Brow Beat

Taylor Swift Is Challenging Saturday Night Live for Custody of “Lover”

“Lover” has squicked us out for generations. Can Taylor bring it back?

Photo illustration of Taylor Swift juxtaposed with an image of Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell as their SNL characters Virginia and Roger Clarvin from the "Lovers" sketches.
It’s Taylor Swift vs. Virginia and Roger Clarvin. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic and Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

Poor Taylor Swift. All summer, she’s been building hype for her seventh album, Lover. The single of the same name dropped a few days ago, and it’s all supposed to culminate later this week when the full album is released on Friday. The album will no doubt see commercial success, but this will only serve to mask a greater failure in the grand scheme of things: Lover, the word, will continue to gross people out.

Despite Swift’s best efforts, lover’s pop culture fate has long been sealed. For a generation that came of age in the early years of this century, the word will forever be linked to the Saturday Night Live sketches starring Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as a couple of horny professors who refer to each other as their “love-ahs” (sometimes also spelled “luvahs”; whatever turns you on, babe). Swift’s Lover will likely earn a plum spot on the Billboard charts, and the song may well get lodged in your head, but she’ll never fully reclaim the word. Not even one of the world’s most famous pop stars can wrest lover from its SNL connotation.

In these recurring sketches, which aired about a half-dozen times between 2001 and 2003, Ferrell and Dratch play Virginia and Roger Clarvin, who are frequently found in romantic locations like a hot tub or cabin in the woods, where they strike up conversations with strangers and proceed to overshare about their sex lives. Using bombastic terms and strange accents that wouldn’t be out of place in Oh, Hello, the two talk of “tongue flicks” and “parts raw from overuse” as their audiences squirm with discomfort. (Christopher Walken, Winona Ryder, and Drew Barrymore, among others, all appeared in “Love-ahs” sketches during this period.) Sample dialogue: “I find when one first enters the scalding waters of the hot tub, it is not unlike your first encounter with a new lover.” “At this point during the soak, my lover and I usually crave spiced meats.” “Nothing pleases me more than seeing two new lovers take off in the night mist.”

Dratch wrote the “Love-ahs” sketches, and she told the Detroit Free Press in 2014 that she based them on one of her college professors:

That came out of a friend and I, we went to college together, and a professor actually said to her once … “What are you doing for your (winter) break?” My friend said, “I’m just going to hang out.” And the professor said, “Yes, read a book, take a bath, eat a bonbon, spend time with your love-ah.”

(We reached out to Dratch to talk more about her lexical influence via the Love-ahs, but she declined to comment through a representative.)

Anyone who watched SNL during the early 2000s knows these sketches, which were institutions at the time. They became so well-known that they were used to parody other cultural examples of supposed pretentiousness: A 2002 New York Observer item instructed readers, “Quiz time! Try and guess if the following passages are from Katha Pollitt’s July 22 New Yorker essay ‘Learning to Drive,’ or from Saturday Night Live’s ‘My Lover’ sketch starring Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as an amorous academia couple.” Assessing the state of SNL in 2011, Nathan Heller wrote for Slate that these sketches (along with “More Cowbell”) were among the best of the previous decade’s, places where SNL showed off its “careful writing and some gifted performers.”

These sketches are particularly memorable to those of us who watched SNL for the first time as adolescents in the early 2000s, which includes a fair bit of Swift’s millennial fan base. We hadn’t encountered the word, already deeply out of fashion, much prior, so SNL was free to imprint its own definition upon us. Some of us were in middle school, observing or experiencing early bouts of love; obviously, the word got a lot of use. And now, it’s automatic: Anytime we encounter the word, we think of “the love-ahs” and cringe. (Why does Swift herself, who everyone knows was born in 1989, not share this association? I guess they weren’t watching much SNL on the Christmas tree farm.) One might guess that older generations—including people like Dratch, who was in her 30s when she wrote the sketches—would have internalized lover’s skeevy connotations long before SNL made them immortal. But straw polling tells me that a lot of people older than millennial age also reflexively think of the Clarvins whenever lover rears its icky head. Come to think of it, this squares with my experience of witnessing so many moms of my generation relishing in calling their husbands their “love-ahs” as a joke, to further humiliate their children.

Subsequent uses of lover in pop culture only served to reinforce the word’s revolting subtext. Remember when Carrie on Sex and the City started referring to Aleksandr Petrovsky as her lover? She even pronounced it with SNL-ish flair. On 30 Rock, created by SNL alum Tina Fey, Jack tells Liz about his lover, and she responds, “That word bums me out unless it’s between the words meat and pizza.”

The imagery leading up to Lover’s release has been particularly dreamy, all pink clouds, glitter, hearts, and butterflies. Swift clearly wants to make lover a thing, wants her fans to bop to “Lover” and Lover and think starry-eyed thoughts of their crushes—ahem, lovers. And if anyone could rebrand the word lover, it would be the pop star who’s made wearing her heart on her sleeve a highly successful way of life. Unfortunately, it’s never going to happen. The word is too far gone. It belongs to the love-ahs now.

Swift would probably hate to know that I read the lyrics to “Lover” and see Rachel Dratch looking deeply into Will Ferrell’s eyes and telling him, “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover,” as a horrified Jimmy Fallon looks on. I can see Ferrell turning to Winona Ryder and saying, “There’s a dazzling haze, a mysterious way about you, dear.” Swift is pledging her eternal affection in song, but all I can picture is Roger and Virginia Clarvin sloppily sucking face in a hot tub until his back starts to give out.