Love in the Time of Swift

I don’t remember when, sometime during high school, I transitioned from ironically listening to Taylor Swift (because, well, high school) to genuinely jamming out to the highschool-sweetheart country/pop tunes. The fact that my high school all-male choir sang a cover of “Love Story” probably helped the move (yes, that’s me with the hair). But over the years, with her rise to a more mainstream pop sound, and the increasingly meta-lyrics about her personal life, I’ve begun to be more conscientious about the underlying messages of the music. Her sixth studio album, reputation, was a full turn into the feuds becoming increasingly public on social media, especially with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West. And from what I can hear, in her seventh album, Swift has become aware of what that turn has done to her as well. But it remains to be seen whether her return to an old sound is also a return to a genuine, healthy love. 

After reputation, Swift’s most-experimental and least-commercially-successful album, Lover is, for the most part, a return to many of her old sounds that dominated her mid-career albums Red and 1989 (as one review quipped, “If it sounds as if we’ve been here before, it’s because we have”). Mostly eschewing the electronic, angry, feud-fueled lyrics of reputation, Swift returns to her more sugarpop persona about music. In many ways, despite what “Look What You Made Me Do” asserted, the “Old Taylor” isn’t dead. I felt and heard the old messages of love I was used to without the jarring anger of the public feud. As Swift herself tells Vogue, “This album is really a love letter to love, in all of its maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory.”

And when it comes to the emotional range of what love creates, Swift does not shy away in the 18-track album (see also TJP’s review of her first single, “ME!”). Swift sings of the highs of falling in love ( “I Think He Knows” and “Paper Rings”), the lows of falling out of love (“Death By A Thousand Cuts”), and that particular mix of jealousy and hope we get around the ones we love (“Afterglow,” “Cornelia Street” and “Lover”). Present, too, is some of the shade of reputation, like in the opening song “I Forgot That You Existed,” which plays into her penchant for those songs about her public appearance (“The Man” and “You Need to Calm Down”). But gone is the anger and finger-pointing of what came in the previous album. Swift also delves into some deeper vulnerabilities as well, singing about her mother’s cancer in “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Overall, as one review writes, the album “showcases Swift’s unmatchable talent of using specificity to evoke the familiar emotions that come with searching for love, finding love, and moving on once that love has been lost.”

The emphasis on love is nothing new for Swift (probably any of her earlier albums could be titled Lover), excepting the aural and thematic foray of reputation. But it was during her Reputation Tour that she realized she wanted to pivot back to her old style, refusing to play into the caricature she felt others had forced her into. “I would look out into the audience and I’d see these amazing, thoughtful, caring, wonderful, empathetic people,” she says. “I see that they actually see me as a flesh-and-blood human being. That — as contrived as it may sound — changed [me] completely, assigning humanity to my life.” It is in this new humanity, I think, that we can hear Swift’s rejection of what the public feud was doing to her.

Now, a quick point: I’m not saying that it’s better for Swift to be nice rather than angry. We, as a society, often focus too much on women being “likable.” Anger isn’t a bad emotion; there is power in anger, to flip over tables of blasphemy at the temple or to uproot institutions of sin. But the anger of the public feud becomes about the spectacle, about the anger itself, rather than being about resolving disputes and (re-)establishing just relationships. As Bogdan, a member of a L’Arche Ukraine community, says, “there are not many ways to fight a war without carrying a stone in your soul.” And Swift, by her own account, did seem to be carrying a heavy stone.

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In “The Archer,” the music slows down as Swift reflects on where she came from. “I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey / Screaming, who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay?” Gone is her posturing as she admits to what could be getting in the way of her love. There is contrition here about what she was doing to herself, played out in social media and in her music.

The last lines of the album, spoken at the end of “Daylight,” provide a sort of thesis: “I wanna be defined by the things that I love / Not the things I hate… / I, I just think that / You are what you love.” In many ways, reputation was defined by hate and a rejection of forgiveness (“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”). And where in “Call It What You Want” Swift asserts, “all my flowers grew back as thorns,” by the time we get to “You Need To Calm Down” she sports a back tattoo of a snake bursting into butterflies. But as much as the themes of her music have returned to what they were before, Swift’s approach to them has changed. In “The Archer,” she sings, “Combat, I’m ready for combat / I say I don’t want that, but what if I do?” If you are what you love, what does it mean that Swift loves getting into fights and conflict with those around her?

Perhaps unknown to Swift, that phrase is also taken for the title of James K.A. Smith’s book on spiritual habits (though the connection was not lost for Smith). Smith’s ideas echo what Sister Sarah Joan says to Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Smith, a professor of philosophy, points out that we are not always aware of what it is exactly that we are loving; attention, rather than intention, is a better judge. Love is about habit, and “this means that our most fundamental orientation to the world—the longings and desires that orient us toward some version of the good life—is shaped and configured by imitation and practice” (p.19). We build up routines, even rituals, that take our attention and slowly form us in habits of love. Smith refers to these habits as formed out of “cultural liturgies,” which form “a kind of orientation to the world that seeps into your unconscious way of being” (p.37). We are surrounded by cultures, by habits and routines that we pick up from the people around us. The routines we develop can become liturgies, orienting the way in which we become used to loving. 

As Patrick Gilger SJ (of TJP fame) writes on Smith’s work, “what we do teaches us how to love. It is meant to help us see how repetitive practices—like shopping or binge-watching or decorating our Christmas trees—point our hearts in a particular direction and by doing so tell us who we are and where we belong.” Often unconsciously, these liturgies pull our attention, even in directions we didn’t intend to go. And it’s not about subliminal messages or secret machinations of ‘Big Business.’ In the everyday experiences of our lives, we engage in liturgies simply because we want to. As Dorothy Day writes in her autobiography, “people have so great a need to reverence, to worship, to adore” (p.84). We revere celebrities, become members of different groups, we pick sides against Swift or against the Wests (as if it matters), and our love becomes unconsciously formed by where we put our attention.

