Taylor's Eros across the Eras. Credit: John Shearer/Getty

August 16, 2023   6 mins

The scene at the ship’s bow in Titanic is so iconic it has spawned innumerable homages and pastiches. But would the fictionalised love story between Jack and Rose carry the same iconic power, had their relationship not been doomed? Would Romeo and Juliet be bywords for romantic intensity, had they not tragically ended their lives in the flush of youthful passion?

It’s common knowledge that women like love stories. And those which gain iconic status tend toward tragedy. Why? Is it just that tragedy speaks to the emotional intensity of being young? I’m staid and middle-aged now, but I remember the exquisite agony of teenage unrequited love, not to mention the perverse draw of sexual liaisons too edgy, kinky, or otherwise intense to last.

What’s less well-recognised is that this kind of emotional intensity, and the motif of doomed passion that serves as its carrier, has roots in a thousand-year-old religious schism. And while its origin story has been largely forgotten, the spiritual hunger it encodes lives on in a perplexing trait often seen in the young, and perhaps especially young women: a craving for romantic transcendence that’s difficult to distinguish from self-destruction.

Nowhere does this kamikaze mysticism hide more flagrantly and influentially in plain sight than in the wildly popular music of Taylor Swift, and the worldwide cult of “Swifties” she has inspired. The only artist in pop history to occupy all of the Top Ten single slots at the same time, Swift more recently racked up four simultaneous Top Ten albums. She has spawned “Swiftogeddon” all-Taylor club nights; the internet swirls with footage of “Swifties” singing in unison; there is even a Taylor Swift-themed university course. Even someone as square as I am can quote lyrics from more than one of her songs. Taylor Swift is a phenomenon.

So what is it about her work that so captivates the young women who form the backbone of her fanbase? Crucially, I think, her love songs don’t tend to be about relationships that end well. A few — “Mine” and “Love Story” for instance — describe happy endings. But by and large even her requited ones are upbeat only when describing the first flush of infatuation, as in “Enchanted“, “Fearless“, and “Ready For It?“.

Instead of inclining towards the happy ever after, Swiftian passion comes with its own doom baked in: an assumption that, for any number of reasons, the high won’t last. “Delicate” is a stuttering, anxious hymn to the fear that declaring your feelings will destroy a budding romance. “Endgame­” captures both the longing to be someone’s “happy ever after” and, implicitly, the expectation that this the dream will turn sour.

And perhaps it’s no wonder. For in Swift-world, the next step from the buzz of first love seems to be thrill-seeking: passion made more intense by the fact that it will be over any moment.

Other songs make still more explicit this pursuit of intensity at the expense of permanence.”Wildest Dreams” describes a liaison made more magical by anticipating how it’ll feel to remember, after it’s over. And “Blank Space” describes a woman who throws herself with wild vigour into every new liaison, while warning her new paramour that she is “insane” and will make him miserable.

Beyond the first flush of love, then, lies mostly darkness, longing, and perhaps bittersweet recollection. My takeaway from Swift’s oeuvre is that a happy ending matters less than the sheer romanticness of love elevated by whatever dooms it to destruction, whether that’s the lover, some external circumstance, or the protagonist’s inner demons.

We could just shrug and say well, Swift has been unlucky in love — her fans are as well-versed in her doomed love affairs as they are her lyrics cataloguing them — and she has a knack for singing about this in a way that resonates with a wide audience. But why is this theme of thwarted, exquisitely painful romance so powerful?

Our love-affair with doomed love begins in early 13th-century France with the two-decade Albigensian Crusade which saw the Cathar sect persecuted, tortured, slaughtered and scattered by the orthodox Christian Knights Templar, leading to the deaths of an estimated 200,000. Their books were burned. But inasmuch as their beliefs are known, they were seen as heretical for their rejection of the Christian belief that God was made man. Rather, in their view the world was evil, and incarnation imprisoned souls who longed to be freed to return to the divine. And, also heretically, in their view this return would be to unity with God, not — as orthodox Christians believed — “communion”.

This bloody episode in European Church history has made its way into pop culture via the phrase, attributed to Papal legate Arnaud Amalric, at the massacre of Béziers: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”. But that violent religious struggle also had another, subtler and further-reaching legacy stemming from what happened to the Cathar faith.

