Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Taylor Swift: Why People Love to Hate Her Music and Persona

Taylor Swift must be extremely gifted psychologically to maintain her success.

A pop culture junkie, I keep up on all things entertainment. I read today that singer Taylor Swift is coming up with yet another album, less than two years after the last one, with singles still charting from the current album. This woman is a workhorse, no doubt, one of the most ambitious entertainers working today.

Ms. Swift has had astronomical success in her (short) life thus far. I read something about her that always impressed me, how she planned to leave her first record deal because the label wanted her to become a particular type of artist, one she didn't want to be. Ms. Swift was seriously ready to walk away because she believed that she could get another record deal. My point: She believed in her talent that much. She was willing to take an enormous risk because her instincts—or just a super healthy self-esteem—told her to not be afraid. I love having heard that story. I think it is extremely inspirational, and reminds me that Taylor Swift is probably an extremely gifted individual.

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When people hear the term "gifted," they often immediately conjure an image of genius IQ scores or, say, winning at Trivial Pursuit. Psychologically, however, the meaning of giftedness is broader: a reflection on one's ability to survive and ultimately thrive in an environment that is extremely challenging or improverished. When you're in the music business, as Ms. Swift is, the environment couldn't be more dog-eat-dog, yet she manages extremely well—without the trips to rehab we see with many of her peers.

Though I have never interviewed or assessed her, she strikes me as gifted not just musically, but in her boundless energy and motivation, and in her ability to stay seemingly positive and upbeat in an industry that can eat its young. I read a quote from her recently in which she said something to the effect of, "I absolutely love my life." My gosh, how many of us can say that? More importantly, what kind of feelings does that type of comment elicit in others? Hint: the color is green.

I know a lot of people hate Taylor Swift. I've even read that there are entire websites or blogs devoted to an anti-Taylor Swift movement of sorts, but I believe the backlash stems from envy. She appears to be one of those rare people who has done—so far—everything she's set out to do, and not many of us can say that. As a parent, there is no other goal your child could fulfill that would make a parent more contented and proud: to have a child who one day makes happen whatever she wants.

Taylor Swift is easy to hate for some because she seems to like herself so much, and that's hard for a lot of people whose self-esteem is a little shaky. My sense is that Ms. Swift is a woman who had a parent (I believe, her mother) who supported this young woman ad infinitum growing up. When you see someone excel in the consistent and organized way Ms. Swift has, there is no other possibility to help explain her perseverance and psychological resilience: This is a girl who had a relentlessly supportive authority figure in her past. There's no question in my mind that someone was there every step of the way for her, mirroring her, telling her, "Yes, you are gifted." We should all be so lucky.

Where I have a problem with Ms. Swift is with her music: the insistence on singing about almost nothing but unrequited romantic love, as if she—and the audience she sings to—is stuck at a junior high school dance, invisible but desperate to Get The Guy To Like Me. It's no surprise that one of her biggest hits is "Romeo and Juliet," because the notion of impossible love permeates so much of her music. For all her talent, intelligence, and savvy, Ms. Swift strikes me as surprisingly naive—or merely developmentally arrested—when it comes to romantic love.

I want to like Taylor Swift. Her songs couldn't be catchier, and I'm a feminist, so I love female singers who write their own songs. I think she's smart, but I think she needs to take a step back from the roller coaster of insane success to make sure she's mentally on-track. I can't imagine the life she leads, how impossible it must be to feel inner peace when you're never in the same place more than a day or two.

Odds are, Ms. Swift's greatest success commercially is already behind her. It's hard to imagine anyone maintaining the sales and concert figures she does, and the truth is that her primary audience of young teen girls is going to grow up—and outgrow her. I hope she changes her music, to stay current and evolve as a musician, but I think to evolve she is going to need more time away from the madness of the music business. Yes, I believe she has unspeakable energy, but her behavior may border on—or actually be—hypomania. The worry with someone like this, of course, is what happens when public interest wanes—and it will wane with Taylor Swift.

People give Ms. Swift a hard time for her paparazzi-friendly love life, suggesting that she's a man-eater who goes through guys like Chinese take-out cartons. Child, please. For years, men in positions of power—in entertainment, politics, or otherwise—have been doing the same thing with no public outcry. Ms. Swift is young, and she is looking for a romantic partner—or wait, maybe her music informs us what she really wants—and gets—with each new breakup: more unrequited love.

In that case, switching from relationship to relationship every so often is actually ego-syntonic in that she gets to experience glimmers of real love, yet the relationship is over before she knows it, thus allowing her to avoid things getting too intimate and psychologically threatening. This roller-coaster dynamic is the hallmark of so many of her songs. Taylor Swift has the blessing—like we all do, really—of writing about it.

If I were her therapist, I would ask her to think about what effect each number-one hit she scores about infatuated, teen-style lust has on her own beliefs about romantic love in her in personal life. In other words, when you reap such magnanimous rewards for documenting an idealized, immature notion of romantic love, what motivation do you really have to evolve?

 

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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