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What Taylor Swift’s All Too Well (10 Minute Version) Says About Age Gaps In Dating

Amidst fans’ huge excitement surrounding Taylor Swift’s re-release of the Red album, one song in particular seems to have captured lots of hearts (and music charts) with particularly wrenching force — All Too Well (10 Minutes Version), the original version of the 5-minute All Too Well, allegedly written for Taylor’s brief romance with Jake Gyllenhaal when she was 20 (and him 30), caused quite a crying party on the Internet, especially with the release of the eponymous short film starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien (who, incidentally, are 19 and 30 years old respectively).

I’m not a full-on “Swiftie”, but I could not escape the fate of tearing up — okay fine, bawling — not just once but several times when listening to the song. Almost every line of the lyrics is raw and heartbreaking, but I couldn’t help wondering why this song could so intensely resonate with so many people: what sets it apart from other sad love songs?

A few more listens, and a scroll through some discussions online, reveal a common theme of those upset feelings: How could he have done that, when she was just “turning 21”? The age gap between the two lovers (and how it seriously affected her) was frequently referred to in the song, causing fans to flock to Gyllenhaal’s social media and leave angry comments condemning his cold-heartedness towards the young Taylor. 

While the true state of affairs will only be known to Taylor and Jake themselves, I think All Too Well brings out some interesting reflections on the age gap in dating. The saying goes, “Age is just a number” — but upon second thought, is it really? 

Is age just a number?

Let’s first get one thing straight: age is not – and shouldn’t be – a true indicator of one’s personality, capability, or potential. You deserve love, respect, and amazing new opportunities at any age. This article isn’t about promoting ageist stereotypes. Instead, I want to point out that the idealistic claim that “age is just a number” doesn’t always apply. Certain qualities are more or less inherent to chronological age, such as physical health, life wisdom, and sometimes, romantic or sexual experience.

This doesn’t mean that people with large age gaps between them can’t date or marry happily; but it’s likely that they have to put in more work for the relationship, be it to tackle the challenges that arise from the age disparity, or to brave the judgements from society. It’s impractical to completely disregard the element of age in such relationships; rather, I think that confronting the age gap with honesty and working through its difficulties, can make the connection more meaningful.

When does a large age gap become problematic in dating?

Relationships with an age disparity are often complicated by a power imbalance between the two parties. For example, if the two partners work in the same industry or even for the same company, and the older person is in a much superior position, the romance would have professional implications. Once personal emotions and grudges spill over to the workplace, it can be disastrous for someone’s career. Another example is when the older partner is a lot wealthier and the younger partner is financially dependent on them, in which case one person holds an even greater deal of power over the other, compared to a same-age, same-income relationship.

A large age gap can also mean that the two have very different, and sometimes irreconcilable, priorities in life. A very young partner may not want to settle down soon; an older partner may not want any drastic changes to their life that they’ve spent so many years building. Diving head-first into dating someone who is significantly older or younger, without considering your different goals in life, usually leads to pretty unpleasant realisations down the road that one of you needs to make an enormous sacrifice to maintain the relationship.

Most importantly, the big age difference is sometimes used as an excuse to dismiss any problem in the relationship. (Think about that line in the song, “You said if we had been closer in age maybe it would have been fine / And that made me want to die”….) Instead of working on yourself or the problems that you face, a simple “they’re just too old/too young” conveniently sweeps the trouble under the rug; if age is truly the problem, and as we know it we can’t change our age, it’s bound to lead to terrible outcomes.

Grooming and exploitation

There are sometimes darker sides to a relationship involving a very young and a much older person. Grooming, for example, refers to when a sexual offender builds a relationship with a minor and gain the minor’s trust, with the aim of abuse; and although today’s society has become more vigilant to the exploitation of minors, youths who are treading the blurry lines between teenage and adulthood can still be vulnerable to the ill-will of predators.

Manipulation can happen in any relationship, but a young person who is more “innocent” or “immature” is undoubtedly at a higher risk when entering a relationship with a seasoned dater. It sometimes happens that while the younger partner places a great amount of trust in and dependency on the older partner, the latter is exploiting the relative inexperience of their partner to get away with questionable behaviours. For some others, dating someone much younger is simply an ego-boosting pursuit of getting “a never-needy, ever lovely jewel, whose shine reflects on [them]”. I can’t shake off that ever so vaguely creepy feeling whenever I hear, “…you keep my old scarf from that very first week/ ‘Cause it reminds you of innocence….”

There’s a reason why Taylor’s punchline, “I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age” is so poignant that it has left many gasping with an impressed “oof!”

Should I date someone who’s much older or younger than me?

If you’re both consenting adults — it’s your life, you make the decision. Age shouldn’t bar you from enjoying the beautiful things in life, but know that you’ll likely face more challenges because of it. However, if you’re in a position of heavy dependence on that person – financially or professionally – it may be wise to proceed with greater discretion, and learn to build a support system you can fall back on if this relationship doesn’t work out.

Of course, Taylor’s song is ultimately not just about age; many things were probably, as Taylor said, “lost in translation”, and not all relationships issues have to do with an age gap. still, in this collective grief over the heartbreak that unfolds in the 10-minute All Too Well, we can’t help but lament with her, “It’s supposed to be fun… turning 21.”

Ruijia Huang

Nanyang Tech '23

A Psychology & Linguistics undergraduate who is a little obsessed with lifting and Chinese food.
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