give my album a good review, I let you go.
Peyton: What makes you think that imprisoning me is going to inspire me to give you a good review?
Taylor: Well, I don’t see any food down here, do you?
Peyton: You’re saying you’re going to starve me to death unless I say your album is good?
Taylor: I mean, yeah.
Peyton: Okay, well, congratulations. I think Lover is pretty good. A lot better than I thought it would be, actually. Can I go now?
Taylor: I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a little more enthusiastic than that.
Peyton: Well, damn, Taylor, maybe if you spent more time in the studio and less time picking out handwoven rugs for your basement dungeon…
Taylor: It wasn’t always like this, Peyton. I never had to beg you for praise before.
Peyton: Before what?
Taylor: When you were thirteen, fourteen, ripping “Teardrops On My Guitar” on repeat instead of actually approaching Peter J. at youth group functions because it was easier for you to manufacture romantic dramas in your head than actually speak to boys.
Peyton: Are you sure we should refer to Peter J. by name? Is that responsible?
Taylor: I hear he’s doing real well these days. Got a job as a paramedic, settled down in Vancouver, married your friend from high school, what was her name… Lauren?
Peyton: I don’t care, Taylor. I don’t even think about those people anymore.
Taylor: But you sustained that crush on Peter J. for, like, all four years of high school.
Peyton: Yeah, and I’m clearly no longer the person I was in high school, Taylor.
Taylor: How so?
Peyton: Uh, I don’t know. I’m a guy now, I think? I’m on T, at least.
Taylor: You still spent your high school years as an avowed church-going conservative, sporting a purity ring and subscribing to Brio and nursing silent, tortured crushes on Peter J. and that one girl — what was her name? Your best friend in the 10th grade, until you had that big falling-out?
Peyton: Can you even categorize that as a crush? I didn’t consciously recognize that I was attracted to girls until —
Taylor: The Outdoor Ed trip in the second term of your junior year. Please, Peyton. Give me some credit. Who do you think sound-tracked your adolescent sexual awakening?
Peyton: Well, honestly, by that time, it was Lady Gaga and the cast of Glee.
Taylor: But you lay in your bed the night “Speak Now” came out, and you closed your eyes, and you listened to it all the way through, in total silence. You did it on purpose. It meant something to you, to be able to experience the album like that, with undivided focus.
Peyton: I was still a teenager.
Taylor: You did the same thing when “Red” came out. You were in college. And when your first serious girlfriend dumped you —
Peyton: No —
Taylor: — you recorded a shitty, unaccompanied cover of “All Too Well” —
Peyton: Taylor, stop it —
Taylor: — And posted it on Tumblr.
Peyton: I’d rather forget that ever happened.
Taylor: You have a habit of doing that, you know. Turning to my music at your darkest, lowest, most mortifying moments, and then pretending, publicly, that you never did.
Peyton: I’m not embarrassed to have been a fan of yours, if that’s what you’re implying. I defended you for a long time, Taylor. I paid real human money to attend the Taylor Swift reputation Stadium Tour™.
Taylor: Yes, and you got a rum cocktail from a food stall beforehand — even though you drink, what, once, twice a year? — and you joked to all your friends that you only enjoyed the show as much as you did because you were drunk.
Peyton: Being slightly tipsy while you threw your arms out to your sides like Christ on the cross and indoor fireworks climbed in a ladder above your head did heighten the whole experience, yes.
Taylor: I don’t doubt it. But that’s what worries me — you’re really not in the habit of using alcohol to numb your emotions or distance yourself from difficult moments.
Peyton: No. I’m functionally sober, especially these days. And I wasn’t trying to numb anything, honest, when I had that cocktail. I mean, I bought the ticket, didn’t I? I strapped on the L.E.D. wristband. I sang along. That’s all got to count for something.
Taylor: But why did you buy the ticket in the first place? You certainly didn’t like the album.
Peyton: Right. I really didn’t.
Taylor: You thought it was the weakest music I’ve ever made.
