This chilling electronic tune finds Swift collaborating with one of her heroes, the British folktronica singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. She told The Sun: "We did a one take vocal and it was just so inspiring to see a woman do all the technical things in the studio that you usually see men do."
Imogen Heap is probably best known for her 2005 song "Hide And Seek," which was later sampled in Jason Derülo's #1 hit "Whatcha Say." Her 2009 album, Ellipse, earned Heap two Grammy nominations, winning Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, in recognition of her own technical work on the record.
The lyrics are heavy on metaphors of drowning and addiction until Swift finds she is "finally clean" and ready to move on. She told The Sun: "It's about comparing getting over a relationship to sobriety; it has a lot of different references between addiction and moving on from a relationship."
Taylor expanded on the song's meaning to Pop Crush: "The song 'Clean' is one that I wrote about sort of coming out of a relationship, or trying to move on from some struggle that you had in your life, and feeling kind of tarnished by it," she said. "And it kind of talks about how if you really allow yourself to feel pain, I think maybe it's easier to get past it. For most people that I've known who've fought through struggle, a lot them who have really just faced the pain head on have come out OK a lot faster than the ones who just pretended to be in denial of it."
The song is so kind of haunting because [of] Imogen's background on the song," Taylor added, "she's singing on it. So, it's so exciting [for me]."
Speaking with Elle magazine, Swift said the song is specifically about the moment she realized she was totally over a break-up. "'Clean' I wrote as I was walking out of Liberty in London. Someone I used to date - it hit me that I'd been in the same city as him for two weeks and I hadn't thought about it. When it did hit me, it was like, Oh, I hope he's doing well. And nothing else, "she said. "And you know how it is when you're going through heartbreak. A heartbroken person is unlike any other person. Their time moves at a completely different pace than ours. It's this mental, physical, emotional ache and feeling so conflicted. Nothing distracts you from it."
"Then time passes, and the more you live your life and create new habits, you get used to not having a text message every morning saying, 'Hello, beautiful. Good morning,' Swift continued. "You get used to not calling someone at night to tell them how your day was. You replace these old habits with new habits, like texting your friends in a group chat all day and planning fun dinner parties and going out on adventures with your girlfriends, and then all of a sudden one day you're in London and you realize you've been in the same place as your ex for two weeks and you're fine. And you hope he's fine. The first thought that came to my mind was, I'm finally clean."
According to Swift, the music incorporates a couple of unusual instruments played by Imogen Heap: a mbira, which is a thumb piano and "these things called boomwhackers, which are for the percussion."