Philosophers On Taylor Swift
Music star Taylor Swift is currently on tour. There have been countless recent articles about her, her popularity, her shows, her music, her wealth, her interactions with other celebrities, and even her fans using an app to make fake audio clips of her talking. What has been missing from all this coverage? Philosophers. Until now.
In this edition of Philosophers On, nine philosophers turn their attention to drawing out what’s philosophically interesting or provocative about Taylor Swift and her music.
The idea for this edition came from Ryan Davis (Brigham Young University/Georgetown University). I appreciate the work he put in as guest editor for this collection of posts. The other contributors to this installment are: Lindsay Brainard (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Jessica Flanigan (University of Richmond), Emily Hulme (University of Sydney), Jordan MacKenzie (Virginia Tech), Brandon Polite (Knox College), Luke Russell (University of Sydney), Keshav Singh (University of Alabama at Birmingham), and Brynn Welch (University of Alabama at Birmingham).
Philosophers On is an occasional series of group posts on issues of current interest, with the aim of showing what the kinds of thinking characteristic of philosophers (and occasionally scholars in related fields) can bring to popular ongoing conversations. The contributions that the authors make to these posts are not fully worked out position papers, but rather brief thoughts that can serve as prompts for further reflection and discussion.
Philosophers On Taylor Swift
Swift on Love and Madness by Keshav Singh
Taylor Swift’s “Lover”: Between Novelty and Conservatism by Jordan MacKenzie
Forgiveness, Transformation, and “Happiness” by Brynn Welch
Can Gut Feelings Solve “Champagne Problems”? by Lindsay Brainard
A Literally Cathartic Reading of “All Too Well” by Emily Hulme
Can You Be an Authentic Mastermind? by Ryan Davis
Revis(it)ing the Past (Taylor’s Version) by Brandon Polite
Taylor Swift is Never Ever Going to Forgive You by Luke Russell
Swift on Love and Madness
by Keshav Singh
In “Don’t Blame Me,” Taylor Swift sings, “Don’t blame me, love made me crazy / If it doesn’t, you ain’t doing it right.” These lines evoke some of the central philosophical issues about love and its relationship to rationality and morality.
The idea that love is a kind of madness is familiar in the history of philosophy. Socrates claims precisely this in Plato’s Phaedrus. Nietzsche writes that “there is always some madness in love.” But in what sense does Swift take love to involve madness? Swift doesn’t claim in her lines that love necessarily makes one crazy, but rather that it should. If we think of madness as a departure from rationality, this claim is especially interesting. If we are enjoined to engage in a kind of madness in love, is following Swift’s guidance thus (paradoxically) a form of rational irrationality? How can love at once be subject to standards of fittingness or appropriateness and be such that what makes it fitting or appropriate is beyond the bounds of reason?
Moreover, Swift raises questions about whether acts borne out of this mad love are excused from blame. Should we excuse such actions because doing love right requires a kind of madness that blocks responsibility for one’s actions? Or is Swift describing things from the perspective of an unhealthy, obsessive kind of love that can lead us to justify terrible things to ourselves?
Taylor Swift’s “Lover”: Between Novelty and Conservatism
by Jordan MacKenzie
Falling in love is a paradoxical experience. On the one hand, love feels novel. You feel as though nobody has felt the way you feel before, like you’re making up the rules as you go along, like you’re experiencing the world through a fresh set of eyes. And so too does the object of your love feel like some wonderful mystery to unravel. And yet, at the same time that love feels novel, so too does it invite a certain conservatism. When we fall in love, we often retreat into cliches. We buy heart shaped boxes of chocolate and carve our initials into park benches. We fantasize about making a home together, about having a forever. The people we love, too, feel so familiar. Even if they’re new to us, we can’t help but feel as though we’ve known them our entire lives.
Taylor Swift’s “Lover” captures this tension perfectly. The song starts with a declaration: “We can leave the Christmas lights up ’til January—this is our place, we make the rules”. And on the one hand, this feels so original—we’re making up the rules on our love! But on the other hand, it’s clearly not—who actually takes their Christmas lights down in December? Even Taylor’s ersatz wedding ceremony in the song’s bridge mixes together love’s conservatism and novelty. It plays around with familiar marriage vows (Swift promises to be lovers, not spouses), but doesn’t abandon them.
