Photography of Taylor Swift in concert at Wembley Stadium on June 23, 2018 | Christian Bertrand

Taylor Swift in concert at Wembley Stadium on June 23, 2018 | Christian Bertrand

James Miller: I’ve gone down a Taylor Swift rabbit hole recently, trying to understand why this singer-songwriter is driving MAGA America over the deep end. At a recent lunch with Gwen Grewal, she mentioned that one of her students had compared Swift to Alcibiades, the infamous Athenian politician and general who helped persuade his compatriots to start a war with Sparta, only to defect to Sparta and share Athenian plans, and then Persia, where he shared Spartan plans, before repatriating himself to Athens, winning some battles for them, and then being killed by one of his (many) enemies. Alcibiades has long been regarded as a paragon of inconsistency, a man who could never be trusted. 

I couldn’t understand the analogy, but I was fascinated that we have serious Swifties doing graduate work in our philosophy department, where Gwen is our colleague.

I watch NFL football sometimes, so the now completely out of control obsessing over the very public courtship between Swift and Travis Kelce, the gifted Kansas City football player, is the kind of pop phenomenon that is like Haley’s comet, rare and rather awe inspiring. So rare that I am convening this virtual symposium over email.

To start, I watched Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, and listened to some of the more recent albums, and they’re not without merit. 

Nor is her persona. The good girl constantly suffering from bad boyfriends is at such a level of S & M melodrama, and done in such a shockingly public way, by a performer who needs infinite admiration, that one has to wonder what this all tells us about the Spirit of our Times. I’m reminded of Phil Spector’s masochistic girl group the Crystals, who sang “He’s a Rebel,” and the immortal “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss).”

Simon Critchley: What you say about Swift is spot on, and I think it would be good to have a conversation about her. I just don’t get it. I’ve tried to listen to some of the music from my sad girl Swiftie students, but nothing sticks. She’s even worse than Beyoncé.

Miller: I actually think Beyoncé is great, I loved Lemonade as a long-form video epic full of wonderful pop music. But with Swift, I have to force myself to listen to her CDs. The rock stuff on Red and 1989 hews to a pretty lumbering tempo, not unlike U2 in its Joshua Tree heyday: scaled up with ringing electric guitar chords, it’s a rhythm that works in large concert spaces.

The S & M undertow pops out if you force yourself to read the lyrics (the glossy production of the records is almost a misdirection ploy, it seems to me). 

Miss Americana, the Swift documentary, I found actually a bit sad. She self-consciously thinks of herself as, and wants to be, a perfectly good girl, sincerely I think, and the adoration of the crowds makes her feel good. Down that path lies potential madness, unless you have an iron will and steely ambition—which Swift obviously has. 

Her relationship with her audience—the gestures of intimacy, the willingness to mingle with fans—is straight out of the modern Nashville country music playbook. I once saw Conway Twitty work a rope line with besotted fans after a concert I covered for Newsweek, back in the eighties, when he, along with Merle Haggard, was the biggest star in country music. It’s the exact opposite of the aloofness and mystery that Dylan, Bowie, and Prince all made integral to their cults. And yet she has a real cult following.

Gwenda-lin Grewal: The dyed-in-the-wool Swiftie I know best among the philosophy students is Jack Condie. (The Swifties in my classes are also some of my best Greek students, which probably indicates some strange subterranean coincidence yet to be unpacked.) 

Critchley: Oh my sweet lord, you are serious, Jim. I agree with what you say about the S & M undertow of the lyrics, but I have nothing to say about the music (yet). We don’t want to be old, grumpy dudes telling the youth that their music is shit.

Grewal: What do you mean about the S & M in the lyrics? I had never thought of Swift like that.