Though not in the same language, Swift realized what the cultural liturgy of the public feud was doing to her as a human being. It required a moment of arrest, a human being facing other human beings, to provide a moment of metanoia that returned her to an old love. The feuds, the bickering and shade, became a ritual unto themselves, and it’s hard to say where they moved from routine into liturgy. But as “The Archer” and other songs show, Swift has become aware of what’s happening. The draw of the feud, thrilling in its own right, had been pulling her into something she didn’t want to be. She swings back to earlier sounds and themes, albeit not entirely dropping the persona she has built up. But there is a clear desire to return to her old cultural liturgies of highschool sweethearts and brushing off haters.

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It is precisely in this return to her old sound that this album fails to really push a new type of love, alluded to in “Daylight.” Swift sings, “I once believed love would be (Burning red) / But it’s golden.” In some way, she appears to (at least partially) have departed from the old excitement (her 2012 album is called Red, after all) into a new understanding of what love is. But that new understanding is swallowed up by many other songs highlighting the old puppy love. As much as she points to something different, maybe even a new kind of love, the worship of her liturgy mostly returns to the old shallowness. 

Swift has not been afraid to look at her love as a religion. Back in Red, she sings “and right there where we stood / was holy ground” (“Holy Ground”). Then in the slow jazz of “False God,” she acknowledges the absurdity of this love, while still insisting, “Religion’s in your lips / Even if it’s a false god / We’d still worship / … / We’d still worship this love.” Swift is very aware of her fanbase; she seems to delight in planting easter eggs and hidden messages to those dedicated fans. And I think she’s aware of what her worship creates in those who listen to her. Cultural liturgies are, well, cultural. We do them together, to fit in, to feel like a part of something, to share the joy of obsession with others by becoming “fans”. In her own return to “a love letter to love,” Swift invites those listening to also return to that love that pressed its fingerprint into her entire career. Even if it’s a false god.

Now to be clear, The Jesuit Post does not recommend the worship of false gods. But what is noteworthy is that now Swift names the falsity of her god; as much as she loves love, she calls it an idol. There is a challenge in a few of her songs, novel to her oeuvre, carried through this assertion of a false god. Swift is reflective not just about old flames, but about how she as a person has been changed through both her fighting and her loving. She is aware of the liturgies that she’s created and participates in. Swift has given a whole lot of attention to all of the “maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory” of love. Where has that attention left her? 

Loving love will not make us better people if that love is shallow and flits from person to person. Smith calls for “counter-liturgies” necessary to work against the norms and expectations that have already been built up around us. It’s not enough to just jump back to old liturgies without recognizing how we ourselves have changed along the way.

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For the most part, Swift has released a catchy, fun, and ultimately very safe album. She relies on many old tropes and musical styles, almost seeming to apologize for the experimentality of reputation. And because of that safety, the liturgy of Lover feels like high school again. The attention is back to where it was before. Now, the unrelenting sweetness of many of the songs is nice; after all, it’s that sweetness that originally drew me to listen to her music. And the little bit of acidity is a refreshing splash against the rest of it. But at the end of the day, it’s still candy. And it leaves me hungry for something a little richer. I’m not in high school anymore. 

There are a few moments that point to something deeper, something more honest and fulfilling. Swift sometimes wants not to just rehash old shallow themes, but to move into something that can actually work against the liturgy of feuding and anger that spurred the moment of metanoia. Calling something a “false god” doesn’t remove its power over us. Cultural liturgies build up habits, and old loves are hard to leave. But naming something as false is a first powerful movement against that habit. As Swift points out in “False God,” “they say the road gets hard and you get lost / when you’re led by blind faith.” While many of the old habits are still there, Swift doesn’t seem to be willing to be led by a blind faith in love anymore. There are undercurrents of an actual counter-liturgy, of love that is based on something deeper than the frisson of first dates.

What would that counter-liturgy look like? Bodgan survives through a difficult life in Ukraine by attending to a simple activity: “every day, I let the birds loose in the house.” He reflects, “if you fight with anger, you could forget how to breathe fresh air, how to hold your nephew in your arms.” Only a deep love, that opens our souls rather than weighing them down, is powerful enough to counter the liturgies we build up. In “Daylight,” Swift seems to be pointing to a love, a beauty, that is more profound than what came before. She contrasts what she “once believed love would be” with what she sees now in the golden daylight.

As for me, I will keep listening to Lover. It’s fun to have candy sometimes. But as I listen, and continue to play my part in this liturgy of pop music, I’m aware of that golden love Swift desires. She sings, “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you / I don’t wanna think of anything else now that I thought of you.” We all desire that love that transforms us, that gets under our skin, under our excuses and failings, to welcome us into something more beautiful. I’ve found that love in my vocation. I’ve found it in my prayer with God, in my brotherhood of the Jesuits, and in the mission I share with wonderful friends. And I’m aware of the challenge that vocation continues to give me: to build up a counter-liturgy of mercy, peace, and unconditional love.

You can listen to Lover on streaming from Amazon, Apple, Spotify, and YouTube.

P.S. At the beginning of “Lover,” Swift sings, “We could leave the Christmas lights up ‘til January.” Which is correct, since the Christmas season goes through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Way to know your liturgical calendar, Taylor.

Image courtesy of Pixabay user Conger Design

 

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