On Saturday at 7:47 pm ET, I received a text: “TAYKOR AND JOE BRIKE IK.” The hastily translated content of this message was that Taylor Swift and her boyfriend of six years, actor Joe Alwyn, had broken up. But the manic typos convey the message perhaps even more clearly than the proper spelling: Something wild had happened.
Like many people who have listened to Swift’s last five albums, I had a difficult time believing the news. Over the course of Reputation, Lover, Folklore, Evermore, and Midnights, Swift has painted a portrait of her relationship with Alwyn that portrays them as almost cosmically aligned, a deeper kind of soul mates than the wide-eyed fairy tale romances she sung about in 2010’s Speak Now or the fiery love-hate passion of 2012’s Red. “I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden,” she sings about Alwyn on the Lover track “Daylight.”
The Alwyn era of Swift’s career was marked not by the drama of Swift’s personal life, as was the case with her earlier hits, but by the idea of Swift as a full-grown adult, in a seemingly stable, happy relationship for the first time — so happy, in fact, that fans were worried she’d have nothing to write about anymore. In response, she wrote her best album ever, 2020’s Folklore, which tells other people’s imaginary stories instead of litigating her own drama, while still finding sneaky ways to drop in her characteristic intertextual clues for fans to hunt for.
Alwyn has also been a part of her professional world, albeit behind the scenes. They wrote several songs together (he’s credited by the pen name William Bowery), including the cutesy “Sweet Nothing” on Swift’s most recent album. In her songs, she’s referred to him as “king of my heart” and “a magnetic force of a man,” and has described the idea of losing him as “the kind of heartbreak time could never mend.” Speculation that the two had gotten married or were planning to has followed them for years; as recently as a few months ago, they were reportedly discussing marriage. “I like shiny things, but I’d marry you with paper rings,” Swift sang on her 2019 album.
This wasn’t the kind of celebrity breakup news you could ignore as speculation or overeager journalism (unlike, say, the time that the founder of the blog Hollywood Unlocked erroneously reported that Queen Elizabeth II had died seven months before she actually did). The news came courtesy of Entertainment Tonight, then People magazine, two publications known for their close ties to stars’ publicity teams and reluctance to print unconfirmed information. People followed up its report with several more quotes from a source close to both Swift and Alwyn (which you can probably translate to mean Swift’s longtime publicist Tree Paine), who said the split was caused by “differences in their personalities” and Alwyn’s discomfort with Swift’s level of fame. In other words, these weren’t rumors, these were confirmations.
That, of course, has not stopped fans from speculating that the breakup is fake news. Over the weekend, TikTok and Twitter exploded with arguments from fans as to why Swift and Alwyn may still be together, or asserting that, actually, they got married last year in the UK. Stan culture has always been deeply distrustful of the mainstream media (except in circumstances when it extolls their celebrity of choice), but Taylor Swift has a particular ability to incite alternative theories about her choices both professional and personal. Some of this, she has acknowledged, comes from her frequent use of Easter eggs in her songs and social media posts, literally inviting people to invent reasons why she used a certain phrase or posted a certain image.
Those who do believe the news, however, are mourning in their own way, such as (jokingly) attempting to tear down the sign for Cornelia Street in New York or tweeting at the pope and Joe Biden to “DO SOMETHING.” Fans have tried to suss out clues she may have been sending audiences, notably in the fact that in recent shows on her Eras tour, which is currently on its North American leg, she swapped a love song about Alwyn, “Invisible String,” for “The 1,” a song about a relationship that could have been.
It’s a strange thing to feel blindsided about a relationship you’ve never even witnessed in person, but that’s the power of Swift and, increasingly, all celebrities and influencers. Consider the outrage aimed at the comedian John Mulaney, who’d built a loyal following for being a sweet, devoted husband, after he divorced his wife and quickly began dating another woman. “Shame on me for thinking his onstage persona was really him,” wrote one commenter.
But Taylor Swift has been warning us all along about putting too much trust in her performance of herself. After a career spent meticulously leaving bread crumbs for her fans to follow, deciding which tantalizing nuggets of information to share and when, Swift’s most recent album Midnights almost reads as a mea culpa: In the final track, “Dear Reader,” she speaks directly to the fans who’ve looked up for her for nearly two decades, telling them to “find another guiding light” and “never take advice from someone who’s falling apart.”
The only meaningful thing Swift has ever said about Alwyn outside of what’s made it into her lyrics is that we — as in, the public — will never really know what they have. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, she explained why she doesn’t discuss him: “I’ve learned that if I do, people think it’s up for discussion, and our relationship isn’t up for discussion. If you and I were having a glass of wine right now, we’d be talking about it — but it’s just that it goes out into the world. That’s where the boundary is, and that’s where my life has become manageable. I really want to keep it feeling manageable.”
One can hope the fans will be able to manage, too. For now, you’re on your own, kids.