Peyton: I still think that.
Taylor: But you shelled out for that seat anyway. Full price. Why?
Peyton: I guess I was worried that a window was closing. Like, maybe when you released your next album, two or three years down the line, maybe I really wouldn’t like you anymore. And if that happened, then I would have gone my whole life never seeing you in concert, so —
Taylor: So, what, you were saying goodbye?
Peyton: Something like that. Or, like, trying to see how I felt. If the old songs would move anything in me.
Taylor: And? Did they?
Peyton: Well, when you sang “Love Story,” I was struck more than anything by how immature the song felt. Not even in a negative way, but like, objectively, literally immature. I remember being fifteen years old, humming along to “Love Story” while I vacuumed the house on Saturdays — that was my big chore — and thinking about Peter J. and imagining ourselves in the lead roles. And there I was, at that concert, almost 25, and in the throes of experiencing what I now regard as my first real, adult heartbreak, and I just thought… oh my God, I was so, so little back then. I didn’t know anything.
Taylor: So I didn’t know anything, you’re saying? When I wrote that song?
Peyton: Not necessarily. About a month after that show, I took a Greyhound to Perth for my birthday because I literally could not bear to be in the city anymore. I wanted to be alone for a while. And the loss I was talking about just now, that was still very new. So I sat down on the bus and I queued up “White Horse” and I stared out at the Don Valley Parkway.
Taylor: Right. The chorus that goes, “I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairy-tale, I’m not the one you’ll sweep off her feet, lead her up the stairwell…”
Peyton: And then on the last chorus, you flip it to, “I’m gonna find someone someday who might actually treat me well.”
Taylor: So acknowledging the sad dissolution of relationships is a signifier of maturity, but hoping for genuine love and commitment in spite of personal obstacles… that’s immature?
Peyton: It’s immature if you’re uncritically citing Romeo and Juliet as the pinnacle of romance.
Taylor: Oh, shut up, nerd.
Peyton: Have you ever even read The Scarlet Letter?
Taylor: No. And I namedropped it in “New Romantics” to demonstrate that I still hadn’t read it and I still don’t care.
Peyton: I fucking love “New Romantics.”
Taylor: There we go. A little more of that unbridled enthusiasm and we’ll have you out of this basement in a jiff.
Peyton: But we haven’t even been talking about your new album. We’ve been talking about my childhood.
Taylor: Your childhood? Stop relegating me to your childhood. I’m not a remnant of your childhood and you know it. You included a link to “New Year’s Day” in a love letter less than a year ago.
Peyton: Yeah, as part of a gesture so mortifyingly earnest that I’m pretty sure it torpedoed the entire relationship forever and ever.
Taylor: Really? That love letter was mortifying? Was it any more mortifying than the previous six months you’d spent actively repressing your feelings and self-consciously calling the object of your affection “bud” and “friend” and — well, lying about how you felt, if we want to get real technical about it.
Peyton: I wasn’t lying. I just wasn’t ready to have that talk.
Taylor: And why is that? Didn’t I train you to be “Fearless?” To “Speak Now?”
Peyton: Well, if I didn’t have your voice in my head telling me to reach for the stars and believe in perfect, beautiful romantic love, maybe I would have made better choices.
Taylor: Why have you forsaken me?
Peyton: Because I’m fucking sick of being overlooked and abandoned and disappointed by people I love, and maybe I should do what Laurie Penny says and just be single until my thirties.
Taylor: Right, and be miserable and lonely for another four years, at minimum.
Peyton: So you’re saying that locking down a romantic partner is the only key to happiness? It doesn’t matter if I travel the world or write books or learn new languages? Nothing else in life is worthwhile?
Taylor: You’ve spent almost the entirety of the past year writing a book, learning a new language, and traveling to Spain for the vacation of a lifetime. And you’re still lonely. Why not just download Tinder?
Peyton: I did. I got hundreds of matches. I went on a bunch of dates. It sucked.
