It came to her in a dream (an embarrassing one, at that), Taylor Swift recalled about the origin of her song, “All You Had To Do Was Stay.” On the cusp of her ascent into stratospheric superstardom with the release of her fifth studio album 1989 in 2014, Swift explained to TIME that in the dream, her ex had come to her front door to get her back, and all she could say back was a high-pitched “Stay.”
“It was almost operatic,” Swift said. “I woke up from the dream, saying the weird part into my phone, figuring I had to include it in something because it was just too strange not to. In pop, it’s fun to play around with little weird noises like that.”
It’s how some of our greatest pop songs have come about: making music out of the weird or the strange. That's why it is all the more surprising that “All You Had To Do Was Stay” has never gotten its due. With the release of Swift’s rerecording of 1989 bringing Taylor’s version of the song, nine years after the original, the time has come to reassess the long underappreciated track.
There’s a science, of course, behind “All You Had To Do Was Stay” and its placement on 1989. The song falls into what Swifties call the “Track Five” factor. If you look at Swift’s albums, the story goes, the fifth track of each one is the saddest and most cathartic of the project—and typically best captures its mood and message. On Fearless, it was “White Horse.” On Speak Now, it was “Dear John” and on Red, “All Too Well.” The list goes on, and for the release of her seventh studio album Lover (with “The Archer” as track five), Swift acknowledged the clear pattern.
“I didn’t realize I was doing this, but as I was making albums, I guess I was just kind of putting a very vulnerable, personal, honest, emotional song as track five,” Swift revealed. “So because you noticed this, I kind of started to put the songs that were really honest, emotional, vulnerable, and personal as track five.”
Contrary to popular opinion, this is also true of “All You Had To Do Was Stay.” It’s one of the saddest songs in Swift’s discography, but it’s created in a way that feels foreign to those who have been following her music since she cried tears on her guitar. In fact, it’s worth asking if it’s a strategic move for the self-proclaimed “mastermind” of subtext.
Saying so long to the country darling we once knew, 1989 marked Swift’s entry squarely into the pop arena. We heard inklings of this in Red two years prior, but this time, the shift in sound was unmistakable: Swift was charting a path toward a kind of pop stardom where her music was going to become ubiquitous and permeable—heard in your bedroom, your mom’s car, or even on the dance floor.
In many ways, this album was meant to be a light-hearted pop forward soundtrack to Swift’s life. “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” were devil-may-care responses to the media circus and Swift’s romantic throes while “Welcome to New York” was a gleeful proclamation of young adulthood and finding one’s footing in a world that is electric and full of possibility. Even the most pointed of songs, “Bad Blood,” still feels coy and playful. But as any Swiftie knows, you can never have fun without the pain. And that’s where “All You Had To Do Was Stay” plays its critical role.
Read More: The 17 Most Anticipated Albums of Fall 2023
Perhaps that’s part of the brilliance of 1989, but also of Swift’s mastery. Behind the pulsing synths, drum pads, and processed backing vocals, lyrically, the story she’s trying to tell is just as vulnerable, relatable, and cutting. “People like you always want back the love they pushed aside. But people like me are gone forever when you say goodbye”—a line that lands with a sinister calm before an explosive “stay!” carries us into the chorus. There, with brutal honesty, Swift battles how complicated breakups can be: how you might hate someone and still want them back. How people inflict their deepest wounds on each other despite their best intentions. And how you can dance through the sadness and feel release—from that person and sometimes, even, from yourself.
Catharsis comes in many forms and from places where you’d least expect. Sometimes it’s tender and quiet. But it can also be loud and raise hell. With “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” Swift made clear that catharsis in the form of the latter was OK—that loudness and spectacle is OK. The song’s drama, sharp storytelling, and dreamlike quality are unmistakably Swiftian. At the same time, it shows the beauty of how pop music works: How weird and crazy sounds and your most embarrassing stories and dreams can be operatic and accessible. If only you give yourself enough room to lean into it and dance.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.