What exactly should we make of this tension? Why does love always feel so new and yet so timeless? Are we just deceiving ourselves when we think that there’s something novel about our first, second, or thirteenth love? I think that this paradoxical feature of love can be explained by the sort of improvisational agency that sharing a loving relationship with another person involves. As the philosopher Benjamin Bagley has observed, we really do create something new when we step into a loving relationship. Love, then, is novel and unique in much the same way that a piece of improvisational jazz is novel and unique. But to improvise with others effectively, we need some shared understanding of what we’re doing together: we can’t, for instance, successfully riff on a chord progression that we don’t know. The improvisational nature of love thus explains both its novelty and its conservatism: it is when we are at our most improvisational that we are also (paradoxically) often at our most conservative.
Forgiveness, Transformation, and “Happiness”
by Brynn Welch
Let’s start with an understatement: long-term relationships are complicated.
In “Happiness,” Taylor Swift’s protagonist describes the demise of a long-term relationship and her efforts to anticipate what things will be like on the other side of what she describes as a transformative experience (Paul, 2014). Although she knows that things will be very different, she is neither able nor ready to imagine it: “And in the disbelief, I can’t face reinvention. I haven’t met the new me yet.” The song concludes with Swift pointing to a further and perhaps even more interesting question for long-term relationships when the protagonist tells her former partner, “All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness. You haven’t met the new me yet, and I think she’ll give you that.”
Wait. Let’s take a closer look: all you want is forgiveness, and now-me thinks new-me is likely to give you that. But according to the lyrics, now-me and new-me aren’t the same person! Now-me has met her now-former partner, so if he hasn’t met new-me yet, then new-me and now-me are different people. Thus, even if now-me can anticipate what new-me will think, feel, or do—a notion that the song itself challenges—does new-me have any right to forgive wrongs done to now-me? Or is forgiveness effectively off the table in long-term relationships?
Can Gut Feelings Solve “Champagne Problems”?
by Lindsay Brainard
One of the most empowering and perplexing themes in Taylor’s corpus is her fixation on intense moments of personal clarity—sudden bursts of profound self-knowledge. The epiphanies she celebrates are depicted as moments of self-discovery to be embraced and respected, even when it’s not obvious where this wisdom is coming from or why it should be trusted.
For instance, in “Champagne Problems“, Swift’s narrator may be facing what Ruth Chang calls a hard choice—a choice in which neither option is better than the other overall, though each is better in some respects. She must accept or decline the marriage proposal before her, but she lets us know that her reasons have run out. When pressed to explain why she declines the proposal, she laments “I couldn’t give a reason.” Yet without reason to settle the matter, she finds clarity in the moment of truth. Sometimes you just don’t know the answer ’til someone’s on their knees and asks you.
We see the same intuition celebrated in “It’s time to Go”:
That old familiar body ache
The snaps from the same little breaks in your soul
You know when it’s time to go
This is both relatable and mysterious. When it comes to momentous choices, we’re often relieved when clarity finds us in this embodied way—more relieved, even, than when our reasons settle the matter. We want to feel the right answer in our gut. But is that reasonable?
 For a helpful overview, see “Hard Choices (2016). The American Philosophical Association Journal of Philosophy, 92: 586-620. https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2017.7
A Literally Cathartic Reading of “All Too Well”
by Emily Hulme
Why do we enjoy art about things we hate in real life? No one wants to be drawn into the lair of Hannibal, but he draws us into theatres. The loathsome characters depicted in The White Lotus would make awful friends, but tremendous binge watching. And no one looks forward to a break up—but we look forward to the hundredth listen of “All Too Well (10 minute version)”. Why?
I suggest that we can profitably read “All Too Well” as a tragedy, in the classic, even Aristotelian, sense. This doesn’t just mean it is a sad song (although that is also true). It means that, as a work of art, it has a particular structure that makes it powerful, and uses a specific battery of literary devices to transform the incredibly painful emotions of an individual, by some kind of bittersweet, elegiac, poetic magic, into something beautiful and communal. This occurs by means of what Aristotle termed catharsis, something he took to be the consequence (and payoff) of a well-articulated plot in which the hero’s (or heroine’s) downfall is perceived as equally shocking and inevitable. Exploring this song in this way will let us understand the elusive concept of catharsis—a device shared across a huge range of artistic forms—better and, as a not insignificant bonus, give us a new way to understand what a pivotal and much discussed image, the red scarf, means.
