It’s Time for Men to Make an Admission About Taylor Swift

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Colt Seavers, the professional stunt performer played by Ryan Gosling in The Fall Guy, is used to brutalizing his body, but a broken heart is another matter. When he discovers that Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), the movie director with whom he had a brief but intense romance, isn’t willing to take him back—he was seriously injured on a previous shoot and dropped out of both the business and their relationship without notice—he doesn’t know what to do next. His job more or less requires him not to feel, to risk his life, give a brisk thumbs-up, and do it again, so when he’s confronted with emotions he can’t express in tough-guy banter, he shuts down. But not even the most stoic facade can withstand “All Too Well.” When Colt retreats to the safety of the nearest pickup truck, the song comes on as soon as he puts the key in the ignition, and in an instant his eyes are flooded with tears. Jody spies him and raps on the window, taking a beat as he rolls it down before she asks, “Have you been crying to Taylor Swift?”

Misting up to Taylor Swift songs may be the closest thing we have to a national pastime at the moment. The top 14 songs in this week’s Hot 100 are all drawn from her new album The Tortured Poets Department, which details the tragic end of a long-term romance and the wreck of a rebound that followed it, and although the record has a handful of bangers, it’s overwhelmingly tilted toward melancholy. (There’s no way anyone but the most hardhearted of listeners is getting through “LOML” dry-eyed.) Longtime Swift fans are used to living through hard times alongside her, the breakups and betrayals she’s been setting to music since she was a teenager. But Swifties who’ve come on board amid the triumphant highs of the “Eras” era may not be used to seeing her sink quite so low, and this is especially true of a demographic that’s still struggling to come to terms with how, and how much, Taylor Swift makes them feel: middle-aged men.

Although Swift has always put her female fan base first, a 2023 survey found a near-even split along gender lines, with 48 percent of fans identifying as male. And as far back as 2014, NASCAR drivers and frat boys were openly proclaiming their love of her undeniable bops. But even as self-styled men’s men like quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy were donning friendship bracelets and learning when to double-clap, Swift’s relationship with Travis Kelce triggered a new wave of backlash, spurred by the realization that not even the Super Bowl was safe from her influence. Bad enough she sells out stadiums; now she has to watch football in them too?

As the “Eras” tour became the inescapable cultural phenomenon of 2023, the famous and would-be-famous were eager to advertise their attendance, but many of the men seemed equally keen to ensure we knew they were there not entirely by choice. Channing Tatum, who took his 10-year-old daughter to one of Swift’s Los Angeles shows, wore a T-shirt that read “It’s Me, Hi, I’m the Daddy, It’s Me”—a sartorial choice that, like the ones I saw in the stands earlier in the summer, functioned as both a badge of honor and a disclaimer: I’m here because a girl made me come. It felt like a throwback to the previous decade, when, as a Washington Post columnist put it, “an older gent discovered to be a Swiftie risks being ridiculed by his friends, his wife, his kids or his employees.”

In the most recent season of The Bear, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie spends several episodes hashing out his relationship to Taylor Swift. A son of the working class (Moss-Bachrach is one of only a few actors on the series to adopt a classic Chicago accent), Richie has tastes that are evolved but classically bro-y: His bachelor pad is decorated with posters for Ridley Scott’s Alien and White Squall, and when he’s sent off to learn the ropes at a Michelin-starred restaurant, his main contribution is making sure diners at the high-end eatery get a chance to sample deep-dish pizza. But Swift has been a fixture in his life too, since even before he became a father. In the flashback episode “Fishes,” his then wife, Tiff, sports a T-shirt from the “1989” tour over her pregnant belly.

Back in the present, Richie’s daughter is living with his now-estranged ex, which means he has to grab every opportunity he has for father-daughter bonding. But he falls short one morning as he drops her off at school, calling after her, “I love you … I love Taylor Swift too. I just needed a break.” The show doesn’t give us the moment before that one, but it’s easy to intuit: Dad picks up daughter, says she can choose the music for the drive, but balks at having to listen to the same thing yet again. (As a driving dad, I’ve hit the limit a few times myself.) Maybe he snaps at her, or maybe he just says no, but either way he’s gone back on his word, and they spend the rest of the ride in silence, Richie consumed with the feeling he’s somehow messed it up again.

