"Back to December" is a song written and recorded by American singer/songwriter Taylor Swift for her third studio album Speak Now (2010). The song was sent to country radio in the United States on November 15, 2010, as the second single from Speak Now. According to Swift, "Back to December" is the first time she ever apologizes to someone in a song. Critics speculate that the song is about Taylor Lautner, Swift's ex-boyfriend, which was later acknowledged by Lautner. "Back to December" is considered an orchestral country pop ballad and its lyrics are a remorseful plea for forgiveness for breaking up with a former lover.
"Back to December" received positive reviews from critics, who regarded it as one of the highlights of Speak Now. Critics have praised the song for its expressive lyrics, its indelible melody, and Swift's vocal improvement. The song enjoyed commercial success, peaking at number six on the United States Billboard Hot 100, and at number seven in Canada. It also peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot Country Songs. The song received moderate success internationally, peaking at number 24 in New Zealand, and number 26 in Australia.
The song's accompanying music video, directed by Yoann Lemoine, laments the aftermath of a break-up between Swift and her boyfriend. The music video garnered mixed to positive reviews from critics; some praised the spectacular visual sense in portraying the somber mood while others criticized its inadequate narrative. Swift has performed "Back to December" in several live appearances, notably at the 44th annual Country Music Association Awards and at the 38th American Music Awards.
According to Swift, "Back to December" is an apology to a past lover in the form of a song, something that she has never done before. She continued "I've never felt the need to apologize in a song before. But in the last two years I've experienced a lot, [including] a lot of different kinds of learning lessons. And sometimes you learn a lesson too late and at that point you need to apologize because you were careless." Critics have speculated that the song is Swift's apology to her ex-boyfriend, The Twilight Saga actor Taylor Lautner, due, in part, to the lyrics "your tan skin, your sweet smile", as well as the hidden lyrics in the booklet, which spelled out "TAY." Lautner confirmed these rumors while promoting the TV series Scream Queens in 2016. "Back to December" was first released as a promotional single from Speak Now on October 12, 2010 as a part of the exclusive campaign by the iTunes Store leading up to the album's release. On November 15, 2010, the song was released as the second single from Speak Now.
"Back to December" is a country pop song with a length of four minutes and 55 seconds. Stephen M. Deusner from Engine 145 called the song "an elegant ballad full of orchestral swells, solemn guitars, and pleading lyrics". It is set in common time and has a ballad tempo of 72 beats per minute. It is written in the key of D major, and Swift's vocals span more than one octave, from the note of F♯3 to A4. It follows the chord progression of D–Bm7–G-D. Randy Lewis from Los Angeles Times commented that "Back to December" is one of two songs where Swift has first incorporated an orchestra on record (the other being "Haunted").
The song's narrative is in first person, and depicts Swift apologizing to a young man whose heart she broke. Mandi Bierly from Entertainment Weekly describes the song as "a melancholy mea culpa with the kind of driving chorus and age-appropriate yet universal honesty", adding that "in the tune [...] she says she’s sorry for the last time he saw her ('You gave me roses, and I left them there to die') and that she wishes she realized what she had ('I’d go back to December, turn around, and change my own mind/I go back to December all the time').
Leah Greenblatt from Entertainment Weekly ranked these couplets from the song; ("Your guard is up and I know why, because the last time you saw me is still burned in the back of your mind / You gave me roses and I left them there to die"), at number two out of ten best couplets from Speak Now sheet.
The song has received critical acclaim. Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone gave the song a positive review commenting, "Swift's voice is unaffected enough to mask how masterful she has become as a singer; she lowers her voice for the payoff lines in the classic mode of a shy girl trying to talk tough." Jonathan Keefe from Slant Magazine complimented Swift's ability "to write an indelible melody" and praised the production of the song, writing "[the song] showcase(s) Swift's unique knack for matching the overall tone of a melody to the broader themes of a song". He added that "it isn't easy to make a melancholy song like "Back to December" sound catchy at the same time, but that's what Swift does, and it's an impressive trick." Bobby Peacock from Roughstock gave the song four stars out of five and praised Swift's vocal, saying that "it's her best vocal since "Tim McGraw"". He concluded that "[the song] feels a little more focused, a little more mature and a little better-sung than her previous material." The Oxonian Review considers it the centerpiece of the melancholic album, noting how "equating regret with December is a mainstream American musical tradition" and this song is "the congruence of her singing and songwriting at its finest."
