In the summer of 2019, many Taylor Swift fans weren’t sure what to expect from her new music. Her first single of the year, “Me!,” had been so bubbly and over-the-top — so totally the opposite of Reputation — that fans were divided between excitement for a shimmery pop return, and confusion about what they were in for. Songs like “Lover” and a teaser of “The Archer” — one a country-tinged love song, the other a spare, synth-y slice of self-reflection — were so diverse in sound that they continued to raise questions. It felt like anyone’s guess what Lover would be.
Those who gave it a chance were welcomed with open arms by an album that largely found the middle ground between all of those songs. And those who made it to the end of Lover were left with one question: Why the hell wasn’t “Cruel Summer” a single?
The album’s second track is everything fans of Swift’s pop music love about her. Mixing enticing storytelling with Jack Antonoff’s stadium-ready production, Swift spins the tale of a summer spent sneaking around through windows and taking drunk car rides with a secret lover. The romance is full of escapist thrills, but it’s not just a game to her: As the song goes on, it becomes clear this is a love she’s willing to put it all on the line for.
With thick synths and some background guitar played by none other than St. Vincent, “Cruel Summer” feels like a natural successor to favorites like “Our Song,” “Love Story,” “Sparks Fly,” “State of Grace,” “Style,” and “Getaway Car,” as Swift flaunts a rock-star edge alongside a grand sense of romantic urgency. It peaks with a bridge to end all bridges, a perfectly scream-along-able section where Swift succumbs to summer love once and for all: “For whatever it’s worth, I love you/Ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” It’s a bridge so good that she sings it twice before the song ends.
In a perfect world, “Cruel Summer” could have had a second life in summer 2020, months after Lover was released and just before Swift set out on her previously scheduled Lover Fest shows. But the world stopped, Lover Fest was ultimately canceled, and instead we were gifted later that year with a pair of indie folk-style albums titled Folklore and Evermore that would go on to become two of Swift’s most celebrated and best-selling works to date.
The Lover era ended more quickly than any other previous Swift album era had. And in the four years since “Me!,” she has been one of music’s most prolific stars: Following those sister 2020 releases, she quickly got to re-recording her first six albums, releasing expanded versions of Fearless and Red in 2021. Last year, she returned with her tenth studio album, Midnights, a surprising return to synth-pop with some new twists.
Now “Cruel Summer” is gunning for a type of “All Too Well” redemption story, with help from her dedicated fans. Even as Swifties celebrated the track back then, she herself seemed more focused on “Lover” and “The Man” in the months leading up to the pandemic. Still, “Cruel Summer” was a hit — it debuted at Number 29 on the Hot 100 upon its release — and it’s been praised consistently by everyone from Olivia Rodrigo to our own Rob Sheffield, who has named it Swift’s eleventh-best track.
No wonder it’s part of how Swift kicks off her massive, 44-song Eras Tour set. After a shortened take on “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” — another Lover track getting its moment in the sun — she launches into “Cruel Summer” in full, complete with thousands of fans shrieking out the bridge in unison with her. In the first month of the tour, “Cruel Summer” surged in streams, landing itself on Spotify’s U.S. Top 100 after the opening weekend in Glendale, Arizona; average daily streams of the song are up 120 percent since the tour began. If you land a ticket to the Eras Tour, it’s a moment worth looking forward to. It might be a few years late, but it feels like we’re heading for the cruel summer Swifties have been waiting for.