By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Love Story’ is one of Taylor Swift’s best-known songs. Released in 2008, it appeared on her second studio album, Fearless. But what is the meaning of this classic Swift ballad, and what was the inspiration behind the song? What influenced Swift in writing the song’s lyrics?
‘Love Story’ details a forbidden union between two young lovers, a latter-day Romeo and Juliet. They have to meet in secret because Juliet’s father forbids them from being together. Eventually, they decide to run away together, although this love story ends happily with the two lovebirds agreeing to tie the knot.
‘Love Story’: song meaning
Swift’s song is inspired by one of the greatest love stories in all of literature: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the story – like most of the stories we find in Shakespeare – was not Shakespeare’s invention (he most probably got it from a prose romance published in the 1560s), but it was the Bard who made this tragic love tale world-famous.
But although Taylor Swift took her inspiration from Shakespeare’s ‘star-cross’d lovers’, she gave her love story a happy ending.
The song begins with ‘Juliet’ (the persona Swift is adopting for the song) reflecting back to when she first saw the boy she would fall in love with. They were both young when, one summer, she was standing on a balcony like Juliet in Shakespeare’s play (although in actual fact, the famous ‘balcony’ scene was a later invention).
They were at a party when the boy who would become her beau made a beeline for her. How little she knew, at the time, that this youth would become her true love. She tells us that her father warned this ‘Romeo’ to stay away from his daughter. This made Juliet upset, as she wanted him to stay with her.
He begs her Romeo to take her away somewhere where they can be on their own together (away from strict fathers, preferably). She reassures him she will wait for him there, as she wants to run away with him. He will be her prince and she his princess, because theirs is a ‘love story’. She begs him to agree to this plan.
(Here, it’s true, Swift veers away from her principal source material: Romeo and Juliet belonged to noble Veronese families, but they weren’t royalty. She is offering the quintessential love story, drawn not only from Shakespearean tragedy but also countless fairy tales. That’s fair enough.)
Juliet sneaks out into the garden to meet secretly with her Romeo. All they can do is escape from their world, and their families, for a short time, and have this precious time in each other’s company. She tells him that while he was her Romeo, she was a scarlet letter.
This brings in another classic tale of social ostracism involving love and passion: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman in seventeenth-century Puritan America is branded with a scarlet ‘A’ (for adultery) after she conceives a child out of wedlock.
Swift’s meaning, of course, is that she has become ‘persona non grata’ or someone shunned by those around her because she spends time with this ‘Romeo’. ‘Scarlet’ also connotes sin – harking back to the Scarlet Woman from the Bible.
Eventually, Juliet tells us, she waited for so long she started to wonder if her Romeo was ever going to turn up and whether she’d ever see her lover again. She began to lose faith in him and their relationship. When she met him, on the outskirts of the town where they live, she begged him to save her as she’d been feeling lonely without him.
She doesn’t know where she stands any more. But then her Romeo got down on one knee and pulled out an engagement ring, asking her to marry him so she’ll never be alone again. He professed his love for her and told her he had spoken with her father and, although he doesn’t say as much, presumably (at long last) received her father’s blessing for the marriage.
‘Love Story’: analysis
The meaning of Swift’s song is easy enough to summarise: forbidden lovers meet for secret trysts and plot to run away together, choosing each other over their families. But things end more happily than we might expect, with Romeo proposing to Juliet and implying that he had secured Juliet’s father’s blessing.
We say ‘implying’ because, in fact, all we’re told is that he had spoken with her father and decided they should get married. We are invited to assume that this means the father has been talked round into realising that Romeo has honourable intentions towards his daughter and can give her what she needs after all.
But the line is ambiguous, and we might read it (less hopefully) as a sign that he had spoken with her father and been warned off marrying her, and this had only hardened Romeo’s resolve and convinced him they should pledge their love for each other run away together, but as husband and wife rather than mere fugitive lovers.
This interpretation of the ending of ‘Love Story’ is perhaps less mainstream – and less likely – than the more joyful reading outlined above. But it remains a possible reading of the line.
What was the inspiration for the song? Taylor Swift told The Morning Call that she wrote ‘Love Story’ about someone she was talking to at the time. She believed their relationship had potential, but others were less sure. Although the love was difficult, it felt real to her. She added that the song is about ‘a love that’s not convenient and not as comfortable as something else, but it’s something you have to fight for.’
It is widely believed that the person Swift was referring to was Joe Jonas, of the Jonas Brothers, whom she dated in 2008 when the song was recorded.