Ryan Brockington from New York Post lauded the song, writing "it’s a very surprising, and somewhat brilliant, apology track where Taylor sings about wishing to fix a relationship she wished she wouldn't have ruined in the first place." His point was echoed by Rudy Klapper from Sputnikmusic, who described the song as a "regret-filled apology". Stephen M. Deusner from Engine 145 gave the song a thumbs-up and praised Swift as "an expressive singer", calling the song "a dark fantasy of apology and reconciliation" which is "a true heartbreaker". Kevin John Coyne of Country Universe graded the production of the song as "B", complimenting the lyrics in particular, by writing "it’s always a good sign when there’s a line as memorable as that one, the kind that lingers around in your head more than the song itself." He also added that he "appreciate(s) the restrained vocal, though a more varied melody would’ve made the chorus quite a bit more distinctive."
"Back to December" is one of 14 songs on the standard edition of Speak Now which has charted within the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Upon its release as a promotional single, "Back to December" debuted at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 with sales of 242,000 digital downloads (approximately), on October 12, 2010. Following its single release, the song re-entered Billboard Hot 100 at number 74 on the week ending November 27, 2010. It reached a position of number 18. It also peaked at number one on Hot Digital Songs, number 11 on 'Pop Songs and at number 12 on the Adult Pop Songs. "Back to December" also became Swift's fifth song to have failed to reach the top spot on the Hot Country Songs, instead peaked at the top three (the previous songs were "Teardrops on My Guitar" at number two, "Picture to Burn" at number three, and both of "White Horse" and "Mine" at number two) and her ninth overall song to reach the top ten, but failed to reach the top spot (the previous songs were "Tim McGraw" at number six, "Fifteen" at number seven, "Fearless" at number ten, and four Top five songs previously mentioned.) The song was number 38 on the year-end chart of Hot Country Songs and number 74 on the year-end chart of Hot 100. It is the only song from Speak Now that charted on the Hot 100 year-end chart in 2011. As of November 2014, "Back to December" has sold 1.9 million copies in the United States.
Internationally, "Back to December" had moderate success. The song entered in Canada and peaked at number seven on the week ending October 30, 2010. In Australia, the song entered at number 26 on the week ending October 31, 2010. On the week ending October 18, 2010, the song debuted at number 24 in New Zealand.
"Back to December"'s accompanying music video was directed by Yoann Lemoine, who directed the video for Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", and was filmed in late December 2010 before Christmas Day. In an interview with Country Music Television, Lemoine explained that he developed the idea for the video after being inspired from the film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He also told MTV News that he wanted the video to be simple yet metaphorical. He added, "I wanted to work on the coldness of feelings in a very visual way, playing with the snow, the distance and sadness." He wanted to focus on Swift's look in the video so that she would come off as accessible, saying "I wanted her to perform a very natural way, to make her look very European. This was the main challenge to me. All of Taylor's world is very far away from my culture, but I saw something in her that could be very rough and heartbreaking; far from the princess glittery outfits and glam that she often goes for." Lemoine was allowed to take control of the whole production of the video, although it was Swift's idea to have her character leave the letter for her beloved. Swift's love interest in the video was played by male model, Guntars Asmanis. Lemoine commented that Asmanis was the perfect fit for Swift's love interest, saying "I wanted a boy that was fragile and beautiful. I didn't want to go for a hunk or a perfect cheesy boy that would have killed the sincerity of the video." The music video premiered on January 13, 2011, on CMT and Great American Country. Footages of the school and baseball stadium in the video were filmed in Binghamton, New York, in MacArthur Park while scenes with Swift were shot in an old country mansion outside of Nashville. The video reached 100 million views on Vevo, in June 2015, becoming Swift's 13th certified video. To date, the video has over 141 million views on YouTube.