Miller: The masochism is in the many lyrics about her attraction to “bad” boys, and the way the danger and risks in the relationship excites her. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”—to quote Paul in Romans

Some lyrics allude implicitly to cutting, even gunshot wounds, or violent rows with a guy she’s still carrying a torch for. This kind of masochism is actually pretty common in the great American songbook—Jeri Southern was its greatest interpreter in the fifties. It’s also common in country western, as witness the toxic marriage between George Jones and Tammy Wynette, alluded to in some of their best-selling duets. 

In the documentary, Swift is pretty explicit about her struggles with anorexia. That articulated self-consciousness makes her very different from an equally “good” pop star like Doris Day in the fifties, or Karen Carpenter a generation later (both of whose private lives were pretty messed up—Day was physically abused by one of her husbands).

Taylor Swift is 34 and still hasn’t found the wholesome all-American boy she dreams of. Unless it’s Travis Kelce, who grew up a normal Midwesterner in suburban Cleveland but has deliberately turned himself into a celebrity athlete who makes millions by letting people exploit his image and likeness—while at the same time very publicly pouring money into schools that serve underprivileged kids, and also doing ads for Pfizer to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, (hence the hatred and suspicion of the MAGA crowd).

Grewal: Interesting. I need to watch Miss Americana. As you say, down the path of the wholesome celebrity lies potential madness, best witnessed, I think, in Britney Spears. Somehow, I don’t think Swift is headed in that direction. Her rebellions are too curated. 

Miller: In any case, her music may be the least important aspect of her appeal.

Grewal: I think it’s probably true that the music is the least of it, but I’d feel better equipped if I had more of a sense of it. My students regularly quote her, as if she were Homer. 

Miller: Unlike Britney Spears, Swift, I think, is a very grounded, cunning, calculating, super-smart superstar celebrity, who is dauntlessly ambitious about her songwriting and pop music production, and also a brilliant businesswoman. 

Grewal: In those regards she is like Madonna.

Miller: Except Madonna isn’t a songwriter who invites comparison with Dylan or Joni Mitchell—and Swift sometimes is. Frankly, I think Swift is far more musically ambitious and more likely to evolve musically than Madonna. To this day, fans quote Dylan as if he were Homer. And with him, the music is always the least of it. Swift’s lyrics are easy to find online, often with detailed exegesis. I’m curious what you all make of just her words—mostly confessional in form, but recently also filtered through folk archetypes.

Grewal: The comparison to Dylan really gets me every time I hear it. It seems to me that part of Dylan’s image was the stories that circulated around him like a B-side. What does Swift have? Conspiracy theories from right-wing psychos and fan fiction gossip about who her next boyfriend is. Not the same. She has somehow profited off of not being cool in the most moderate sort of way. Maybe it was the boy/girl band craze of the late nineties that gave her the opportunity to be that kind of icon.

Miller: I just saw this in my inbox from Politico

QUOTE OF THE DAY—From WaPo’s Kara Voght and Ashley Parker: “‘Thanks goodness we have TAYLOR SWIFT,’ one Hill Swiftie joked about her obsession with the pop star, ‘otherwise I wonder if I’d be into QAnon.’”

Critchley: Yikes.

Grewal: I don’t think Swift is parallel to QAnon.

Miller: The closest parallel to the obsessiveness of Swifties, I think, is the similar obsessiveness of Bob Dylan’s most devoted fans, who really became fanatical after his turn to symbolist abstraction (a turn Swift makes in Folklore). 

It’s true, the pretext isn’t conspiracy theories á la QAnon (except for those on the Right who hate Swift, where the comparison is apt); it’s more like she and Dylan both exemplify what Umberto Eco called “the open work”and of course Eco knew all about the links between that high modernist ideal and premodern efforts to unriddle the meaning of the cosmos, which he explored in his novel The Mystery of the Rose.

Perhaps the reason why those interested in the ancient world would also be drawn to Swift, Gwen, lies in the necessity, for a classicist, to take fragments, many randomly preserved, and to piece them together to build an interpretation of the ancient world and ancient thought. The evidentiary basis is often incomplete, and often requires some exercise of imagination (more or less disciplined) in order to make inferences. Of course, the more fragmented the evidence, the more poetic license it invites (perhaps one reason for Heidegger’s tropism toward the pre-Socratics). 

