Everyone Else Is in Love and I’m Just Listening to Taylor Swift

I don't have or want a romantic relationship—but her music taught me love isn't what we think it is

When I think of Taylor Swift as a foundational part of me—and like so many others, I do—I think of the blanket on my bed in seventh grade, which was a bright gingham pattern in purple and lime green. My bus driver liked playing the pop station while we zigzagged through the woods, and after I’d heard that day’s iteration of “You Belong With Me” (or “Replay,” or “Use Somebody,” or “Your Love Is My Drug”), she’d drop me off and I’d walk home and sit on my bed and do homework, and play more Taylor Swift.

Spanish homework was my favorite, because it was exciting to know I was getting better at another language every day. Math was a close second, because I was still in those fun pre-algebra stages where they just ask you to do the same thing over and over again.

I know the point of this story isn’t my homework. But my homework feels crucial to the story—felt crucial to the story, even then. Because it was all part of the scene. Two years shy of high school, I wanted to be that typical teenage girl, as I’d constructed her from movies and music videos: dreamy, in her room but lost in her own world, lying on her bed with her feet kicked up behind her like in the movies, listening to music and doing her homework. Sometimes I’d get up and grab my hairbrush and sing along to really feel like I was completing the image—as if anyone else could see me here, and as if the image of me doing this might prove something to them.

A lot of what I thought it meant and would mean to be a teenager came from Taylor Swift songs. In “Fifteen,” she sings from the perspective of a high school freshman: taking a deep breath, walking through the doors of the big high school, sitting down in class next to her future best friend. Sharing secrets and heartbreaks, staying up late, dancing around her room. And falling in love for the first time.

I wanted to want something, and a romance with a boy, for a while there, felt like the most obvious and easy thing to want.

I cared about these songs deeply, and I therefore expected that in time, my real life would echo them. I exuded no real romantic energy into the world, yet at sleepovers I’d guess which boys might have crushes on me. I was afraid of the idea of actually kissing anybody—more than afraid, at times I felt actively resentful of it—but I sang about kissing in the rain, because I liked doing literally everything else in the rain, so it only made sense. I figured soon it would happen for me, like a kiss in the rain was the sort of thing that just arrived at one’s door. I wanted to want something, and a romance with a boy, for a while there, felt like the most obvious and easy thing to want.

It’s eerie to think of the ways in which music worms itself into our own personal expectations. As a child I tried mustering up a crush on a neighbor because I thought girl-next-door love sounded sweet—“Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” is a classic example of this, the story about two small-town lovers growing up together that always used to make me cry. I saw it also in the “You Belong With Me” video with the neighbors holding up signs in their windows for each other to read, and in the opening scene that “I’m Only Me When I’m With You” effortlessly sets: “Friday night beneath the stars / In a field behind your yard / You and I are painting pictures in the sky.” To be in love, in these songs, was to have a best friend—one single presence you could count on.

But I’ve caught myself framing my expectations around song lyrics since then, too, with other archetypes—searching for the kind of love that looks like “dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light,” or the kind of love that never goes out of style, or the kind of knee-jerk affection at the beginning of “Paper Rings” (“Went home and tried to stalk you on the internet / Now I’ve read all of the books beside your bed”). Cold-wine love, cardigan love, haunted love.

The love is the common strand here, but it’s also where things usually stop for me, real-life-wise. I am all about starry nights out in fields, and long, hilly autumn drives. But give me these things and I’ll feel full and happy already; eight or nine times out of ten, add a person who wants to kiss me and all I’ll want to do is roll my eyes. Ask any of the few lovely people who have sincerely tried to begin something with me, and been met in return with awkward silences, feigned misunderstandings, and a resistance that neither of us quite understand.

The idea of being in love, the way it’s presented to us, is the idea of being relaxed, of being understood.

It could be the idea of love I’m attached to—because the idea of being in love, the way it’s presented to us, is the idea of being relaxed, of being understood, of being happy and newly interested in the world around you. Pop culture teaches us, consciously or inadvertently, that finding a partner is the best, easiest, or even the only route to these feelings. But I have been all of these things, sometimes even all at once, and I have never been in a romantic relationship.

One of the first times a friend told me they were asexual, they said, “I don’t know if I will be a year from now or two years from now, but right now I am.” Something about this made some essential part of me relax. I hadn’t thought of labels as things that could change with time, but in retrospect it felt obvious.

This is what I want, I knew then. This is what the point is: not defining oneself, but taking power over the ways one is defined.

