why you gotta be so mean?

Let’s say, for example, that you’re a rather young country-pop(1) star who in relatively short-order has become an incredibly big star. As in like pretty much everybody knows your name. They toss it out over the dinner table maybe. Talk about you as though they know you. You’re like, what, 19? Incredibly young to be a so-called household name. But you’ve worked hard to get where you are and, well, a) there have been far younger people way more famous than you currently are(2) and b) there’s generally no sense that you don’t deserve the accolades you’re given.

In short, you’re talked about by the masses and the masses generally don’t have anything terrible to say.

Oh and speaking of accolades here you are: standing on a stage, looking incredibly beautiful in a lovely gown that maybe some designer asked you to wear. Gave it to you for free. That’s how big your name is already. At like 19. And here you are, in a moment that is a personal achievement for you. You’re on this stage under all these lights surrounded by nothing but heartbreakingly beautiful people who are clapping for you, applauding you for being recognized for making something better than what they’ve made. It’s one thing to be lauded, you know, and a whole different monster to be lauded by your competition.

And speaking of monsters, here’s one climbing out of the audience. You’ve barely begun to talk. You’ve had just about enough time to mention how shocked you are that you even won this award. You, after all, while being at least partially a pop star can in no way at this point rid yourself of the country part of what you do. Nor do you want to. But this is MTV, so country-unfriendly that country music had to start its own music-video network. This is why you’re there expressing surprise.

So then now here’s this monster climbing out of the audience. He’s coming right toward you. You’re relatively young and in a mind-rending amount of shock and élan and so when he holds his hand out for your microphone you just give it to him. He’s been around longer than you and maybe it’s your inexperience that has you completing that fateful gesture. Part of you knows better, knows that this is one of the best things that’s ever been yours. But you’re a nice girl. It’s part of why you’re here; your image is just about as pure as it can get. So you give him the mike.

And he does about the meanest thing anyone’s ever done in the history of award shows, to say nothing of your life to this point.

You reel from it. The sting. He doesn’t even directly say anything bad about you. Just very publicly and rudely tosses out his own opinion. Just does pretty much what he’s known for doing. But still. It stings. It hurts. You cry later on because he stole forever one beautiful moment from you. And that’s pretty much all you’re after, the beautiful moments.(3)

But so here you are in a horrible moment. Of pain. Embarrassment. Tragedy. And maybe anger too. So you do what you always do: you write a song about it.

This, I submit to you, is where Taylor Swift’s song “Mean” comes from, though she has said that she’ll never tell us who her songs are about. I could actually be wrong but to be honest it doesn’t matter that much. I just wanted to provide a possible reason why Ms. Swift herself then says about the cruelest thing I can think of.

In this song, just before the series of outro-choruses(4) she calls the person that the song is addressing a liar. She calls him pathetic. And then she says he’s “alone in life.” This is, to me, incredibly mean. More mean, in fact, than what Mr. West did.

I think loneliness is the cornerstone of modern American life. It’s why we desperately seek entertainment. We either want to escape our loneliness or we want simulated friends who we can more-or-less rely upon to show up once per week on schedule. People don’t watch shows about friends because they have plenty of their own to interact with. Who doesn’t wish they had a Central Perk to go to. Or its contemporary version, MacLaren’s. Where everybody knows your name. Look at the number modern sitcoms that have a place, a locale. A gathering-spot. We on the outside of the boob-tube(5) haven’t anywhere to go, or at least nowhere as engaging. So we sit in our living rooms and go there through our TVs.

Because we’re lonely. Because entertainment is so often like candy: you can consume it, sure, but it’s not good for your system and eventually will cause serious problems.

The problem in this case being that we lose the basic skills required to seek out new people. To eradicate our own loneliness. Instead we seek out new shows, new entertainment. We sate our hunger with more candy.

The problem with candy is that it solves the immediate issue, viz, being hungry, while masking larger needs. Modern entertainment does exactly the same thing.(6) Because you can go to MacLarens’ every non-summer Monday(7) night you may not be aware of how lonely you are.

And this is why Ms. Swift’s accusation is more than just mean. It’s mean-spirited. What Mr. West did was horrible, but it wasn’t directed at Ms. Swift. Like everything else he does, it was about him. Ms. Swift just happened to be part of it.

But and so telling someone they’re alone in life is mean-spirited. It is directed at that person in no ambiguous way. It is intended to cause harm. And in this case is a bit nefarious as well, which I’ll get to in a minute. If someone told you you’re alone in life, part of your overly entertained American brain will know she’s right. You can convince yourself all you want that candy stops you from being hungry but at the end of the day you’ll want something more. Sustenance, it’s called, from the same root as sustain. Because entertainment, like candy, can’t sustain us in any real, viable way. And we all know it.

So to tell someone they’re alone in life is to awaken their personal suspicion that they are, in fact, terribly lonely. That maybe pretty much all the attention-getting things they’ve foisted upon the populace, that the fame they so desperately need, is all to sate some horrible, monstrous loneliness.

But – and here’s the nefarious part – the phrase that awakens the monster can also put it right back to sleep. Especially if you’re an entertainer. You’re part of the system of loneliness on both sides of the cycle. You’re personality is part of what got you here. People expect you to be a certain way. To change that – to actually uncover whether or not you’re lonely and then to do something as altering as to do something about it – will quite possibly remove you from the public’s trust. You are, after all, candy. So it’s incredibly easy to say that well if you’re alone in life then so be it. Because everybody knows your name.

So in one simple line she gives the addressee both reason to suspect he’s extravagantly lonely and the reason to go on ignoring it. This is why it’s so mean: giving someone cause to change and an excuse not to. I can hardly think of anything more mean.


  1. Or country/pop. Or pop-country. Or pop/country.
  2. And you have zero intention of ending up in the same rehab facility as they all seem to end up.
  3. Except that of course your music – and hence your career and the whole reason you were up there in the first place to even give him a chance to be so mean – is built upon the non-beautiful moments of your life. Everything you create – honest as itmay or may not be – rests on a moment of pain from some point in your life. The great paradoxical truth is that while making music makes you incredibly happy you wouldn’t be able to write your music if you weren’t incredibly sad. You want to be loved – literally loved, by someone to whom you give your heart – but if he doesn’t break it your career may very well be over.
  4. Chori?
  5. This phrase really needs updated to HD.
  6. I don’t mean to say that all entertainment is bad. In fact, entertainment itself isn’t really all that terrible. It’s America’s incredibly voracious need for that’s alarming.
  7. Or really pretty much whenever you like now thanks to Netflix, Hulu and other online sources.
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One comment on “why you gotta be so mean?

  1. I am not a Taylor Swift fan at all, but I love that song and video! It’s just so sweet! Personally, after seeing the video, I’m not thinking that it’s about the MTV incident… but it sure could be.

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