“It’s a love story, baby, just say ‘Yes.’ ” A very optimistic statement, but one that won’t always come true.
Taylor Swift's “Love Story,” one of our generation’s most iconic love songs, describes your typical teenage romantic affair, full of carefree ambition and innocent adoration. But what happens to our youthful daydreams when love hurts just as deeply as it once healed?
If anyone had to answer this question, Swift would be the perfect candidate. Today’s biggest pop star is no stranger to living through the peaks of attraction and the despairs of heartbreak, and her love stories can be pieced together from the nine studio albums in her discography. Besides her signature “Love Story,” Swift has a whole album, Lover, filled with doting praises of her boyfriend Joe Alwyn. But when Swift faced her first romantic challenges and obstacles, she too internalized love’s double–edged nature.
Speak Now takes a sharp turn from Fearless, the parent album of “Love Story,” and its high school romantic tropes. It showcases an artist at her most vulnerable moments, her fleeting instants of euphoric bliss, and her journey navigating through the confusion of her desires. Even if the album isn’t completely devoid of Swift’s affectionate yearnings, the love stories told are more reflective than fervid. For instance, “Enchanted” is a nearly six–minute power ballad about the first moment she met Owl City's Adam Young, and “Sparks Fly” paints a magical scene of Swift’s romantic interest meeting her “in the pouring rain” and kissing on the sidewalk.
Swift’s highly publicized relationships and subsequent breakups with John Mayer and Joe Jonas played a role in this shift in perspective, but Swift's identity also became more complex in their wake. She’s no longer content with her previous depictions of love, instead opting for alternative, nonconforming definitions. On “Dear John,” a track about her feelings surrounding Mayer’s betrayal, Swift feels loved and empowered by writing “this song” as a response. After Mayer gave love but “[took] it away,” the only thing Swift can do is to escape his “dark, twisted games” by making music.
In general, Speak Now’s angst and embrace of the unknown gives Swift the chance to leave her comfort zone and find what truly makes her feel loved. She finds it in forgiveness on “Back to December” when all she wants to do is to “turn around and make it alright” after leaving her lover's roses “to die,” and she finds it in her fans on “Long Live” when acknowledging their unconditional support for her on tour. Familial love and relationships are also a highlight on “Never Grow Up,” in which Swift recalls her fondest childhood memories. By exchanging romantic love for its other permutations, Swift is able to move on from the past. She’s not just looking for romantic interests—she’s searching for opportunities to understand who she is, and that voyage takes her to friends, family, music, and ultimately, herself
If Swift considers her young adulthood to be more satisfying without love’s volatility, then is the pursuit of intimacy really worth it if it's just a waste of time? Moses Sumney argues exactly this on his 2016 debut album, Aromanticism, which takes society’s understanding of love and turns it on its head. Instead of seeing romantic love as one of humankind’s necessities, he believes that normative love is irrelevant, merely a time sink. Taken from his own experience as an aromantic who has loving urges but no desire to develop them further, Sumney offers a glimpse into a life where sexual pleasure is second to developing more fulfilling platonic relationships.
In this “Lonely World,” love is nothing more than a manmade creation that we learn to accept as truth from those around us. However, Sumney makes the case that we're meant to be lonely, and to listen to the void that speaks to us more than any human can. After all, if we’re “born into this world without consent or choice,” why are we meant to trust others?
Although isolation might be innate, that doesn’t prevent Sumney from craving affection from time to time. On “Indulge Me,” Sumney becomes frustrated that “all [his] old lovers have found others,” suggesting that he feels left out. Most of the song features an atmospheric synth accompanying soothing guitar plucks, heightening the tranquil state that comes with normative love. Sumney eventually calls out for others to “indulge” him, with a disclaimer that he doesn’t “trouble nobody.”
Much of Aromanticism, however, deals with coping mechanisms in this loveless world. Sumney learns to find consolation and love in his closest friends, sometimes even seeing them as “[silhouettes]” and relying on them to keep his secrets in “Plastic.” Even more crucially Sumney teaches himself how to love himself. The closing track, “Self–Help Tape,” ends with Sumney wondering what it’s like “being free,” “tasting free,” and “feeling free,” a freedom that comes only from periods when he's alone.
Sumney and Swift are actively searching for their homes on these respective albums. Neither is pleased with their experiences in past affairs, but the impulse to participate in affection never leaves. Nevertheless, both artists are experimenting with new forms of love, ones that value deep relationships both with others and with the self.
Star–crossed lovers can sometimes be a fortunate coincidence, but there’s more to love than a fateful attraction. From the moments spent in our bedrooms loving and taking care of ourselves to the precious minutes spent with our family, love stories are all around us. It’s our responsibility to discover them.