Reflections on Taylor Swift, or the Pop Star as Philosopher

Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole/TAS18/Getty Images

“I’ll tell you the truth but never goodbye”

Taylor Swift may well be the last legitimate rock star America ever sees. 

That’s not just a matter of album sales or hit singles, though it did take just one week for her new record Lover to become the best-selling album of 2019. Nor is it simply a question of sold-out concerts, though her 2018 stadium tour became the highest-grossing U.S. tour on record – a title previously held by the likes of the Rolling Stones. Then there’s Lover Fest, a pair of two-day music festivals she plans to play next summer in Los Angeles and Boston. It’s a testament to her place in the pantheon of popular music that Swift is one of the few contemporary musical artists or acts that could pull off this remarkable set of feats.

To be sure, Swift isn’t the only rock star on the scene today – but she’ll almost certainly be the last artist to achieve the sort of widespread societal recognition inherent in the term itself. That’s in no small part due to the fact that Swift rose to prominence in the last days before social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter demolished any remaining semblance of shared experience in American society. When Swift released her breakthrough second album Fearless in 2008, Facebook had around 145 million users and Twitter users tweeted some 300,000 times per day. By the time she released her third album, Speak Now, in 2010, Facebook’s users more than trebled to 608 million and tweets per day reached around 35 million.

Social media platforms cannot be held only or solely responsible for wider trends that predated their rise. Instead, they merely accelerated a process of wider societal fragmentation and cultural decoherence already well under way at the time these platforms emerged. But as the linguist and social commentator John McWhorter put it, in roughly 2008 and 2009 the likes of Facebook and Twitter “revolutionized the American conversation about, well, everything.” Though others like social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell argue these seismic shifts occurred a couple of years later, there’s little doubt that social media platforms wrought havoc on our national life and helped snuff out the possibility of a common national culture moving forward.

The music industry proved no exception, but Swift didn’t just luckily stumble upon on the last moments before social media devoured society whole. Her body of work displays a level of consistent quality and quantity that parallels that of the golden age of rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, god-like bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin strung together a series of masterpiece albums like Sticky Fingers and Physical Graffiti over a number of years. Prince was perhaps the last artist to pull off such a run, releasing nine albums from his 1979 self-titled record to 1988’s Lovesexy. Likewise, Swift has recorded and released quality albums almost every two years since her own self-titled debut in 2006, only allowing an extra year to pass between 2014’s 1989 and 2017’s reputation despite the demands of massive global concert tours.

That’s the why. The real reason Swift has become the last of the dying breed of rock stars is that she cultivates a real sense of intimacy with her listeners. In part that’s because at her core she’s a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and, in more recent decades, Sarah McLachlan and the Lilith Fair crowd of the 1990s. By her own account, Swift is a “confessional songwriter” and her latest album as “very, very autobiographical” with “moments of extreme catchiness and moments of extreme personal confession.” As she told the audience at her NPR Tiny Desk concert in October 2019, “songwriting is really just like a cathartic, therapeutic thing for me.”

Strip everything else away from her music, and that’s who she is and what she does – and it’s a large part of why she’s earned her place in the pantheon of popular music. It comes through clear in whatever genre she’s writing in: country, pop, and even the electro-detour of reputation. Her songs simply work in ways that are increasingly rare, and do so on their own merits. As she herself remarked in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “Singing about something helps you to express it in a way that feels more accurate. You cannot, no matter what, put words in a quote and have it move someone the same way as if you heard those words with the perfect sonic representation of that feeling.”

In her songs, Swift bares her vulnerabilities and insecurities to her listeners and invites them to share their own vulnerabilities and insecurities with her. This intimacy can be called contrived or affected, but that’s the opposite of the truth. It may be intimacy at a distance, but it’s a legitimate and very real intimacy nonetheless. Through her own emotional sincerity, Swift allows her listeners to open themselves up emotionally in a culture made callous by unbridled irony and cynicism. She gives her listeners license to feel and express their deepest fears and hopes in ways that would otherwise leave them exposed to ridicule or worse in everyday life. More than anything else, it’s this very real human connection that bonds Swift and her fans.

