If there’s one takeaway from Taylor Swift’s seventh album, it’s that maybe things are all going to be okay? Swift plays the role of cupid, putting romance, from idealised to disastrous, in the sights of her bow and arrow. Using hazy hues of pink, blue, and purple, Swift paints a world full of lovers, drunken nights openly crying on the streets, and has made one of her most intimate albums yet — which is really saying something for an artist known for ripping her lyrics from the pages of her journals.
But Swift also promised us a more political album with Lover, and she delivers in a myriad of ways. There are the obvious, and important, messages of feminism on “The Man,” LBGTQ+ rights on “You Need to Calm Down,” but there’s also a pervasive message about love that spans through the songs — and it’s something we don’t teach girls and women enough. Swift never diminishes herself for a relationship, or in the name of earning love. In fact, lyrically, she makes a point of bolstering her confidence (on “False God,” clearly inspired by early Prince, she sings about being in the middle of a fight, saying, “Staring out the window like I’m not your favourite town / I'm New York City, I'd still do it for you, babe”). She’s full of confidence that she deserves to be loved, which can’t be easy for a woman whose love life has been splashed all over the tabloids for the better part of a decade. The necessity of her more overtly political songs can’t be overstated; as one of the most famous women in the world, Swift’s words of acceptance for the marginalised and her exploration of feminist themes carry tremendous weight. But teaching women through words of affirmation to value themselves rather than lose themselves in love is a message that will reverberate through her generations of fans.
“ME!,” her sing-songy first single, is redeemed on the album with some context. By itself, this was a perplexing reintroduction to Swift, seemingly aimed at a very young audience — an odd demo for a woman about to turn 30. But, paired on the album with “Afterglow,” it’s clear that “ME!” is part two of the story of having a fight, where Swift woos her lover back not with apologies or grovelling, but with bombast and confidence. It speaks to a retooling of the language we use around how women should act in relationships. On “The Man,” she tells us all about the ways her behaviour would be interpreted differently if she were a man, and “ME!” is the story of winning back a lover the way a man would, with aplomb and boldness.
Swift’s notorious mining of her personal life, and especially her love life, will leave many fans searching for a cipher to figure out which songs are about which relationships, breakups, or even coded hints she’s gotten married. The trick Swift uses on Lover, especially on the tracks produced by Jack Antonoff, is to draw us closer less via her words and more via her actual singing. Her vocals are low and performed in the ‘50s and ‘60s crooner style on several songs, giving them a torch song vibe that is rarely heard in pop today but would be familiar to fans of Julie London, Peggy Lee, or Shirley Horn. While there are a handful of songs (future singles all) that employ rhyming/chanting vocals, and on “I Think He Knows” even some screaming in the background, the overall mood here is “listen through can headphones on vinyl.”
One of the most touching songs on the album is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” widely thought to be about her mother Andrea’s battle with cancer. There’s a simplicity to it that will remind the listener of her early songs, including a return to her acoustic guitar. The arrangement speaks to a return to childhood in the wake of a family tragedy, of Swift inhabiting her role as a daughter. Even the selfishness (“I hate to make this all about me / But who am I supposed to talk to? / If there’s no you?”) is rooted in uncertainty.
The full embrace of love as a mantra for Swift follows the dark period of Reputation, where she dwelled on her darker side and perceived public failures and betrayals. That it was released at a time when most of the world was engaged in the politics of a new Trump administration and the burgeoning #MeToo movement made Swift, on record at least, seem myopic, self-obsessed, and out of touch. With Lover, she taps into something akin to the feelings we get, and frankly need, from fodder like Queer Eye. The world is a particularly harsh place for so many people right now, and a little softness and love is a more than welcome addition. Swift recognises that, and is re-embracing her role as America’s Sweetheart rather than the queen of the snake emoji. All hail.