The ritual surrounding new Taylor Swift songs has, historically, been sussing out their subjects. Sometimes, the singer makes it easy, as with “Dear John,” her 2010 song widely perceived as a kiss-off to John Mayer; other songs, like most of her 2012 album Red, are more difficult to parse. Swift’s use of her own life experiences as grist for her lyrics has made her the subject of tiresome jokes, but has also become a central part of her identity.
But 1989, Swift’s new album, has precious few songs that grant the listener the pleasure of celebrity speculation (although, okay, the title of “Style” is five-sixths of the name of Swift’s ex Harry Styles, whose necklace Swift is believed to reference on “Out of the Woods”). The album comes off as deeply personal without relying on celebrity gossip to make its impact — except for the glee of “Bad Blood,” a track that’s being read as a rejoinder to fellow entertainer Katy Perry.
In “Bad Blood,” Swift tells the story of a female friend with whom she suffered a platonic break-up; Swift had told Rolling Stone that the unnamed subject of the song “basically tried to sabotage an entire arena tour” in 2013. Some eagle-eyed commenters noted that Perry had hired away some of Swift’s dancers for that tour.
But the most striking aspect of “Bad Blood” is the witty manner in which it seems to play off Perry’s own work. “You live like that, you live with ghosts,” Swift sings of her subject. Last year, Perry released the song “Ghost,” about the breakup of her marriage and the degree to which she’s haunted by memories. It’s a specific metaphor that Perry extends to its near breaking point, and that Swift picks up. The song also says that “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes”; Perry wrote the country song “Bullet,” in which the singer compares her power to that of, yes, a bullet. (Perry gifted the song to country singer Jessie James, who released it in 2009, as Swift was rising in the country world.)
This could all be coincidental. And yet Swift’s acuity with words makes it hard to ignore her choice of lyrics and how they relate to Perry’s back catalog. Does it really matter, though? “Bad Blood” is refreshing for how universal it is; fighting with a former friend, or worrying about a professional rival, are fundamental experiences outside of the world of arena tours and platinum-selling albums.
And listening to the song doesn’t mean taking a side. There’s certainly enough success to go around for Swift and Perry both: Max Martin, the song’s co-producer, also has worked on Perry’s singles, including “Teenage Dream” and “Roar.” Maybe in a few years we’ll be listening to a song about the great Swift-Perry detente.