Taylor: So ask your friends to set you up with their friends.
Peyton: I did. I went out with my friend’s roommate a few times in February.
Peyton: And he asked if he could kiss me and I was like, “Uhhhhhhhhh, I haven’t kissed anyone in three years” and he was like, “Oh, no problem” and then I ghosted him out of sheer embarrassment.
Taylor: And you want to call me immature.
Peyton: I didn’t say I was proud of it.
Taylor: Sounds to me like romantic love and physical affection are well within your grasp and you’re simply choosing not to reach for them. Maybe you’re the problem.
Peyton: Oh, fuck off, Taylor.
Taylor: It’s my basement. I’ll do what I want.
Peyton: You know, you have no right to lecture me about whether or not “I’m the problem.” Saying that everything I want is within my grasp if I’d only reach for it. You don’t know how hard it is for me.
Taylor: You just told me you had hundreds of matches the last time you used Tinder. You just told me that a boy explicitly asked to kiss you not six months ago and you told him no. What’s the problem, exactly? How do you materially have it harder than me in the dating game?
Peyton: Because homophobia —
Taylor: Lots of your queer friends are in happy, fulfilling relationships.
Peyton: Okay, because transphobia —
Taylor: Lots of your trans friends are in happy, fulfilling relationships.
Peyton: Yeah, but “other people have happy, fulfilling relationships, ergo, so can I” isn’t sound logic.
Taylor: How so?
Peyton: Because I’m not other people! Because I feel mismatched with everyone! I don’t know what labels I’m allowed to put on myself! I’d go on these dates and I wouldn’t know if the other person thought I was a boy or a girl or what. That one guy, my friend’s roommate, referred to me as “them” and then was immediately like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t ask for your preferred pronouns!” and it was so, like… he just ruined it by making my gender a thing. Why does it have to be a thing? You don’t have to think about that. You’re a beautiful blonde girl with a hunky blond boyfriend. That’s easy. That’s legible to people. What am I? Where do I fit?
Taylor: Okay, so you can lie around in your room at night theorizing in your diary about where you belong and who might like you, or you could just get over yourself and hit Crews and Tangos on a Friday night.
Peyton: It’s not that simple.
Taylor: Yes, it is. You just don’t want it to be that simple. You want it to be grand and romantic. You want the yawning chasm of your yearning to be sewn back together by the redemptive power of genuine love. You want to write books about it. You want kids to read your love letters a hundred years from now and get all misty-eyed, pasting your wistful musings on connection and tenderness next to screencaps from Moonlight and that bit from Anne Carson’s Oresteia.
Peyton: “It’s rotten work?”
Taylor: “Not to me. Not if it’s you.”
Peyton: It’s a brilliant bit of translation.
Taylor: It really is.
Peyton: But wait — you literally built a career on grand romantic arcs. You would never, ever settle for meeting some dude in a bar. You don’t want easy or simple or unremarkable any more than I do.
Taylor: You don’t know what I want. You don’t know me. You’ve assembled a notion of me based on my public image and my writing and your life experiences. For all intents and purposes, I’m you. When you roll your eyes at my gooey love songs, you’re not critiquing me; you’re taking a baseball bat to the soft animal of your body.
Peyton: That’s not fair. Just because I don’t think I need a relationship to be complete, just because I’d rather focus on my writing —
Taylor: But I’ve always shown you that it’s possible to have it both ways. To be a starry-eyed hopeless romantic and a disciplined, incisive writer. Both halves of my being sharpen the other. When you separate them, both suffer.
Peyton: Right. I remember how different it felt, reading about you in high school — like, music critics cared about your craft. There was plenty of tabloid bullshit, yeah, but they treated you as a real, honest-to-God artist. Someone who made worthwhile things. It was so different from the way they’d cover, I don’t know, Miley. Or Selena Gomez.
