Love, disaster and the songs of Taylor Swift

It’s appropriate that Taylor Swift flew into Australia a few days after Valentine’s Day. Without wishing to erase any queer readings of Swift’s work, the pluralities of love she sometimes speaks to and her capacity for nostalgia, it seems to me that the somewhat monolithic shadow of romantic love tends to fall over all of them and structure her whole project: chronologically, from the ingenuousness of ‘Hey Stephen’ to the desperation of “You’re Losing Me”; emotionally, from falling for someone you feel connected with across time and space, to recovering from being in love with a manipulative jerk, who will one day feel the blade of your long-matured revenge. These multiplying stories of love and sorrow conjure up for me the American novelist John Crowley’s concept of “snakes hands”, in which the deviations from a central narrative — wandering off, looking into every cul-de-sac — always return, because fundamentally there’s nowhere else to go. The story has its own demands.

Given Taylor Swift’s mindboggling levels of popularity and currently huge cultural footprint, and the sheer number of love songs she’s written I can’t help wondering what that could mean for our understandings of love, and the implications for the nature of ordinary human life under late disaster capitalism. In what kind of world would it make sense to continually write, and listen to, songs about romantic love? In what world would so much yearning to be loved, and to be able to show you can give love, be necessary? It seems like a potentially catastrophic reading might be useful. The nature of romantic love and the songs that accompany it makes it seem like a phenomenon in which a surfeit of childhood needs and desires have found their way into adult life. I don’t want to pathologise Taylor Swift. That would be boorish, to say the least. She is just in the same boat as everyone else.


If I could put together a definition of the traumatic life that follows from disaster, I’d say something about it being all the ways that we try to repair ourselves that don’t work, or do work, but that nobody else can understand.  And, in the early twenty-firstt century, we are always either on the precipice, or in the aftermath, of the internal and external disasters that make such self-repair necessary.

In March 2022, I was badly affected by what have become known as the Lismore Floods — a climate change catastrophe that inundated large parts of northern New South Wales. The hilly riverine landscape literally collapsed and the homes of a great many people were badly damaged or destroyed, including my own and the house of my closest family member. The region has in no way recovered.

Disaster is both the starting and end point of capitalism. The town of Lismore was begotten by a disaster — disease decimating the Widjabul people, whose country it is, before the cedar-getters arrived, clear-felled the enormous and ancient forests and left the remains to squatters who built a town on a floodplain at the confluence of two rivers. Lismore is just thumbnailed Australia. It is what has happened, is happening, and will happen to the rest of the country.

Among all the things I lost was a large library of books — which are now at a tip outside of Lismore, most likely in an advanced state of decay, along with the contents of hundreds of other Lismore homes, tens of thousands of tonnes of it. And I lost and my ability to easily remember things. Even now, two years later, I go to my sparsely populated, tentatively renewed bookshelves to look something up in a book I thought I had, only to re-encounter its sodden mildewed image. I’ve had to rely more and more on memory which appears to have been somewhat corroded by those disastrous days and weeks in 2022.

In the months after the flood one of the lost writers I remember bits of — like fragments of the debris left after the flood, stuck in my overwhelmed mind instead of in a tree — was the psychoanalyst and activist Erich Fromm. Fromm had a lot to say about romantic love and its catastrophes arguing that redescriptions of love and hope were key to any revolutionary project. Following Freud’s lead, Fromm framed the act of falling in love as a failure, and a historically recent phenomenon — at least in its cultural primacy — largely mediated by the market values of exchange that dominate capitalism.  The intensity of the infatuation, of being so crazy about someone, isn’t proof of the reality of the love, but only evidence of a preceding, always-present state of loneliness and alienation. The lonelier you are, the more intense the feelings of connection and infatuation. If anything else started with such transcendent hopes as romantic love, said Fromm, and routinely ended so calamitously, we’d have some serious questions about its usefulness. Looking at it with that kind of eye, romance looks very much like a scam, the Bitcoin of the emotional life.

