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Taylor Swift and the Tortured Modern Woman

Why is this wealthy and famous woman so discontented?

On April 19, Taylor Swift unleashed her highly anticipated eleventh studio album, entitled The Tortured Poets Department. Within twelve hours, it was the first album in Spotify history to achieve 300M streams in a single day.

From a postmodern worldview, it would be difficult to find someone who more perfectly represents the culmination of the feminist movement than this self-made billionaire. She has masterminded a successful sound, and her increasingly loyal fan base has the potential to sway an upcoming presidential election.

Despite her accolades at the pinnacle of worldly success, Swift’s new album unveils a raw, angry woman grappling with her own emptiness. Swift’s power has always been in her willingness to tell her own story. In Tortured Poets, she is at her most vulnerable. Here we find her slightly unhinged, raging at the world that has placed her on this pedestal. Reflecting on her “Eras” tour, an international phenomenon so successful that it catapulted her to billionaire status, she sings, “You know you’re good when you can even do it with a broken heart . . . and I’m good ’cause I’m miserable! And nobody even knows!”

A consistent theme through all eleven of Swift’s critically acclaimed albums is the craving for marriage, family, and unconditional love. As time slips away and her success has intensified, that desire has grown from the fantasy of a twenty-two-year-old singing, “We could get married, have ten kids and teach them all how to dream” to a point of painful desperation twelve years later: “You swore you loved me, but where were the clues? I died on the altar waiting for proof.” In the emptiness of her own success, Swift seems to have discovered the truth that Pope Francis articulated in Evangelii Gaudium: “Our infinite sadness can be cured only by an infinite love” (265).

This core reality of human existence is hardly a new discovery among the rich and famous. The Beatles famously sang, “Don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy you love,” and Tom Brady, possibly the most successful quarterback of all time, expressed it in his haunting 2005 interview with 60 Minutes: “It’s gotta be more than this. This can’t be all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve done it. I’m twenty-seven, and what else is there for me?” In her own documentary, Ms. Americana and the Heartbreak Prince, Swift openly discusses her loneliness as she reflects that she has achieved everything she has ever wanted but has no one to call and celebrate with.

What makes Taylor Swift unique? Why, if so many instinctively understand this core truth, do thousands of people spend thousands of dollars in adoration of this particular celebrity?

I think there are a few reasons. One of them is that Swift has a brilliant mind for marketing herself, but beyond that, it’s that she has been sharing the intimate details of her journey with her fans for over fifteen years. As Taylor has experienced coming of age, love, freedom and heartbreak, so have we. As Taylor has achieved international recognition and subsequent disillusionment, we grapple with our own disillusionment. She is the voice of a generation (actually a few generations at this point) because her lyrics speak openly about the darkness and cravings that people face in their daily life.

I, a thirty-three-year-old woman (Swift is thirty-four), have followed her career for many years. However, as time has passed and our lives have gone in wildly different directions (no screaming fans here—just four screaming kids), my fascination with Swift’s music has taken a turn from relatability to feeling as though it’s a book that I can’t put down. Tortured Poets is not my favorite album and pretty obviously isn’t her best work, but it is striking in its rawness. At one point, Swift sings, “Is it a wonder I broke? . . . I was tame, I was gentle till the circus life made me mean,” and later in the same song, “I want to snarl and show you just how disturbed this has made me.” Among other things, Swift compares herself to an albatross, a deranged weirdo, a modern idiot, a doll on a string, a petulant teenager, the victim of a conman, and a wrecked Aston Martin. She talks about drinking alone with a ghost, needing a priest to exorcise her demons, and being raised in an asylum. Through all this pain and brokenness runs the consistent deep longing to be loved and live the simple life of marriage and motherhood: “Talking rings and talking cradles. I wish I could unrecall how we almost had it all.”

Taylor Swift is celebrated as the ultimate feminist, the It Girl whom every girl can look up to. Ironically, this woman, who could be seen as the antithesis of the Christian life, is desperately telling the world that all her success is empty, and what she wants is to be loved by a man and have his children.

In her previous album, Midnights, Swift sings, “It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.” I’m rooting for you, Taylor. In my quiet home with my happy children and loving husband and little flock of ducks, I’m rooting for you to become a different kind of anti-hero—the kind that’s just a happy wife and mother, whom the world rolls its eyes at, wondering why she threw her life away.

Image credit: Ronald Woan via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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