Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Taylor Swift's "Hey Stephen" isn't about Stephen Colbert, no matter what her vision board says

Stephen Colbert, Taylor Swift
Stephen Colbert, Taylor Swift
Screenshot: The Late Show

The music world is throwing up its collective fist in solidarity with singer-songwriter Taylor Swift on her recent move to emancipate her back catalogue. For those not Squad-adjacent, the music rights to Swift’s first five albums were sold out from under her by her former label, seeing the singer decide that now would be a good time to just go back and re-record all those earlier records in their entirety (complete with bonus tracks and the benefit of years of getting even better), thus reclaiming her songs from corporate skullduggery. It’s an an act guaranteed to delight longtime fans—while leaving the money men fuming. That’s what you call a two-fer.

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Regardless, the thought of a matured, reflective Taylor Swift singing songs that she wrote and performed when she was just a teenager (albeit a really talented teenager) is sheer bliss for Swift aficionados. As our own Saloni Gajjar noted in her review of Fearless (Taylor’s Version)—the first of the five repossessed Swift albums—hearing Swift revisit her old material is a multilayered experience. (You know, in case anyone was thinking, “I like that Taylor Swift, but she should have more feelings.”) Delving into one of those layers on Tuesday’s Late Show, host and Taylor Swift fan Stephen Colbert counted himself among those scanning the singer’s reinterpreted work, in his case for confirmation that he himself provided the inspiration for Forever’s wistful paean to unrequited love, “Hey Stephen.”

Now, before you scoff, Colbert did show a clip from The Colbert Report where Swift had sent the then Comedy Central-employed Colbert an original Forever CD, inscribed, “Stephen, my family and I are huge fans. Love Taylor Swift.” And, for another, the present-day Swift, appearing remotely on Colbert’s new CBS home turf, seemed awfully well-informed about Colbert’s entire life, and movements. “No, Stephen,” Swift giggled at the very thought that the former Strangers With Candy co-star could have sent the adolescent Taylor Swift into a lovestruck songwriting frenzy, “I mean, I first recorded recorded that song in 2008, I think was, like 18.” So that seals that. You know, even though, at Colbert’s waffling about just how old he was at that particular time, Swift rattled off his exact age, down to the hour.

Well, that doesn’t prove anything. After all, as Swift demurred, anyone who’s even glanced at Stephen Colbert’s Wikipedia page knows full well the exact location of his work office, complete with which window to peep into, perhaps with some high-powered binoculars. (Perhaps tossing rocks to get his attention.) Or that he once waited tables at a particular Chicago pizzeria in 1989, or what his Social Security number is. That’s all just out there in the ether, and if young Taylor’s vision board includes a picture of a delicious slice of pepperoni pizza (alongside, sure, multiple, carefully clipped photos of Stephen Colbert’s face), well, that’s just because she was really hungry for pizza when she wrote “Hey Stephen.” (There’s also a pint of ice cream on the board—is Colbert going to make a federal case about Swift’s fondness for Americone Dream? That’s just sad.) “Don’t flatter yourself,” Swift told Colbert, not unkindly.

Plus, as the acclaimed songwriter went on, if you’re secretly crushing on a much older celebrity named Stephen (with a “ph”), you don’t go ahead and put his name right in the title. That’s amateur hour. Instead, you call it something innocuous, and just pepper the lyrics with specific details about your subject, like that he’s 5'11" and his middle name is Tyrone. Still, this Colbert guy just wouldn’t give it up, so Swift (debunking both Colbert’s and the internet’s speculation about the actual inspiration for “Hey Stephen”), finally revealed the (even older, and arguably more famous) object of her teenage—and current—romantic obsession. Seriously, Colbert, you’re so vain.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.