Taylor: Exactly. Maybe I put some airy-fairy notions about love in your head at a young age, but didn’t I also teach you that your feelings mattered? That it was worthwhile to write them down, to contemplate them, to make art out of them? Didn’t I, more than anyone else in your young life, demonstrate the potential for creative generation in self-expression?
Peyton: You did. But I’m not sure you’re doing that now. It feels like you’ve got a wall up. Don’t even get me started on those god-awful singles.
Taylor: What? I need to make a living somehow. How else would I furnish this basement?
Peyton: I just know you’re capable of so much better. Haven’t you reached a point in your career where you don’t have to pander to anyone?
Taylor: You’d be surprised.
Peyton: But at your level, isn’t commercial success kind of a given? If people will listen to you whatever you do, why not do something worthwhile?
Taylor: Well, first, I stridently reject the idea that commercial success is incompatible with artistic integrity.
Peyton: Please explain how artistic integrity motivated you to cast a bunch of C-list gay celebrities in a music video about how being mean to you on the internet is the moral equivalent of homophobia.
Taylor: That’s a deeply ungenerous interpretation of the video.
Peyton: Yeah, well, you drugged me and chained me to a pipe in your basement, so forgive me if I’m not feeling particularly generous at the moment. Those singles were dogshit, and you know it.
Taylor: Maybe I just don’t like to lead with some deeply personal exegesis. I’m not invulnerable, you know. Introducing a new project to the world is terrifying. Launching a new era with something fluffy like “Shake It Off” or “Me!” is much easier than, like, “Hello, world, here’s a song I wrote about my mother’s fight with cancer.”
Peyton: Which was gorgeous, by the way.
Taylor: And that’s just it: my sadness is gorgeous. My vulnerability, my suffering, my despair – it’s beautiful, but it’s hell on earth to dredge that up. Maybe I don’t want to. I don’t want my name to become synonymous with misery. I don’t want my value as an artist to derive from the eloquence of my sadness.
Peyton: And I sympathize, but God, Tay, there’s got to be some middle ground between Kidz Bop and the Female Sadness Industrial Complex. We all know that you’re capable of writing excellent upbeat pop songs.
Taylor: And have I not done that on this record?
Peyton: Sure you have. But it’s like there’s this hard, noxious, candy coating around the whole project, because of these shitty singles. I just don’t understand it. It’s as baffling as the CGI in Cats.
Taylor: You cannot blame me for the CGI in Cats. That is not on me.
Peyton: I know. I know. Tom Hooper cut you a raw deal. I’m sorry.
Taylor: We’ve been here a while now. Can I count on you to give “Lover” a good review?
Peyton: I don’t know, Taylor. It’s not as bad as “Reputation,” on balance, but it’s not on par with your past albums, either. The songs don’t really cohere. They don’t tell me who you are. I can’t see myself coming back to this one years down the line, the way I do with “Fearless,” for instance.
Taylor: Let me ask you a question: did you listen to the last U2 album?
Taylor: What about the one before it? The one they forcibly downloaded onto every Apple device in the free world?
Peyton: I listened to it maybe twice.
Taylor: And the one before that?
Peyton: “No Line on the Horizon?” I bought it. Listened to it a few times. Didn’t love it.
Taylor: Okay. And when U2 performed “The Joshua Tree” in its entirety, did you go to see it?
Peyton: Yes. I basically lost my job because I used my work computer to buy a ticket as soon as the box office opened.
Taylor: And you enjoyed the show?
Peyton: God, yes. I loved it. I was deeply moved. I’d wanted to see them in concert since I was in puberty. My first puberty, I mean.
Taylor: Interesting. Very interesting.
Peyton: If you’re saying that making several great albums gives you permission to make mediocre ones —
Taylor: You have Rivers Cuomo’s handwriting tattooed on your forearm. Be careful about what you say next.
