“We have arrived at the first bridge of the evening!” Taylor Swift announces atop a pastel, LED-lit stage during the first full song of her monumental Eras Tour setlist. “Now, I would prefer if we crossed it together. And by ‘cross it,’ I mean ‘scream it.’” It’s a moment fans have been eagerly waiting for since Swift released her Lover album back in 2019, before the pandemic rocked the world and ripped away one of the most sacred spaces for any artist, barring her from touring some of her most colorful, exciting work to date. The moment she starts singing “I’m drunk in the back of the car,” the crowd absolutely lights up and screams every lyric with just as much passion as Swift herself.
From the very first day of its release, “Cruel Summer” was instantly initiated into the Swiftie Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of cult classics like “Enchanted” and “All Too Well” to become a magnum opus of her decade-spanning discography. With kaleidoscopic production and some of Swift’s sharpest songwriting to date, it’s no surprise that it surged to #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 following the Lover album drop in August 2019. Billboard and Rolling Stone crowned it as one of the best songs of 2019 at the end of the year, and to date, it’s been the source of over 640 million Spotify streams, countless fan edits, and probably quite a few lost voices thanks to its slot on the Eras Tour.
After fans’ first summer with Lover ended, Swift announced a series of shows for 2020 called Lover Fest, which would be a celebration of Lover, the hopeful themes of the album, and even some of her own favorite artists, denoted by a “Taylor Swift and friends” note on the promotional posters. With summer dates in cities like Foxborough, MA and Los Angeles, CA, Swifties had high hopes for both the performances themselves and the promotions that would accompany them… particularly with “Cruel Summer” having the potential to be a single, per rumors that swirled around Twitter and Swift’s own confirmation at the Eras Tour in June 2023. Just years earlier, Swift had sworn off most promotions and nearly all interview opportunities to let the music of her 2017 reputation album speak for itself, and this was her moment to reconnect with her listeners and experience the excitement of a true album promo cycle, with the first album she ever owned the master recordings of.
Of course, COVID put a big, devastating dent in those plans. Swift postponed her Lover Fest shows before ultimately choosing to cancel them, and by then, she had already released two quarantine albums in the form of folklore and evermore. Shortly after came her Taylor’s Version rerecordings of 2008’s Fearless and 2012’s Red, revisiting the original projects to regain ownership of the music and adding new “From The Vault” tracks to give fans more context for each album. She also released her tenth studio album, Midnights, in October 2022 to rave reviews. It’s fair to say, though, that even with five incredible new albums being added to her musical repertoire, “Cruel Summer” is still one of the best songs she’s put out in the past four years.
“Cruel Summer” recounts the summer of 2016, when Swift was evading the public eye after a sensationalized feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian led to endless waves of online vitriol. While stepping away from the limelight, she started falling in love with British actor Joe Alwyn, and they kept their relationship a secret until being spotted together by paparazzi. During the same summer, Swift prepared for a legal battle against a man who sexually assaulted her and sued her for career damages after she reported it to his workplace, while also recovering from an eating disorder and being uncertain whether she would be able to connect with her fans again after her public image spiraled. Between external chaos and internal rebuilding, there was a perfect storm that made her newfound romance feel simply cruel, balancing the outside world with her worries about what taking the jump and officially starting a relationship could mean.
“This song is one that I wrote about the feeling of a summer romance, and how often times a summer romance can be layered with all these feelings of, like, pining away and sometimes even secrecy,” Swift shared via iHeartRadio. “It deals with the idea of being in a relationship where there’s some element of desperation and pain in it, where you’re yearning for something that you don’t quite have yet, it’s just right there, and you just, like, can’t reach it.”
Kicking off with a thumping drum and a distorted vocal chop, “Cruel Summer” sees Swift teaming up with longtime producer Jack Antonoff and fellow awe-inspiring, emotion-evoking artist St. Vincent, who has a writing credit on the song. It delivers just as much breezy catharsis as it does all-consuming angst, bridging Swift’s penchants for documenting the most magical love stories and the most infuriating, shadowy corners of the heartbreak that follows. Here, the heartbreak hasn’t even happened yet, but you can sense her fear that it will become inevitable if she tells her casual lover that she’s falling for him.
As with most of Swift and Antonoff’s collaborations, the true standout moment of “Cruel Summer” is its adrenaline-filled bridge, which sees Swift admitting her feelings even if she sees her love as some sort of burden that would shatter the connection or be too much for her partner to bear. Their fun night out turns into a potential breaking point as Swift “[cries] like a baby coming home from the bar.” She lies and says she’s fine but gets tired of pretending she can keep things casual, choosing to give in and give up – “I scream, ‘for whatever it’s worth, I love you. Ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?’” The bridge closes out with a growled response: “he looks up grinning like a devil,” and he feels the same way as the song fades into Lover’s romantic title track.
Within the context of the Lover album, “Cruel Summer” feels like a blueprint to some of the main themes and imagery that unfold in the following songs. We find out that “I love you” was, in fact, not the worst thing Alwyn ever heard as “Lover” describes the devotion of their relationship after making things official, and sneaking into each other’s houses “through the garden gate every night” turns into sharing a home and leaving Christmas decorations up well into the new year. The fear of ruining a connection with her feelings comes up again on “The Archer,” a delicate look at her deepest insecurities and her worries that she’ll always wind up being the one to “ride off alone.” The bouncy “I Think He Knows” seems to take us back to those bar dates she described on the bridge of “Cruel Summer,” noting how her partner’s hand curls around a glass and plainly admitting, “I want you, bless my soul.”
Meanwhile, “Cornelia Street” brings up a direct parallel to the “Cruel Summer” bridge, recalling, “we were in the backseat, drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar.” Here, she’s much more vulnerable and open about her fears regarding the relationship, using the idea of walking down New York City’s Cornelia Street as a metaphor for falling in love. She ultimately decides that if the relationship ended, she’d “never walk Cornelia Street again,” which is bittersweet in hindsight now that she and Alwyn have split things off. But there’s also triumph in that idea: even if you don’t wind up with the person you genuinely thought you’d spend the rest of your life with, you can rebuild things around you and find your own successes in other departments.
And so we fast forward to 2023, when Swift finally gets to scream that iconic bridge along with tens of thousands of passionate fans in sold-out stadiums every weekend, as part of the Lover portion of her Eras Tour. Thanks to the success of the tour, in regards to both viral buzz and the number of new fans it’s attracted, “Cruel Summer” has been trending on TikTok and Swift’s team has officially pushed it as a radio single, giving the song its well-deserved shining moment after years of Swifties begging for it. “Cruel Summer” is one of the most impressive, glimmering examples of Swift’s artistic mastery, drawing you right into her world of “fever dream highs” and maybe-unrequited love that still gives you a thrill whether or not they feel the same way. Perhaps the real cruelty was keeping it locked up as an album track until now.
By Madison Murray
Featured Image: Madison Murray for TREMG