Can You Be an Authentic “Mastermind”?
by Ryan Davis
Taylor Swift says she is the mastermind behind her relationship. What seemed like accidents pushing them together was just her expertly concealed strategy. She is the wind in their sails and the liquor in their cocktails. But then, a confession: “And I swear, I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian because I care.” It’s the first time she’s admitted it. Everything up till now has been staged, but in this moment, she’s speaking sincerely. And on the surface interpretation, what she says is sincere. He was on to her game all along, and loved her for being the mastermind. But another interpretive possibility is lurking. Perhaps she confesses her cryptic Machiavellianism precisely because she knows he’ll love her for her confession. That’s not to say their love isn’t real. Forever may be the sweetest con, but it’s still a con.
If Taylor really is the mastermind, shouldn’t we suppose that she’s still the mastermind when admitting to that very thing? David Velleman notices that we can always re-read confessions of strategic thinking as, themselves, strategically motivated. But he says we shouldn’t worry. “The thought that instrumental calculations are revived at the prospect that I might be interpreted as thinking expressively and hence as sincere—that thought occurred to me just now, not in my imagined capacity as an agent…but rather in my capacity as a philosopher accommodating his reader’s bias in favor of instrumental thinking.” Velleman doubts an agent could keep up the layers of pretense. “Those calculations would be unstable” over time. And I think Taylor agrees, at least usually. She’s no fan of the uncaring mastermind. The polite letter from the latest Mr. Perfectly Fine. Cold concealment of real feelings is just fogging up the glass to understanding another person. You can’t keep up the fake niceties forever.
At the same time, you might worry you’re still the mastermind even when trying not to be. What if you’re the kind of agent who can hold yourself together with a smile and not come undone? What if you can keep reflecting to everyone exactly what they want to see? What if your agency is robust enough that calculation doesn’t give way to instability, even long after the horses and clowns and other pretenders have all gone home? The worry that your own confession might be strategic is a worry you can have about yourself.
Taylor Swift vs. Bob Dylan
by Jessica Flanigan
Taylor Swift is like Nozick and Bob Dylan is like Rawls—which is to say: Taylor’s conclusions are not for everyone, but like Nozick, for those who find her conclusions compelling, they are SO compelling. Lots of people love Taylor because she leaves so little room for interpretation that whatever puzzles remain in her unambiguous lyrics are compelling because they pose clear and vivid challenges to our way of seeing things. Swift crafts metaphors, characters, and scenes that reveal as much as Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain or experience machine. And like Nozick, she is a master of the craft when it comes to building an argument/song.
In contrast, like Rawls, Bob Dylan develops indeterminate arguments that can be interpreted in a million ways. Every concept, every track, is full of contradictions surrounded by his silence. But the vibes are familiar and fancy and he came to the scene at just the right time in just the right way. (Sound familiar?) Lots of people love Bob Dylan because they can find some way of interpreting it that affirms whomever they are. Anything follows from a contradiction, so every Dylan song (or Rawlsianism) can be adapted and covered a million different ways.
These four philosophers represent, very broadly, two different philosophical dispositions. Philosophy holds a mirror up to the human experience. But some philosophers show people what they want to see while others show them who they really are.
Revis(it)ing the Past (Taylor’s Version)
by Brandon Polite
When Taylor Swift’s former record label was sold in 2019, legal rights to the master recordings of the six albums she’d produced for them came under the control of a person whom she’s accused of years of bullying and abuse: Kanye West’s former manager Scooter Braun. In response, Swift chose to record near-duplicate versions of those albums. With all of the profits made from selling, streaming, and licensing these “Taylor’s Versions” going to Swift herself, she could deprive Braun of potentially billions of dollars in revenues. The gambit has already paid off. The first two Taylor’s Versions, of her albums Fearless (2008) and Red (2012), both released in 2021, debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard charts and have sold over two-million copies worldwide so far.
Swift isn’t the first artist of our era to re-record previously released work. For example, Def Leppard produced near-perfect “forgeries” of three of their biggest hits, and the bands Squeeze, Journey (with their then-new singer), and ELO (well, only Jeff Lynne) re-recorded songs for new greatest hits collections. Similar to Swift, these artists were compelled to re-record their tracks for financial reasons, as they felt they were being deprived of royalties by the companies that owned their masters.
But the aims of Swift’s project and its scope far exceed mere financial interests. She is also using it as an opportunity to creatively explore her earlier work and, in the process, connect even more deeply with her fans. She isn’t merely releasing re-recorded versions of the albums themselves, but also of previously released bonus tracks and unreleased songs. Of all the extras she’s released so far, the one that’s had the largest cultural impact is the 10-minute, unabridged version of “All Too Well” from Red (Taylor’s Verizon).
