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Why Taylor Swift’s self-loathing ‘Anti-Hero’ already hit a nerve with fans

‘Anti-Hero,’ the lead single off Swift’s new album ‘Midnights,’ has some very candid (and confusing) lyrics about the singer’s insecurities

Superstar Taylor Swift's music is a trove of hidden meanings tied to her love of numeric symbolism - and her tenth album, "Midnights," is no different. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)
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Taylor Swift revealed very little about her 10th studio album, “Midnights,” before it was released Friday; she didn’t sit for any interviews, and she just gave her usual cryptic hints about what fans could expect. However, in the past few weeks, the pop megastar did post a few short Instagram videos with brief explanations of select songs. One of the songs was “Anti-Hero,” written by Swift and her co-producer and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff.

“Track 3, ‘Anti-Hero,’ is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. I really don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before,” Swift said, adding that she faces challenges with a life that has become “unmanageably sized” because of her fame. “Not to sound too dark, but, like, I just struggle with the idea of not feeling like a person.”

At this point, Swift quickly added, “don’t feel too bad for me. You don’t need to. But, you know, this song really is a real guided tour throughout all the things I tend to hate about myself. We all hate things about ourselves. … So I like ‘Anti-Hero’ a lot, because I think it’s really honest.”

How the search for clues in Taylor Swift’s music became an all-consuming mission

This may have been an understatement. “Anti-Hero,” the album’s official lead single with a music video premiering Friday morning, is an anthem of true self-loathing, and ticks off Swift’s deepest insecurities as it kicks off with the line, “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser.” The song instantly hit a nerve among listeners, even as social media was exploding overnight with reactions to the album overall.

One of the instantly most-quoted lines: “Midnights become my afternoons, when my depression works the graveyard shift / All the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.” Although Swift has spoken openly about going through difficult times, such as thinking her career was over in 2016 after the internet branded her a “snake,” she has never used the word “depression”; she generally speaks about “low times” or “bad” moments. This was a new level of candor from an album that, as multiple critics agreed in early reviews, was pretty dark music for Swift.

“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me,” she sings in a chorus that will instantly get stuck in your head. “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting, always rooting for the anti-hero.”

The lyrics contained another classic Swift conundrum: You have absolutely no idea what she’s singing about, while at the same time knowing there’s probably a deeper meaning that you’re missing, which you’ll probably find out later when she drops a clue or hidden message. In “Anti-Hero,” that honor went to the line, “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill.”

People on social media lost it trying to figure out what “everybody is a sexy baby” could mean. Is it an inside joke? A veiled insult? A reference to the 2011 “30 Rock” episode that mocked the idea of men being drawn to women who act young and helpless, guest-starring Cristin Milioti as a self-described “very sexy baby?”

The internet was stumped, and the song offered further mystery with, “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism / Like some kind of congressman?” Not to mention the verse where Swift admits, “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money / She thinks I left them in the will.” Swift previously described the album as “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life,” and these lyrics certainly sound like the restless and paranoid thoughts that cross a person’s mind in the middle of the night.

The music video that dropped Friday morning reflected that as well. Swift, who wrote and directed the video, tweeted the link and encouraged viewers to “watch my nightmare scenarios and intrusive thoughts play out in real time.” Indeed, it involves Swift meeting a doppelganger who encourages her fears (writing on a chalkboard, “EVERYONE WILL BETRAY YOU”); Swift feeling giant and awkward and worrying she ruins everything; and a scene at Swift’s own funeral where Mike Birbiglia, John Early and Mary Elizabeth Ellis play her dysfunctional sons and daughter-in-law who only cared about her for her money and fame.

Yet it’s clear that, despite its dark message and confounding lyrics, Swift wants the world to pay special attention to “Anti-Hero”; it’s the lead single, and she also changed her Twitter and Instagram bios upon the album’s release to read, “I’m the problem, it’s me.” Fans know she could eventually release a detailed explanation of what exactly she means in the song or leave it a mystery forever. With Swift, there truly is no in between.

(This story was updated Friday morning with the music video.)