Taylor Swift began dating actor Joe Alwyn six years, or at least four entire eras, ago. The singer’s concert tour this summer is called “Eras,” in honor of the many stages of her musical career, but in the geologic time scale, her relationship with Alwyn transcended eras—it was an eon.
What does it mean when an eon ends? Her legion of fans are now figuring that out. On Monday afternoon, a few could be found outside 23 Cornelia St. in Manhattan’s West Village, the address where Swift reportedly lived when she began dating Alwyn and the inspiration for her song “Cornelia Street.” A few over-the-top TikToks have been filmed there in recent days, in which fans pretended to be in deep mourning, prostrating themselves on the sidewalk outside the house, but most of the visitors were just stopping by to take a few pictures and pay their respects. They weren’t totally sure the news was true, but if it was, it was sad, most agreed. Sad but not tragic—anonymous sources told news outlets that the split was “not dramatic” and they’d simply grown apart.
It’s not that most of the Swifties on Cornelia Street were especially devoted to Alwyn, but they thought he’d been a good partner to Swift. “I really liked Joe,” Katie, 33, told me outside of Swift’s former home. “Not Jonas!” Sean, 34, clarified (Joe Jonas being another ex of Swift’s, one decidedly not known for being a good boyfriend). Katie and Sean were visiting New York from Pennsylvania, and as Sean told me, they agreed that the years Swift and Alwyn spent together “seemed like the healthiest and happiest for Taylor Swift.”
Before Alwyn, the public narrative about Swift, one she both played into and fought against, was that she was a serial dater. Swift’s relationship with him allowed her to rewrite her public persona and get away from the perception that she turned everything that happened in her romantic life into a song. The two prized privacy and spoke sparingly about their life together, which lent it an air of mystery. There were rumors that they were secretly married, and some fans certainly thought that the relationship might be for keeps. Taylor was the right age to settle down, it seemed, and didn’t Alwyn sound like always?
It’s possible that fans who think this way are simply projecting their feelings about their own life stages and wishes for domesticity onto the singer, but in any case, her breakup has their attention. Rapt, most are now tentatively wondering how this latest development might be transmuted into new music.
“Will we get another sad-girl album?” Katie asked on Cornelia Street. “Give me another Evermore,” Sean said. “Bring it on, Folklore.” Those two albums, which Swift made during the height of the pandemic, featured a turn away from pop and toward a more indie, pared-down sound.
Aliza Gandhi, a New York University student who lives nearby and noticed some Cornelia Street gawkers on her way to class, didn’t think much of Alwyn—her primary impression of him was that he was “white and bland,” she said. Gandhi said she felt conflicted about some aspects of Swift’s personal life, as well as how much she knew about it, but as a fan of her work, it was also hard to avoid. “I love her music, but I try not to think about her as a person too much,” she said.
Gandhi acknowledged that Swift had recently turned away from autobiographical lyrics and started experimenting with writing from other perspectives instead. “With Folklore and Evermore, she’s clearly able to write great music without it being about her real life,” she said. But she couldn’t help but wonder how Swift might write about the end of her relationship with Alwyn. “I’m really curious, especially given that Lover was really a lot about that relationship,” she said, referring to Swift’s 2019 album.
Jonathan Smilovich, 23, who works in real estate and stopped by Cornelia Street between listings, was fighting the urge to speculate too much. “I don’t like how people are saying, ‘Oh, next album’s gonna be so good,’ ” he said. “Like, she’s a person.” Like many fans and pop culture observers these days, Swifties are wary of the parasocial relationships they’ve developed with their favorite artist—they care about her love life, but they also feel guilty for caring so much.
This protective instinct is one a lot of fans seem to be feeling, as evidenced by some Swifties’ reluctance to even believe that a breakup has taken place. As the newsletter Embedded has pointed out, many of Swift’s fans are young and lacking in media literacy, so the imprimatur of outlets like Entertainment Tonight and People, which were two of the first to report the news, doesn’t mean much to them. Some fans are waiting for Swift herself to acknowledge the breakup, not understanding that sharing the news via third parties was likely the artist’s choice.
At the same time, Swift appears to have more fans than ever. Though this seems unlikely in some ways—her bestselling album, 1989, came out in 2014—the pandemonium that ensued around her current concert tour is proof that demand to see her live exploded during the pandemic. We can attribute some of this to the popularity of Folklore and Evermore, as well as the rerelease of some of her most popular music during the same time period as part of a project to gain ownership of her back catalog. When Red was rereleased in late 2021, a short film and extended track list propelled it to become a genuine pop culture phenomenon, despite the album being nine years old.
All the fans who may be too young to remember Swift’s previous breakups, as well as her more recent converts, amp up the drama of this moment. It’s been a while since she’s had a public breakup—not since she called it quits with Tom Hiddleston after a few months of dating in 2016—so long that some people may have even forgotten the extent to which Swift built her career on breakup songs. As she rose to superstardom, writing pointed lyrics about how her exes did her wrong became one of Swift’s signature moves, and she gained a reputation for kiss-off songs like “Dear John,” “All Too Well,” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Fans professed to know exactly which of her famous exes each was about (John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Harry Styles, respectively), and Swift encouraged this kind of speculation.
Swift has released plenty of music in the time she was attached to Alwyn, and she never stopped taking inspiration from her life—fans were quick to guess the identity of the villain of 2022’s “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” for example (Mayer again, in all likelihood). But again, Swift hasn’t had a new ex in quite a while. She’s sung about Alwyn, but always positively, and never in the scorched-earth way that drove much of her early success. One question people are tiptoeing around is: Will she now?
I don’t want to make this comparison because it’s crass, not to mention the J.K. Rowling of it all, but the thought did occur to me: Is being a Taylor Swift fan during a Taylor Swift breakup a little like being a Harry Potter fan while the original books were still coming out? Will we be waiting for this next album like we were waiting for Book 7? Of course, Swift’s relationship with Alwyn was, at six years, way longer than the monthslong dalliances that led to some of her other music. Could this make the material all the richer? There’s a reason divorce and breakup albums have a reputation for being some artists’ best work.
It’s not the most respectful thought, and I feel torn for thinking it, but it’s hard not to marvel at all the magical and chaotic possibilities in this turn of events. The universe has (maybe) given us a new Taylor Swift ex: what a time to be alive.
We don’t know what’s going to happen, but at least on Cornelia Street, everyone seemed pretty amused. “I’m sorry, this is hilarious,” Gandhi said as she watched some girls take pictures with the two small bouquets that had recently been laid in front of Swift’s former residence. ”It’s not evil if I take the flowers on my way home, right?” she asked. “Maybe I’ll press them! Screw it, I’m taking them right now and I’m making a TikTok while I do it.” Something to remember this historic moment by.