While the popstar's references to Christian faith have been infrequent, it may just be possible to trace a journey of deconstruction through her music, says Giles Gough. He reports on the tale of two Taylors
As a result of a dispute with her old record label, Taylor Swift is currently in the process of re-recording all of her back catalogue. This provides a fascinating chance to hear songs originally written by teenage ingénue Taylor being re-arranged by thirty-something music-industry-conquering Taylor.
Perhaps the greatest area of contrast between these two Taylors is in terms of her Christian faith. So, with heartfelt Swiftie respect and admiration, let’s take a deep dive into what that means.
The most explicit statement of faith from Taylor comes from her Netflix documentary Miss Americana. We see her in a 2018 clip, arguing with her team about making a political statement in favour of a Democratic candidate in an upcoming election. This discussion has been sparked by election adverts for US Senator Marsha Blackburn, who has voted against legislation protecting women from domestic violence, and believes that businesses should have the right to refuse gay couples. Taylor says in the clip: “I can’t see another commercial and see Marsha Blackburn disguising these policies behind the words ‘Tennessee Christian values’…I live in Tennessee. I’m a Christian. That’s not what we stand for.”
Read more on Taylor:
For someone who, for professional reasons, has had to be vague about her religious and political beliefs, that bold statement of faith stands out a mile. To find another declaration so strong, we have to go all the way back to the start of her career, to a song that never really saw the light of day. 'Didn’t They' is an unreleased song leaked onto the internet, purportedly recorded in 2003. In it, Taylor asks where was God when 9/11 happened.
Here’s the chorus: “And didn’t they call you, didn’t they need you bad enough? / Was there some reason I’m not aware of? / Did you not write it down? Just one more thing to do / Where were you, where were you / And didn’t they pray, too?”
Artistically, it’s a lament reminiscient of a Davidic psalm. One can only guess that it was never included in any of her early albums because it’s openly critical of God - such a sentiment would not have played well with Swift's early audience. From aged 13, Swift grew up in Tennessee, which is famously part of the Bible Belt - ten states where socially conservative, protestant Christianity is so ingrained into the culture, that people may see themselves as Christians without necessarily thinking much about what that means. This cultural Christianity is in the background of songs such as this.
The only other reference to faith in her early music can be found in 'Christmas Must Be Something More', released in 2007 which clunkily refers to Jesus as “the birthday boy who saved our lives”.
However, when we listen to Swift today, the perspective of God is a very uncertain one. In January 2020, Swift revealed that her mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. The song 'Soon You’ll Get Better' from the Lover album voices her feelings on this crisis. In it she says: “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too”. This line shows that like so many people, Taylor is reaching out to God in a time of crisis. It's a theme that Taylor returns to three years later in her last album, Midnights. 'Bigger Than The Whole Sky' is a song about grief, commonly thought to be about a miscarriage: “Did some bird flap its wings over in Asia? / Did some force take you because I didn’t pray?”
This heart-breaking verse is clearly about dealing with insurmountable loss. The image of a bird flapping its wings links to the 'butterfly effect', a theory that small, seemingly inconsequential actions can have highly significant, sometimes devastating effects. That second line about "some force" is most likely an opaque reference to God, with Taylor wondering if something has been taken from her as a punishment for lack of faith. The placement of these lines next to each other suggests someone who is flailing around for answers.
Read more on pop stars and faith:
It seems we have two Taylors. The first with an uncomplicated yet sincere relationship with God. One that fits with her Bible Belt upbringing. And the second who only turns to him in times of crisis. One which is more typical of the mainstream, secular world she inhabits.
Obviously, this is an evolution that has happened over two decades, but it is tempting to wonder if we can find a turning point, evidence of a moment where Taylor may have lost her faith?
We may have found such evidence in the song 'Would’ve Should’ve Could’ve'. This song is commonly thought to be about John Mayer, an American singer that Swift was believed to be in a relationship with when he was 32 and she was just 19. The relationship ended unhappily, and while it only lasted a few months, the experience seems to have scarred Swift throughout her adult life. Not only that, but it heavily implies that this relationship irrevocably damaged her relationship with God.
In a song jam-packed with biblical references, Swift tells us that: “If you’d never touched me, I would’ve / Gone along with the righteous” and “you’re a crisis of my faith”. The refrain “I regret you all the time” has prompted intense speculation. Exactly how bad of a boyfriend do you have to be to shake someone’s faith in God?
To me, Taylor Swift sounds like someone who has deconstructed their faith, and come out of it not really knowing what she believes. This is not a judgement on her character. Swift seems to still be reaching out to God and when she is unable to find him, has perhaps tried to find salvation in romantic love. But that's just an educated guess. After all, we are talking about someone’s faith journey while they’re still on it. It is entirely possible that God isn’t finished with Taylor Swift just yet.