The video begins when a young man is seen walking alone in a small town to the snowy football fields in a morning winter. A cut-scene shows Swift inside a house wearing a comfy sweater draped over one shoulder. She is brooding and singing about her lost love while wandering morosely around her apartment. She is also seen sitting in the bathtub, missing her boyfriend who she didn't treat well when they were together. About halfway through, it starts to snow inside the spacious house. A montage of Swift writing a letter is shown alternately with scenes of her boyfriend strolling around the town. It is then revealed that the whole situation is the aftermath of a break-up between Swift and her boyfriend. It is also shown that Swift slips the letter that she has written in his coat pocket before he leaves. The final scene shows her ex-boyfriend sitting in the bleachers, reading her apology letter.
Critical receptions towards the music video were positive. Jillian Mapes of Billboard believed that the video is "appropriately understated" considering the fact that the song is all about making an apology. The Improper noticed that the video has "the look and feel of a Hallmark movie and is almost as maudlin," while Amos Barshad of the New York felt that the video was "terrible." Tamar Anitai of MTV described the video as "a bummer", writing "[It] isn't just about a girl with her calendar permanently stuck on the twelfth month of the year. It's not just about feeling like a Lady Antebellum song. It's about getting stuck in a place of romantic regret." In a different perspective, Kyle Anderson of MTV argued that the music video puts Swift in a "pantheon of modern classics" with regards to its "almost haunting visual sense" which makes up for the inadequate narrative. Leah Collins of Dose.ca called the music video as "dreamy and moody". Her points are echoed by Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly, who deemed the video as "kind of lovely", which corresponds with the melancholic yet regretful mood of the song. Joycelyn Vena of MTV noticed that the video is "darker" and "somber", something that is not synonymous with Swift. Yet, The Oxonian Review considers Swift's "listlessness, the bare trees, and snowy indoors" in the music video attuned to the tenor of the song, achieved by "mixing wide shots, medium close ups, and cut-ins of Ms Swift and her ex, matching their gazes across frames, and blurring focus tastefully."
Swift first performed "Back to December" in Paris at a showcase at the Salle Wagram theater, on October 18, 2010, to promote her upcoming album, Speak Now, set for release on the October 25, 2010. Swift also performed the song on Speak Now: Taylor Swift Live From New York City, a special programme which was streamed live on CMT.com, MTV.com, VH1.com and other MTV Networks websites in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America to celebrate the release of her new album.
Swift also performed "Back to December" on several other occasions. On November 10, 2010, she performed the song live at the 44th annual Country Music Association Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Her performance of the song during that event was graded as a "B+" in the Los Angeles Times, noting she "kept it simple" and "rose to the occasion". On November 21, 2010, Swift mashed "Back to December" with OneRepublic's "Apologize" at the 38th American Music Awards. Her rendition in that event was graded as a "B-" in the Los Angeles Times, noting that "a brief end-song breakaway into OneRepublic's "Apologize" seemed unnecessary".
Swift performed "Back to December" and several songs from Speak Now on November 24, 2010 during Thanksgiving night, on NBC. She later performed the song on The Ellen DeGeneres Show on December 2, 2010. On January 31, 2011, she sang the song in JetBlue’s Terminal 5 in New York as part of JetBlue’s Live at Terminal 5 concert series. She also performs the song on her Speak Now World Tour as well as mashing the song with Apologize and her own song You're Not Sorry, from her album Fearless. The performance was released on Swift's first live album called Speak Now: World Tour Live.European digital download
UK digital download
- "Back to December" – 4:54
US digital download
- "Back to December" – 4:54
US Acoustic digital download
- "Back to December" – 4:54
Lead Vocals: Taylor Swift
Writers: Taylor Swift
Producers: Taylor Swift, Nathan Chapman
Mixing: Justin Niebank
Mastering: Hank Williams
- "Back to December" (Acoustic Version) – 4:52
Since May 2013 RIAA certifications for digital singles include on-demand audio and/or video song streams in addition to downloads.