It’s not enough to say Taylor Swift sings about romance as if it were just a topic of interest to her (though it is). Romantic relationships are the entire genre, language, and viewpoint through which she interprets the world around her. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that few in recent years have mined the myriad angles and experiences of romantic relationships better, or at least more thoroughly, than Taylor Swift. In her catalog, we find every sort of human emotion fathomable expressed as a reaction to or result of romance, from infatuation (“Enchanted”) to vengeful rage (“Better Than Revenge”), wistful longing (“Teardrops on My Guitar”) to sorrowful regret (“Back to December”), and so on and so on.
Sure, these songs are explicitly about relationships. But through each romantic encounter, Swift is exploring something in herself, her story, and in the human story. Through romance, she wrestles like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction with whether our story is a tragedy or a comedy. Is the world headed for a Happy Ever After or a “Sad Beautiful Tragic” ending? And here in this tension is where I realized Taylor Swift meets J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe and decides that, in the end, love conquers.
In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien coins the term “eucatastrophe” as the “highest function” of the fairy tale, “the sudden joyous turn [that]…denies universal final defeat” and gives “a glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” It’s the moment Gandalf appears gleaming like the sun at the break of dawn to lead the Rohirrim’s charge against the forces of evil at Helm’s Deep. It’s the moment in Avengers: Endgame where all hope is lost, and Thanos has won. But then suddenly, resurrected reinforcements arrive; death is overcome; evil is undone.
In Taylor Swift’s music, we see the same eucatastrophe at play, not in fantastically epic battles, but in the intimate relationships we share with each other. We see an early glimpse of this in the smash hit “Love Story,” a song we’ve heard so many times, it’s easy to miss the significance of what Swift accomplishes. In this 2008 country-pop hit, Swift inserts herself into Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but dares to reimagine one of literature’s most famous tragedies as an act of eucatastrophe. She sings in the bridge:
I got tired of waiting—Taylor Swift, “Love Story”
Wonderin’ if you were ever comin’ around
My faith in you was fading
When I met you on the outskirts of town
She then sings the chorus, replacing her infatuation earlier in the song with quiet lines of doubt and feeling like the relationship is over: “Romeo, save me, I’ve been feeling so alone / I keep waiting for you, but you never come / Is this in my head? I don’t know what to think.” When Swift is feeling her lowest, when the tragedy should strike, Romeo kneels on the ground, pulls out a ring, and the song modulates—a joyous turn in the darkest night.
This scene plays out almost exactly the same way on Speak Now opener, “Mine.” Again, Swift uses the bridge to present the dark night before turn:
And I remember that fight, two-thirty AM—Taylor Swift, “Mine”
‘Cause everything was slipping right out of our hands
I ran out, crying, and you followed me out into the street
Braced myself for the goodbye,
‘Cause that’s all I’ve ever known
Then, you took me by surprise
You said, “I’ll never leave you alone”
The great strength of the eucatastrophe is its surprise, something Swift expresses in both these songs. In “Mine,” it’s explicit; in “Love Story,” the surprise comes through rewriting Shakespeare. Both effect joy and keep us coming back to these songs over and over.
Our story does indeed end in joy, and our current pain won’t be for evermore.Chris Thiessen
Swift has been criticized, especially around the release of these songs a decade ago, of offering unrealistic expectations for young girls, of writing a Happy Ever After story that only exists in Disney movies. And to be fair, in his discussion of eucatastrophe, Tolkien writes, “It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” However, any critics that have made this argument must have missed songs like “White Horse” where Swift admits “this ain’t a fairy tale” or “Fifteen” where her childhood friend “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” Good news is only good because we are simultaneously surrounded by bad news, bad endings. The power of eucatastrophe, however, lies in its argument that the bad endings are only temporary. It may take a while, but joy eternal is still around the corner.
I’ll admit, while I love the eucatastrophic stories of “Love Story” and “Mine,” they have room for improvement. That improvement finally came on “Evermore,” the title track from Swift’s second 2020 album, the greatest example of eucatastrophe in her entire catalog.
The song begins with a simple, yearning piano line played by William Bowery as Swift recounts months of gray, a sense of intangible something’s-wrong-ness: “And I was catching my breath / Staring out an open window / Catching my death.” The scene is cold, merciless, unrelenting as Swift concedes, “I had a feeling so peculiar / That this pain would be for evermore.” In the second verse, Swift can’t remember what she used to fight for. The stories of joy and hope she used to sing no longer light the fog, no longer anchor her spirit. Her thoughts are consumed with only heartbreak, and she sings, “I rewind the tape but all it does is pause / On the very moment all was lost.”
Then the fast-forward button hits, the quiet dread turns to billowing storm, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon enters like a narrator of Swift’s swimming inner thoughts. Their lyrics swirl around each other—images of shipwreck, waves being tossed, violence—but Swift tries to hold on to the cracks of light through the wreckage. The swelling voices and spiraling piano rise unfettered. But suddenly, Swift remembers hope. She remembers that an unnamed “You” was there with her, and the waves are told, “Peace, be still.” The storm settles. Swift catches her breath and exhales, “this pain wouldn’t be for evermore.”
“There’s no way this doesn’t end in tragedy,” you can hear in Swift’s voice at the beginning of the song. But it doesn’t. It ends in beautiful hope of an eternity without grief, without death, without endless winters and the violence of the dog days.
I can’t argue that Swift is trying to make grand theological statements. I don’t know enough of what she believes to do that (though she has explicitly identified as a Christian). However, it’s undeniable that she argues again and again that life is a love story, an idea Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) would agree with: “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.” And thus, every exploration of human love stories holds within it the potential for divine metaphor, for revealing something of Christ to us in a way that intellect simply can’t comprehend.
It’s too fantastical and mysterious a story to be boiled down to doctrine. The Christian life is a fairytale, something Swift and Tolkien would agree on, as he writes in his discussion of eucatastrophe:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.—J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”
Not every chapter ends in beauty. Not every relationship is a happily ever after. But like Tolkien, Swift argues that love is victorious at the last. When it’s snuffed out momentarily, we watch it “Begin Again.” When currents sweep it out to sea, love returns “alive, back from the dead.” Our story does indeed end in joy, and our current pain won’t be for evermore.