Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.—Taylor Swift
Whether or not one likes her music, everyone must admit that Taylor Swift has been incredibly successful. While her style is not generally my favorite, I have, on occasion, been struck by the pointedness of her lyrics. Seen rightly, the lyrics in many of her most popular hits are as indicting of the contemporary romance culture as the work of many theologians and philosophers. If Miss Swift’s work were seen as such a critique of the culture, it might be a catalyst for great change within the landscape of modern relationships. Unfortunately, Miss Swift does not suggest any alternative, or even seem to desire an alternative, to the destructive relationship choices of modern times. It is because of this duality that Taylor Swift is today’s tragic prophetess.
A prophet is generally viewed as one who predicts the future, but the bulk a prophet’s actual work in the Old Testament was critique aspects of their current culture and call the people to repent of their actions. Take, for example, the prophet Amos, who said:
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end saying, ‘when will the new moon be over that we may sell grain…that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandal.’” (Amos 8:4-6 RSV)
Here the prophet is condemning the people for cheating the poor. The Lord commanded the people of Israel to have a special care for the poor, the widows, orphans, and the stranger. By violating these commands, the people violated the fundamental tenants of Justice. The prophets criticized this exploitation, so as to restore justice in the culture.
Miss Swift also writes lyrics that make pointed critiques of the contemporary culture. Take, for example, her song “New Romantics” which says:
We need love, but all we want is danger
We team up then switch sides like a record changer
These “New Romantics” exchange that which is needed, lasting committed love, for the thrill and excitement of fleeting emotional attachment. Because the “danger” of this excitement is fleeting, it leads those engaged in the new romance to wander from relationship to relationship.
Through these lyrics, Taylor Swift is acting the prophetess by pointing out the shortfall in our culture and society’s approach to relationships. Her lyrics demonstrate ways that people use, abuse, and discard others in their life and are in turn used, abused, and discarded, as if “the best people in life are free.” This cycle, while often exciting and even intoxicating, again and again, leads to heartbreak and pain.
Unfortunately, Miss Swift falls short of a truly prophetic role. True prophets not only criticize the problems they see but call the people to a different way of life. That is to say, a true prophet calls the people to repentance. Repentance is more than turning away from something, but more fundamentally entails turning toward something, namely God. Without an alternative, change is impossible and Miss Swift’s critiques become tragically impotent.
Within literature, tragedy occurs when a hero is brought down by some interior flaw of their own. As Aristotle suggests, tragedy elicits two responses: pity and fear—pity for the characters involved and fear of falling in a similar way as the characters themselves. The cause for pity is quite obvious for Miss Swift’s Audience, whether it be: “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “New Romantics,” or “Bad Blood” Her music features characters, often herself, trapped in a cycle of destructive relationships. Also, Miss Swift is unable to offer an alternative beyond “Shake It Off” which, while at times is sufficient, often utterly lacks any promise of true healing. The only semblance of hope within this system is seen in “Blank Space:”
So it’s gonna be forever
or it’s gonna go down in flames
you can tell me when it’s over
if the high is worth the pain
Perhaps, Miss Swift says, this relationship will happen to be the one that lasts forever. Barring that, the only possible hope is that the good times of the “high” are “worth the pain” of the fall. Sadly, this balance does not exist for either the characters in the song or the audience. Her only message of hope is ultimately a false one.
The tragic flaw which thwarts Miss Swift’s critique is that both she and her audience are blind to the great tragedy present in their culture. Cast in an upbeat fashion, her music, rather than warning people to flee the destruction of the “New Romantics,” actually encourages them to embrace it. The audience is ultimately reduced to characters within the same tragic narrative that Miss Swift herself seems trapped in.
What is necessary to escape this cycle is a redefinition of love. Love for the “New Romantics” is based solely upon emotion. With such a fleeting foundation, a person cannot help but try to get as much out of their partner as possible. If, however, love is based not on emotion, but rather on a steady will to choose the good of the other and trust the other to choose one’s good in return, then love becomes strong enough to endure the trials, tragedy, and tumult of life. In this love, physical affection becomes an outward sign of the gift of self to another, rather than the mere exchange of pleasure and body parts so common in modern romance. For those with eyes to see it, the task must be to dispel the blindness of those who don’t. Taylor Swift’s many fans must be shown the alternative of self-sacrificial love in order for a change in their own relationships to be possible. Transformed with a message of true repentance, perhaps Miss Swift could cease being a tragic prophetess and become a real prophetess of tragedy.