Swift calls the hints and clues she deliberately scatters in her interviews, writings, and lyrics, “easter eggs,” the old term of art for hidden tracks on CDs. She scatters crumbs like Gretel. But why?

Grewal: Let’s add Jack Condie to this conversation. He is the Swiftie who compared her to Alcibiades.

Miller: Did you see that Jennifer Crumbley’s lawyer quoted Swift in her opening statement? “Band-Aids don’t stop bullet holes”: that’s a line from “Bad Blood,” on 1989, which Crumbley allegedly was blasting in her car radio the day she left her son with a gun at school.

Grewal: Wow, that is dark.

Jack Condie: My interest is in the way in which Swift’s persona is insanely projected upon, she’s either deified or treated like the worst evil in the world. In a way, that’s the sense of my joke (with a grain of truth) to Gwen that she’s like the figure of Alcibiades: there is no concrete sense of her personhood. It’s constantly shifting under the weight of the way her lyrics are torn apart by her fans for clues as to her true self. 

Miller: I wonder about the analogy with Alcibiades. Yes, he was an Athenian hero until his enemies got him in hot water for allegedly being a sacrilegious vandal while he was leading troops in Sicily. Still, in the narrative offered in the Platonic dialogue you are studying for your dissertation, Alcibiades I, he was ruined by democracy: he is the perfect demagogue, willing to pander to the demos.

The Alcibiades of that dialogue seems to me a fictional character (devised by the followers of Plato, if not Plato himself) mainly meant to absolve Socrates of any responsibility whatsoever for what happened to his most famous student. And Alcibiades, after all, was a pretty wily politician, a cunning diplomat, and a very great general before he got his comeuppance. It’s not like he was totally without talent or merit. Whereas Swift, you know, is just a celebrity musician.

Condie: Swift seems to inspire furiously mixed emotions. She’s a polarizing figure to ordinary people, as Alcibiades was in his day: To have an opinion on Swift is to stake a claim to the broader politics of our moment. Conservatives are now suggesting she’s some sort of psyop. The more materialist Marxist Left sees her as billionaire ecoterrorist avatar of the neoliberal order. Her fans swear by her as someone who gives a kind of voice to their inner lives through her diary-esque lyrics.

She herself, both in Miss Americana and in later songs like “You’re Losing Me” and “Mastermind,” portrays herself as this figure who wants to be liked above all else, as if her whole interiority revolves around the love of the demos.

In any case, my love of Swift is twofold. 

First, I grew up with her music. (And I am, in all honesty, a little too corny a gay man not to continue to love her music.) But second, it seems to me no one can just be normal about her and simply say “she’s a pop star.” Any judgment of her in the public sphere projects all sorts of bizarre moral and potentially erotic hang ups that we the demos have, of which she—right now—happens to be the avatar. She can strike us with awe, betray us, disgust us but no one seems to just be able to say this is just a regular person who grew up in the public eye. 

Miller: Of course, she is not just a regular person, as you say (any more than David Bowie). What does it mean, do you think, to enact the most intimate scenes of your damaged life in a fishbowl of publicity, the likes of which neither Plato nor Alcibiades had any inkling.

Is she being honest and sincere, do you think, in her “diary-esque” lyrics? Goethe put a lot of his personal experience into The Sufferings of the Young Werther, and that was a huge pop hit. 

Condie: Her lyrics might give the appearance of a mastery over herself (and in that sense literally create a poetic image of the self) whilst at the same time being only an image, i.e., an illusion and not the true thing. 

Grewal: Jack, are you saying that people love or hate Swift, but no one simply likes her? 

My impression from this point of view is that she’s unlikeable either because she’s deeply tragic or because she’s a trickster intentionally profiting off of seducing her fans—and not exactly with music. 