I steer away from calling myself asexual or aromantic, because I’ve had sexual and romantic encounters before and enjoyed them. But it’s also not overall a very consuming part of my life or something I usually feel proactive about. I also hesitate to label myself as anything at all, in any context (particularly in a place as permanent-feeling as the internet). It feels odd, now, to be writing these things and simultaneously not quite wanting people to know them, which may be why I usually stick to forms of writing that are not personal narrative. I don’t want anyone to know what I consider myself (but I still want everyone to know what I consider).

This—this constant refocusing, this power over definitions and definition—is one of the things Taylor Swift does so well. She defines herself more deftly than anyone else can—and in doing so, she makes it not mean anything. She’s innocent but also mature, wronged as well as culpable. In “Blank Space,” she took the persona the press had given her at the time—“crazy but seductive but glamorous but nuts but manipulative”—and embodied it so thoroughly that no self-serious person could really feel smart applying it to her again.

She wants us to see many sides to her and therefore not quite believe any of them: how she can be forgiving but also vengeful, self-conscious but also unrepentant. All people are homes for these sorts of contradictions. Her hits when I was in high school were love songs, but I also used to love the cold blame inherent to songs like “White Horse,” and the barely-contained, trembling anger that arrives late and victorious in “Dear John,” every word of it marvelously felt: “Don’t look now / I’m shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town.” Even in “Ours,” a sweet, simple song, the line, “Life makes love look hard,” used to lift a feeling of contempt in me: How dare life make love look hard? What kind of a vicious lie is that?

I’m used to loving her music in all sorts of ways that don’t make immediate sense. In high school, she was the only current pop artist I listened to (my other obsessions were Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and, somehow, Beck). Sometimes when I was feeling rageful, I’d turn up the volume knob all the way and rock out with my door closed, reassured by the idea that my parents likely wouldn’t think I was rebellious or at all troubled because it was Taylor Swift I was listening to.

If this is true, love might not be an answerable thing—which would make it okay that I have never had an answer for it.

One explanation for liking these songs and stories could be escapism—but to bring in the word escape sounds like it implies a lie, and the route down which music leads you is anything but a lie. What I feel like it offers me personally is less a way out of something I want to avoid, and more a way of directly accessing something better. What I initially thought I was accessing was some experience I lacked: flirting with a cute boy through a window (or being attracted to a cute boy, period), getting swept off my feet at a dance, spending the same four years at one high school. The breakups that first tore me in half were not with people but with cities; my first love affairs were platonic. It would take me years to understand that what I loved in Swift’s music was less to do with the central relationships I felt so pressured to emulate, and more to do with the music’s changing narratives and textured trajectories of understanding—from track to track, from album to album. The way retrospective love operates in “Tim McGraw” is different from the way it operates in “The Way I Loved You”; the way love works in “Mine” is different from how it works in “Lover.”

If this is true—if love has many sides to it, none of them the most real or the most actualized—there might be no moment at which we understand love most fully. If this is true, love might not be an answerable thing—which would make it okay that I have never had an answer for it.

To grow up loving Taylor Swift is to grow up having Taylor Swift define, at least in some way, what love means for you. In the beginning, that was the fierce attachment that comes with knowing someone who understands your childhood, at that crucial point in life when so far your childhood is all you have to share. This attachment is glaringly bright in “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)”—“Take me back to the creek beds we turned up / Two A.M., riding in your truck and all I need is you next to me”—and in “Our Song,” with the “slamming screen door / Sneakin’ out late, tapping on your window.”

These trappings have evolved with subsequent releases, as Swift’s own life has evolved—country roads replaced by the High Line and Sixteenth Avenue, fairy-tale daydreams solidified into literal mansions. And her representations of love have shifted, too—through the vengeful Reputation and the lighthearted but mature Lover, most recently into Folklore and Evermore, which use made-up stories and half-forgotten personal legends to craft mellow, tormented snapshots of characters caught up in the dreams of each other. Folklore insists so firmly on its own fictionality, even in its title, and yet how could its lyrics—“Your integrity makes me seem small / You paint dreamscapes on the wall / I talk shit with my friends / It’s like I’m wasting your honor”—be anything but some form of truth?

To grow up loving Taylor Swift is to grow up having Taylor Swift define, at least in some way, what love means for you.

What all these records share is Swift’s insistence upon carving out her own definitions of love, and her struggle to maintain the power of defining what love means for her (as well as what life means for her, and her own ambitions and surroundings) in spite of an outside world that thinks it knows better. This, she proves, is the thing to insist upon: not to love love in a singular way but to reconsider it, all the time, in each stage of one’s life—and in reconsidering it, love it and experience it anew.

