Look, I love Taylor Swift as much as the next Swiftie, but for whatever reason the woman tends to not bill the bangers we all collectively adore as singles (ahem, “All Too Well”). Of course, only an artist as prolific as Swift is cursed with the problem of too many good songs to release as singles, but “Cruel Summer” not getting the single treatment in 2019 when Lover was released was, well, cruel.
I speak for the entire fandom when I say you can imagine our excitement when she announced in June 2023 that “Cruel Summer” would finally become the fifth song from Lover to get released as a single. Four years later and we finally get to live in our “Cruel Summer” era.
While on the road for The Eras Tour, Swift revealed the reason “Cruel Summer” never became a single, and it turns out it had nothing to do with her dropping the (mirror) ball. Lover came out in Aug. 2019, and Swift had every intention of releasing “Cruel Summer” as a single the following summer, but then the pandemic hit.
“Cruel Summer, that song was my pride and joy on that album. That was my favorite song. And you know, you have conversations before the album comes out and everyone around weighs in on what they think should be singles, and I was finally — finally — about to have my favorite song become the single off of “Lover,” and I’m not trying to blame the global pandemic that we had, but that is something that happened that stopped “Cruel Summer” from ever being a single.”
Swift went on to say that because the fandom streamed “Cruel Summer” so many times in the summer of 2023, her label, Republic Records, decided to release it as a single alongside “Karma,” from her 10th studio album “Midnights.”
If you’ve been wondering why “Cruel Summer” is constantly on the radio every time you turn on the car, that’s why. Now, it’s just a matter of deciphering what this top-tier single is all about — better yet, who.
The meaning behind “Cruel Summer”
“Cruel Summer” is one of those songs that might not make complete sense upon first listen. Ever the poet, Swift sometimes encodes her messages in double entendres and sly wordsmithery. Indeed, her feathered pen is never idle.
“Cruel Summer” is, as the song implies, about a summertime romance that is far from ideal. It’s about pining away after someone who is completely out of reach, where pain and desperation coexist right alongside desire and a hunger to be seen. Meanwhile, there’s this underlying exertion of trying to keep it all secret.
Lyrics like “Devils roll the dice, angels roll their eyes / What doesn’t kill me makes me want you more” imply Swift knows nothing good will come of this relationship, but she goes against her better judgment (“angels”) because the allure of this man is too much to ignore.
The lyrics “And it’s new, the shape of your body / It’s blue, the feeling I’ve got / And it’s ooh, whoa, oh / It’s a cruel summer” is about Swift knowing she’s diving into the deep end of reckless abandon, thus the “cruel” aspect of the song. She doesn’t heed the warnings from concerned loved ones, singing, “It’s cool, that’s what I tell ’em / No rules in breakable heaven / But ooh, whoa oh / It’s a cruel summer / With you.”
Then, of course, there’s the iconic bridge with masterful lyrics that paint a vivid picture of Swift, who knows full well she shouldn’t be pining after this guy, sneaking in “through the garden gate / Every night that summer just to seal my fate (oh)”, and screaming “‘I love you,’ ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard? / He looks up grinning like a devil.”
Who could “Cruel Summer” be about?
Taylor Swift is known for singing about her real-life romances, and since Lover was written at a time when she was happily in a relationship with her ex-boyfriend Joe Alwyn, the initial belief was that the song was about him. After all, Lover is filled with songs dedicated to her then-beau, from “Paper Rings” to “Cornelia Street” to “London Boy” to “Daylight.” Like love itself, the album delves into all facets of love, the good and the bad. Enter: “Cruel Summer.”
During the summer of 2016, Swift was in the process of her whirlwind relationship with Loki actor Tom Hiddleston. However, by Oct. 2016 she was with Alwyn. The biggest clue that “Cruel Summer” is about Alwyn comes not from the song itself, but from the album’s title track. In “Lover,” Swift sings “I’ve loved you for three summers now but honey, I want them all.” Three summers, i.e. 2016, 2017, and 2018. (She began recording the album in Nov. 2018 even though it was released the following year in Aug. 2019).
Indeed, “Cruel Summer” is likely about Swift’s internal battle confronting her budding emotions for Alwyn while navigating her deteriorating relationship with Hiddleston. Alas, it’s all speculation, but then again, that’s what makes deciphering Swift’s lyrics so fun.
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