This twangy track finds Taylor taking aim at her critics. Taylor told Entertainment News: "When you do what I do, which is you put yourself out there for a lot of people to say whatever they want, there's a million different opinions."
"I get that, no matter what, you're going to be criticized for something," she added. "But I also get that there are different kinds of ways to criticize someone. There's constructive criticism, there's professional criticism - and then there's just being mean. And there's a line that you cross when you just start to attack everything about a person."
The song alludes at least in part to Swift's off key performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon
" with Stevie Nicks at the 2010 Grammy Awards. A number of pundits laid into her saying she was badly off-key and couldn't sing, but the specific review that got her blood boiling came from Bob Lefsetz, who wrote in his Lefsetz Letter
: "did Taylor Swift kill her career overnight? I'll argue she did. In one fell swoop, Taylor Swift consigned herself to the dustbin of teen phenoms... Taylor's too young and dumb to understand the mistake she made."
Faced with such stinging words, you can understand why towards the end of this song, Taylor sings: "And I can see you year from now in a bar talking over a football game/With that same big loud opinion, but no one's listening/Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things/Drunk and talking all about how I... can't... sing."
The music video broadens the song's message to make it relate to school kids who are bullied or mistreated for being different. We see a boy reading a fashion magazine among the football players in the locker room, and a girl wearing blue instead of pink.
Taylor admits that she has a thin skin and can't just brush off criticism. She wrote on her website: "No matter how old you are, no matter what your job is, no matter what your place is in life. There's always going to be someone who's just mean to you. Dealing with that is all you can control about that situation, how you handle it. 'Mean' is about how I handle it, and sort of my mind set about this whole situation."
Taylor discussed dealing with criticism of her voice in an interview with Parade Magazine: "Some days I'm fine and I can just brush it off and go about my day, but some days it absolutely levels me. All I can do is continue to try to work hard every single day and feel everything. I think it's important to feel things because I then write songs about that. The whole idea of being criticized and the fact that that entered my life made for a song that I'm very proud of on the record called 'Mean.'"
The song debuted at #11 on the Hot 100 dated November 6, 2010. This meant that Taylor became the first act to claim the chart's Hot Shot Debut, awarded to the list's highest new entry, in three successive weeks. Its premier arrival followed those of "Speak Now
" (#8) and "Back to December
The song's music video was directed by Declan Whitebloom and shot over two days in Los Angeles, with the Orpheum Theatre serving as its backdrop. It features scenes from different time periods, and was inspired by Swift's performance at the 46th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards. The director told MTV News: "Everyone was vintage in a way. The whole thing has a period feel. But Taylor, I don't know, it all started with her and the actual performance. She did a performance on the ACMs ... and she wanted to bring that into [this video]. We just brought the two-dimensional scene from the CD cover and the country [awards and] made those 3-D. We brought those to life. I think because Taylor is so timeless in a way, her look, she really embodies that sort of 1920s, 1930s look so well. She is absolutely flawless and gorgeous."
After this song got nominated for CMA trophy for Song of the Year, Taylor told the Associated Press that this lighthearted response to her critics is really close to her heart. She explained. "It's a song that I wrote on a really, really bad day, but it has produced so many happy days for me since."
Swift took home Grammys for Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song for this cut. "Thank you to anyone who voted for this song," said Taylor as she accepted the latter award at the 2012 ceremony. "I want to thank [Big Machine Records President] Scott Borchetta for believing in this song. When we put it out as a single, people said, 'Really? You're gonna do it?' But my label stood by it, and country radio played it a lot. This is unbelievable!"