What If: Taylor Swift’s Track “the 1” is About Hillary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Elections

I. The Theory

On the surface, Taylor Swift’s new album folklore opens with a song that is about a past relationship, and imagining what could have been: “It would’ve been fun / if you would’ve been the one,” she sings wistfully. Musing about a former love is familiar lyrical territory for Swift… or is it? In recent years, Swift has presented herself as more than content to leave exes in the past tense, so I was surprised to hear her creating a world where if her “wishes came true,” an ex is not only no longer an ex, but the one.

Then I heard the bridge:

I persist and resist the temptation to ask you
if one thing had been different
would everything be different

Hold up. “Persist” and “resist” — these became loaded political verbs in 2017, and now they reverberate further in the context of a global pandemic and national upheaval in the States, all on the eve of a presidential election. Swift’s word choice has always been heart-achingly precise, and these lyrics are no accident. I heard this second, political layer of her use of “persist and resist” the first time I heard “the 1,” and I still can’t unhear it. Swift’s bridge is the key, revealing the surprising “you” of the song.

Not an ex.

Not a man.

But Hillary Clinton.

Suddenly, the song transforms into wistfulness about what could have been had Clinton won the presidency in 2016 instead of Trump and, crucially, is about Swift’s regrets for not speaking up during the U.S. elections. “In my defense, I have none,” she admits, while imagining that it might have been different, that she might have been a part of Clinton’s “chosen family,” rosé flowing.

Revisited through this lens, the bridge illuminates Swift’s remorse for not changing the one thing she had in her control: her own inaction. She restrains herself, again and again, from asking Clinton if everything would be different “if one thing had been different” — advocacy and activism on Swift’s part in support of Clinton’s candidacy. By the 2018 midterm elections, Swift was active both with get-out-the-vote pushes as well as vocally endorsing Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee. (Her process of deciding to speak up was a main theme of Miss Americana, Lana Wilson’s recent documentary about Swift.)

II. The Text

Swift hints at her transformation since the 2016 elections in the very beginning of the song, which of course opens the entire album: “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” It sounds pretty dang similar to the line Clinton quoted on Instagram, on Swift’s thirtieth birthday:

The rest of the song offers plenty more grist for the theory mill, with one exception, which I’ll come to shortly; eager Swifties who are already saying “but what about…,” feel free to jump ahead.

Line by line, “the 1” resonates differently when understood to be addressed to Clinton, and about Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Take these lines from the first verse:

I hit the ground running each night
I hit the Sunday matinee
You know the greatest films of all time were never made

Swift, who is currently staying at home during the pandemic, is going exactly nowhere every night and is certainly not literally going to a Sunday matinee at the movies. Instead, she is describing launching into her imagination, watching her wishes unfurl like a film. And in this case, the great film “never made” is a parallel universe in which Clinton became “the one.” (Sidenote — I think the title of the song is itself a clue. Swift styles “the one” as “the 1,” which to me implies the tip-top, the leader.)

The second half of the second verse, when seen through this framework, may refer to a specific part of the fabric of American presidential politics. Swift sings, “We never painted by the numbers, baby / But we were making it count.” Could this be an allusion to the electoral college system? If you do an internet search for “electoral college map” images, the results do (now that she mentions it) look like paint-by-numbers projects. In 2016, Clinton lost the electoral votes necessary to win, but won the popular vote — simply put, more people voted for her than for Trump. They didn’t paint by the numbers, but they were making it count.

While “the 1” is addressed to Clinton, ultimately the song is about Swift herself, the “I” of the song. The bridge is about her temptation to wonder aloud — to Clinton, and to us — what difference in the elections Swift might have made. The song is about her wishing her wishes had come true, but also recognizing that she is both “never leaving well enough alone” and “digging up the grave another time” by dwelling on what could have been. She missed her chance. Though she is remorseful (“in my defense, I have none”), her remorse is rendered with a light hand. We see this in the pre-chorus, when Swift sings “it’s alright now,” comforting herself. But maybe it’s not alright now. Maybe that’s why she wrote this song.

III. The Exception

I can’t in good conscience posit this theory without addressing the queer elephant in the room. If the “you” of the song is indeed Hillary Clinton, what can we make of the first half of the second verse:

I have this dream you’re doing cool shit
Having adventures on your own
You meet some woman on the internet and take her home

If my theory holds, we’ve got a problem. Is it subversive to imagine Clinton on her own and taking a woman home? Is it queer-baiting? Is it an actual dream that Swift had? Is it purposeful misdirection from the true meaning of the song? There is a part of me that thinks the aside is delightful; Swift’s fantasies have flown to the moon and back. There is another part of me that thinks the lyrics prove I’m wrong.

I believe the simplest explanation is also the most complicated. Swift wrote in her introduction to the album: “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” She writes that “picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”

Fantasy, history, memory. It’s all there. And it’s all intentionally fluid and blurred.

IV. The Rest of the Album

I never meant to interpret “the 1” differently than anyone else; I just heard it this way immediately. As days passed without seeing a similar theory anywhere online (besides my hilariously unnoticed tweet), my interest in the song’s political undercurrent became an obsession with the entire album. I heard, throughout folklore, Swift writing about new topics using the vocabulary of relationships.

The song “Exile,” featuring the musician Bon Iver, transformed into a duet between Barack Obama and the country of America herself. (“You’re not my homeland anymore,” sings Bon Iver, “So what am I defending now?”) In “Epiphany,” Swift sings: “With you I serve / with you I fall down” — the song is intensely patriotic. The song “Hoax,” well, I couldn’t fully crack that one, but it seems to be about America today under Trump. In “Hoax,” when Swift sings “my kingdom come undone,” she doesn’t mean her personal world; she means her land, her home, her country. The United States of America, not so united at all.

“I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve,” concludes Swift in her introduction to folklore. “Now it’s up to you to pass them down.” Whether I’ve passed anything down or not, I’m not sure, but I certainly heard in these stories love, wonder, and whimsy — as well as regret, heartbreak, and pain.

V. Loops

I persist and resist the temptation to ask you
if one thing had been different
would everything be different

— that bridge again, in Swift’s “the 1”

Loops can be deceiving. Yes, they can be comforting and familiar, invigorating and inspiring. A song on repeat. A mantra. A daily, weekly, or annual ritual. Some loops, however, can be unhealthy: a rut of thoughts, a toxic cycle in a relationship, a pattern of behavior you can’t seem to shake.

I don’t know Taylor Swift (perhaps that goes without saying). But I know myself, and I recognize myself in the words to her bridge in “the 1.” What I recognize is my pull to “what if” thinking, another kind of loop; it’s easy to get stuck in what could have been. At that point I’m not really living in the past or the present — I’m imagining an impossible future. The only way to get out of the loop is to step out of the circle the moment it begins to repeat itself.

For Swift, getting out of a loop may mean acting differently on the eve of the 2020 elections than she did four years ago, on the eve of the 2016 elections. It may mean something else entirely. Maybe getting out of a loop meant creating her latest album in almost complete isolation, relying on the instincts of very few.

For me, getting out of one loop meant writing this essay so that I could finally stop thinking about this song. There are other, more important, thoughts and behaviors I want to change before they become too rigid to turn.

Thankfully there is music to listen to along the way. I’ll see you at the bend.