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Love, Forgiveness and Elections. How Taylor Swift Interested Philosophers and Why the American Right-wingers Hate Her

Love, Forgiveness and Elections. How Taylor Swift Interested Philosophers and Why the American Right-wingers Hate Her

Andriy Sorokin

Pop singer Taylor Swift has made Grammy history by winning the award four times. Tickets for her performances sell out in a matter of hours, and her concerts become an event for regional economies. In the West, Tay-Tay is seen as something more than a pop icon: in her lyrics and image, a powerful literary and philosophical component is revealed — up to parallels with Aristotle and Shakespeare. Andriy Sorokin, a regular contributor to Zaborona, tried to make sense of the numerous interpretations of the singer’s work and personality.

Is Taylor Swift really compared to Shakespeare?

Yes, and not only to him.

  • Professor Liam Semler of the University of Sydney (who teaches Shakespeare and Modernity) proposed a special approach to studying Shakespeare’s sonnets: they can be compared to the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s tenth album Midnights. He sees many non-obvious parallels between the lyrics of Midnights and the rhyming sequences written in Early Modern English. “There are a lot of songs on the album that work well in the classroom and are connected to the thematic and poetic elements that relate to Shakespeare’s sonnets,” he notes.

  • Elizabeth Scala, a professor of English language and literature at the University of Texas at Austin, found parallels to Homer’s works in the lines of All Too Well. As a result, she launched a course on Taylor Swift’s texts, where they are read alongside the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, and Robert Frost. Interestingly, students at the University of Australia also study Swift’s work alongside Homer as part of a course on the cultural canon of the Western civilization.

  • An expert in ancient Greek philosophers, Emily Hulme, has been researching the coincidence between Swift’s songs and Aristotle’s reflections and is preparing a book about the commonality in the perception of the emotional self. However, it is not the first time that attempts have been made to find points of intersection between the works of the Greek philosopher and the songs of the American singer. For example, the executive director of the Givens Center for the Performing Arts (University of North Carolina) notes that Taylor Swift, in fact, quotes Aristotle in her song Cardigan — he refers to the lines “a friend to all is a friend to none.”

Attempts to analyze the singer’s work do not end there. For example, you can find a simulated dialog between Taylor Swift and Socrates, as well as an interpretation of her lyrics in the vein of ancient Greek mythology.

According to the editorial board of the University of Manitoba (Canada), in these lines, Taylor Swift conveys the fascination and irrationality of Eros:

And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible strin
Tying you to me?

If all of this still seems a bit strange to you, check out the list of academic courses dedicated to Taylor Swift. Spoiler alert: Harvard analyzes Swift’s music, lyrics, influence, and artistry in the context of American art and literature (Taylor Swift and Her World), while Stanford analyzes her lyrical evolution and cultural impact (The Last Great American Songwriter: Storytelling With Taylor Swift Through the Eras).

What is philosophical about Swift’s lyrics and herself?

Understanding forgiveness

Most philosophers prefer to view the pop star’s lyrics and individual actions through this prism. University of Michigan philosophy professor Scott Gershowitz calls Taylor Swift an insightful philosopher of forgiveness. In his opinion, the main message of the singer is that we are not obliged to always forgive the offender. It is constructive only when they sincerely repent of their actions. Otherwise, it makes sense not to forgive but instead try treating what you have experienced indifferently, and move on. The main thing is not to let resentment get the better of you.

At first glance, such an attitude is not very compatible with the Christian approach, which involves unconditional forgiveness. However, Scott Gershowitz notes that this is not entirely true. He cites the words of Christ as proof: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he shall repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

At first glance, such an attitude is not very compatible with the Christian approach, which involves unconditional forgiveness. However, Scott Gershowitz notes that this is not entirely true. He cites the words of Christ as proof: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he shall repent, forgive him” (Luke 17:3).

Luke Russell, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney, interprets Taylor Swift’s approach to forgiveness as cautious and conditional. It causes a lot of controversy not only among Christians but also among those who “belong to the community of psychotherapists and self-help gurus” and insist on unconditional forgiveness. However, Luke Russell himself agrees with the singer. In addition, he points out that her position is reasonable in the context of women’s empowerment. In general, the philosopher believes that Taylor Swift draws attention to the ongoing debate about the value of unconditional forgiveness. For instance, she makes us think about the following questions:

  • Is forgiveness (as a promise) essentially a communicative act?
  • Does forgiveness necessarily involve an obligation on the part of the forgiver?
  • Does forgiveness require good will or a positive attitude that goes beyond mere indifference?

For those who want to reflect on this issue on their own, Luke Russell recommends listening to the track I Forgot that You Existed.

