Storytelling in Song: What Taylor Swift Phenomenon Has to Do With the First Commandment and the Blessed Mother
Such misplaced adulation toward human beings and human events ignores the due reverence owed to God...
I am a mother of teen and tween girls, and Taylor Swift has been a topic of conversation of late as we try to understand their friends who are so drawn to Swift. The fact that she was named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine shows that her cultural impact is not insignificant. As someone who is slightly older than Taylor Swift and who had no time for radio when she was growing in popularity while I was in college, I have found myself searching phrases online such as “Why do girls like Taylor Swift?” The general answer I found is that she uses her songs to tell stories and girls relate to her topics.
Serious religions are also based on stories, such as myths and the narrative of scripture but also the stories of those who were the founders of various religions. I was recently in a theology discussion group with two Catholic priests and several other laypeople in which we were considering our human need for stories and the importance of remembering in human experience. In our society dominated by a post-Christian culture, where do stories fit in? It seems to me that for much of our society, traditional religions have been replaced by celebrity cults, for example, fans of Taylor Swift, known as “Swifties.” How should we as Christians respond to the worship-like aspects of these fan bases?
Perhaps, if I had turned on the radio when I was having my own “love story” play out while shedding my own “tears on my guitar,” I would have found her songs accompanied me through the process of romance and heartbreak. It is not that I don’t find Taylor Swift’s music relatable, that there are not deep truths to be revealed in her music. In fact, I appreciate and weep to her song Bigger Than the Whole Sky, as it reaches deep into my experiences of miscarriage. There is something true in her experiences of love, heartbreak and loss. Her story telling, as all good story telling does, reaches to the depths of human experience.
Another common human experience that Swift draws out of people is the deep-rooted need we have for communal worship. Sam Lansky, West Coast editor of Time, describes his experience of Swift’s concert in this way: “I am in a stadium with nearly 70,000 other people having a religious experience. The crowd is rapturous and Swift beatific as she gazes out at us, all high on the same drug.”
There are so many areas in life where we as a culture are tempted to violate the First Commandment of “I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt not have strange gods before me”; and in an appreciation of celebrities, people must tread lightly. The temptation to idolize celebrities is not limited to fans of Taylor Swift. It extends to all musicians that have a following, movie stars who become teen idols, and the cults of sports teams. People shape their lives around watching and going to games and are affected for weeks by the results. These souls’ experience of a sporting event or a concert is similar to an experience of worship in a liturgy — as people come together with a common love and express this appreciation together.
But such misplaced adulation toward human beings and human events ignores the due reverence owed to God.
We are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and God has revealed himself to us through Scripture and Tradition to be a Trinity, a community of three Persons that is one divine nature. The Father pours himself out in love to the Son, who in return pours himself out in love to the Father, and from this mutual love proceeds the Holy Spirit. Pope John Paul II explains in detail in his compiled Wednesday audiences known as the theology of the body that one of the ways we as humans experience being created in the image of God is a desire to give ourselves to those whom we love, to even lose ourselves in this love and become one with those whom we love. But like the persons of the Trinity, we also must maintain our individuality, in a similar way to the distinctness of each of the three Persons of the Trinity. It seems that our innate need to give to another in love is what leads humans to be united to others in common love of celebrities — what draws Swifties to commune with each other.
When we connect to and care for celebrities, perhaps through how they played a relatable character in a movie, in admiring their God-given physical beauty, or how they use the creative gifts they have received from God, we want to experience a kind of oneness with them and also with other people who appreciate their gifts. The news media and social media provide a place for this unity, as many meet online to talk about the latest new release or even what is going on in a particular celebrity’s personal life. This turns into a kind of community of worship of these individuals, the height of unity being fulfilled when one goes to see him or her in person.
The highest, truest form of communal worship we can have on earth is in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass — this is where we have the truest communion possible in our earthly lives with God and one another. All other experiences of community should point us to that. So, while we have an experience of community at a concert or sporting event or a meal with friends and family, all of these are meant to participate in the true place of unity — which is ultimately the Communion of Saints in heaven.
The drama of celebrities’ real lives in our times has become a sort of modern myth with no grounding in the true and the beautiful. Idolizing them will not bring us true happiness. Further, we ought to guard against any evil and temptation to sin that lyrics and performances may contain. For while God can bring good out of bad circumstances, we should protect our hearts and imaginations from unnecessary evil influences. When it come to the music and media we consume, we should always bear in mind these words of St. Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
There also seems to be something worthwhile in much of the art produced in our current day, such as the music of Taylor Swift, or else it would not speak to so many people. God can lead us to him through any grain of truth.
We know that God reaches out to us through story, such as in the salvation history of the Old Testament, and the life of Christ, and how Jesus spoke through parables. We know that he created us to co-create with him — to be fruitful and multiply both bodily and spiritually. Revelation both in Scripture and in the created world points us to God. When we connect with a song, we are right to seek out the truths contained within it. An artist, in creating music, film, literature, paintings, etc., participates in the creative action of God. And we should admire the God-given gifts of the artist and can further appreciate them in as much as their songs reflect the truth of the human condition and they are living out their call to imitate God in their personal lives.
In fact, one of the truest songs by a human person is found in Scripture, by a woman who has modeled for all of humanity how to live. It comes in the Gospel of Luke, just a few verses after she has spoken the words to St. Gabriel the Archangel on which all humanity model their relationship to God: “Be it done until to me according to your word.” In the Magnificat of Mary, we hear the most perfect story told, a story of fulfillment of God’s promises, of humanity being at one with their Creator, and praise directed to the One to whom all worship is due. Perhaps there is something of the story of the Blessed Mother in what people love about Taylor Swift, but there is also something of the story of Eve and all of the women who came after her. In the lyrics of Swift we see the depths of human fallenness and pain, we see her accepting suffering and also lashing out against it, we see her hoping for something better and also angrily moving on. She has the potential, like all of us, to allow grace to transform her fallen, painful suffering into a redeemed, beautiful suffering. The vulnerability and suffering of the Blessed Mother is something that draws people to love her, and in Swift there is a similar vulnerability and sharing of suffering. But can Swift take us to the depth of faith and acceptance of God’s will that Mary models for us? She can only take us as far as she allows God to take her.
If they are not doing so already, I encourage Christian fans of Swift’s music and experience to pray for Swift to turn her stardom over to the service of her Creator, to seek to imitate the Blessed Mother, and to show her fan base where real worship is due. As I prepare my daughters to encounter the world outside our Catholic-culture-centered home and community, I will give them a foundation in devotion to the Blessed Mother and the stories of Scripture that lead them to the truth and happiness rooted in heaven.