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On her 2022 album Midnights, Taylor Swift addressed fan speculation over why she and her then-boyfriend and British actor Joe Alwyn had not yet tied the knot: “All they keep asking me / Is if I’m gonna be your bride / The only kinda girl they see / Is a one-night or a wife” (“Lavender Haze”). Her relationship with Alwyn, she suggests, should not have to follow rigid social conventions, “the 1950s shit they want from me.” The “lavender haze,” the dreamy in-between state of being in love, is good enough. But on The Tortured Poets Department, her eleventh studio album, and its extended version The Anthology, Swift changes her tune. Despite its increasing fragility and lack of permanence in the modern West, Swift still desires marriage, which she invokes as the ultimate symbol of enduring love and commitment. 

Released on April 19, Tortured Poets chronicles the end of Swift’s six-year relationship with Alwyn and her fleeting but passionate romance with “bad boy” Matty Healy, frontman of the British band the 1975. On “So Long, London,” Swift bids goodbye to the city where she shared a home with Alwyn. Her earlier dismissal of marriage in “Lavender Haze” gives way to disappointment: “You swore that you loved me but where were the clues? / I died on the altar waiting for the proof.” Her reference to an altar casts her as both a sacrificial lamb, a sacrifice with no purpose, and as a bride waiting for wedding vows as the “proof” of love. On the same track, she explicitly resents the investment she made in this love, which yielded no return: “I’m pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free.” 

Swift, who is thirty-four, gives voice to many a woman in her thirties. The “waste” of youth is inherently more cutting for women than for men. Younger women are, culturally, seen as more attractive, even more valuable. And biologically, our youth is a precious resource. Despite advances in medicine, for the general population who cannot afford certain treatments, as well as those ethically opposed to IVF and surrogacy, female fertility still has a deadline. It is hard—even for the most modern and independent woman—not to feel duped when a long-term partner has taken those young years only to renege on the “best laid plans” (“The Black Dog”). 

There are references to unfulfilled hopes of marriage elsewhere on the album. In the title track, Swift describes her lover moving a ring from another finger onto her ring finger over dinner and confesses: “that’s the closest I’ve come to my heart exploding.” But this implicit promise never comes to fruition, and she spends a significant portion of the record raging at men for being unable to follow through on promises of love and commitment. On “loml,” she laments that her hopes for marriage and a family were taken advantage of: “You shit-talked me under the table / Talking rings and talking cradles / I wish I could un-recall / How we almost had it all.” Her voice is muted and forlorn. There is an irate fatigue on this album that feels new for the ever hopeful, starry-eyed, and persistently romantic Taylor Swift. 

In fact, it is precisely that word—“romantic”—that Swift grapples with on Tortured Poets. On her 2014 album 1989 she pleads: “Please take me dancing, and / Please leave me stranded / It’s so romantic” (“New Romantics”). On Tortured Poets, a decade later, she angrily reprimands a lover who abandons her: “How dare you think it’s romantic / Leaving me safe and stranded” (“Down Bad”). What she once found romantic, she now rejects. 

The disconnect here, whether Swift is aware of it or not, stems from the different definitions of what “romance” is. While the word “romance” has become tightly entwined with “love” in modern English, the word stems from a medieval literary genre. “Romance” was simply used to identify works written in the vernacular, initially French, as opposed to literature composed in clerical Latin. These were stories of questing knights like Lancelot and Gawain, which often did contain a significant love story plot element but were more generally defined by adventure. It is only in later centuries that the genre name “romance” became associated specifically with love. This has done more harm than good for our cultural understanding of what love should look like. Being abandoned by a lover is certainly “romantic” in that it is exciting and dramatic, but it is not “loving.”

On Tortured Poets, Swift yearns for something more stable. Lasting and loving commitment is still best represented by marriage, no matter how maligned the institution has become in the modern West. On “But Daddy I Love Him,” she imagines what it would be like to actually make it to the wedding: “Now I'm dancing in my dress in the sun and / Even my daddy just loves him / I'm his lady.” It is an idyllic projection of a happy family, a grown-up version of her early hit “Love Story” where she imagined Romeo being able to propose to Juliet and say: “I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress.” But on this album, which Swift called “female rage, the musical” when debuting it on her record-breaking Eras Tour, she increasingly gives voice to her anger at the inability of men to match her desire to pledge lifelong loyalty. It is the most honest and jaded Swift has ever been in her music. In Swift’s world, it isn’t her career that gets in the way of marriage, but the men who make grand declarations only to “ghost” her when things get too real: “He saw forever so he smashed it up” (“My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”). These experiences are what make Swift relatable to so many women. “Ghosting,” Peter Pan syndrome (which Swift documents in this album’s “Peter”), and men who want “long-term, long-distance, low-commitment, casual” girlfriends, to quote Barbie’s Ken, are all too common in today’s modern dating scene.

Although Swift is one of the most famous and beloved people on the planet—a billionaire with a private jet—Tortured Poets portrays her yearning for something very simple and yet increasingly difficult to attain. In “The Prophecy,” the most poignant track on the album, Swift turns her eyes upward and begs an unspecified higher power to change her fate: 

A greater woman wouldn't beg
But I looked to the sky and said
Please I've been on my knees
Change the prophecy
Don't want money
Just someone who wants my company

Wanting someone who wants your company is a very basic human desire. While that need can be met through other interpersonal relationships (parents, siblings, meaningful friendships), this album reveals that even individuals as powerful and successful as the Taylor Swift can desire the validation of marriage. 

Culturally, legally, and spiritually, marriage is the act of choosing another’s company for life. It is the promise: “I’ll never leave” (“loml”). Although the institution has been increasingly attacked and stripped of its meaning, it remains powerful, a dream on which Swift, and many others, hang their hopes of finding someone in this life who will not abandon them. Swift, on Tortured Poets, makes it very clear who she blames for thwarting her dream, namely the men who “didn’t measure up / in any measure of a man” (“The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”). Perhaps the culture, who raised these men to take women and talk of marriage so lightly, ought also to bear some of the blame. But that’s another story, and probably not one for a Taylor Swift album. 

Isabella Clarke writes from Oxford, England.

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Photo by Ronald Woan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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