Taylor Swift’s Lover—already the bestselling album of 2019—includes more than a few nods to the old Taylor: a glittery cursive title on the cover, a country-inflected acoustic track featuring a cameo from the Dixie Chicks, at least one reference to Nashville’s Music Row, and multiple callbacks to past lyrics, including Red’s title track. Not least among these, however, is that multiple songs feature echoes of wedding bells—so many that some Swifties have theorized that she’s already secretly tied the knot with Joe Alwyn. But all these allusions to nuptials have also, over the years, taken on slightly less traditional meanings. At times, Lover goes so far as to subvert or outright reject certain aspects of the romance-industrial complex. To understand the ways that this theme in Swift’s work has—and hasn’t—evolved over the years, it’s worth taking a look back at Swift’s lifelong relationship with matrimony.
Swift’s obsession with marriage goes back all the way to her self-titled debut album, which she wrote (often with songsmiths such as Liz Rose) when she was just 16 years old. The penultimate track “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My),” which Swift has said was based on the story of her next-door neighbors, tells the story of childhood sweethearts who seem destined to be together forever. Its tale begins when the bride-to-be is 7 years old and her future husband is 9, but recurring references to the stars shining down on them suggest they are already fated for each other. Sure enough, years pass, and by the third verse, the guy is “down on one knee.” This is followed by a wedding attended by the whole town. At the song’s end, they’re still together, the stars still smiling down upon them, at ages 87 and 89.
On her next album, Fearless, this idea that some people are destined to grow old together applies even to the most famous of all star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. On the album’s lead single and biggest hit, “Love Story,” she gives them a happy twist ending with—you guessed it—a proposal. In a verse that uncomplicates the whole dying-by-suicide situation, “Romeo” proposes: “Marry me, Juliet/ You’ll never have to be alone/ I love you and that’s all I really know/ I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress.” Even in this song, however, there are some early signs of self-awareness about the childish, storybook nature of these tales: In addition to the song literally being called “Love Story,” its music video frames itself as the daydream of a teenage girl, played by Swift, on the grounds of her school, as she stares at an attractive guy. The line of thinking is (purposefully) simple and Disney-ish: Hey, a cute guy—marry him!
The album’s other smash single, “You Belong With Me,” offers a similar worldview, reminiscent of the outlook of romantic comedies, where for everyone there is “the One” with whom they “belong,” evil external forces be damned. The video doesn’t end with marriage, but it ends with the closest high school equivalent—the prom—and features Swift in another awfully bridal “white dress.” In the end, they each declare their love, and the video fades to black as they seal their union with a kiss.
On Speak Now—the first and only album on which Swift was the only credited songwriter on every track—the ceremonial language of weddings is right there in the title. Still, there were some slight twists. “Mine” tells another story of a lifelong love, but this time, as the story progresses from youthful infatuation to more adult worries like “bills to pay,” the emphasis is on the importance of renewing the commitment, especially after rough patches. On the title track, meanwhile, Swift is not the bride but a wedding crasher, interrupting a ceremony in progress. Swift even mocks the bride’s poufy dress—“a gown shaped like a pastry”—but it’s not all that far from her own aesthetic. During the Speak Now tour, her performance of the song served up a full-on bride, groom, and officiant onstage, as Swift performed in front of stained glass and arches. And the bridal imagery wasn’t limited to her performance of that song: Even when she performed “Fifteen” (not about weddings) on that same tour, she wore an enormous white dress with gold glitter. Having all of this on stage felt like product placement for the wedding-industrial complex—I attended the concert and afterward found it hard to separate Swift’s music from the sensory overload. Even as Swift famously dated around a healthy amount in her personal life and some lyrics betrayed a desire for distance from the whole wedding spectacle, her show seemed designed to cater to teens and tweens who had grown up on a steady diet of digestible fairy tales, like the ones she had previously offered them.
Swift’s next three albums feature allusions to enduring love that are more playful and theoretical. On Red’s “Stay Stay Stay,” she sings, “It’s been occurring to me I’d like to hang out with you, for my whole life.” Reputation’s “King of My Heart” asks, “Is this the end of all the endings?” One of her most mature love songs, “New Year’s Day,” represents a vow to hold on for better or worse, both for “your midnights” and for “cleaning up bottles with you” the morning after. In the end, the couple’s fate is more ambiguous: The singer pledges, “I will hold on to you” while pleading that her partner “never become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere.” (Meanwhile, during this same period, she crashed a real-life wedding to surprise two newlywed fans with a performance.)
Which brings us to Lover, which toys with wedding imagery on at least three tracks. The most explicit allusion is on “Paper Rings,” which at once embraces marriage and brushes aside the pageantry: “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings,” goes the chorus. New song “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” parallels “Mary’s Song” in that it’s about two school-age friends who grow up, fall in love, and then seemingly get married: “Church bells ring, carry me home/ Rice on the ground looks like snow.” But the motivation of the love arc isn’t their parents or fairy-tale predestination. Instead, it’s all internal, playing out in small thoughts and gestures: a conversation they share about stress, a touch of the hand. The closing note isn’t a declaration that she and her Prince Charming lived happily ever after but rather something decidedly more grown-up, as the two “stay in bed/ the whole weekend.”
The title song, meanwhile, represents a return of the full-on Swift wedding track, but this one is more appropriate for our current era of cohabitation and Tiny Weddings. The song includes a wedding-themed bridge, with allusions to hearts that have been “borrowed” and “blue.” Here there is, once again, a self-awareness about the over-the-top nature of her own fantasies, as she swears, in what could almost be Swift’s mission statement, to be “overdramatic and true.” Her main vow is a more modern twist on a formal marriage: “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover” (as opposed to “husband”). The video, too, for all its gauziness, depicts a love story that is less Shakespearean or fairy-tale than intimate and contemporary: During the bridge that contains these vows, she and her leading man simply meet up to watch home movies in an attic.
The video also adds another layer of distance between the song and its marital fantasy. Nearly all of its action takes place in a dollhouse inside a snow globe that her and her lover’s child peers into. The implication is that this kid is picturing a story about how her parents got together, one that naturally may have been edited—by Swift, by her kid’s dad—and tied up in a neat bow, or that the child is imagining such a backstory herself. This ties to a lyric on one of the album’s most self-examining tracks, “The Archer,” on which Swift confesses, “I never grow up/ it’s getting so old.” Swift may not have completely abandoned her childhood fantasy of her one true love, but as the years have gone by, she has increasingly framed it as just that: a childhood fantasy.