Boys Only Want Love If It’s Torture: Taylor Swift and Humanist Romance

“My first reaction was like, ‘This is a bummer. This isn’t fun for me,'” Swift shared. “But then my second reaction ended up being like, ‘Hey, That’s a really interesting character they’re writing about. She jet sets around the world collecting men…then she traps them and locks them in her mansion, and then she’s crying in her marble bathtub surrounded by pearls. So I was like, ‘I can use this.'”  Swift, on the writing of Blank Space    

Swift performing at the Grammy Museum (2015)

When 1989 was released in 2014, I spent a good amount of time avoiding it because I didn’t want to pay for the album when I already paid for Spotify. You’ll recall Swift’s anti-streaming crusade. But it wasn’t long before I caved to the hype and spent the $12.

There is something different about 1989 and Swift’s music as a whole. Regardless of how you feel about how award worthy 1989 or her other albums were, she’s in a genre of her own. She’s prim and strictly PG, and unabashedly overshares some parts of her life while keeping others under some of the most impressive locks and keys modern technology and money can offer.

Over the past few months I’ve noticed a trait of her music that I can’t find in any of her populist contemporaries. The slant with which Swift writes about love is an old one that draws from the deep well of Medieval and Renaissance traditions and remains largely forgotten in popular music. The stakes are high for Swift, you can tell that by the intense highs of her best love songs and the scorched earth lyricism of her most touching ballads.

There are a few songs where this is so apparent. Take Blank Space. Swift’s speech at the Grammy museum, posted above, is downright humorous to listen to and doubly so if you can recognize that the view of the socialite, dating woman that she speaks of has been around much longer than tabloids.

Historical eras are hard to define, but generally, toward the end of the Medieval era as Europe moved toward the Renaissance, troubadours began to travel into Italy and spread their tales of earthly romantic love. That earthy, romantic love had not really existed before. Poetry and music were used for worship and critiquing corruption. That began to change and for a few reasons, it really took in Italy. For one, there was some semblance of a merchant class that was emerging and they weren’t peasants; they had money and could read and write and buy fancy clothes, but they weren’t nobility either.

The nobility, facing a crisis now that it was somewhat harder to differentiate themselves from the peasants, needed something to feel superior. They took this idea of romantic love and ran with it. Love, which hadn’t really existed in Medieval Europe (marriage was a business contract and men and women didn’t really relate to each other in a very meaningful way outside of that cold and contractual institution,) was suddenly elevated to an almost sacred ideal. Love ennobled a man. It made him better. It was great game, with risks and rewards, and the greater the risk the better the reward or the more tragic the fall.

This was inherently exclusionary. As with most of the emerging humanist thought patterns, it excluded the lower classes because it drew from the wealth of classical knowledge that rich people were paying scholars to dig up and revive. It was meant to exclude the lower classes, make no mistake. It also excluded women, though.

Petrarch and Dante wrote the bulk of their love poetry based on two women who existed but the women in their books weren’t real. They were female shaped ideals. Boccaccio treated women a little different in his works. The Decameron had an equal ratio of male to female narrators and they were given equal validity in the story. What is especially informing about how women fit into this new humanist theory of love is how the women in the fables the narrators tell are treated.

Lascivious, social climbing women who sleep with abbots and the town man-whore are usually older, married women who are deeply unsatisfied. Their actions have consequences and they are either punished or escape by the skin of their teeth. They are neither virtuous nor evil, but they certainly aren’t making the world any better.

Then, there is the other type of woman. The woman who is too young to play the game, or the nymph sleeping in the woods. The young girls are deceived in their ignorance into fornication and sexual promiscuity but they end up leading possibly happy and certainly normal lives. The nymphs sleeping in the woods are so beautiful that they literally transform brutish peasants into socialite princes by simply existing. They don’t usually speak and certainly don’t have any agency in the story. They exist, are beautiful, and make the world better.

Okay. That’s the context, in short. If you want to know more, look up Guido Ruggiero from the University of Miami, I got that all from selected pieces of his work handed down in my Renaissance course.

How does this relate to Taylor Swift and Blank Space. Well, if The Decameron is too nuanced, let’s take a look at Boccaccio’s other well noted work: Il Corbaccio. This poem has long been considered misogynistic, though historians have differed on whether it was autobiographical or fictional. Lately it’s been considered a satire but, regardless of the interpretation of the meaning, a particular image of woman exists in the text.

The execrable feminine sex is suspicious and bad-tempered beyond all comparison.  Unless they are informed of it, nothing can be discussed with a neighbor, relative, or friend, without women’s immediate suspicion that you are working against them to do them harm — although men ought not to wonder greatly at that, since it is natural always to fear from others the wrongs we do to them; and for this reason, thieves usually know how to hide their belongings well.  Women’s every thought, design, and action aim at nothing else but to rob, lord over, and deceive men [3]

Wait a second. That sounds familiar.