There’s a way to redeem himself: get Taylor Swift tickets. And he does it, but he oversteps and buys a ticket for Tiff as well, and when he asks if she wants to come along, she’s forced to reveal the news she’s been keeping from him, knowing it’ll break his heart: Her new boyfriend has proposed, and she said yes. This happens in “Forks,” an episode that’s designed to strip Richie down to the studs. He’s been bounced down to a glorified internship at the best restaurant in Chicago, where he’s relegated to polishing cutlery. He’s lost his wife and been exiled from his job, and he can’t even wipe down a fork without screwing it up. But over the course of a week, Richie builds himself back up, and when he’s finally feeling good about himself, he knows just how to celebrate. He gets into his car, steps on the gas, and cranks up Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.”

There’s a moment in “Love Story,” taken from Swift’s 2008 album Fearless, that gets me every time. The song, written when Swift was still a teenager, is a romantic fantasy about young lovers, overheated enough to actually name-drop Romeo and Juliet. But it’s a fantasy that almost doesn’t come true. The girl knows what she wants, and the boy knows it too, but he can’t quite muster the nerve to follow through. She all but lays out a road map for him, and yet he’s still on the verge of blowing it. “I got tired of waiting,” she sings. “My faith in you was fading.” Then, just when she’s about to throw in the towel, he finally comes through: drops to one knee, pulls out a ring, the whole nine yards. The song’s key changes, and it feels like a dam bursting, unleashing everything he’s been holding back for no good reason. He’s finally the man they both dreamed he could be.

When Richie starts singing along to “Love Story,” after untold drop-offs and pickups, he knows the words by heart—it’s enough to raise his spirits but not to quell his anger. (“Fucking drive!” he yells at an unseen offender.) But then that key change hits, just as his car crests a rise in the road, and for just a moment, he’s flying. The outside sounds fall away, and it’s just him and the song, the one that tells him there’s still a chance to make things right. There’s something in this teenage girl’s words that this 45-year-old man still needs to hear—that, as another character tells him near the end of the episode, “it’s never too late to start over.”

It may never be too late, but outside the realm of fairy tales, women run out of patience—not least Taylor Swift herself. “All Too Well,” which she wrote three years later, is a song about a man who missed his window: She waits, he blows it, and she moves on. If “Love Story” tells Richie he’s still got a shot, “All Too Well” reminds The Fall Guy’s Colt that he’s close to throwing his away. It might not be too late, but it’s getting there.

Like Richie, Colt has been stuck, needing to say something but unable to say it. His ex-girlfriend has created an entire movie about their relationship, filtered through the story of a taciturn interstellar cowboy and the alien woman he abandons. (In other words, Metalstorm is her “All Too Well.”) But he can barely mumble an apology. It takes a song to remind him there are worse things than forcing yourself to put the way you feel into words—worse things like letting your attachment to your own manliness ruin your best shot at happiness.

Reviews of The Tortured Poets Department have criticized Swift for doing both too much and not enough, pouring forth her feelings without vetting them for quality first. But a Swift without cringe is no Swift at all. She’s always walked close to, and often stepped over, the line that separates confessional songwriting from Instagram poetry, and part of the gift she gives her fans is the permission to be moved by both—to embrace feelings that might, in a less forgiving context, feel corny or silly or immature. When you listen to Taylor Swift, it’s OK to believe in fairy tales, no matter how long ago you think you should have outgrown them.

In real life, Gosling and Moss-Bachrach have hedged on their own Swiftiedom: Moss-Bachrach has alternately claimed to be both a fan and not, and although Gosling has asserted his allegiance, he seems hard-pressed to name a song beyond the one on his movie’s soundtrack. Whatever their hearts truly say, they could stand to take a few pointers from Paul Rudd, who never holds back about how much he loves her music, which just makes the onetime Sexiest Man Alive seem even sexier now. If football players and Marvel heroes can do it, they can too.