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By Rev. Allie McDougall

Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift is indisputably one of the most important pop culture figures of the last 20 years, and perhaps of all time.

While I cannot attest to being a “Swiftie” myself, the media frenzy around her recent world tour, high profile relationship with Superbowl winning football player Travis Kelce, and the release of her 11th studio album have raised the power of celebrity to my attention.

Celebrity worship is by no means a new phenomenon. From Roman emperors to the Beatles, the public imagination has been preoccupied with elevating fame and talent for the purposes of entertainment and socio-spiritual connection. However, given the extent of her cultural, economic, and artistic influence, I sense that the elevation of Taylor Swift is approaching deification (the elevation to god-like status) within secular society in an unprecedented way.

As a millennial born in 1989, Taylor Swift’s music has been primarily popular with other young women in her generational cohort. Beginning as a Nashville-based country artist whose debut album was released in 2006, Swift’s musical style has evolved and been reinvented with each album and spans multiple genres, which in turn has only broadened her appeal to a wider audience base. Her style of song writing has been described as honest and introspective, full of reflection on romance, maturing into adulthood, and the cost of fame, drawing heavily from her personal life. Taylor Swift, millions of young women find identification and recognition of their inner struggles and anxieties, presented in accessible, catchy, and well-structured pop music.

Like all ultra-famous celebrities who have gone before her, Swift’s career has not been without controversy. Feuds with other artists, a string of A-lister ex-boyfriends who find their personal dramas played out on the next album, and a penchant for exorbitant private jet travel are all strikes against Swift’s mostly wholesome public image. As her fame reaches new heights and the gap between her current position as a superstar and her origins as “normal” middle class girl widens, the relatability of her lyrics to her fanbase has been dulled. How does a billionaire stay in the same reality with the rest of us? These controversies have not been enough to dull her shine, abiding popularity, and, perhaps most notably, ability to make eye-watering sums of money in record sales and tour profits.

Swift’s continued and widespread appeal appears to owe itself to two major factors - her ability to chameleonically shift her image and musical output according to the tastes of the day, and the concept of parasociality. Parasociality describes the interactions and perceived reciprocal relationship between a consumer of a media form and its creator. Parasocial interactions are those in which a consumer or audience feels that a performer or content creator has engaged with them in a personal capacity, as a friend.

From a marketing perspective, this is a helpful tool that reinforces brand loyalty and fosters the illusion of a relationship. Parasociality has propped up Taylor Swift’s career through her continued accessibility and interaction with her fans. This has in turn created a fanbase that is deeply invested in all facets of Swift’s public-facing persona. Within the Taylor Swift fandom, the lines between public and personal have become blurred through the mythologization of Swift’s life experiences as presented in music and the gaze of social media. Beyond a mere pop star, Swift is somewhere between the perfect best friend, a cool older sister, an idealized self, and an untouchable goddess for millions of adoring fans.

Why does this matter?

In a perfect marriage between creative and business acumen, Swift’s immense fame and cultural notoriety have influenced political engagement and voter registration, inspired entertainment industry-related legislation, and generated personal wealth greater than the GDP of at least 50 countries. If she were to run for President of the United States, she could probably win. Yet, hovering above all the material impacts of Swift’s career is the reality that her fame and cultural presence meet a need for connection with an idealized, divine figure who is both personally accessible and may be on a pedestal for adoration.

I don’t believe that it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the status normatively given to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has been applied to Swift. The financial and spiritual economies of the Taylor Swift fandom point to a faith-like investment in Swift’s persona and brand. What I see in the unchartered success of Taylor Swift is the market exploitation of a very deep, spiritual need for young women to have their interior lives and experiences validated and celebrated. Many, many women across demographics and backgrounds do not find themselves represented in Swift’s artistry or even particularly enjoy her music – yet enough do to cement Swift’s stardom as a benchmark of 21st century popular culture, thus far. While the Gospel of Jesus Christ stands forever and will not be shaken by the shimmering idols of any particular place or time, it behooves us to acknowledge that – for the moment – the light of Taylor Swift shines in the hearts of untold millions.

Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate of St. Paul's and St. Stephen's, Stratford.