I know I mentioned the math homework, the bus rides and the gingham blanket. But my first experience with Taylor Swift—maybe the first time I ever heard her music—came earlier. I was at a friend’s birthday party in fifth grade, in her basement, and someone gave her Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut, at that time her only album out, as a present. The birthday friend knew what it was by the CD shape before she even unwrapped it. “Is this—?” Immediately she put it in the CD player and—urged on by the friend who’d given it to “put on our song!”—skipped ahead to what I learned was actually titled “Our Song.” The two of them had made up a dance to the chorus, and we all watched as they performed it, thrilled to share this with the rest of us.

It feels like a betrayal of them in a way, writing about it. It’s hard to write about other people without feeling like I’m betraying them, especially if the experiences I share with them are ones I cherish. There must be a part of me that feels like cherished things should be the most secret of all. But “to betray” can also mean to tell a secret, or to accidentally let one’s true self show. And that means we betrayed ourselves to each other first of all, and in truer ways; what I’m putting here is only an echo, a reproduction designed to be both true and understandable, when the real self-revelation only needed to be true.

I say all this, but really there’s not much way around this messiness; it’s hard to get away from betrayal in writing, in part because writing, after all, is spending time with the things you cherish and telling the secrets of them. I write about love and I risk betraying love; I write about the tree outside my window and I risk betraying the tree outside my window. I take this very seriously. I write about anything important and I risk getting it wrong, losing its trust. This applies to myself, too: Maybe all writing is a necessary self-betrayal. And since I think of writing as love and love as writing, maybe all love is a necessary self-betrayal, too. Can a betrayal also be true to something? I’m not sure, but sometimes I think betrayal is the truest thing, and not even in a bad way. Betraying our past selves, our past lives, is the whole essence of growing up and of the changes we move through all the time.

Betraying our past selves, our past lives, is the whole essence of growing up.

What I do know is that Taylor Swift knows how to write about the absolute closest things to her heart without letting go of them—she betrays everything, but gives up nothing. This, more than the images of stolen kisses and little black dresses, more than feeling like I have one specific role to fulfill, is the relationship I want to have with love.

A little time has passed and I’m not trying to fill a typical teenage scene anymore; I might be trying to fill a “typical young adult” scene if I could firmly decide on what that looked like, but it’s probably a blessing that I can’t. I am still attempting to dream, recreationally but also professionally, and I still have not been in a long-term relationship.

There is a self somewhere, deep within me, that is unafraid of anything. I believe that because I know how big the world is, even if I can’t internalize the meaning of it, and because if I can believe in aliens and ghosts and whatnot (hell yeah), I can believe that about myself. There is a self in me that is exasperated at every single thing it comes across—but there is simultaneously a self in me that wants love, in an exciting, “Fearless” way, in a wrenching “All Too Well” way, in a developed “Lover” way that speaks of friendship and companionability. But my heart only talks to this self from time to time, and there are other selves in me too. Part of me recognizes it as odd that I’ve found my way to embracing the coexistence of all my possible relationships to love—whether I’m ace or aromantic, gay, bisexual, or something I have yet to consider (or all of the above!)—through the music of someone who has so consistently written about the experience of definitely being straight. But there you have it—there’s more to it than that.

I have always been skeptical of defining myself, partly because I don’t find it the most interesting, but also because the idea of defining feels linked to the definitive, the finite. Finishing. I do not think of love as something that finishes. Love, as an experience, does not end with riding off into the sunset, or a marriage proposal—nor does it quite begin with a step through the doors, or a Wednesday in a cafe. It is a fluid thing, constantly finding new formations and expressions and moving between people, constantly being rediscovered. Our selves are the same way.

I do not think of love as something that finishes.

This state of change, this questioning that is an always-shifting mix between hope and doubt, isn’t happenstance. It isn’t something that occurs in the background, along the journey, cropping up as a link between the real times when we understand ourselves. It is the entire point, the state in which we understand ourselves best.

In the title track of Evermore, the resolution Swift reaches is a turning-away from the idea of forever: “This pain wouldn’t be for evermore.” It’s parallel to a move she made in Folklore, titling a song “peace” and then making its central question a negation of the idea: “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” Her two quarantine albums resist conclusion in newly explicit ways. Things that die don’t stay dead; speakers upend other characters’ happy endings by adding their own sides to the story. They eye the roads not taken, they cast off closure, and they force confrontation with a lack of clear answers. The next time I find myself loving someone, I will too.

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