I see more of the Alcibiades parallels now. Probably only a matter of time before she’s suspected of mutilating the herms!

On the other hand, she really does seem like she wants to be a patriot, and in that way she seems more like Taylor, swift of foot. 

Condie: I think “likeability” intersects with the thought that one might be able to know another person. Likeability demands a kind of positive neutrality: “Oh yeah I like her.” We often use it to denote that leaning-positive “eh” feeling. Thinking through the Swift case, that kind of neutrality seems only possible if I were to know her personally. Instead, my options are to be enchanted or disenchanted—becoming polarized further by the reactions around me. 

For instance, I feel a little bit embarrassed in parts of the department and the academy where to avow one’s own enchantment with Swift is virtually to confess a certain kind of unseriousness (unfitting for the philosopher!).

By contrast, at a friend’s wedding recently, where she and all her friends were massive Swift fans, to disavow her would be the “out” opinion. In that sense she’s impossible merely to like in most contexts.

This seems to be a problem with celebrity all around—certainly not unique to Swift. We form these parasocial relationships with their kleos, or aura of renown, rather than with them in themselves (which is Achilles’s whole problem in Hades in the Odyssey, he’d rather be a no one than a most famous shade!). 

I think the key to understanding the Swift phenomenon is that she tries to have her cake and eat it too. She demands privacy, creates a kind of distance and mystery, whilst openly giving you all the hints you need to figure out a certain narrative about her private life. She performs this “I hate all this media speculation about me” but then openly revels in the “dropping hints” for her fans. It gives the music a kind of vulnerability that is easy to re-appropriate for oneself. 

I’ll give an example: when I was 17, 1989 dropped. I had just come out as gay in my all-boys boarding school and afraid to face reactions at the dining hall. The lead single, “Shake It Off”—a song that is one of her most generic—gave me the courage to face the day. Before long, more of the album dropped, the narrative of which was she found herself moving to New York full time when she was 25/26, finding her footing as an adult and making her first fully “pop” record. In some way I found myself envisioning what that life would be like for myself at 17, and her songs on the album mapped on to my dates and experiences as a young person (See: “New Romantics,” which was sort of an anthem for 17-year-old me). 

It was kind of surreal then when she released the re-recorded “Taylor’s Version” of 1989 last fall. In the time that had passed since the original album was released, I was now the age she was when she wrote it, in a similar place to her. Except—obviously not earning millions of dollars because I chose the life of the impoverished grad student. 

The emotional resonance of the album changed because I also knew all the lore behind it, her dating Calvin Harris, her squad, et cetera. In short, one’s own appropriation of the music for meaning in one’s own life becomes completely inseparable from the context in which it appears in her own. In a way in which she self-consciously is doing! There’s an old interview where she admits that she realized her most personal and specific songs were somehow the most “relatable” to her fans—so she leaned into writing those. 

But all that is crazy because I don’t actually know her! She might not be—and there’s a good chance she isn’t—a great person. Yet I love her. Whatever that “her” stands for.

Miller: Jack, this all makes sense to me: I suspect that comparing her to Alcibiades functions for you as a kind of defense from really grappling with the complexities of what your own attraction to her is. 

In any case, in modern media-saturated societies that proffer infinite numbers of possible forms of life that one might choose, either to fantasize about quietly in solitude, or affirm boldly in public conduct, the very idea of self-constancy gets thrown into profound doubt (as Heidegger observes in Being and Time.)

What’s interesting, I think, is how certain forms of modern popular art offer large numbers of people a mirror in which they can reimagine themselves in various ways. Bob Dylan played that function in the sixties, Bowie in the seventies (as Simon knows from personal experience). In the Irish neighborhood of Boston, where I lived for several years, the girls who babysat for us revered Madonna, because she offered them a liberated version of themselves they could only dream of imitating while attending their nice Catholic schools.

