And then it just feels like we’re listening in on a conversation about some stranger.
Look, I’ve gone down this road myself. We all have. Back in 2002, Justin Timberlake cast a Britney Spears look-alike in his video for “Cry Me a River,” the super-shamey song about his ex’s alleged infidelity, and we couldn’t get enough. Back in the ’70s, Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” about an unnamed dude, sparking decades of speculation about who exactly walked into a party like he was walking onto a yacht. As recently as this March, Drake used More Life to allude to his feelings for J.Lo (rapping about drunk-texting her on “Free Smoke” and sampling “If You Had My Love” on “Teenage Fever”). And of course Taylor Swift has used gossipy public interest in who she’s dating to her artistic advantage.
But not every pop star is Taylor Swift, duh. Yet despite this, we’ve assumed that her clever, blind-item, is-she-or-isn’t-she lyrical approach applies to the music of any number of other artists. Zayn’s debut was met with speculation about his sex life and on-off relationships, and while he cast girlfriend Gigi Hadid in the “Pillowtalk” video, his album’s narrative was too all over the place to be solely, specifically about their IRL relationship. (At least I hope it was.) Similarly, One Direction’s later jams were combed through for references to Harry’s romance with Taylor, Liam’s relationship with then-girlfriend Sophia, and even Harry and Louis’s theoretical relationship with each other. The release of Selena Gomez’s “The Heart Wants What It Wants” aligned with the demise of her union with Justin Bieber, which is why some treated “Where Are Ü Now” like his official response.
This is exhausting! It’s exhausting to listen to a pop song and treat it like code, and it’s exhausting to invest in every possible combination of pop star relationship. For one song to be overtly about a fellow famous (like Carly Simon’s aforementioned verbal assault) is special and exciting, but it’s unnecessary for us to project that kind of mystery onto every hit song in the world. Aside from being silly and speculative, it also often serves to make these songs more interesting than they actually are. Some music gets to be simply passable and fine. Not all of it can be about a failed relationship with Dave Coulier. Sometimes a song is just a song.
Plus, I just don’t care anymore. I don’t have it in me. With one million pop artists releasing several thousand singles every four days, I — and mostly likely you — don’t have the emotional capacity to sift through Harry Styles’s references to red lipstick and a white t-shirt, juxtaposing them against a 2015 single that includes the same descriptors and wondering how intentional that is. Maybe “Two Ghosts” and “Ever Since New York” really are about Taylor Swift. Or more realistically, Harry is likely smart enough to recognize that interest generated in romantic conspiracies will also generate record sales. Either way, there are way more interesting things to talk about.