For it didn’t disappear: it went underground. And the origins of the recurring theme of doomed passion in Western culture, according to the Swiss medievalist Denis de Rougemont, lie in the survival of Cathar heresy, hidden in plain sight in “courtly love” literature.

This work was created by the “troubadours”, poets and composers attached to Provençal courts — who were, de Rougemont argues, at least Cathar-influenced if not all secret heretics. For there are eerie parallels between their poetic mythologisation of knights and “courtly love”, and the heretical faith they were slaughtered for. If, as it was for the Cathars, every soul was trapped in a state of longing for reunion with the Divine, when the troubadours sang of unrequited love of a knight for his “Lady” that wasn’t a literal love story. On the contrary: it stood for that spiritual pain and longing.

And because such a longing could only be attained by escape from the prison of flesh — which is to say, by death — the love of a knight for his “Lady” could not be consummated, except by the death of one or both. In other words: to convey its esoteric meaning, the narrative “romance” couldn’t have a “happy ever after”. In these terms, the only real happy ending is death.

This myth proved so powerful it outlived the sect that inspired it. Long after the esoteric double meaning of the romance myth was largely forgotten, the motif of doomed love continued to flourish in Western culture, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or indeed Jack and Rose in Titanic. But the tragedy is that even as this myth has influenced what we believe love is, and what it means, we’ve slowly lost not just the faith that first spawned the ideal of tragic passion, but also the mainstream religious framework that served to keep it in check by nudging young people toward the real-world “happy ever after” of marriage.

Now, though, most no longer believe strongly enough in any kind of God to argue the toss over “union” versus “communion”. Against this backdrop of a culture largely shorn of coherent shared spiritual beliefs and moral framework, even the “happy ever after” option of communion with a long-term partner in this life is losing adherents, to say nothing of a commitment as permanent as marriage. And this, in turn, has left the myth of tragic passion all but unconstrained — revealing a true face that is less enchanted than terrifying.

What began as an esoteric way of describing the yearning to leave flesh behind and reunite with the divine becomes, in a world with no divine, something more like a longing for passionate self-annihilation. Taylor Swift, of course, has the toned-down, romantic version of self dissolved in the lover, in “willow“, singing: “I’m begging for you to take my hand / Wreck my plans / That’s my man.” But the longing for oblivion manifests in still darker, more intense, and destructive ways, too.

One of these is “breath play”: that is, choking during sex. There’s no doubt some of the impetus for this trend emanates from a male desire to hurt women. But studies suggest it’s not just women putting up with it: some actively like it. I suspect the practice is a by-product of the same buried hankering after passion-as-annihilation, modulated by the now-ubiquitous moral and visual vocabulary of porn. After all: if the only transcendent desire is one that ends in death, the closer sex comes to that threshold, the nobler and more intense it is.

And nor does this intensity end with sex and relationships. It cross-pollinates into body hatred too. Thinking back to my passionate younger self, I remember not just the exquisite agony of unrequited love, but also the agonised and very Cathar-ish sense of wanting to escape the prison of my own flesh. I pursued these linked longings for escape from flesh not just via unrequited or self-destructive liaisons, but also gender confusion, eating disorders, and simply fleeing into the bodiless realm of the internet.

Since I was an adolescent in the Nineties, the internet has eaten most of culture and normalised mass disembodiment. Perhaps it’s no wonder so many more of us — and especially young women — now experience these interconnected longings: first to escape embodiment, and relatedly, to be dissolved in passionate intensity. Taylor Swift’s genius is her capacity to give catchy tunes to that sweet, painful, multifaceted longing for something other or higher than what’s in front of us.

On the surface, her work recounts relatable romantic highs and lows. But its 800-year-old undertow implicitly glorifies those who renounce any possibility of happiness in this world, in exchange for the exaltation that comes from seeking something higher — even if the price of reunion with the divine must be death.

For the young women who thrill to this promise, and don’t even realise that what they crave is not sexual, or romantic, but spiritual, it’s the cruellest imaginable way of both promising and denying relief. But that’s the fault of the age — not of the 21st century’s foremost troubadour, Taylor Swift.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.