“When I find that person that is right for me, he’ll be wonderful,” Swift said, then smoothly delivered an instant-canon zinger: “And when I look at that person, I’m not even going to be able to remember the boy who broke up with me over the phone in 25 seconds when I was 18.”
“OHHHH!” the studio audience gasped, then broke into applause as Swift gave a satisfied smile. “No! You! Did! Not!” DeGeneres yelled, as Swift started laughing and looked sheepishly down at the floor, adding: “Sorry, I had to.”
The phone call reveal became a staple of Swiftian lore, but the incident also said a lot about Swift as an artist and celebrity: It wasn’t just that she was connecting with listeners as a teenage singer-songwriter, something Nashville executives previously did not think was possible. But she was also connecting because she was willing to be open about her heartbreak in a vulnerable, authentic and snarky way that struck a chord with fans and continued as she became a global pop megastar.
As savvy a move as it was, however, her candor set the tone for the next decade of her public image. Her dating life — and particularly her breakups — became open season for jokes, memes, award-show punchlines and numerous headlines as she dated fellow celebrities (Harry Styles, Calvin Harris, Tom Hiddleston) in her 20s and wrote songs when the relationships ended. Swift has made it clear that she found this almost-singular focus extremely offensive, telling the Guardian in 2014: “I really resent the ‘Be careful, buddy, she’s going to write a song about you’ angle, because it trivializes what I do. It makes it seem like creating art is something you do as a cheap weapon rather than an artistic process.”
Swift’s intensely loyal fan base took the cue, as evidenced this week by the outpouring of emotion over the end of her six-year relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn. Any potential mockery about breakup songs to come was completely overshadowed by out-of-control grief from the Swifties.
Entertainment Tonight broke the news Saturday evening, exclusively reporting that Swift, 33, and Alwyn, 32, were over but that the breakup was “not dramatic” and “the relationship had just run its course.” This report set the internet ablaze, with some fans refusing to believe it until a more celebrity publicist-friendly outlet such as People magazine weighed in — and People wasn’t far behind, citing an anonymous source that the news was true.
Although there have been some jokes, namely about serial dater Pete Davidson being ready to step up, the majority of the online reaction has included voyeuristic interest, concern and even devastation. Fans who found deep meaning in songs reportedly about Alwyn — particularly those found on the 2019 album “Lover” — have mourned the news like they would the death of a loved one. Some of Swift’s most devoted fans, a few of whom thought the couple was secretly married, are screaming, crying and literally throwing up as they make the pilgrimage to New York City to leave offerings at Cornelia Street, the title of one of Swift’s most swooning “Lover” tracks: “I hope I never lose you, hope it never ends / I’d never walk Cornelia Street again / That’s the kind of heartbreak time could never mend.”
This time, Swift is the hero at the center of the story, partly because she’s so much more famous than Alwyn, known for roles in “The Favourite” and the Hulu series “Conversations With Friends,” but best known for his relationship with Swift.
But also, this is Taylor Swift in 2023: The media ecosystem has changed, with social media platforms and fans driving the narrative instead of the tabloids, and the Swiftie fandom is a universe with its own language, customs and rules that can overtake the internet with its intensity. Although her fans still speculate about her private life, Swift has made a concerted effort to move away from the “look at all of her boyfriends!” storylines that consumed her early media coverage. She stopped hiding coded messages in her lyrics about potential subjects of the songs. She and Alwyn rarely appeared together in public and wouldn’t even say each other’s names in interviews. Her sold-out Eras Tour celebrates her evolution and makes it clear that the past is far in the past.
The new tone was also clear at the end of 2021, with Swift’s rerelease of her 2012 “Red” album, which featured a 10-minute updated version of “All Too Well,” with lyrics that were cut from the original, something Swift had teased for years. The song is thought to be about her breakup with Jake Gyllenhaal, and Swifties wasted no time in going after the actor online when the lines revealed even more detail about what went wrong. (Many fans are also losing it with anticipation for the rerelease of “Speak Now,” which features the even more cutting “Dear John,” allegedly about Swift’s former paramour John Mayer.)
It’s a world of difference from a decade ago, and Swift knows it. For someone who is rarely seen in public unless she definitively wants to be, it was no coincidence that she took a brief, heavily photographed stroll outside a restaurant in New York City on Monday night. Fans are already comparing her black-shirt-and-bedazzled-jeans outfit to Princess Diana’s revenge dress, and speculating that she purposefully appeared because she wanted to let everyone know she’s fine.
Swift, a self-mythologizer to her core, knows all of this, and she’s aware that the fandom is eagerly awaiting to see whether she will address the situation in concert. She recently swapped out one song on her Eras Tour set list, “Invisible String” with “The 1,” the former about soul mates, the latter about looking back fondly on a past relationship.
And it’s possible that she could bring back “Invisible String,” in which she also has a new perspective when she thinks about exes. Many fans assume one lyric in particular is about Jonas, whose wife, actress Sophie Turner, recently gave birth to their second daughter: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind / for the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents.”