The weirdness of Swift is, as Gwen says, not just her apparently earnest patriotism, but her apparently sincere wish to be thought of as a good girl. And her courtship of Travis Kelce seems almost a parody in its wholesome potential resolution. By the way, what outcome are you rooting for? Do you hope Taylor and Travis fall publicly in mad love and live happily as an archetypal heteronormative cis couple?

Condie: Jim, I’m glad you noticed my defenses! If I have learned anything from Swift and Plato (and perhaps spurred on further by Gwen … ) it’s to never completely lay one’s cards on the table even when giving the appearance of doing so. More fun that way!

I think you’re completely right—it’s the good girl image. Even her failures are marked by the image of martyrdom in the service of the good (“I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian because I care” is a kind of striking yet corny lyric). It’s part of why she avoids the political. It was easy for her to have a more political aura in the first Trump era, when the mass conception of politics was a cartoonish evil versus a cartoonish good.

The field seems particularly more complicated now, even with a Trump resurgence, given the pressure that surrounds Biden’s current failures in relation to foreign policy and his own campaign promises. 

In terms of my hope for the outcome, Travis and Taylor are kind of fun to root for—and part of me enjoys the fact that somehow her confessed liberalism has made the image of the white pop star and her American footballer boyfriend into an aesthetic image that is making conservative media seethe? The most apple pie American aesthetics are being handed to us on a silver platter and that somehow represents American rot to them! So perhaps out of curiosity I want to see how far that goes. (Although I do absolutely believe she and Karlie Kloss had some kind of romance, even if I don’t subscribe to the whole “Gaylor” thing.) 

Miller: I still think your comparison with Alcibiades is kind of wild and crazy. But that makes it a quintessentially New School for Social Research sort of document about the Mysteries of Swift!

Grewal: Yes, I like the moxie of Jack’s framing, too. It’s the most interesting rendition of Swift I’ve heard.

Some last thoughts in regard to Jack’s reply about Odysseus / Achilles: I think the point of that scene is that the “most famous” shade is the same as a “no one.” And I am not convinced from this collective deep dive that Swift’s shade is special or even that there is a mystery to solve behind it. 

If anything, it reveals that a celebrity in our time must be not iconic, not otherworldly, not a standout, but attainable and relatable, even mildly uncool, in need of pyrotechnics to fill the seats and explicit esotericism to grip close readers. That grew out of boy bands. And, in form, it reminds me all too much of Trump or YouTube stars, who depend for their stardom on a carefully built audience, without which their edifice begins to waver. 

Swift seems to admit that this is part of what drives her, a fact that certainly makes her more interesting. She has a billion potential voters in the palm of her hand. But, to return to my main point, I don’t see how she is qualitatively different from, say, the rom-com actor who gets a lucky break and then gets cast in everything for a while, but who might equally well have remained obscure. 

Swift is not a hapax—a unique figure—as Bowie was. Her lyrics are, on the whole, not very quotable; they need the pop music beats to not sound like they were written by a 13-year-old (unlike Dylan, where it is almost better to read him without his voice). The line about Band-Aids and bullet holes is ridiculous, and used in the context of actual violence (the Crumbley case) apocalyptically Aristophanic. Sorry, she is not stringing her lyre like a bow. 

This is not to say she shouldn’t have the star power she does. Clearly, she has real talent and some catchy tunes; but I am concluding it is unconnected to the worship she has garnered. The latter seems to me just a result of the old phenomenon of serving the right cocktail at the right time. She is simply the voice of a new generation. And everyone on this thread aside from Jack will remain uninitiated. Because you have to be there. 

Jack Condie is a PhD student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Instagram: @cxndie.

Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research.

James Miller is Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies, and Faculty Director of the MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.

In this Public Seminar series, philosophers, historians, and critics examine the Taylor Swift phenomenon. We think we understand the pop star, writes Jack Condie, but does Plato know better? Claire Potter argues that it’s the queerness of fandom, not the artist, that helps us understand Swift better. And Rick Moody offers the “modest proposal” of finitudeproof of personhood, that is, in 63 parts.