It shouldn’t be news to any Swiftie that the experience of romantic love is highly friendly to the creation of abusive relationships. It’s a periodic theme of her songs, even if for Swift redemption is always in the offing, in the next track, the next kiss. The intense romantic encounter is the perfect field for coercive and controlling men to erode boundaries, silo a woman’s life and crank up her dependency and isolation, and it’s a common story that women who have lived with abusive men tell: in the beginning it was wonderful; he seemed so attentive and caring; we planned to get married on the beach; and so on. Regardless of the transgressive kinds of connection that romantic love shuts down, it also occludes the violence that is too often lurking in its inevitable failure.

In Taylor Swift’s songs, the violence keeps breaking in, as if her own songs are trying to sabotage themselves, wrecking the whole romantic project.


If children have an intense need to have love given to them, and a parallel need to be able to give love back to another (let us dump the notion of children’s ‘egocentricity’ back in another age, where it belongs), it might be because the reciprocal experience helps them answer the question “What am I for?” and simultaneously discover who others are. Assuming this goes well — and it so often doesn’t in the available crushingly oppressive subjectivities capitalism has on offer — then the child who grows up is the person who predicates their well-being on their ability to love, but isn’t too concerned about any love they might receive in return. And if we cast love songs in the light of their omnipresence — the ‘There Is No Alternative’ reality they inhabit — their never-ending arising is not a picture of love, but of a loneliness that won’t go away, a terrible yearning that won’t be satisfied.

So we could read the continual production of love songs as a kind of logorrhea, an involuntary pouring out of words and music to take you out of the infinite infinite snake hands of love’s promises/failures — a repeated attempt at self-cure that doesn’t work. But behind this wall of mirrors, other possibilities have been foreclosed, drowned and taken to the tip.


A memory, fragment, a week after the 2022 flood: Walking up the street in sodden, mud-plastered clothes between piles of dumped household rubbish stacked two metres high outside wrecked houses, searching for a rumoured hamburger stall after a morning spent clearing the back yard of huge amounts of garbage and debris. To my left, half-a-dozen immaculately laundered members of the Australian Defence Forces stood and watched someone loading rubbish on to a truck. On my right, a TV news crew had backed a neighbour up against a wall of their waterlogged contents, earnestly telling him in the tones of someone selling religious literature, “but of course we want the real human story.”

In the aftermath of disaster, meaning seems to balloon, become denser. Everything takes on a dim glow of Significance. Events become occult fixations. A few weeks after the flood waters had receded, Australian musician Chris Bailey, one of the founders of trailblazing punk group The Saints, died suddenly. Bailey and I went to the same desolate, isolated Brisbane suburban high school. We were both immigrants who grew up in Irish Catholic families. My younger brother played soccer with Saints guitarist Ed Kuepper’s younger brother. My mother was friends with Bailey’s mother in the 1980s and 90s. Bailey was older than me and left Inala High long before I got there, but we had sat in the same bleak classrooms, and probably shared some of the same teachers.  The video clip of Bailey’s great song “Just Like Fire Would” features the streets around my Inala housing commission home, filmed in grainy video from a moving car. Punk music, I always say, started in my high school.

I sang and hummed “Just Like Fire Would” and “Ghost Ships” — Bailey’s elegy on loss, mortality, tenderness — a hundred times to myself over the next few weeks, while I was trying to repair my life. If “Just Like Fire Would” is a song that plunged me back into my adolescence, and the intense, incendiary feeling that beneath the hot, bleached, reality of Inala my life was turning to ashes, then “Ghost Ships” is a song that dumped me in the here-and-now, in the leavings of disaster. In both songs, you are alone in a desolate world and it sucks, and that’s just the way things are.