Swift forges these bonds through the way she tackles universal themes and subjects that strike at the heart of the human condition. She possesses the rare ability to translate her own personal experiences of longing, heartbreak, and self-doubt into a universal idiom that speaks to fundamental human needs for intimacy and connection amidst the often painful struggles inherent in life. As Swift herself put it when discussing the title track from Lover at her Tiny Desk concert, “in life you accumulate scars, you accumulate hurt, you accumulate moments of, you know, learning and disappointment and struggle and all that, and if someone’s going to take your hand, they’d better take your hand scars and all.”

It’s this gift that drives her popularity and staying power, pushing her work beyond the ephemeral and all but guaranteeing her a long career. Her most recent album, Lover, testifies to this singular skill and puts it on full display. The album is also a perfect distillation of the themes and questions Swift has contemplated over the course of her career. Swift understands that we all long for intimacy, we all suffer heartbreak, and we all fall short of our own ideals far more often than we’d like to admit. Lover succeeds in plumbing the depths of these universal human experiences while carrying forward many of the thematic through lines that Swift has explored over the course of her career.

That’s apparent in the introductory note she penned for the album. It’s something of a manifesto for the album itself, her music in general, and her relationship with her listeners. This statement reveals an artist fully aware of what she aims to achieve and why she aims to achieve it.

It’s worth quoting it at length:

In life, we grow up and we encounter the nuanced complexities of trying to figure out who to be, how to act, or how to be happy. Like invisible smoke in the room, we wonder what kind of anxiety pushes you forward and what kind ruins your ability to find joy in your life. We constantly question our choices, our surroundings, and we beat ourselves up for our mistakes. All the while, we crave romance. We long for those rare, enchanting moments when things just fall into place. Above all else, we really, really want our lives to be filled with love.

She continues, advising and encouraging her listeners:

I’ve decided that in this life, I want to be defined by the things I love – not the things I hate, the things I’m afraid of, or the things that haunt me in the middle of the night. Those things may be my struggles, but they’re not my identity. I wish the same for you. May your struggles become inaudible background noise behind the loud, clear voices of those who love and appreciate you. Turn those voices up in the mix in your head. May you take notice of the things in your life that are nice and make you feel safe and maybe even find wonderment in them. May you write down your feelings and reflect on them years later, only to learn that all the trials and tribulations you thought might kill you… didn’t. I hope that someday you forget that pain ever existed. I hope that if there is a lover in your life, it’s someone who deserves you. If that’s the case, I hope you treat them with care.

These messages and themes may seem simple, but in reality they convey a remarkably astute assessment of the human condition and the shared hopes, desires, and anxieties that constitute it. They strike at the most important and profound questions many of us face in life, and address some of the most intense and meaningful experiences many of us will ever have. For Swift herself, these messages ultimately constitute a clear sense of artistic purpose that comes through forcefully on Lover.

That starts with the title track. As a song about the most basic and intimate of human connections, “Lover” sets the tone for the entire album. To all appearances, the song hits a series of happy notes about a serious romantic relationship. But it’s also shot through with self-doubt and uncertainty, as the chorus indicates: “Can I go where you go?/Can we always be this close?” Though the listener presumes the answer of Swift’s object of affection will invariably be yes, the song itself provides no assurances. Swift puts herself in a position of extreme emotional vulnerability, declaring her own feelings about “this magnetic force of a man” with no guarantee her romantic partner will reciprocate in any way. Swift herself explained that she “wanted the chorus [of ‘Lover’] to be these, like, really simple existential questions that we ask ourselves when we’re in love. ‘Can I go where you go?’ is such a heavy thing to ask somebody. ‘Can we always be this close?’ has so much fear in it – but so does love.”

This awareness of an inherent connection between love and fear as well as the knowledge of the ever-present risk of emotional hurt haunts Lover. Indeed, Swift repeatedly exposes her own self-doubts and anxieties throughout the album and invites her listeners to conclude that the pursuit of genuine human connection and intimacy requires facing one’s own fears and insecurities directly.“I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” she asks a new romantic partner on “Cruel Summer,” for instance. With 80s-style synthesizers and a persistent beat propelling her forward on “The Archer,” Swift wonders, “Who could ever leave me, darling…/But who could stay?” Even when relationships are going strong in songs like “Cornelia Street,” Swift hopes she’ll never lose her partner and that their relationship will never end. If it does, she says, the reminders of heartbreak will prove so intense – it’d be “the kind of heartbreak time could never mend”- that she’d “never walk Cornelia Street again.” Then there’s the brutal, uncertain, and protracted emotional process involved in the end of a relationship described by Swift on the aptly-titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” All this on a record she rightly considers “a very, very happy, romantic album.”