Cherry lips, crystal skies
I could show you incredible things
Stolen kisses, pretty lies
You’re the king baby I’m your Queen
Find out what you want
Be that girl for a month
Wait the worst is yet to come, oh no
Screaming, crying, perfect storm
I can make all the tables turn
Rose gardens filled with thorns
Keep you second guessing like
“Oh my God, who is she?”
I get drunk on jealousy
But you’ll come back each time you leave
‘Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream
Oh yeah. So, taken in the larger context of that emerging view of romantic love and the image of how women fit into that view, suddenly Blank Space doesn’t seem like the cutting edge critique of a new phenomena. Men have been characterizing women who dabble in the game of love as shifty, power hungry, temperamental, and jealous since, well, the 1200’s.
Oh, look, an apple. This isn’t subtle people. Speaking of religious symbolism…


Another huge part of that humanist love paradigm was the religious aspect. If love was ennobling, that definitely had to lead somewhere. For Dante, evidenced by The Divine Comedy, love ended up at the end of all ends – God. Love led you to God, and a Godly existence. Petrarch was similar – “Love is the crowning grace of humanity” – it had redemptive potential. Petrarch struggled to make the final leap from love to God and sometimes viewed love as something that kept someone away from God. However, the same sorts of logical progressions from love of creation to love of creator that are seen in  Dante’s poetry, can also be seen in Petrarch’s poetry.


Swift’s Red, which directly preceded 1989,  is littered with religious imagery. State of Grace is a good example.


So you were never a saint
And I’ve loved in shades of wrong
We learn to live with the pain
Mosaic broken hearts
But this love is brave and wild
I never
Saw you coming
And I’ll never be the same
This is a state of grace
This is the worthwhile fight
Love is a ruthless game
Unless you play it good and right
These are the hands of fate
You’re my Achilles heel
This is the golden age of something good and right and real
Here we have a characterization of love that uses classical references, religious references, and the language of love as a game, and they all work together to get across the point that love is risky and dangerous, unless you’re more pure.
Another example is a song literally called Holy Ground, where the gist is that a relationship was so good and ennobling that the ground upon which the two lovers met is made holy. 
Cause darling, it was good
never looking down
And right there where we stood
was holy ground
She uses the phrase “holy ground” to explain the sacredness of the place where they met in her memory but she also references Genesis: “and God saw that it was good.” Swift’s lyrics are too poignant to use a bland and otherwise under-descriptive word like “good” if it isn’t a reference to something. The relationship then becomes sanctioned by God in its goodness. It didn’t work out, but the result of the relationship was two people edified by the experience.
Treacherous, another ballad from Red, is yet one more perfect example of Swift’s tendency to view love in this old world, humanist sense of ennoblement and risk.

Two headlights shine through the sleepless night
And I will get you, and get you alone
Your name has echoed through my mind
And I just think you should, think you should know
That nothing safe is worth the drive and I would
Follow you, follow you home
I’ll follow you, follow you home

This hope is treacherous
This daydream is dangerous
This hope is treacherous


The flip-side of all of this is that, sure, love led to some amazing highs, literally holy highs, but you only got there through suffering. Unrequited love for a noble and virtuous woman (often married, or twelve) was the best kind and a man was only as good as the virtuous woman who got him there. That means two things:

  1. Women walked a thin line, it was easy to cross if you weren’t 12 or a voiceless nymph.
  2. In the words of Taylor: Boys only want love if it’s torture.


Now, I definitely don’t think Swift is sitting in her bedroom with the works of Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch spread across her duvet (although, I suppose she could be.) I do think that this stuff endures. Sometimes that’s good, love should absolutely make you a better person. Sometimes its not so great, there’s inherent misogyny involved in all of this and gross men everywhere feel like women owe them when they open doors and buy dinner.


Somewhere along the way, the order of edification by love got flipped. It was supposed to be that you fall in love, and when she doesn’t reciprocate you take that burning desire and turn it on the world. You slay dragons and steal from the rich to give to the poor. Lately, it seems that when the woman doesn’t reciprocate the man doesn’t become better, he acts indignant. “What the hell,” they ask, “I’m a nice guy, I’m chivalrous and noble, where’s my noble woman?”

And if that isn’t the case, dating in the 21st century is bleak at best. We text, but not too much or too quickly or too sincerely; and if you let on you lose.  It’s a game but if you lose you’re not too affected because you never gave that much to begin with and if you win you get married. There isn’t a lot of sincerity and the stakes are low.

That gets reflected in a popular music industry that is as vapid as the dating scene. Swift gets, deservedly at times, a lot of criticism. The lens through which she writes about love and the quality of her lyrics should not be the focus of that criticism. She’s offering up some ideas that old world but refreshing because we’ve twisted them or forgotten them completely. I’m a walking Hallmark card, so this delights me.

Plus, not only has she claimed a voice that was withheld from women for a few centuries (arguably too many centuries too late,) but she took a misogynistic view of women that still pervades society and turned it on its head – satirizing and profiting off it.

I see your misogyny and I raise you my biggest hit yet.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s