As she discussed recently on The Graham Norton Show, “All Too Well” was a fan favorite from Red that was never released as a single. She let slip in an interview years ago that she had to cut the song down from its original 10-minute length to be included on Red, and her fans had been clamoring to hear the full song ever since. Revisiting the album afforded Swift the opportunity to give her fans what they wanted. (Be sure to check out her jaw-dropping performance of the song on Saturday Night Live.) It also allowed Swift to engage with her earlier work, and who she was when she produced it, in new and creative ways. By recording “All Too Well” in its entirety and releasing it as a short film that she wrote and directed herself, Swift subtly changes the song’s vibe and deepens its meaning.
This is an effect, I argue, that the re-recording process has had on all of the songs she’s released so far. Taylor’s Versions are new works of art that, while giving us access to the meanings of the songs in their original forms, add new layers of meaning that can be appreciated by those listeners who are aware of the context surrounding their production. Among other things, by making the songs truly her own by releasing versions of them that she truly owns, Swift further emphasizes the theme of independence that’s been present in her work since the start of her career. This is certainly true with “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version),” a song in which Swift dwells on a sad event from her past and defiantly transforms it. In this way, the track perfectly embodies the broader ethos of Swift’s re-recording project as a whole, fitting it . . . all too well.
Taylor Swift is Never Ever Going to Forgive You
by Luke Russell
In her song “I Forgot that You Existed”, Taylor Swift sings about the emotional burden of carrying the resentment that she feels towards an ex who is “Free rent, livin’ in my mind”. The remedy, surely, is for Swift to forgive him. Swift would have been told countless times—by therapists, by preachers, by Oprah—that forgiveness heals the wounds created by wrongdoing. Many advocates of forgiveness claim that it is virtuous to forgive unconditionally, without waiting for the wrongdoer to repent and apologize.
But Swift is not willing to forgive. Her ex is unapologetic, her anger righteous. Why should she forgive someone who does not deserve it? We might worry that Swift’s refusal to forgive means that she is now trapped by this unrepentant wrongdoer, doomed forever to be a resentful victim. In the chorus of the song, Swift declares that this is not the case, singing: “But then something happened one magical night / I forgot that you existed / It isn’t love, it isn’t hate/ It’s just indifference”. Swift has echoed these thoughts in interviews, claiming that some victims are justified in refusing to forgive, and that it is possible for them to move on without forgiving.
Both of these claims raise interesting philosophical questions. Some philosophers join Swift in rejecting the moral ideal of unconditional forgiveness, claiming instead that we ought to forgive only when the wrongdoer has earned it, or, at least, only when the wrongdoer poses no further threat. Others maintain that unconditional forgiveness is admirably generous and is never prohibitively dangerous. While many philosophers agree that coming to be indifferent does not count as forgiving, they disagree as to why. Is it because forgiving, like promising, is an essentially communicative act? Or is it because forgiving necessarily includes a commitment on the part of the forgiver? Or is it that forgiveness requires good will or benevolence that goes beyond mere indifference?
In addition to all of these puzzles, Swift’s song also prompts us to wonder whether she has genuinely moved on or is instead professing her indifference as a means of expressing contempt towards the person who wronged her. If she genuinely forgot that her ex existed, why is she still singing about him?
If you’re interested in writing about Taylor Swift, a book is in the works with an open call for abstracts: https://andphilosophy.com/2023/04/05/taylor-swift-and-philosophy-call-for-abstracts/Report
I love that we are talking about Taylor Swift but we can we talk more about the music rather than the lyrics. For example, I think that the opening track to the album Red sounds fantastic, a bit like peak U2. What do others think about how Taylor’s songs as sounds?Report
My contribution to this roundtable serves as a small preview of the book I’m editing for Bloomsbury called *Taylor Swift and the Philosophy of Re-recording: The Art of Taylor’s Versions.” Over the course of ten chapters, my contributors and I will examine the legal, aesthetic, metaphysical, political, and ethical dimensions of Swift’s project of re-recording her entire back catalog. The book will be out in paperback and ebook hopefully by late 2024 or, if not, then in early 2025.Report
Re Jessica Flanigan’s contribution: I know it’s supposed to be humorous, but the comparison of Dylan and Rawls is really absurd. Dylan may be “full of contradictions,” but Rawls isn’t — at least not the sort of contradictions that arise from deliberately vague and self-consciously poetic language.