Peyton: Okay. Fine. No artist has a perfect batting average. Plenty of legends have made pretty mediocre work at one point or another without diminishing their status in the long term. Maybe I’ve just felt let down by “Reputation” and, to a lesser extent, “Lover,” because you’ve had such a long winning streak up to this point. And you’re still so young, but I don’t hear you growing on these albums. I don’t hear, for instance, the kind of adventurousness that characterized the leap from “Sasha Fierce” to “4” to “Beyonce” to “Lemonade.” I don’t hear you pushing yourself.
Taylor: Okay, but do you hear literally any other musicians operating at that level of sustained excellence and exponential growth right now?
Peyton: Kendrick Lamar. Mitski. And… don’t make me say it.
Taylor: Don’t worry. I won’t.
Peyton: I’m also really excited about PUP. All of their records are stone-cold classics and they’re only getting better. Their live show is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Taylor: Better than mine?
Peyton: Yes. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that performance of “Sleep in the Heat” as long as I live. I wept. I kept weeping when the song was over.
Taylor: That’s the one about the dead chameleon?
Peyton: Yes. And you know, that’s what you’re missing, Taylor.
Taylor: A dead chameleon?
Peyton: No, no. It’s this: when I listen to your music, I don’t hear failure. I don’t hear struggle. I actually feel conflicted, sometimes, about enjoying PUP as much as I do, because there’s so much hopelessness and rock-bottom despair in those songs. It’s all tunnel, no light. But there’s a really vital honesty in the raw anger of something like that “my pitiful savings and loans” lyric. It’s like this hard, bright nub of fury, all this suffering rolled into a pearl. There’s catharsis in shouting out those words. But you — and you weren’t always like this — you seem so afraid of stumbling. It’s almost all victim-to-victor.
Taylor: I already told you: I don’t want to be regarded as the patron saint of sadness.
Peyton: But what makes you angry? What makes you confused? What makes you embarrassed? On these newer records, it’s like you’re missing half the emotional spectrum. There’s less and less of your humanity here.
Taylor: You don’t think I deserve a little privacy? You don’t think I’m sick of my trauma being broadcast for the world to see?
Peyton: Why not take ownership of it?
Taylor: Because I’m not obligated to respond by publicizing my own trauma. Or even my own petty sadnesses. Something has to remain mine.
Peyton: But, I mean, Bruce Springsteen didn’t write “Born to Stay in This Town and Enjoy My Life Here.” He wrote about suffering and personal inadequacy and yearning for escape.
Taylor: Bruce Springsteen has never worked a day in his life and he presently resides twenty minutes from his hometown. Like, don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, but there is a lot of straight-up fiction in the Springsteen catalogue. When he sings about getting laid off at the factory or putting his dreams on hold because he got Mary pregnant, he’s not singing from personal experience.
Peyton: You’ve written in a quasi-fictional modes, too. “Love Story?” Hello?
Taylor: But authenticity is my calling card.
Peyton: Is it hard to maintain an authentic writerly voice when your life experiences differ so vastly from that of the general population, and you’re not just offering your work up to be consumed, but to be inhabited and projected upon by millions of people?
Taylor: Yes. Yes, it is.
Peyton: Have you ever considered being normal for a while?
Taylor: I mean, you know I couldn’t.
Taylor: Well, my next album will be a chronicle of my struggle to make a living as a factory worker in New Jersey in the 1970s and I’ve got six hungry mouths to feed at home and the IRA and the British are at war in the streets and my pet chameleon is slowly dying after having her tongue amputated.
Peyton: I look forward to it.
Joe Alwyn, descending the stairs: Oi, poppit, wot’s all ‘is, then? Ye’ve gone ‘n shackled anuvver bloody journalist, ‘ave ye?
Taylor: Don’t you dare unshackle him. Them? Sorry, Peyton, I never got your pronouns.
Peyton: Whatever is fine. Damn, my wrists hurt. Thanks for freeing me, Joe.
Joe: Pip pip cheerio!
Peyton: Wow, I’m kind of thirsty after all that talking while being shackled to your pipes.
Taylor: I can make you another virgin mojito?
Peyton: Awesome, thank you.