Over the weekend, a shocking preponderance of Harry Styles–related conversation focused on two very important subjects: (1) Whether “Two Ghosts” was written about Taylor Swift, and (2) whether “Ever Since New York” was written about Taylor Swift.
Harry, understandably, declined to confirm or deny either burning question.
“I mean, I think it’s pretty, like, self-explanatory,” he told Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1. “I think it’s about, you know, sometimes things change. And you can be, you know, doing all the same things. And sometimes, it’s just different. You know?”
I do know. Because where once I chose to channel the essence of Charlie Day mapping out a conspiracy theory when questions like these came up, I have recently opted to let it all go. Because I don’t care who pop stars are singing about anymore.
And why should I? Why should any of us? Why should we, 17 years into the Willennium, spend any of our precious energy dissecting song lyrics like we’re the lead detectives assigned to the case of 2012’s “All Too Well”?
The mark of a great pop song is that we can apply it to our own lives, even if its premise is far-fetched and completely unrelatable. Deep-diving into an artist’s history or romantic entanglements while reading between the lyrics might seem fun at first, but ultimately it strips a song of its magic and, most importantly, its universality. Because when we pick apart the words and imagery to songs like “Two Ghosts,” they stop being a song for every person, and morph into a song for and about a specific person.
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.