Religion

Religious imagery for a spiritually syncretic era

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(RNS) — When pop icon Taylor Swift disclosed her religion in the 2020 Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” she was unambiguous.

“I live in Tennessee. I’m a Christian. That’s not what we stand for,” she said in 2018 in response to Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn’s opposition to the Violence Against Women Act and LGBTQ rights.

But these days, Swift’s faith appears more fluid. Her religious references are as eclectic as a Brooklyn thrift shop — well-worn Christian metaphors sit alongside a more bohemian mishmash of witchcraft, divination and paganism. Her newest release, “The Tortured Poets Department,” is a patchwork of religious allusions, from good Samaritans and Jehovah’s Witnesses to altar sacrifices and prophecies.

Whatever her personal beliefs, the syncretism displayed in the sprawling 31-song double album — which racked up 300 million listens in 24 hours, making it Spotify’s most streamed album in one day — is emblematic of the religious mishmash of millennial and Generation Z religion writ large. These days, roughly 28% of U.S. adults identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and a 2021 survey from Springtide Research Institute showed that 51% of its sample population of 13- to 25-year-olds use tarot cards or engage in fortunetelling. 

Swift knows her audience, and she knows they’re dabbling in everything from spells to astrology. Her genius has always been to make common cause with the curiosities, heartbreaks and longings of her listeners. And, no doubt, the inherent feminism of Wicca appeals to Swift and Swifties alike.

Christianity may no longer be the primary faith framework for her songs, but Swift’s strict moral system remains in TTPD, punishing bad boyfriends and finger-wagging church ladies while celebrating her own metaphorical resurrections — be it from crucifixion or witch burning.

Artwork for Taylor Swift's "The Tortured Poets Department" album. (Images courtesy Republic Records)

Artwork for Taylor Swift’s “The Tortured Poets Department” album. (Images courtesy of Republic Records)

Here’s how religion features in Swift’s newest contribution to her expanding canon:

Christianity

While many of Swift’s early references to Christianity and religion follow a traditional good-versus-evil binary, references in TTPD critique Christian hypocrisy and grapple with existential questions about the nature of guilt and sin. 

When Swift sings about dating a “wild boy” in “But Daddy I Love Him,” she sarcastically calls on God to “save the most judgmental creeps” and dismisses the “Sarahs and Hannahs in their Sunday best” who only try to save the people they hate. Similar themes show up in “I Can Fix Him (No Really, I Can),” which fans speculate is about Matt Healy, lead singer of the band 1975. Swift describes how people “shake their heads” at her relationship and say “God help her,” but she tells the doubters that “your good lord doesn’t need to lift a finger,” because she — and she alone — can turn this “dangerous man” into an “angel.” 

In “Cassandra,” Swift continues to call out judgmental Christians. She condemns the “Christian chorus line” who “never spared a prayer for my soul,” and invokes the Gospel of John with the line “When the first stone’s thrown, there’s screaming.” (In John 8, Jesus tells religious leaders about to stone a woman caught in adultery that anyone without sin should “be the first to throw a stone at her.”)

With the ninth track on the album, “Guilty as Sin?,” Swift blurs traditional boundaries between sin and sainthood as she daydreams about her lover. “What if I roll the stone away? / They’re going to crucify me anyway,” Swift sings. “What if the way you hold me / Is actually what’s holy?” By the song’s conclusion, she chooses “you and me … religiously.” 

Swift also tinkers with themes of sin in “The Prophecy,” where she flips the script on the biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden. “I got cursed like Eve got bitten / Oh was it punishment?” Rather than depicting Eve as causing sin to enter the world via the forbidden fruit, Swift declares that “Eve got bitten,” implying that Eve had limited agency in the sin-causing scenario. Swift describes herself as another victim of fate, who “got cursed” and wants to “redo the prophecy.” 

Witchcraft

Since Swift’s 2017 album “Reputation,” the songwriter has turned to witch hunt metaphors to illustrate her experience of being demonized by the media, Kanye, the Kardashians and various ex-boyfriends. “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one / So light me up,” she croons in Reputations’ “I Did Something Bad.” Swift’s witchcraft references drew the most speculation in late 2020, when she released multiple witch-themed remixes of the song “Willow.” The song’s music video — and its choreography in the blockbuster Eras Tour — feature cloaked figures dancing with orbs in the woods. 

In TTPD’s “Cassandra,” a song some have interpreted as a clapback in her feud with Kim Kardashian, Swift builds on earlier witch hunt images with unmissable references to being disbelieved and burned alive. “In the streets, there’s a raging riot / When it’s ‘Burn the bitch,’ they’re shrieking,” she sings. “So they set my life in flames, I regret to say / Do you believe me now?” she adds later. 

In “The Prophecy,” the witchcraft images become even more explicit. Here, Swift laments a “prophecy” that seems to be dictating her turbulent love life. When prayers fail to yield a soulmate, she sings, she turns to witchcraft and other forms of spirituality, choosing to rely on the powers of other women rather than on traditional religion. 

“And I look unstable / Gathered with a coven ’round a sorceress’ table / A greater woman has faith / But even statues crumble if they’re made to wait,” she sings. 

Paganism

Though there’s often overlap between witchcraft and paganism, Swift incorporates references to broader, more ancient forms of paganism and mythology in her latest album. In “So Long, London,” a song that’s almost universally interpreted as being about ex Joe Alwyn, she sings that she “died on the altar waiting for the proof / You sacrificed us to the gods of your bluest days.” In “Peter,” a song flooded with references to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” Swift invokes the “goddess of timing,” wondering if the goddess was “lying” to her and the person whose return she’s been waiting for. And in “ThanK you aIMee,” a diss-track of sorts that incorporates Kim Kardashian’s name in the title, Swift alludes to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a man the gods punished by requiring him to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. 

“I pushed each boulder up the hill / Your words are still just ringing in my head, ringing in my head,” Swift sings, describing the futility of trying to move past the rivalry. 

Finally, Swift dedicates an entire song to a pagan myth with “Cassandra.” This song, which, with its stockpile of religious references, encapsulates the syncretism of the entire album, is ultimately about the Trojan priestess whose prophecies were never believed — someone Swift clearly relates to. 

“So, they killed Cassandra first ’cause she feared the worst / And tried to tell the town / So they filled my cell with snakes, I regret to say / Do you believe me now?”


RELATED: Taylor Swift’s ‘witchy’ new album fuels speculation about her interest in the craft


Grab bag 

Swift’s eclectic nods to religion don’t end there. In “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” Swift incredulously describes an ex as having gazed at her “starry eyed” in his “Jehovah’s Witness suit” — a nod to the formal attire worn by Jehovah’s Witnesses as they go door-to-door to share their faith. Swift also incorporates angel/devil imagery in “The Albatross,” and in “The Prophecy,” allusions to “cards on the table” and spending money “so someone will tell me it’ll be okay” seem veiled references to tarot cards and other forms of divination. 

Though Swift hasn’t explicitly stated anything publicly about her faith since the now-famous 2018 documentary clip, her growing cache of religious references reveals a comfortability with her generation’s revolving divine du jour.

Of course, there are those who view Swift and her myriad of followers as a religion in and of itself — but that faith group hasn’t made its way into the artist’s trove of spiritually saturated song lyrics yet. 


RELATED: To hell and back again with Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well’


 

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