Exposing the Lie of Sexual Sin, According to Taylor Swift
If you’re a Swiftie, this Friday, April 9th, is a big day. April 9th is the day that T-Swizzle releases an updated version of her Fearless album, the update brought on by a dispute between her and her former manager.
But as great as that album may end up being, the highlight of the past year in the Swiftiverse was back in July of 2020 when Taylor surprised her fans with the news that she would be dropping an album that night at midnight. The album, which went on to win Album of the Year at last month’s Grammys, is a departure of sorts for her, the “folk” in the “folklore” title being the general mood. Gone is the rambunctious cockiness of previous releases, replaced with a quieter thoughtfulness and humility, reflective of the mood of the nation during the pandemic. I enjoyed the album as a whole, but one song in particular absolutely stunned me: track 10, entitled “illicit affairs.”
The song’s narrator imagines speaking to a woman who is engaging in just that, an illicit affair. We follow this “other woman” who tells her friends she’s going for a run, instead of where she’s actually headed, to be with a married man. But rather than celebrate the rendezvous between consenting adults (something you might expect in our “don’t judge me” age), Taylor paints a picture of the destruction inherent in such a relationship.
She beautifully describes the confounding situation the woman finds herself in. She’s bought perfume to wear for her lover, but can’t ever use it, lest its scent leave a trace, proof of her existence. The power of the song is the way it shines a light on the reality of what an adulterous affair actually is: a broken promise. As Taylor puts it: “What started in beautiful rooms/ends with meetings in parking lots.” It also captures the idea of the slippery slope in inappropriate relationships: “It’s born from just one single glance.”
The song ends somewhat abruptly. Rather than going back to the chorus, it leaves you wanting more, not unlike the woman at the center of the story. She imagines herself standing up to the man. No longer wanting to be called “kid” or “baby,” she realizes that her lover has turned her into a fool, teaching her a secret language that can’t be spoken with anyone else. She has been taken advantage of, but is so wrapped up in the “godforsaken mess” that she feels she can’t get out, and confesses that for him, she would ruin herself “a million little times.”
The truth that emerges from the song is a simple one: Sin always lies. It promises beauty and wonder and joy, and in the short run provides a “dwindling, mercurial high,” but never delivers the lasting confidence of a committed marital relationship. A secret relationship will never be fully realized, and thus never fully enjoyed.
The song is a 3 minute and 11 second version of the warning of Proverbs 6 and 7, where the narrator pleads with a young man to avoid engaging with a married woman who is trying to seduce him in her husband’s absence. “Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” Solomon asks. “So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished” (6:28-29) He doesn’t mince words here: the devastating effect of this choice ends in a kind of spiritual death, as Scripture compares the wayward man to an ox, a deer, and a bird, all being trapped and killed.
It’s a haunting, beautiful, painful song, filled with regret and longing and sadness. It is clearly a cautionary tale, one I didn’t expect to find on the album of a pop star. It is a sobering reminder that any one of us could fall into that trap. Those of us in Christ know that there is forgiveness and redemption available to all who call on him, but the consequences of the sin remain.
In some ways, it is the sequel to her song “15,” which follows the story of a 15-year-old girl who falls for a fellow teenage boy and gets her heart broken. “When you’re 15 and someone tells you he loves you, you’re gonna believe it.” Both stories should be told to our young people, because they’re different versions of the same lies we all believe. The lie is that anything other than the love of God displayed for us through the cross of Christ will bring us sustaining joy. A 15-year-old girl will believe that an older boy will bring that joy. A twenty-something will believe that the promise of a married man will do the same. Both will lead to disappointment, and a path to spiritual death.
This past fall, to end a talk I gave on sanctification, I finished by playing “illicit affairs” in full, as an illustration of the power of sin’s lies. I don’t imagine that this will necessarily resonate urgently with teenagers in their present moment, as the idea of an affair with a married person sounds as fanciful to them as taking a trip to the moon on a rocket ship. But the hope is that they begin disbelieving in the dwindling, mercurial nature of sin’s empty promises now, inasmuch as they continue believing in the ever-increasing, rock-solid nature of the sufficiency of Christ.