Free rent, livin’ in my mind
But then something happened one magical night
I forgot that you existed
And I thought that it would kill me, but it didn’t
And it was so nice
So peaceful and quiet
I forgot that you existed
It isn’t love, it isn’t hate
It’s just indifference

The connection between love and madness

Keshav Singh, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama, writes that Don’t Blame Me touches on some of the central philosophical questions about love and its relationship to rationality and morality.

Don’t blame me, love made me crazy 
If it doesn’t, you ain’t do it right

The idea that love is a kind of madness is not new to philosophy, Singh notes. At least Socrates and Nietzsche wrote about it. However, Taylor Swift does not argue that love necessarily makes a person crazy: rather, it should. If we consider madness as a departure from rationality, this statement is particularly interesting. The philosopher also believes that Swift’s song makes us think about the following:

  • Is it possible to justify actions spawned by mad love?
  • Do we have to justify such actions because the “right” love requires madness that does not allow us to take responsibility for our actions?
  • Or is it an unhealthy love that can make us justify terrible things to ourselves?

Love as an intersection of new experiences and old clichés

Jordan MacKenzie, an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia Polytechnic University, argues that the song Lover makes us think about the ambiguous nature of romantic love. On the one hand, a person perceives it not just as a feeling, but as a qualitatively new, mysterious experience. At the same time, people’s actions reproduce the most obvious clichés that exist in a particular society: from banal gifts in the form of hearts to fantasies about living together until death in a large, cozy house. In addition, it seems that we have known our partner all our lives, even if we have been in a relationship for a short time. According to Jordan MacKenzie, this whole dichotomy can be summed up in just a few lines:

We could leave the Christmas lights up ’til January
And this is our place, we make the rules

In this regard, the philosopher asks the following questions:

  • Why does love always seem so new and yet so eternal?
  • Are we not fooling ourselves when we think that there is something new in our first, second, or thirteenth love?

In this case, however, Jordan MacKenzie finds the answer: it’s all about the improvisational nature of love. Each new relationship is as fresh as a jazz improvisation. But for its high-quality reproduction, you need at least basic knowledge of music theory, which does not change over the years. That’s about the only way to explain the nature of love.

And what about politics? Does Tay-Tay really influence voters?

Almost one in five Americans believes that the singer is influencing the public to help Joe Biden win the 2024 election, The Wall Street Journal reports. About 18% of respondents believe that the Pentagon uses Swift to promote government ideas. Most adherents of the theory identify themselves as Republicans.

However, it cannot be said that it emerged out of nowhere. For example, Business Insider claims that Biden’s campaign staff would really like to enlist the superstar’s support. Moreover, in 2020, she said she would be proud to vote for him. Polling data is also indicative: a social survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies (commissioned by Newsweek) says that 18% of U.S. residents are ready to elect a president in November 2024, guided by the singer’s opinion. Another 17% said that Taylor Swift’s support would rather be a reason for them not to vote for a particular candidate. Voters under 35 are most interested in the pop star’s position: three out of 10 said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate she supports.

Representatives of the right wing of the American political spectrum dislike Taylor Swift. However, this is not just an antipathy to one of the likely media faces of their opponents. Here’s how Mary Harrington, editor of UnHerd, interprets it:

  • The Democratic Party’s opponents are unable to understand the cultural power of Taylor Swift, and are basically unable to appeal to such things in their own interests.
  • The singer has an impressive fan base capable of taking action. Conservatives (especially older ones) simply do not know how to work with such a public.
  • Taylor Swift is most popular among women. In the current American reality, they are more likely to vote for the left.

Jason Reed, a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, notes that the American right’s hatred of the singer makes us think about such things:

  • We are witnessing a mutation of conspiracy theories. In the case of Taylor Swift, most of them are not related to what she has done, but to what she might do (for example, support Biden again).

  • Politics is increasingly moving into the realm of shows and spectacles, instead of confrontation between programs and ideas. In this sense, Trump’s real rival in the fight for hearts and minds is not Biden, but Taylor Swift.

Some skeptics argue that the influence of celebrities on politics should not be exaggerated. But their opinion is important to American youth. And in the upcoming presidential election, it is their votes that could be decisive.

It’s a kind of madness: philosophy in pop songs, influence in elections. Is it really serious? Taylor Swift-related courses may seem strange to say the least, although she is not the first musician whose work has been recognized at this level — for example, in 2016, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But teachers in the United States can easily explain it. The fact is, appeals to the work of the pop star help spark a genuine interest in learning. And not everyone in the academic environment succeeds at that.

Attempts at the philosophical interpretation of lyrics and associations of artists with a particular political force are definitely not something new. But in the case of Taylor Swift, it may well seem quite pretentious. Especially if you didn’t grow up in the English-language song tradition and don’t speak English at a native level. Should you worry about not being able to comprehend the (possible) depth of her songs? Hardly. As of 2024, readers of this text are faced with much more difficult philosophical questions. They will most likely find their reflection in completely different songs.

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