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Taylor Swift's Highly Relatable, Hidden Longings




by Timothy Jones


I do not write as a Swiftie (as Taylor Swift's fans are called). My demographic as a boomer may have something to do with that. While I admire her output and can appreciate her melodic hooks, I wouldn’t say I’m routinely floored. I found the Folklore album and documentary to be a source of encouragement during the pandemic. I appreciate how her songwriting sometimes verges on vivid poetry, a way with words given a nod in her recent release, The Tortured Poets Department. And she doesn’t flinch at admitting her heartbreaks to the wider world.


Whatever your take on her prolific (some have said lately her self-indulgent) releases, she knows how to hold an audience. The so-called Taylor Swift effect, where anything she taps goes off-the-charts viral, has become a cultural fixture. I want to take notice when something shakes or shapes our popular culture. Becomes a subterranean rumble. 


I mean that latter phrase literally. Taylor Swift’s twin concerts at Seattle’s Lumen Field measured on a seismograph; fans’ cheering, dancing, and singing combined with her massive sound system to generate seismic activity of 2.3. 


When she sang the earth shook.


Why the intense following? How to account for what one commentator called her ravenous fan base?


The why is many-faceted. Who can trace the reasons for every cultural “tipping point”? But one thing is clear: Swift has found a way to draw people in, disarmed by her vulnerability. “Swift’s lyrics,” cultural observer Rina Rafael observes, “are chockfull of insecurities, loss, and self-doubt.” Her “tortured” verses capture frustration and worry and her wondering why her romances haven’t exactly led to fairy tales. (Even if an early song like “Love Story” suggests she expects as much: “Romeo, save me, I’ve been feeling so alone.”)


All that reflection and cultural fascination was before her latest dual release, where song after song continues in the autobiographical vein. Now she sorts through healing from pained break-ups and promises her trademark feisty pay-back, giving fans lots to decode. “I Can Do It with a Broken Heart” bares her tumult and emotional turmoil, as all the while she puts up the front of a musician’s dream of commercial “arrival.” The megacelebrity and phenomenon becomes a vulnerable human person—a tension that never quite will (nor can) find full resolution.


And she admits, reaching out to every person who’s felt gas-lit or disrespected in a strained, walk-on-eggshells relationship, “I know my love should be celebrated, but you tolerate it.” Poignant. 


So, says Rafael, enthusiasts “feel like they could grab a drink and commiserate with Swift. As if she’s already a friend they could confide in.” They are invited into a life, a world, her storied success and glamor but also the dogging drama. So they say, “She’s so relatable.”


And I’m drawn to that word relatable. To a simple picture of a companionable friend. I think of the universal human need amid our aching to be noticed and known. Amid our time’s bleeding longings and loneliness, millions find themselves validated by Swift’s trip-ups. I think of the all-too-common disappointments, the outcomes of our attempts to connect with one another, with friends and communities, and those we love and whom we want to love us.


We need companioning here. More than we may admit. All of us. We sometimes see ourselves as a universe unto ourselves—cramping and crimping the dimensions of life and our flourishing. We are not ourselves by ourselves, but only with relating to others, relational failures and all. We are persons made to flourish through the affection and presence of others. “We are born into relationships,” as David Brooks put it. “We precedes me.” 


And when those ties bind too tightly or frustrate our thriving, we need support. We look for reassurance that in our relational struggles, we are far from alone. If such help comes from a singer-songwriter of legendary influence, it may get through.


I have become more aware of the heartache and brokenness my own family of origin has caused. Love can seem fragile or turn fickle, I learned as a young adult, when practically written out of the family. What do you do with a parent who threatens to disown you and cut off contact when you are a young adult? Swift navigates the terrain of tricky relating to parents, too. The tensions and minefields and brokenness.


And we don’t really think, at least in our best moments, that we can repair our broken selves and hurting world solo. In “Anti-hero,” Swift reassures here:


I should not be left to my own devices

They come with prices and vices

I end up in crisis (tale as old as time)


And when it comes to romantic love, even amid the ecstasies and exhilaration, no one escapes humanity’s fallenness, a predilection and bent that turns the joy into pain and sometimes disenchantment. We limp some days from the sting of another’s spite.


Swift seems to get this. She mines relationships for every shred of meaning and redemption. The love we find and seek forms our deepest question and our most nagging quest. And sometimes the heart flails, the hope fails. 


“I can read your mind: ‘She’s having the time of her life,’” Swift sings on “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart,” a (sonically ironic) perky track that cries out, “All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting ‘more.’” 


But I’m sensing something even deeper in that “more.” Is Taylor fumbling after something she sees or senses only faintly? As our hurt or our loneliness compounds it can begin to assume cosmic dimensions, divine proportions. I think of what someone called Swift’s “break up with the church” song, “But Daddy I Love Him,” from her latest album. Swift captures the angst and deflated hopes there, too. The “religious” people in the song distinguish themselves by their judgmentalism:


I just learned these people only raise you to cage you

Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best

Clutching their pearls, sighing “What a mess”

I just learned these people try and save you

...cause they hate you


And might there also be a sense that a relatable God and humbler faith is the way it could be? Swift has, I’d argue, not fully realized that grounding source for love’s meaning. But in the riveted focus on romance and its joys and setbacks, she is already pointing to larger realities. 


Charles Williams, one of the twentieth century’s Inklings, spoke of what he provocatively called a “romantic theology.” He argues, as James K.A. Smith interprets him, “that the human experience of romantic love and sexual desire is itself a testimony to the desire for God.” In human love, we experience traces or gulps, trickles, or streams of the God who is love. The person who loves me may only achieve a pale copy, the one I try to love may get from me only a vaguely dissatisfying fragment. But here also we can find a foretaste, a daily reminder.


I’m listening to what Swift is exploring, grateful for the way she honors botched efforts at love, our missed potential. I encourage readers to pay attention, even if it’s not a favorite genre. It’s good to know how another struggles. I’m reminded how awareness of such longing to connect might just point the watching (and listening) world to greater things, to a highly relatable God. 


 

Timothy Jones is a writer and Episcopal priest who lives near Nashville. He once worked as an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine. Over the years he has written almost a dozen noted books on prayer and spirituality. More recently he's written for Ekstasis magazine, Fathom magazine, and The Christian Century. He blogs at revtimothyjones.com and is working a book exploring the doctrine of the Trinity in ways normal people can relate to.

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