Above all else, though, Lover reflects Swift’s growing maturity and self-assurance. As she put it when describing the title track, “When young adults go from living in their family to then combining their life with someone else, that’s actually like the most profound thing.” On the ethereal sonic landscape of “Afterglow,” for instance, she takes responsibility for the fiery end of a relationship and regrets hurting her partner in the process: 

Why’d I have to break what I love so much? 

It’s on your face

And I’m to blame

I need to say

Hey, it’s all me, in my head

I’m the one who burned us down

But it’s not what I meant

Sorry that I hurt you

Likewise, on “I Forgot That You Existed” Swift champions moving on from difficult emotional situations and cultivating a healthy sense of equanimity toward life’s struggles. The right attitude to develop toward those who wrong you, she advises, “isn’t love it isn’t hate/It’s just indifference.” Moreover, Swift lets her listeners know there’s a certain joy – a sentiment expressed elsewhere on songs like “I Think He Knows” – that comes from moving past whatever trials and tribulations we might experience, even if these conflicts won’t ever see any satisfactory resolution. Indeed, Swift later proclaims her own version of amor fati (“love of fate”) on “Paper Rings”: “Honey without all the exes, fights, and flaws/We wouldn’t be standing here so tall.”

But Swift’s thematic apotheosis comes on Lover’s final track, “Daylight.” Even more than the title track, this elegant song captures the spirit of the album itself and provides a stellar summation of Swift’s own artistic ambitions. In “Daylight,” she comes to terms with her own flaws and mistakes, discovers the sort of the intimacy we all seek, and steps into the future with an assurance and confidence born of experience. “There are so many lines that I’ve crossed unforgiven,” she admits; “I wounded the good and I trusted the wicked/Clearing the air, I breathed in the smoke.” She expand on this acknowledgment of personal mistakes and missteps in her Rolling Stone interview, saying that it bothers her “looking back at life and realizing that no matter what, you screw things up. Sometimes there are people that were in your life and they’re not anymore — and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t fix it, you can’t change it.”

If she’s made the litany of mistakes she lists in the first two verses, however, Swift has forgiven herself and moved on: “Threw out our cloaks and our daggers because it’s morning now/It’s brighter now.” Self-acceptance allows her to cast aside her illusions of what she once thought about love as well as her own self-doubt that she’d ever find the intimacy she seeks. “I once believed love would be black and white/But it’s golden/Like daylight,” she sings. Swift has finally  made the genuine human connection she’s yearned for, and no longer wants to look at or think about anything or anyone else. Our past and our pain don’t define us, Swift counsels. But to truly move forward with our lives and achieve the sort of intimacy she’s discovered and that we all seek, “You gotta step into the daylight/And let it go/Just let it go.” 

So much more could be said about Lover, enough to launch a million think-pieces and academic papers. Swift’s view of romance as a religion in songs like “False God,” for instance, or the recurrence of the color blue in songs like “Cruel Summer,” “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” “Paper Rings,” and “Afterglow” provide fertile ground for even deeper exploration. At its core, however, Lover remains an earnest meditation on universal themes of love, human connection, intimacy, desire, vulnerability, happiness, and maturity – subjects that define much of the human condition itself. That this sort of contemplation can occur in the context of a best-selling pop album testifies to Swift’s talents as a songwriter and ambitions as an artist.

Ultimately, though, Swift’s music in general and Lover in particular serve as a reminder of the things that truly matter in life: the genuine, intimate connections we make with our fellow human beings. Swift prompts us to focus on the people and things we love, and to devote our time and energy to them rather than our mistakes, our pain, or our anxieties. We can do that best when we accept ourselves and let go of the hurt and fears that hold us back. 

As Swift herself reminds us with her parting words, “You are what you love.”