Romantic relationships are rarely balanced. Inevitably, one person is more in love and has more to lose than the other.
Affairs amplify this imbalance. One person is married and one isn’t, or one recommits to their spouse, or one has no intention of leaving their partner.
While unrequited love songs are a dime a dozen, I don’t know many affair songs that dwell in this imbalance. Most portray the affair as a sensual and joyous respite from a lonely relationship, not as the source of loneliness.
The protagonist of “Illicit Affairs” struggles with this inequality. She makes sacrifices and excuses. She buys small gifts that she can never share. She lives as if she doesn’t even exist. She is, to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Swift’s Folklore, a godforsaken mess who can no longer see the colors she saw with him.
Most affair songs live in a world of consenting and equal adults. Taylor Swift lives in a world of married presidents and starry-eyed interns. The power of “Illicit Affairs” is rooted in powerlessness, and as a result, it is a heartbreakingly lovely song.