The words to "Ronan" might have been first composed by Thompson, but the lyrics still read as pure Taylor. No other pop songwriter has her eye for visual detail ("Race cars on the kitchen floor, plastic dinosaurs") or her ability to condense an entire relationship's dynamic into one phrase's worth of shorthand ("I love you to the moon and back"). The finest moments combine writerly observation with irrepressibly human distress; "Flowers pile up in the worst way, no one knows what to say/ About a beautiful boy who died," the second verse offers, a poetically observed note smashing into a cold, hard truth.
Rather than tell Ronan's story in narrative, Swift conveys it in elliptical lyrical snapshots of moments and sentiments, giving the song an almost surreal, dream-like quality that makes the song's undertow of unavoidable reality all the more crushing when it hits. Swift wisely avoids any attempt at finding meaning in the tragedy, coming closest with the bridge's borderline-optimistic conclusion: "What if the miracle was even getting one moment with you?" But even that glimmer of peace is quickly revealed as a setup for one more go-round the song's cataclysmic -- exponentially more so with each repetition -- chorus: "C'mon baby, with me, we're gonna fly away from here/ You were my best four years." The final time through, Taylor seemingly chokes on her words on the first line and elects to start over. Then her voice breaks on the second line, and so do we.
Look, there are some songs that are tearjerkers, and there are some songs you shouldn't even risk thinking about in public. "Ronan" is unquestionably the latter. Not just because the subject matter is sad -- it is, impossibly so -- but because the level of compassion involved in the song's conceiving and execution is similarly overwhelming. You don't even need to really hear the song to be wrecked by it; just its existence is enough. But listening to it is its own ruination: Every lyrical turn and phrasing choice of Swift's is both bursting with vitality and inexorable in its creeping death. Calling it maudlin wouldn't be unfair, but it wouldn't be entirely accurate either, and would imply that there's room for restraint in a song about childhood cancer, anyway. Tellingly, the only visual accompaniment "Ronan" received is the song's iTunes cover image, nothing but stark lettering against a black background, as if it were a horror movie. Because it is.
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Despite being one of her greatest achievements as a singer-songwriter, Taylor Swift let go of "Ronan" almost immediately. The song never appeared on a further Swift release, and today is unavailable for streaming on Spotify or Apple Music. Any promotion for the song fell to Thompson herself; Taylor rarely commented about the song publicly. In fact, after the Stand Up event, she only played "Ronan" once, at another Arizona tour stop on the 1989 World Tour. With Thompson in the audience, she introduced the song by admitting that since she became a fan of Maya's blog, "cancer has hit really close to me and my family" -- the final word sticking in her throat. Before starting, she warned her fans that she might not be able to get through the performance. Close call at the end, maybe, but she did.
Swift's avoidance of "Ronan" since the song's debut is, in a way, the greatest tribute she could pay it. This wasn't a song to become a fan favorite, to be a concert singalong or a treasured deep cut. This wasn't a song to be part of Swift's story at all -- it was too real, too personal, too, well, not about her. To return to it would risk making it stock, robbing of its incalculable power for those who needed it most.
And so in a career where so often, every step seems plotted out like scenes in a long movie, Swift had the wisdom to leave "Ronan" on the cutting room floor. It leaves the song as a sadly overlooked testament not only to her artistry, but -- particularly in 2017 -- to her increasingly unrecognized humanity. Even on her way to total world domination, she never lost sight of the fact that some things are bigger than Taylor Swift.