But if the field of Taylor Swift’s logorrhoea is largely a yearning that just can’t be satisfied — and a continual mourning of that — Bailey’s was the mirror side of the divide, steeped in non-redemptive loneliness and isolation. If Swift is always hoping (and being disappointed) Bailey was always mourning, skipping the hope as not worth it. Swift and Bailey are both trying to get out of the same cul-de-sac, to speak from the lacunae of not knowing what we are for, or how to experience and give love. I’d argue each of them is necessarily failing. It just depends which failure is useful to you at any given time. In a time of disaster hearing a love song is like being offered tinsel to put on a corpse. If you’re in love, the last person you’d want to hear from is Chris Bailey.

I believe Taylor Swift is said to have once remarked — perhaps even relatively recently — that she sometimes doesn’t feel like a real person. I guess it’s one of the effects that might be expected of the experience of extreme fame, the onset of which could be brutal. On the other hand, from the point of view of love songs as failed attempts at repair, as harbinger of another Groundhog Day, Swift’s comment could be read as a genuine insight into why romantic love never provides what it offers, and the terrible fragility of the self that does the yearning.

I’m reminded of a story that David Bowie told one of the film crew working on the video for the song “Miracle Goodnight”. It’s worth quoting in full because it jumps forward, over the yearnings of romance and the inevitable mourning it brings, and into something more bitterly existential, a place where a different kind of love would be helpful (and different kinds of songs) and addresses both the kind of insane celebrity identities that global rock stars have to inhabit, and the more mundane one of common vulnerability and uncertainty:

I had quite the attitude as a young pop star. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype. It changes you. So I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes’. We’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer. The camera was on a very long lens.  In this video I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do, this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera. Well knowing this is gonna take a while I walked past the old guy and sat next to camera in my full costume waiting for him to pass. As he is walking by camera the director said, “Excuse me mister! Do you know who this is!?”  The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said, “Of course I do! It’s some cunt in a clown suit!”. That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, ‘Yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit’. I think about that old guy all the time.

This kind of bare-faced confrontation with oneself also reliably arises at the end of love affairs: you feel like you have been wearing a clown suit all along, and it’s remarkably similar to the one you were wearing last time. You meet your juggins of an antithesis — your antipodean self, so to speak — like a sci-fi story where the protagonists enter a parallel universe and meet their evil selves, complete with goatees or tattoos. It’s stupid, its banal, but it can’t be gainsaid.

On his album Blackstar, confronted with his imminent demise and the inevitable arising of a dead Bowie superstar he will have no control over, David Bowie realises that he isn’t going to get a special rock god’s death. Death is entirely promiscuous with her kisses, and in this dance (track) of death David Bowie understands that he is going to get exactly the same messy experience of dying from cancer as anyone else. It’s as if Death as a jester was reappearing: “Remember me Dave? I was the geezer with the dog! And I still have the same message!”

Songs of romantic love — even ones of the quality that Taylor Swift has written — and  songs from the underside of love — like Chris Bailey’s — are songs of desperation, of isolation. Conveniently for capitalism’s need to keep us disengaged and plunged in anxiety or depression — either grasping after love or grieving its loss — they stand in the place of the things that most threaten it: responsibility for others and obligation to them; a sense that there is a commons of human experience and hope that we share that has been relentlessly destroyed; that it’s not enough to just work for your own temporary happiness or personal illumination; that we are worth much, much more than what could ever be offered by romantic love.

The politics of romantic love and the songs that sustain it, is a Möbius strip, forever travelling nowhere. It can seem as if we are on the cusp of something, some new transcendent experience, but like Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”, in which — as John Crowley once pointed out, his putative snake now becoming an ouroboros — the song’s last verse is actually its first, we can find ourselves trapped in a story that won’t end. Living in the aftermath of a climate disaster, or falling in love for the umpteenth instance, is — like living in Australia always — to be stuck in time. In some ways I still feel it’s the first week of March 2022, just as in Australia it’s still the time of colonisation.

Colonisation, like romantic love, seems toric in structure. In their way, romantic songs can do us a great service. Within each is contained the blueprint of all the emotional chains we can imagine, all the structures of the ideologies and fantasies that imprison us, neatly laid out in lyrics of perpetual yearning and loss.


Image: Ronald Woan

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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