Written by Jennifer Dong.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.

“Swift’s greatest strength is her rare ability to expertly pinpoint sacred emotions through a combination of tenderly crafted lyrics and music in the same way that the prisms of crystals are able to catch the fleeting gaze of light at just the right time, place, and angle.”

More than a decade has passed since the release of Taylor Swift’s debut album in 2006, and yet the earnest sensibilities that first endowed her with millions of fans remain at the heart of her seventh and latest studio album, Lover. Released in late August, Lover— with its milieu of soft pastels and Swift’s trademark romanticism— comes on the heels of the weaponized and vindictive Reputation, as well as Swift’s bittersweet victory in her sexual assault trial of the same year.

Since her early days of Nashville recording studios, curly hair, and sundresses, Swift has emerged from her relatively passive and nonpolitical teenage existence as a visible advocate for feminism, gender equality, and LGBTQA+ issues while simultaneously cementing herself as a savvy businesswoman with her recent decision to rerecord her classic albums after her former record label sold them in a $300 million deal. Given all of this, the degree of sentimentality and yearning over the boy on the football team in her earlier songs feel naïve when examined in the post #MeToo age, in which the general culture has become more receptive to the voices of women and girls championing for social, racial, and environmental causes (think AOC, Greta Thunberg, and Yara Shahidi). Now, the damsel-in-distress ideal not only seems misogynistic but also appears embarrassingly out of touch. Yet while Swift has abandoned her lovesick and forlorn persona in exchange for a more outspoken and critical one, the remnants of her former music filtered through the passage of time reappear in the lovely, introspectively rendered “Cornelia Street,” the impulsive “Cruel Summer,” and the mellow, heartwarming “Lover.”

Swift’s greatest strength is her rare ability to expertly pinpoint sacred emotions through a combination of tenderly crafted lyrics and music in the same way that the prisms of crystals are able to catch the fleeting gaze of light at just the right time, place, and angle. In doing this, she taps into the innate, basic human desires of simply wanting to love and wanting to be loved. Lover is at its core a return to the wistful and vulnerable ballads of Speak Now; yet something feels noticeably different this time around. Gone is the naïve, apologetic young girl fruitlessly attempting to restore her image amid the critical eye of the public. Instead, what Swift showcases through her latest album is a strongly defined sense of self that no longer depends on affirmation from the public. It is through this assured lens that she can freely fixate on love in all of its glorious forms— romantic, platonic, and familial love, a kind of love that transcends gender, sexuality, and nationality. 

A common critique of Swift’s music is that it focuses too heavily on her relationships, yet the songs she has composed focusing on her childhood (“The Best Day”), the trials of growing older and growing up (“Never Grow Up”), and most recently, her mother’s battle with cancer (“Soon You’ll Get Better”) are undeservedly overlooked. In the latter, Swift grapples with mortality and the unbearable thought of losing her mother, showing the listener that being a global superstar doesn’t negate the quieter, unassuming and yet fundamentally human experiences— ones of loneliness, insecurity, lost nights, broken hearts, anxiety, guilt, and confusion. At one point in the song, her breath hitches with emotion, demonstrating the sheer preciousness of life. Despite this, the thread connecting all of the songs in the album seems to be hope of love after loss against the foreboding idea that even the most blissful moments must come to an end. However, instead of casting love in a world-weary light, this notion seems to make it all the more special— maybe it truly is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. 

Deemed by many critics as Swift’s best album, Red was preoccupied with memory, on hindsight— endlessly retracing the dark depths of what could’ve been, what should’ve been— paralyzed with solemn reflection. Listening to Red is a devastating experience in which you can feel the desperate longing and rawness behind each song. But Lover is different. It is deliberately focused on the future, on eternal possibility, forever waiting, cherishing those who you love so much your heart could explode. Swift shows with her seventh album that she ultimately chooses love over hate. Instead of channeling her energy on those who have wronged her, she directs it to those most dear to her. Lover makes us reflect on our own lives: in having faith in humanity, on the giddiness of falling in love, on the fragmentary moments of euphoria we cling to in this casually cruel world, on the litany of possibilities still awaiting us. Rather than keeping her feelings to herself, Swift chooses to share them with the world, showing us how our heartaches and losses can be molded into art. In her case, her art lies in telling stories and singing songs that take on a life of their own—in a way, she is reclaiming her narrative and breathing value into otherwise dormant emotions.

In the end, she has not lost anything from her failed relationships and unrequited loves; rather, she has won by revealing part of her soul to listeners who feel the same way. As Swift closes out her twenties and many of her fans enter them, maybe the most important lesson she can impart to all of us is self-love. We must recognize our worth; we must honor ourselves; we must celebrate ourselves. Here, Swift’s art derives from the banal as much as the profound, and her music mirrors our own biting insecurities, our own common need for expression. Our experiences end as quickly as they unfold, and yet, as Swift’s Lover shows us, by preserving the essences of them through words, art, and music, our great joys and traumas outlive us.

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