P.s. I have nothing to say specifically about Swift because I’ve never listened to Swift (and it’s not high on my list of things to do).Report
When studying stoicism with my students, I often play a game I call “Epictetus or Taylor Swift?” Here are the first three questions. (The rest are at the link if you are interested.)
(1.) “If I were a nightingale, I would act the part of a nightingale; if I were a swam, the part of a swan.”
(2.) “We should love not fall in love, because everything that falls, gets broken.”
(3.) “I’ve been trying to classify my thoughts into two categories: ‘Things I can change’ and ‘Things I can’t”.
Philosophers haven’t really been missing, at least not when it comes to Swift on the topic of forgiveness that is covered by two of these posts. Scott Hershovitz has a nice op-ed in the New York Times about T Swift on the issue: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/07/opinion/sunday/taylor-swift-lover.htmlReport
This is rubbish. You can’t analyze music, without, well, actually writing about music. Taylor is a musician. She performs, records, she musicks. None of these so called analyses actually engage the music. You can’t analyze music by just looking at lyrics. Philosophers are so ill-equipped to think seriously, deeply, or even substantively about music without being able to understand and analyze it. This reminds me why I’m glad I left the discipline. Would anyone take seriously a philosopher of physics of who didn’t understand physics but who felt qualified to write on the matter because they loved watching Carl Sagan’s program on TV? I don’t think so. It’s discouraging to see people treat music like this. Best left to a trained musicologist or even musician.Report
Taylor often uses the same four chords to form a steady emotional musical background to her true songwriting genius which is her lyrics. It would be a short musicologist’s essay to analyse the musical construction.Report
Musicological analysis encompasses a lot more than harmonic analysis. That said, I do think harmonic analysis is always a good starting point; and, not to mention there are a myriad ways theorists have used to analyze vernacular music beyond basic harmonic analysis. Anyway, that’s why I remarked upon her musicianship, performance, recording, etc.
I just don’t think you can give a deep analysis withholding the music.Report
This is not fully correct as one could easily discuss the different timbres of the instruments used in her early country style songs , her switch to guitar and synth led pop to and then her later more mellow albums. You could analyze the different kinds of bass lines and so on. Ther is a lot going on in Taylor Swift’s music.Report
Her lyrics are great but so is the music.Report
Taylor Swift is also a person, a poet, an activist, a public figure, the subject of an enormous fandom, etc etc and I think that its cool and interesting to philosophise about those things. As a philosopher AND musician myself, I was very interested to read these contributions just as I very often listen to musicologists talk about her work.Report
I think you’re making a good point. Taylor Swift is an abundant and variegated cultural phenomenon. And the original post, at least according to the title, is meant to be about her, not just her music.
Two things in response. First, the entries do quickly home in on the lexical content of her lyrics, sometimes as part of interpreting what they say about her life and sometimes as part of interpreting what they say about human life.
Second, I worry — perhaps excessively, perhaps unjustifiably — about the instrumentalization of art: attempting to justify the existence of artworks by regarding them as exceptionally lovely ways of formulating what could be formulated otherwise. Instrumentalization transmogrifies the artwork into a vehicle for claims, theories, or ideas, which strikes me as a massive mismeasurement of its power. So even Taylor Swift the cultural phenomenon, the persona, if a sort of artwork, should perhaps not be reduced to an idea and its vehicle.
Nonetheless, let me reiterate, I appreciate your course-correction here.Report
I think you’re on to something.
Philosophers can’t help themselves. They’re skilled interpreters who delight in interpreting. They’re constantly exercising those skills on the lexical artifacts of other philosophers.
But as Susan Sontag observed long ago, interpreters tend to approach cultural artifacts, artworks among them, with a categorial regime that distinguishes between what is said and how it is said, between “content” and “style” or “form.” Interpreters see an artwork as containing a message that can be isolated and extracted from its vehicle. (The philosopher spends her time confronting philosophical artifacts, which, after all, seem to bear the application of such a categorial regime.)
The interpreters can then talk among themselves about whether it’s this or that idea that’s contained in the artwork, and they can talk among themselves about whether this or that idea is a good one. They assume, or maybe pretend, that they’re giving the “same content” a “new form” — a lexical form — so that they may perform their argumentative operations on it. The artwork becomes just one way, even if it’s a wonderful way, of presenting some content that could very well have been presented another way. To one with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Now when the artwork itself already contains a lexical element — lyrics — then, well . . . the interpretive-minded philosopher becomes utterly ensnared. Even the other features of the lexical element — the timbre, cadence, rhythm, and texture of the voice, for example — are ignored in favor of “what is said.”Report