Embracing Imperfection: Lessons from Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero”
By Charlotte Gehring
With the release of her tenth studio album, Midnights, the genre-bending musical genius of Taylor Swift once again has a firm hold on TikTok “For You” pages and the greater scheme of American pop culture. Swift describes the album as “a collection of music written in the middle of the night, a journey through terrors and sweet dreams” — an exploration of the fears and desires that keep her awake (Taylor Swift, Instagram). A tribute to her songwriting prowess, this concept is relatable to a wide audience, appealing to people whose life is much different from a 30-something female pop star in a committed long-term relationship.
Throughout her career-long experimentation with country pop, pop-rock, alternative, indie folk, and most recently, synth-pop, I remain drawn to her compelling musical storytelling - and Midnights is no different.
When the clock struck twelve on October 21st, I found myself alone in my dorm room, basking in the late-night emotional rollercoaster that is this album. There is a confessional nature to Midnights. It is not a sugar-coated allusion to the complexities of identity, relationships, and mental health — but rather — Swift calls these elements out by name.
Specifically, “Anti-Hero” details Swift's insecurities and anxieties, fueled by an overwhelming sense of self-loathing and perfectionism. Unabashedly describing exactly what haunts her in the album’s third track, Swift reclaims the power that these fears held over her. Her previous ballads have alluded to emotional distress and mental health, but she breaks new ground by explicitly using the word “depression” in the first verse. Moreover, “Anti-Hero” attempts to destigmatize Swift’s private struggles with mental illness and encourages listeners to accept their flaws, which, as Swift demonstrates, don’t disappear even with a seemingly “perfect” life.
Upon hearing the song, the English major in me immediately recalled the literary definition of an anti-hero: a main character that lacks conventional heroic attributes and contains a dark side. The morally ambiguous nature of the “anti-hero” complicates an audience’s experience — they don’t have an easily likable character to root for. Since this might not be a familiar concept for some, recognizable anti-heroes in film and literature include Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Ryan Reynolds’s character in Deadpool, or Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
The “Anti-Hero” anthem begins with the artist sleeplessly reflecting on past romantic relationships and friendships, where “All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.” Haunted by the past, Swift believes she is damaged and destined to make the same mistakes, “I get older but just never wiser.” This line really resonated with me, as it embodies the all-too-familiar sensation of lying awake in bed, incessantly replaying past social interactions in my head. The ghosts of my past dominate my present anxiety; I constantly think about what I could have said and done differently. I find it powerful and comforting that my late-night rumination is an experience that I share with Taylor Swift and many others.
Building up to the catchy yet painfully raw chorus, Swift lays out the source of her internal ramblings and intrusive thoughts: “It's me / Hi / I'm the problem, it's me.” These complex lines are loaded with shame and self-deprecation, yet delivered with the levity of a pop chorus. The casual tone of the chorus characterizes insecurities and self-criticism as a universal human experience, indicating that being your own anti-hero is okay.
In the following verses, Swift grapples with insecurities surrounding body image. She feels that her above-average stature (5 '11”) makes her feel like “a monster on the hill” that is “Too big to hang out” compared to the conventionally attractive examples of Hollywood beauty, the “sexy baby.” The line’s striking word choice encapsulates the challenge of navigating confidence and self-image in our perpetually hypercritical and social media-dominated world. The sentiment of being “too big to hang out” connects to the familiar experience of being painfully aware of standing out from your peers. Upon hearing this line, I was transported back to memories of school formal dances, towering over every boy, despite wearing the shortest heel I could find.
My height is something that I have come to love about myself now, but I still experience this residual fear of being looked at as the “monster on the hill.” This desire to fit in (and fear of being unable to do so) is normalized by “Anti-Hero,” articulating the discomfort of feeling different and inadequate to those around you. Highlighting the difficulties of being in the public sphere as a female celebrity, Swift discusses the everyday tendency to internalize what others say or feel about us. This element of the song made me realize how much I rely on comparison to others, which does not determine my happiness or value.
The relatability of Swift’s lyrics provides her audience with an opportunity for self-reflection. For me, I found that “Anti-Hero” confronts the persistent voice in my head that tells me nothing I say or do is ever enough. As someone who puts pressure on myself to be perfect in every facet of my life – academics, career aspirations, personal relationships, physical appearance – it is comforting to know that I am not alone. Even my personal role models, who seemingly “have it all together” still struggle with depression, anxiety, and insecurities rooted in societal pressures. “Anti-Hero” serves as a reminder that no amount of success (however you define it) can fill the hole of perfectionism.
One hit single will not dismantle the entire societal stigma surrounding mental health, but “Anti-Hero” sparked important dialogue surrounding self-image and self-criticism. While the song’s vivid imagery and metaphors are personal to Swift, the underlying message of self-acceptance is universally relatable to listeners. Labeling our insecurities and imperfections as things that make us human and not defining or devaluing elements is a critical step towards self-love.
The TikTok trend associated with the song, the #TSAntiHeroChallenge, seeks to do just that. Fans and celebrities alike have publicly acknowledged and shared their “anti-hero” traits, ranging from clapping at the end of a flight to battles with eating disorders. “Anti-Hero’s” strength lies in Swift’s contemplative songwriting that confronts these difficult topics, making audiences feel comfortable enough to sing and speak about them openly.